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The Gloaming: Charlie Porter in Tierra del Fuego

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 Part 5.

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

Charlie Porter captaining Gondwana en route to Monte Sarmiento (ca. 7,220′), Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, 1995. His half-brother Barnaby Porter explains that as a child Charlie had a “huge intellect” and applied it to a variety of interests, from learning about coal mining to building elaborate model planes and collecting bullfighting capes. [Photo] Stephen Venables

If you started climbing in the early 1970s, you couldn’t help being aware of the Porter phenomenon, the meteor that flashed so briefly across the climbing firmament only to vanish. I knew about the famous El Cap big-wall climbs with their evocative hippy names, and the legendary Mt. Asgard solo–the nine days alone in a snowstorm on that Arctic wall, the thirty-one-mile walk out. I remembered the wacky photo of the moose antler he’d hauled up The Mooses Tooth. And I probably knew about his rapid, solitary ascent of the Cassin Ridge. But I met Charlie much later, completely out of context. In 1995, as my team was about to set off for Tierra del Fuego to climb Monte Sarmiento, our leader, Jim Wickwire, announced that we’d be sailing in a boat skippered by a reclusive climber-turned-sailor, a man who’d been living for more than a decade in “the uttermost part of the earth”–Charlie Porter.

Charlie’s boat, Gondwana, was moored at Ushuaia. The welded superstructure of her doghouse appeared ungainly and eccentric among the sleeker yachts. But as we motored into the wind up the Beagle Channel in spacious, sheltered comfort, we learned that it was eminently practical. Her owner was equally practical, always busy with compass and charts or fiddling with ropes. He took a dim view of us landlubbers, calling Jim, John Roskelley and me “The Three Stooges.” Only the fourth member of the team, Tim Macartney-Snape, was allowed to touch the halyards and mooring lines or to drive the rubber dinghy–thanks, perhaps, to his Australian air of backcountry competence. “What d’yer reckon, Tim,” the skipper would mutter. “Verrry interesting, hunhh, Tim? Glacial carving from the Pliocene, with maybe some later deposits from the Holocene. Hmmm, yeah…verrry interesting.”

Charlie’s conversation was punctuated by frequent gravelly chuckles. At first, it seemed a strange paradox that this famously private man, notorious for shunning the media, should be so garrulous. But then, I thought, if you spend that much time alone, you must have a lot of saved-up words. Ashore one day, waiting for him in the dripping rainforest, we heard Charlie long before he arrived, muttering to himself: “Hmmm, very interesting…secondary growth colonizing alluvial deposits…or maybe remains of a medial moraine…ahh, mmm…the pink flowers…Philesia buxifolia.” It was the talk of a born enthusiast–a polymath who could turn his mind to anything.

Now I wish I’d listened harder, that I’d got him to talk more about his extraordinary solo kayak journey down the Patagonian channels; to share his encyclopedic knowledge of the native tribes whose abandoned camps and middens he’d discovered. He was a self-taught archaeologist. And glaciologist. And climatologist. And botanist–showing us the bittersweet calafate berries and the peppery leaves of the canola plant the Yamana people used to chew.

Sometimes the talk turned to climbing. Looking up through a rare gap in the clouds, Charlie would point out some untouched buttress in the Darwin Range–“Like the Walker Spur, hunhh, Tim?” Very occasionally, he’d reminisce about Yosemite. One scurrilous story ended with Charlie’s stubbly red face creased in mirth, laughing triumphantly, “… and Ron Kauk couldn’t reach the bolt!”

Meanwhile, we voyaged through one of the world’s most elemental wild places. Charlie showed us the cove of Caleta Olla, where the shingle strand was fringed by Nothofagus–southern beech trees–turning autumnal gold and amber. As he’d predicted, black-and-white Hourglass dolphins danced round the dinghy when we motored ashore to stretch our legs on the encircling arm of the ancient moraine. A couple of days later, farther west, we spent a long, squally afternoon thumping across the expanse of the Bahia Desolada. It really was desolate, the steel-grey sea barely distinguishable from grey mountains. Each time Gondwana appeared to be heading straight for a peak, a narrow passage would appear–another improbable twist in what was actually a rocky maze of sheltering islands–until we anchored in a calm, secret haven surrounded by forest. The following night he took us into another hidden fjord, where he tied Gondwana to huge steel bolts in a cliff he said were normally used by the Chilean navy.

