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Uncharted Space

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 4.

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

Charlie Porter, dressed to the nines. Together, Porter and Russel McLean made the first ascent of Middle Triple Peak (8,835′) in the Kichatna Spires and attempted the east face of Cerro Fortaleza in the Torres del Paine. [Photo] Russel McLean

Summer 1970: It was a quiet afternoon behind Camp 4 in the shadows of pines and fir. The only sounds were the buzzing of deer flies and horse flies, and the shrieks of jays. Wrapped in concentration, I high-stepped a mantel, when a loud East Coast voice broke in: “Hey, are you Russ McLean, one of those hot climbers from Tahquitz?”

I said I was–although hardly a hot climber. A fair-skinned man with reddish blond hair and a beard emerged from around the boulder. He looked like a giant leprechaun in a white long-sleeved shirt, dirty white painter’s pants and a crinkled white cap. Who was this guy?

“You bet, you bet,” the man said. He took an odd stance, elbow on knee, and introduced himself: Charlie Porter. That afternoon we bouldered together, harassing each other in the brotherly way that came to define our relationship: “Whoa, man, you can’t step on that; it’s out of bounds,” “It’s easier if you start with your left foot–oops! You’ll never make it now.”

Charlie had a somewhat devilish smile, and I soon learned that he could provoke laughter just by standing in a crowd. But he also seemed more mature than the rest of us in Camp 4. He’d worked as a mechanic and a shrimp fisherman, done a short stint at a publishing house and taken a course in metallurgy at MIT. He was largely self-taught, and he preferred to learn by doing rather than by sitting in a classroom. At times, he resembled a quiet, brooding homunculus, weighing heavy matters for lucid truths. He was much bolder and stronger than I was, but our climbing styles were similar: don’t fall.

Years later, we bumped into each other in Salt Lake City. After an expedition to Afghanistan, I’d become disillusioned and taken a job at a small ski-clothing company where no one knew me as a climber. Charlie moved to Utah to prepare for Alaskan climbs. He shoveled sand for a concrete contractor. “Best way to strengthen your back,” he said. He convinced me to train with him: running uphill to a pull-up bar in Little Cottonwood, sprinting to a perfect lieback corner, and back for more pull-ups; doing laps on the river-rock walls of a supermarket until our forearms cramped; and climbing rock in the canyons. As winter arrived, we bouldered in the quiet snow and front-pointed up ice. To understand the cold better, we sometimes climbed into the chilled black of night.

In the spring of 1976, Charlie intended to solo Denali’s Cassin Ridge, and he’d designed a telescoping shoulder-pole-and-harness system to safeguard traverses across crevassed glaciers. After he was done with that climb, I planned to fly up with more gear so we could try the Kichatna Spires’ unclimbed Middle Triple Peak together. Neither of us had seen pictures, but the Alaskan Gary Bocarde, one of Charlie’s partners, had observed the wall firsthand, and he described 3,000 feet of near-vertical rock, crested by almost 800 feet of snow and ice. Storms had defeated all previous attempts.

Middle Triple Peak, Kichatna Spires. Mclean and Porter spent 10 days on the nearly 4,000′ west face in June 1976. [Photo] Russel McLean

At my workplace, I made custom pile clothing, heavy-duty foul weather gear, hammocks, flies and waterproof haulbags. For bivies, we picked high-calorie food that needed little cooking. My favorite remains instant mashed potatoes mixed with split-pea soup and tuna in oil, garnished with butter.

A month after he’d left for Alaska, Porter called with the good news about the Cassin. I soon joined him in Talkeetna. Jim Sharp, our bush pilot, dropped us on the Tatina Glacier in a whiteout, having navigated the Kichatnas with a topo map spread across his knees. The skis of his plane made a bump, slap, bump sound on the sastrugi, and then the din of the engine muted, leaving only the blood pulsing in our ears and the cold white cloud.

For days, Charlie and I hauled sleds and packs through a narrow gap to the Monolith Glacier, kept company by icy peaks and cheeky ravens. At last, we had a view of the wall: a broad isosceles monolith with avalanche corridors to either side. Two overhanging arches rose from its base, almost 400 feet apart, scraped by the glacier. A thin left-leaning flake above the second arch transformed into an ice-choked crack that formed a dihedral. Hundreds of feet above, this corner broadened into a tower. A final 1,000 feet of rock led to summit flutings of ice and snow.

