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The Man with the Van

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 3.

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

Charlie Porter aids over the lip of the Shield. Yosemite historian Steve Grossman notes that aid climbs tend to get easier with repeat ascents, and that the modern ratings of Porter’s routes no longer represent the difficulty Porter experienced at the time: “Charlie was a purist as a nailer and viewed bashies as a last resort.” [Photo] Gary Bocarde

In December 1974, Charlie Porter arrived in Calgary, Alberta, in a beat-up Volkswagen van with a mattress thrown in the back. The Scottish ex-pat Bugs McKeith had met him in Yosemite and invited him north to climb waterfall ice. Charlie had a flat white hat, a full beard and an air of self-confidence well earned on Yosemite’s walls. He also hefted a wicked-looking homemade ice hammer with a hexagonal shaft and a drooped pick–a larger, heavier version of the Terrordacytal, a Scottish ice axe that was popular at the time, though I no longer remember whether he used this tool on the climbs we did.

My twin brother, Aid, and I planned to join Bugs and Charlie for a few practice climbs and then have a go at the huge, unclimbed Cirrus Mountain Gully (today known as “Polar Circus”) along the Icefield Parkway. Bugs knew of it, as did most of the Calgary ice climbers. A number of shorter, easy ice pitches led to a narrows where a free-hanging “pencil” could be avoided by a rightward traverse to a dangerous avalanche bowl. The crux came with a six-pitch vertical headwall of water ice.

As 1974 became 1975, we ferried food and equipment to a nearby rock cave in temperatures that never exceeded -25 degreesF. We took turns at the headwall: I climbed with Bugs, and Aid climbed with Charlie. Charlie was a self-contained man, but once, thanks to a set of Bugs’s badly placed bolts, we had a taste of his dry, pointed humor. After Charlie cleaned the pitch on Jumars, he said to Aid, “If I end up in a hospital bed, make sure Bugs is in another one facing me.”

When we finished Polar Circus, we returned to Calgary to rest up and plan the next project. Charlie drifted away from Bugs to hang out with Aid and myself, and we tried to think of an alpine goal that suited our styles and experience. At an all-you-can-eat steak and salad restaurant, Charlie ate like a madman, food in his beard, stocking up fat like a camel anticipating rough days ahead. Aid and I enjoyed visiting our girlfriends in town, but Charlie paced the floor until we knew it was time to buy the Scotch and drive westward back to the Rockies.

Charlie’s Californian van had a tear down the driver’s-side door that kept the inside temperature the same as the outside–well, colder with wind chill while driving. On the road, he wore full down gear. Aid and I lay in sleeping bags in the back sipping on single malt. The vehicle wasn’t winterized with an electrical engine-block heater, so at every overnight stop we had to drain the oil into a galvanized pail and heat it the next day before returning it to the engine. Most of the time we camped in picnic shelters. Aid and I slept on the tables, while Charlie disappeared into the van with a book. He introduced us to Adelle Davis’s Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, a kind of bible to him, favoring the mixing of complementary proteins perfect for his tight budget. Aid and I soon adopted his system of consuming brewer’s yeast blended with powdered milk and hot water out of a plastic measuring cup, although unlike Charlie we did this only in the mountains.

We had our eyes on the then-unclimbed Grand Central Couloir on the north face of Mt. Kitchener, a 3,500-foot ice gully we believed would be safer from avalanches in the dead of winter. The face was composed of brittle limestone; the cleft that sliced its upper reaches began at fifty-five degrees on compacted snow and steepened into a narrow bed of green ice capped by a fifty-foot cornice.

Our base was an unmanned hostel thirty minutes’ drive south of the approach–a site best left unnamed, as we fiddled with a window to gain entry. Charlie was always pushing to start even on the bitter, windy -45?F days. When we pointed out that technical climbing in such weather would be impossible, he headed out alone on his cross-country skis instead. My brother and I took to secretly mixing Valium with Charlie’s hot chocolate before bedtime. One morning, I asked Charlie how he was sleeping. “Never slept better,” he replied. Problem solved.

Eventually, we moved into an ice cave at the foot of Kitchener’s north face. While I descended with an infected toenail, Aid and Charlie left to excavate another shelter a little higher, below the second bergschrund. As they dug, a hole appeared in the back of the cave accompanied by a huge cracking noise. Horrified, Charlie moved his sleeping bag to the entryway. The next day, while climbing, Charlie broke an ice tool in the cold, and the pair retreated. When they rappelled down the side of the couloir, the cornice broke and narrowly missed them. Had Charlie’s ice tool not shattered, he and Aid would have surely been wiped out.

We ended the project, considering it too dangerous, and Charlie set out for Yosemite. He never seemed angry about Kitchener. Maybe he was just relieved to be alive. Before he left, he told us that the south face of Denali had a fantastic 8,800-foot buttress, the Cassin Ridge, and that it was a “plum” to be attempted in alpine style.

Not realizing Charlie was planning to solo it, Aid and I also made plans for the Cassin the following May. When we arrived at Denali Base Camp, we heard that after a false start that ended in altitude sickness, Charlie had completed the route in a mere thirty-six hours from the top of the Japanese Couloir to the summit. At our igloo at the base of the ridge, I stood one evening while the weather cleared and wisps of high clouds raced over the summit. I imagined Charlie alone on the mountain, as he so often was, plodding upward, nothing to stop for, no companion to chat with or to share his experience, beard frozen and probably wearing that signature white cap over a balaclava or under a down hood, shutting out any emotions that could have weakened his purpose. Struggling for the sake of struggling, same as it had been, was, and ever would be.

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