We rounded the Brecknock Peninsula, felt briefly the vast swell of the Pacific, and then headed back east to Monte Sarmiento. While Jim, John, Tim and I reconnoitered the approach, Charlie fussed over Gondwana, only joining us after he’d put out multiple anchors and ran shorelines to nearly every tree in the rainforest.

A few days later, during a rare afternoon of bright sunshine, the five of us dug a ledge for our high camp, beneath the unclimbed southwest face of Sarmiento. The wind kept gusting, violent and unpredictable. During the descent to our lower camp, Jim was caught off balance and smashed against a rock, spraining his ankle. The next morning, he announced that it was too painful to continue climbing. So we left without him for what we hoped would be our summit attempt. John and Tim raced ahead. Charlie and I followed more slowly, stopping to put on crampons at a slope of bare ice. As I started off, Charlie shouted through the wind, “That’s right. I’ll follow behind, Venables; then I can catch you when you fall off.”

The Patagonian wind snuck over a ridge in unannounced gusts. Between blasts, I heard Charlie yelling from below. This time, he wasn’t joking. When I got down to him, he was hunched over, left hand clasping his right shoulder, teeth clenched in pain. Like Jim, he’d been flung off the mountain. Skittering toward a big drop, unable to brake on the glassy surface, he’d grabbed the edge of a small crevasse with his left hand, saving himself but dislocating his shoulder.

By evening, we were all back with Jim at the low camp, discussing what to do. We knew that the longer a dislocated shoulder is left, the harder it is to put back. From here, it would take at least two days to reach the nearest hospital, in Punta Arenas. We had no strong painkillers, but John and Tim both had extensive paramedic experience, and Tim had relocated shoulders before. So Charlie agreed to subject himself to what was bound to be a painful experiment. Ever practical, he instructed Jim to sit on his legs. My job was to hold down his head while, in the absence of a leather strop, he clenched his teeth on a strip of beef jerky. John and Tim stood over his tethered body, grasped his right arm, counted to three and gave it a determined yank, ignoring Charlie’s jerky-muffled shrieks as they tried to rotate the limb into place.

They failed. After a short pause, Charlie agreed to a second attempt. And then a third. And a fourth. And so on, until we took a break for supper, before continuing into the night, each time hoping desperately that it would work. It took all my strength to hold Charlie down. I could feel his neck bulging with the pain. After each interlude, he stuck the shredded strip of beef between his teeth and braced for the next bout. Here, before us, was the quiet stoicism of the man who’d spent all those days alone on Asgard.

In the end, John and Tim couldn’t get the shoulder back. So in the morning we all hiked down through the forest, Jim ignoring his sprained ankle and carrying an extra load to help Charlie. On board Gondwana that afternoon, Charlie prepared to set sail, one armed, across the Strait of Magellan. His cabin boy, who’d been guarding the boat, would help, along with Jim, whose injury precluded more climbing. Having endured so much already, Charlie wanted all of us–Tim in particular–to help him get back to Punta Arenas. But Tim, John and I still wanted to climb the mountain. And after a long, hard look from Tim, Charlie agreed to leave the rubber dinghy for the three of us to return ashore. So Gondwana headed north to Punta Arenas, and three days later, on the only completely fine day of the whole expedition, Tim, John and I reached the West Summit of Sarmiento. Two days after that, Jim returned in a fishing boat to collect us, reporting that Charlie had continued north, flying all the way to Santiago to have his shoulder fixed.

Over the years, friends sometimes mentioned meeting Charlie in Ushuaia or Puerto Williams or South Georgia. They said he was as loquacious as ever, delivering an ever-expanding repertoire of stories, busy ferrying climbers and scientists around that unique southern landscape of sea and mountains. But the last time I saw Charlie was that evening in 1995 when he headed north for Punta Arenas, standing on the deck of Gondwana like a scruffy Lord Nelson, one arm bundled up in an old cagoule, blue eyes scanning the darkening horizon. For once he was mostly silent, apart from the occasional gruff command barked to his crewman, landlubber Jim. Charlie’s voice grew fainter, and soon the only sounds were the soft dip of our oars, rowing back to Sarmiento, and the distant, fading thrum of Gondwana‘s engine as she merged into the gloaming.

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