Although we tried to camp on the safest plot, shards of ice lay strewn across the snow thirty feet to either side of our tent. Explosions of powder obliterated the sky, giving off unnerving cracking noises. Crystals splayed over our heads like broken diamonds. Under greying skies, we fixed five pitches to the second arch. A blizzard closed in, thick and wet. It lasted for four days. Back in base camp, Charlie won every chess game except one. At some point, we heard distant claps of thundersnow and the echo of falling slush. Wet avalanches poured out of couloirs amid a cacophony of wind, ice and snow. The storm was breaking up. We lifted the fly to see our wall plastered with sheets of verglas and glistening with rivulets of water. As we dragged our three bulging haulbags, a distant yellow disk peeked out now and then from behind the clouds.

Day 3 on the route: a light drizzle fell. Our boots slipped on verglas as we stood high in aid slings against the glassy water. We didn’t even try to free-climb. While we chopped ice and slush out of the cracks to place nuts or bongs, a frigid flow ran down our sleeves, exiting at elbows or coursing down over bollocks and quads into boots. The sun popped out as Charlie jumared to the ledge adjacent the tower. Starting to parboil in the heat, he took his helmet off. He was fighting with his anorak when we heard a menacing low hum. Fist-sized pieces of ice clobbered us, ricocheting all round. I was only stung, but Charlie was smacked on his head, face, shoulders and left hand. Two of his fingers were broken. We taped them together lightly, and then Charlie slid his hand back into his mitten. (Later, in the hospital, the tendons were found to be severed and in need of surgical reattachment.) His lip was swollen. Tears welled in his eyes. We had no pain pills.

“You want me to lead the next pitch, then see how you feel?” I asked.

Charlie Porter, 17 pitches up the west face of Middle Triple Peak. Below, avalanche debris halted just 100 yards short of their tent. Although icefall broke two of Porter’s fingers on the climb, he kept leading cracks. His half-brother recalls, “He was just a very determined person. If he had it in his muscles, tendons and ligaments, he would do it.” As a teenager, Porter received a Carnagie Medal for rescuing climbers on Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. [Photo] Russel McLean

“No, let me see how I feel now,” Charlie said. “Hand me the rack.” He placed a knifeblade awkwardly with his be-mittened left thumb and forefinger, and he tapped it behind a decomposing flake; listening to the steel, listening to the rock. I could only guess at his suffering as he struggled and cursed up the loose, grainy stone. He never mentioned the pain.

Higher up, the sun moved behind the mountain, and the stone became compact and crackless. In the dim light, I stood in double boots on two sloping footholds, and I hollered down that I needed the bolt kit. “What?” Charlie answered. I’d woken him up. “No fuckin’ bolts! Not now, not ever!” I yelled that there were no placements, I was out of rope and couldn’t down climb. Finally, as my legs began to cramp, he relented.

We bivied just beneath the summit snows, where a constant stream of small graupel avalanches interrupted our sleep. In the morning, we stood in aid slings to put on our crampons (dear god, don’t drop ’em!) and transitioned off a perfect No. 7 Stopper to axe points in firn. After five pitches of fluted snow and ice, Charlie tapped a lump of snow out of his crampon with an axe and walked carefully up a narrow spine. Clouds were rising, slowly obscuring our view. The summit ridges fell to the east and the north; there was nowhere farther to go.

We opened a small blue packet of toffees. Charlie sat smiling. He may even have had his hands behind his head. “How much better can it get?” he asked. One simple question. He’d had so many important ascents to his name, but this had been my first climb of this magnitude. I thought about what Lionel Terray wrote after he summited Mt. Huntington: “On this proud and beautiful mountain we spent many ardent and noble hours in brotherhood. We had ceased for several days to be slaves and had truly lived as men.” It’s so much work to gain such quickly passing moments. These few fleeting instances, a few deep breaths–yours and yours alone–perhaps they’re part of some different temporality, a time unto itself to savor before you turn back to the world.

During our climbs together, Charlie often mused that he’d like to seek out a fortune-teller and ask how many years he had left. He always pushed himself: he wanted to get it all in. That day on Middle Triple Peak, it’s almost as if he knew his life would end too soon. We chewed on a few toffees, and then we left the rest for the mountain gods. We’d shared an uncharted point in space, one that would cease to exist as soon as the ropes snapped into our iced-up carabiners and we began to rappel.

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