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In Memory of Charlie Porter (1951-2014)

When Charlie Porter died on February 23, 2014, he left behind a legacy of underreported adventures. Yet his friends never forgot their experiences with him. Gary Bocarde, Sibylle Hechtel, Alan Burgess, Russel McLean, Stephen Venables and Greg Landreth share a few memories of one of the twentieth century’s greatest climbers. This is the last installment.

To peruse Matt Samet’s timeline and introduction to Porter’s “anti-legacy” and the other five essays, CLICK HERE.

Charlie Porter’s Gondwana, Tierra del Fuego. In the last decades of his life, Porter conducted research in climatology, botany, oceanography and archaeology from his floating laboratory. [Photo] Keri-Lee Pashuk

I woke early in a remote bay in Tierra del Fuego and stepped out onto the cold steel of the boat deck. Night lingered along black shorelines beneath the quickening glimmer of the horizon. I waited for the slow coloring-in of glaciers, rocks and trees. A star hung preternaturally bright, its yellowish glow reflecting in dark water. Gradually, the sun illuminated a pastel blue sky, and the lone star was absorbed into invisibility.

Two days later, I learned about the death of my friend Charlie Porter. All his life, he’d defied the odds on rock walls and oceans, from Yosemite to Antarctica. It seemed improbable to imagine him knocking on the door of a hospital on the grid-square streets of Punta Arenas. Ashes in an urn, energy into dust.

Charlie had long since given up his climbing career when I first met him in Chile seventeen years ago. To make a living, he’d experimented with tourism, as I was starting to be forced to do. But after ripping across the Beagle Channel in a rubber boat full of backpackers, he told me, “I’m nearly fifty now. My family has a history of cardiac problems. I’d better get going on what I really want to do.”

So he did. The next year, we were clambering around a glacier that hadn’t been recorded on any known maps. And while we waded across rain-swollen rivers, cowered in mad Patagonian gusts and carried odd-looking equipment to ice caps, Charlie would stop to puzzle over connections between cedar growth rates and moraines, things I wouldn’t have noticed previously in my hurry to get to some nearby peak. This realm is nothing but wind, mountain and tide, no place for the sensibilities of men, I’d thought. Yet it was the act of being present here that excited Charlie: the art of travel, the fight against gravity, the linkage of experience to a new understanding of history. As we squeezed into a tent not much bigger than a bivy bag, I realized that he was trying to apply the methods and equipment of extreme alpinism to tease out the mysteries buried in the living landscape. Just as he’d once pieced together unlikely routes on blank faces of ice and rock, Charlie now lived to gather climate data where none before existed.

Such secrets can be uncovered only by knowing where to go, and by going there on foot. To get your feet anywhere south of Puerto Montt on the Chilean side of Patagonia, you need a good pair of boots, a raincoat and a boat. As a seaborne scientist, Charlie kayaked the length of Patagonia, taking water samples up and down the fjords and then rounding Cape Horn. A series of boats followed: Sea Tomato, Wild Pigeon, Gondwana and the last one, Ocean Tramp. Each one represented the bare minimum he needed to do what he loved most: questing farther toward the edge of knowledge.

Whenever I saw Charlie in Puerto Williams, the earth’s southernmost marina, he had a new story. Weather stations in South Georgia, time-lapse cameras installed on glaciers, sediments wrested from the bottoms of lakes in Tristan da Cunha, stalactites from Madre de Dios Island. He always brought back some new piece of the enigma of how these vast southern sea-locked landscapes fit within the picture of northern latitudes. He was brave enough to call Patagonia home. It was the only country left big enough for his ambition.

He never got rid of his haulbag, though; it was hidden at the bottom of his shed in Puerto Williams. The last thing I remember him saying was, “We’ve been down here long enough, now. Don’t you think it’s about time we climbed some of those mountains that we came here for in the first place?” I looked at my own rusty collection of tools, and I had to agree.

And now I look at his boat, towed to its last mooring, its captain gone.

Yes, we will, Charlie. Yes, we will.

[CLICK HERE to read Matt Samet’s introduction to Porter’s “anti-legacy” and the other five essays.–Ed.]