Charlie Porter: Climber who conquered world's toughest big-wall ascents and later explored little-charted regions of South America


When big-wall climbers began to attempt the steepest, smoothest routes up the 900m-high precipice of El Capitan, in Yosemite, they invented the RURP. This Realized Ultimate Reality Piton was a sliver of chrome molybdenum steel, about the size and thickness of a thumb nail, with a wire loop attached to one corner. Hammered tenuously into a hairline crack in the granite, the RURP could just hold a person's weight to aid progress up the wall, but it was the kind of marginal placement that few people would dare to trust for more than a couple of moves.

All that changed in 1972 when Charlie Porter made the first ascent of The Shield. The climax of the route was a single seam splitting a smooth, overhanging sheet of granite, at least 600m above the ground. On one section, Porter relied on 35 consecutive RURPs to teeter his way up the crack. If one of them had ripped, the rest would almost certainly have unzipped as he flew off into space.

That combination of tenacious nerve and finely honed craftsmanship was typical of the man who became a legend in Yosemite.

Charles Talbot Porter grew up in a large colonial house in Pepperell, Massachusetts. His father was a doctor and his mother the well-known author and illustrator of children's books, Barbara Cooney. His formal education ended when he graduated from prep school in 1969, by which time he had already become a keen mountaineer, hitching west in the summers to climb in the Canadian Rockies and the Cascades. In 1969 he visited Yosemite for the first time, spending the first of several summers in the valley. By 1972 he was well known for his audacious new big-wall routes. On The Shield he was partnered by Gary Bocarde, but several of his routes, such as New Dawn and Zodiac, were climbed alone. On the former, after dropping a haul bag full of bivouac equipment, he had to spend the remaining nine nights on the wall sleeping in an improvised hammock made from tape slings.

Porter climbed three more big new routes on El Capitan – Tangerine Trip, Mescalito and Excalibur – before taking his big-wall techniques to tougher, colder mountains further north. Ever the eccentric humourist, he carried a moose's antler all the way up the sheer south-west face of The Moose's Tooth in the Alaska Range, with Bocarde.

The following year, 1975, he upped the ante with a solo ascent of the 800m vertical north face of Mt Asgard on Baffin Island. Not content to limit himself to rock, Porter's first ascents also included what was in 1974 one of the world's steepest ice climbs – Polar Circus, near Banff. Since childhood he had loved making things, and for this climb he used his own homemade ice axe. His companions, Bugs McKeith and Adrian and Alan Burgess, used more conventional tools.

In 1976 Porter made a solo ascent of the Cassin Ridge. This gigantic line up North America's highest mountain, Denali, is on a Himalayan scale, with extreme cold compounding problems of altitude. Years ahead of his time, Porter climbed the ridge in a non-stop push of 36 hours. By the time he reached the summit he was suffering from pulmonary oedema, but he still managed to get himself quickly down the normal route to safety.

Between his long mountain sojourns, Porter found time for many girlfriends and three wives. The second, a marine biologist called Georgian Valdivia, accompanied him when he built his first boat and sailed from Salem, through the Panama Canal to Patagonia, to settle for a while on the island of Chiloé. By now Porter had given up extreme mountaineering and the rest of his life was devoted to exploring the myriad channels, islands, forests and glaciers of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

Perhaps his most remarkable odyssey was a 2,000-mile solo journey through the channels in a Klepper kayak converted to take a sliding seat and oars. During the voyage he charted the old portage routes and camps of the Native Americans who once inhabited the area, developing a passion for archaeology.

For the last three decades Porter was based in the world's most southern town, Puerto Williams. Operating from his home-built, 42ft steel ketch, Gondwana, and then the bigger Ocean Tramp, he provided a charter service for scientists researching the rapidly dwindling glaciers of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Perhaps his most exciting personal find was a cache of pewter plates and silver coins left during the 1830s by officers of the Beagle.

In 1995 I was lucky enough to sail with him on Gondwana, with fellow mountaineers Tim Macartney-Snape, John Roskelley and Jim Wickwire. Porter was hyperactive, hugely enthusiastic about his adopted country and – like many people who spend a lot of time alone – loquacious, his conversation punctuated by frequent loud laughter.

We sailed through the Beagle Channel to climb Monte Sarmiento, but halfway up the mountain Wickwire was blown over by the wind and sprained an ankle. The next day, Porter was also caught by a gust, dislocating his shoulder. He endured our repeated, unsuccessful attempts at reduction, without any strong painkillers, before descending the mountain with his arm in a sling, and setting off to sail Gondwana – one-armed and assisted by the one-legged Wickwire – across the Straits of Magellan to get expert medical help in Punta Arenas, while the rest of us went back up to complete the climb.

His cheerful stoicism was remarkable and he appeared indestructible, so it came as a huge shock to the climbing and sailing worlds when he died from a heart attack.


Charles Talbot Porter, climber, yachtsman and explorer: born Massachussetts 12 June 1950; married three times; died Punta Arenas, Chile 23 February 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser