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Visions of Charlie Porter: Introduction

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 introduction to Porter’s “anti-legacy.”

To peruse the six essays, CLICK HERE.

Portrait of Charlie Porter [Illustration] Jamie Givens

In the summer of 1975, after nine days alone on a stern, grey, storm-blasted arete of Mt. Asgard, Charlie Porter’s frozen feet were so swollen he had to slit open his boots in order to hobble and crawl, out of food, across Baffin Island’s fjordlands to a distant boat.

I imagine that as he shambled across the forbidding landscape, he paid no thought to the word “legacy.” He’d made the climb for personal reasons, and now all that mattered was survival.

Today Porter, the big-wall legend, is gone. On February 23, 2014, he passed away at age sixty-three in Punta Arenas, Chile, after a heart attack. For years, he’d left behind the walls of Yosemite and Alaska to ply the dark waters of Patagonia, first in a kayak and then in the custom-built vessels he used to pursue scientific research. And so we might be forgiven for placing the Asgard climb (which Porter never named!), and many others, within a “legacy.” Perhaps to assuage ourselves that our own lives–which someday must also end–have meaning, we turn to the word as an easy signifier, a way to immortalize a climber through his deeds. But only in retrospect. Only once he’s had a lengthy career or passed away. Once some final coda has allowed us to impose a sense of purpose onto a human life with its many moments, whether willed or arbitrary, that later seem to coalesce into some well-plotted scheme precisely because there can be no other such moments–or such an individual–again.

Over the years, Charlie Porter made many standard-setting climbs. The El Capitan first ascents done without enhanced placements. The frozen northern spires: Mt. Asgard, Middle Triple Peak, The Mooses Tooth. The mammoth frozen waterfall of Polar Circus. He pushed himself until his lungs filled with fluid on the Cassin Ridge, thirty-six hours alone up Denali from atop the Japanese Couloir. The list is daunting, almost as if Porter weren’t merely climbing for the sake of it. But Porter never sought publicity. In fact, he created an iconic “anti-legacy,” neither photographing his routes nor submitting them to climbing publications.

As Porter matured as a climber, his routes became world-class, at which point he was competing on an elite stage. And so it was that, even as he kept his plans to himself and avoided fanfare, he began silently demonstrating his mettle to the world. Many of Porter’s best climbs were done in the very public arenas of Yosemite and Alaska. They had what the historian Andy Selters called “social value,” a direct impact on standards, whether that was Porter’s intention or not. The Shield, with its string of thirty-five RURP placements, opened a distinct era of committing technical aid. And the Cassin solo helped show that the major lines on the Alaskan giants need not be sieged.

Yet all was done quietly, unremarked upon, in classic Porter fashion. With his reticence, Porter was “old school,” a classical figure from the pre-social, un-hyperlinked past in which actions carried greater weight than words and images.

“Charlie was not into self-aggrandizement,” says his climbing partner Russell McLean. And as Porter himself said in a rare 1993 Rock & Ice interview, climbing was always a “very personal thing.” In his Yosemite days, it was simply a “neat game with no written rules, a game of one-upmanship.” Climbing had a “mystical aura,” and he and the Valley climbers of the era were “romantics”–in love with the freedom to trace their own epic poems upon the polished grey stone. Thus it’s mainly through his friends and partners, a few of whom have contributed the essays that follow, that we know anything of Porter’s feats. In these and other stories, his accomplishments appear in glimpses and fragments, though we can begin to sense the whole.

With his climbs, Porter seemed to be searching for something mysterious, essential–some truth “buried in the living landscape,” as Greg Landreth phrased it in Alpinist 46. And it was perhaps solely in Patagonia, where Porter spent his final few decades, that he, as Landreth put it, found “the only country left big enough for his ambition.” Porter had already gone as far as any human being could on the walls. Now only the swells of wild southern seas, the pursuit of knowledge of botany, climate and ancient peoples, and the occasional alpine ascent on the cold, isolated peaks could contain him. All we can say for sure is that Charlie Porter followed his own course.

In Yosemite in the early 1970s, climbers began gravitating toward “rock jock” routes–one- and two-pitch free climbs, mostly difficult cracks. “I remember Bev Johnson saying, ‘Hey, Charlie, get with it! Short, hard free climbing is where it’s at!'” Porter once said. But Porter, as ever, stuck to his personal vision of adventure: “I’d just get all my pitons and wander off and do something else.”

[CLICK HERE to read essays by Gary Bocarde, Sibylle Hechtel, Alan Burgess, Russell McLean, Stephen Venables and Greg Landreth.–Ed.]