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Summit County pioneers: Bob Craig

By Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz
Special to the Summit Daily News
Near the end of this career, Bob Craig worked on the National Commission for Nuclear Threat with the goal of developing a national policy on the threat of “loose nukes” and unregulated materials in the former Soviet Union as well as in North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

Defining Bob Craig is like trying to capture the wind. Yet his contributions to Summit County — and on an even grander scale to the world — are noticeably apparent in his achievements as a skier, climber, philosopher, rancher, teacher, speaker, author, policy shaper and leader. Along the way, he made the acquaintance of many notable individuals such as Hunter S. Thompson, Jon Krakauer, Madeleine Albright and Hazel O’Leary. Bob even became fishing companions with Supreme Court justice Byron White. 

Since he was young, Bob always had been inspired to climb simply because he loved the fun of it. He honed his leadership skills by taking each challenging step, pushing human limitations and touching the extreme boundaries of man’s world. Growing up in Seattle, Bob became interested in skiing and mountaineering at a time when they hadn’t become popular. Following the European mountaineering tradition in an organization called The Mountaineers, he made a number of first ascents in the Cascades and surrounding peaks.

He began ski racing in 1939 when he was in high school and started traveling around the state and to Sun Valley, Idaho, a year or two later. At that time, most everyone was expected to ski “four-way,” which meant they competed in downhill, slalom, cross-country and jumping in order to earn enough points to make the team.

Ski technology evolved dramatically while he was competing. Some styles of bindings literally glued you to the skis and didn’t release like safety bindings today. It was while wearing skis with these inflexible bindings that he severely injured his leg in 1941 during a downhill race called the Silver Skis on Mount Rainier. The ski patrolman fainted when he came to help Bob and saw the bone sticking out of his pant leg. When another accident in 1946 left him with a broken back, he quit racing.

A philosopher at heart

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During World War II, Bob followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the navy even though many of his friends went into the 10th Mountain Division. He believes his interest in philosophy was originally ignited by his war experiences. Bob was a deck officer and acting chaplain aboard the first ship that docked at Nagasaki, Japan, after the atomic bomb was dropped. He also walked into the center of Hiroshima, Japan, about five months after the the bomb had been dropped there. Philosophy continued to permeate nearly every aspect of his life, whether on mountaintops or during international gatherings with diplomats and businesspeople.

When he returned from the war, Bob revived his love for climbing by conquering first ascents on Devil’s Thumb and Kate’s Needle in Alaska. A year later in 1947, he returned to Alaska to climb Mount Denali (then known as Mount McKinley) and explore the Arctic Circle. He also operated a guide service on Mount Rainer from 1949-1951. Bob accepted a teaching fellowship at Columbia University where he completed his Ph.D., with the exception of his dissertation, in philosophy. Then during the Korean War, Bob was offered a position as a civilian consultant in the U.S. Army’s Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command, teaching mountaineering and cold weather survival at Camp Hale and Fort Carson.

In 1953, Bob was presented a career opportunity by Walter Paepcke, chief executive officer of the Container Corporation of America and one of the founders of modern Aspen. If Bob could survive his trek up K2, the world’s second highest mountain that had been only twice attempted by Americans, then he could have a job with the Aspen Institute, a world-renowned think-tank. Storms left one climber dead and prevented the group from reaching the summit, but Walter gave Bob, with his severely frost-bitten feet, a job as his assistant, then the executive director of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. While at the institute, Bob helped shape its direction and was involved in inviting speakers. Of the nine Supreme Court justices, seven spoke at the institute during Bob’s tenure. Among the high profile decision-makers and top business leaders, Dean Acheson and Gerald Ford also spoke.

“The idea was to get corporations to think about larger problems in society in a humanistic way, beyond just the bottom line of profit,” Bob explained. 

After 12 years at the institute, Bob decided to move on and become, as he puts it, “a high-attitude Henry David Thoreau.” He and his former wife bought a 1,200-acre ranch on Woody Creek outside of Aspen in 1963 and ran a cow and calf operation. When his Walden experiment failed due to the lack of interest in the cowboy lifestyle, Bob started an industrial design company in Denver. 

Left: Bob Craig on belay on Mount Everest in 1983. Right: Bob Craig being helped off the Goodwin-Austin Glacier near the base of K2 by Hunza porters in 1953.
Right: Courtesy Galen Rowell. Left: Courtesy Bob Craig

Dreams and despair

Bob seemed to feel a void when he stopped climbing and soon, the call of the mountains drew him back to new, vertical challenges. He co-led the first American expedition to the Pamirs, a range in Russia virtually unclimbed by outsiders — or Russians, for that matter. The expedition turned tragic, as the entire seven-member Soviet women’s team was killed in addition to eight other climbers, including Bob’s tent-mate, Gary Ullin. Bob amazingly survived the avalanche that struck the tent he and Gary were sharing. A second avalanche struck and buried him again before the rescue could arrive. Bob recalled that being “unquestionably the most despairing and hopeless moment of my life … near death and resurrection twice within 30 minutes.”

The devastation of the accident deeply affected Bob, so he moved to Keystone and spent some time writing. The result was an account of the expedition, “Storm & Sorrow in the High Pamirs.” Despite the risks, climbing was still in Bob’s soul, and he led another expedition, this time an American trip without oxygen up the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1983. 

After spending time regrouping, Bob decided it was time to tackle yet another new project. Years earlier in San Francisco, Bob had met Bob Maynard, a former assistant director of the National Park Service and founder of the Yosemite Institute in Yosemite National Park, a field education and experiential education program. Maynard asked him if he had “another Aspen” in him because Maynard had the vision of creating The Keystone Center. That’s when The Keystone Center and Science School were born.

Bob Craig in one of his favorite pastimes: fly-fishing.
Courtesy Bob Winsett

Bob had the Aspen Institute in mind but tried not to duplicate it as he developed the new nonprofit organization in 1974. He thought the timing was ideal for addressing issues that were coming out of the National Environmental Policy Act and the mountain environment would serve as a place where people could discuss and resolve issues.

During the first couple of years, the center was mostly concerned with the issues of high-level radioactive waste. The Keystone Science School was designed to teach children basic understanding about the environment, focusing heavily on the sciences. Later, more than 3,000 children would attend the school’s various weeklong residential field science programs, which included lessons on geology or botany in hopes of making them more informed adults. In addition to the camp programs, the school also presented the Wilderness Adventure Program. Another program known as Cops and Kids was hugely successful in helping children who may have been heading toward juvenile delinquency. 

Bob later worked on the National Commission for Nuclear Threat. Its goal is to develop a national policy on the threat of “loose nukes” and unregulated materials in the former Soviet Union as well as in North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Bob and staff worked to facilitate meetings of the minds. He said he felt very fortunate to have been able to accomplish what they did through The Keystone Center. The Scientist to Scientist Colloquium is one program of which he was particularly proud. Over the years, more than a dozen Nobel laureates came to speak to younger scientists from many diverse fields to encourage cross-fertilization between the various disciplines of science. 

After a lifetime of exotic travels, adventures and political gatherings, Bob continued to be drawn back to Summit County because it was a relatively low-key place with a good quality of life. With the exception of his service in the war, he never left the mountains for any significant amount of time. He hoped to spend as much free time as possible skiing and fishing, because with all the business traveling he continued to do, Bob acknowledged that he “has a hard time on city streets in wing tips.” 

Bob Craig in Antarctica in 1988.
Courtesy Bob Craig

Pride for Summit County rang strong in his voice when he talked about his beloved mountain community. 

“I hope that the lives of the people in this book will set a standard whereby newcomers to the county will recognize what it took to live here,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot of very special spirit here.”

Editor’s note: Bob Craig died in January 2015 at age 90.

This story previously published in the book “Summit Pioneers,” which was printed in 1999. The book was written by Alison (Grabau) Pomerantz with photos by Bob Winsett in partnership with Wilson-Lass Creative Communications. It was published to raise money for The Summit Foundation. Read more about the history of Summit County at SummitDaily.com/news/history.


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