Charlie Porter: Climber who conquered world's toughest big-wall ascents and later explored little-charted regions of South America
Thursday 10 April 2014
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.
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