My brushes with fame are tenuous.
For example, I once spotted David Hasselhoff while browsing a clothing rack in Santa Monica. And one February night at Jasper Park Lodge, I drank beer with a bricklayer who had built the hearth in George Michael’s sprawling London apartment. These are not the type of encounters that win friends and influence people — eminently forgettable, to be honest. However, one encounter I’ll never forget is the time, four years ago, while enjoying the fruits of a ridiculously lavish media trip to Patagonia sponsored by the Chilean government, that I met Charlie Porter.
Born in Massachusetts in 1950, Porterwas a mercurial, enigmatic character. As a young climber in the 1970s, he was responsible for a string of first ascents that were outrageously bold for the era and remain undiminished. His epic solo ascent of Baffin Island’s Mount Asgard, which went at an unprecedented Grade VII, is still widely considered one of the most difficult and audacious technical ascents ever undertaken.
There was something about Porter, with his wavy silver-grey hair, sparkling eyes and somewhat dishevelled appearance, that seemed incongruent with the tourism development conference in a Puerto Natales hotel that was part of my media itinerary. While business cards were being exchanged at a furious pace, he approached our table with an affably warm smile on his face, his eyes betraying a cheeky irreverent intelligence.
“Charlie Porter,” he said, extending a hand to shake.
The Charlie Porter? I thought to myself, before I said, disingenuously, “Are you Charlie Porter, the climbing Charlie Porter?”
“Yeah, that’s me. I guess I’ve done a few things over the years,” he replied casually, as if dangling from a remote granite face on Baffin Island for 10 solitary days was as commonplace as going out for Mexican food on a Saturday night.
Porter passed away last March at age 63. For a man who cut such a large swath through the North American climbing ethos, he leaves a trace as ephemeral as animal tracks in snow. He neither posted blogs nor had a website. He left behind no best-selling memoirs of mountain adventure, a la Joe Simpson. Porter didn’t climb for fame. For him, climbing was a deeply personal game and he shunned notoriety like the plague, even going so far as refusing to document his first ascents for official climbing journals.
In the late 1970s, after leaving his indelible stamp on Yosemite, Alaska, Canada’s North and Rockies and elsewhere in North America’s mountains, Porter headed for Patagonia, where he kayaked solo around Cape Horn — the first to do so. Although mountains drew him to the far reaches of South America, science made him stay. The dynamic wilderness of Patagonia, where mountains and oceans converge, captivated Porter’s inquisitive mind. Puerto Williams, Chile, would become home-port for his 50-foot ketch, Ocean Tramp, and base of operations for his one-man Patagonia Research Foundation. Over the years, he became a self-styled geologist, glaciologist and climatologist, acting as outfitter and co-researcher for numerous British and American scientific teams.
I mostly listened, Porter mostly talked, sounding at once professorial and also a tad geeky. I could almost imagine the rapid-firing synapses in his brain as he described his Patagonian scientific endeavours and enquiries.
“There’s a glacier in the Darwin Range that is advancing so fast it is literally devouring the forest,” Porter said, with an almost conspiratorial grin, eyes sparkling.
Eventually, over a few glasses of wine, I manoeuvred the conversation back to mountains and climbing. Being Canadian, I brought up Polar Circus, a Grade V, WI 5 climb in the Canadian Rockies where, back in 1975, he pushed nearly 800 metres up the frozen icicles of Cirrus Mountain along with the carousing British twins, Adrian and Al Burgess, and Bugs McKeith. The name Polar Circus, so the story goes, evolved from Porter’s complaints that establishing belay stations on the steep upper sections of this test-piece was like a “Polish circus.” “Polish” became “Polar.” Reminiscing about the climb brought a smile to his face, and I remember him muttering something about his “Porter-dactyl,” an improvised ice tool he used to climb the route more than 35 years ago. However, before I could ask him to describe this climbing implement, he was on to another topic.
Polar Circus is but a small Canadian Rockies footnote on Porter’s climbing resume. Climber Gary Bocarde logged many hedonistic days with Porter at Yosemite Valley’s Camp 4 during the 1970s “boom years” in technical climbing advancement.
In 1972, the two connected for an attempt on the little-known East Quarter Dome, forging the now classic Nashville Skyline that went at a Grade V, 5.8 A3. It was a four-day blur of wilting temperatures that topped 37 degrees Celsius and left the pair so dehydrated that dialogue was reduced to grunts and one-word communiqués. I spoke to Bocarde a couple of years ago, and he vividly recalled jugging up a pitch to find a pathetic-looking Porter, face as ghost white as his curly hair, seeking shelter beneath a hammock, as exposed as an ant on a desert sand dune. On their third night they were forced to corkscrew themselves into a hole barely big enough to permit two bodies — those were the days before portaledges.
Later that year, Bocarde was back in Yosemite Valley, again teaming up with Porter for the first ascent of Zodiac. Four pitches up, Porter suddenly declared that they were short of hardware.
“We left our gear on the route. It turned out that Charlie was chasing a female park ranger and he basically disappeared for a few weeks,” Bocarde said with a laugh. “I was bummed because I missed out on the first ascent, and Charlie came back and did it solo in October.”
A few years ago, Bocarde had a nostalgic moment when he visited the old cabin that his father had built in the Lower Yosemite Valley during the 1950s; a place that had served as a refuge for the younger Bocarde and his climbing-bum friends. Sifting through old boxes, he found a bundle of books belonging to Porter, among them were obscure texts on Newtonian physics and Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was like peering into Porter’s mind, a little glimpse of the arcane theories and ideas that might have drifted about his head while engrossed in aid-climbing’s long stretches of tedium and fear.
“He wasn’t your normal climbing dirt bag,” Bocarde said. “Charlie did a lot of hard stuff but he never did it for the recognition. I’m sure he would barf to think about climbers these days doing it for sponsorships or going for speed records.”
Porter will likely be most remembered for those lonely September days that he spent on a Baffin Island granite wall. His ascent of Mount Asgard’s northwest face is the stuff of climbing mythology. Mountaineer Doug Scott dubbed it, “the greatest achievement in Baffin, the Arctic and probably anywhere...” Chic Scott (no relation), in his tome to Canadian mountaineering history, Pushing The Limits, called it,“an incredible tour de force.” Eugene Fisher, writing in High Magazine, labelled it, “one of the boldest ventures in climbing history.”
Porter, true to form, left little in the way of a written record of his experience on Asgard, even though it nearly killed him. Whatever demons, if any, he may have wrestled with while pounding pitons into Asgard’s granite fissures, he has kept to himself, or to those who may have found him in a loquacious mood. It took him 40 days to ferry equipment to the base of Asgard and 10 days of intermittent stormy weather to dispatch 40 pitches of demanding aid. But reaching the summit, it turned out, was only half the battle. Afterward, a storm-wracked descent of Swiss Couloir was followed by a 10-day trek back to the head of Sam Fjord, without food, during which he was reduced to crawling on feet swollen by frostbite and trench foot. Some people would be quick to dream of ways to parlay the experience into dollars and sponsorship. Not Porter — he just moved onto other projects, such as the 1976 solo capsule-style ascent of Mount McKinley’s Cassin Ridge, and later that summer, the first ascent of Middle Triple Peak’s west buttress with partner Russ McLean.
It goes without saying that the Porter Route on Asgard remains nearly as unattainable for most as the man himself was to the general public. That’s why I feel fortunate to have shared a few free glasses of wine with Porter in that hotel conference hall — once a climbing dirt bag, always a climbing dirt bag, I suppose.
This article originally appeared in our Fall 2014 issue.