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Waiting for Dawn

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 1.

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

Charlie Porter two dozen pitches up The Shield (VI 5.9 A5), El Capitan, Yosemite. During Porter’s famous 35-RURP lead, Gary Bocarde diffused tension by joking that he’d cut the rope if porter fell. It was an empty threat: Bocarde had no knife. [Photo] Gary Bocarde

In the summer of 1972, Charlie Porter still had a long wish list of climbs, while I had a short list: Half Dome and El Cap. It seemed as if our goals might overlap somewhere in the middle. Although the temperatures in Yosemite hovered around 100 degreesF, hot enough to make a fair-complected guy like Charlie turn rosy, he argued that north-facing routes should be doable, and he invited me to join him for a new line on Quarter Dome, a remote pillar high up Tenaya Canyon. He wanted to call the route Nashville Skyline after a Bob Dylan album. Quarter Dome wasn’t Half Dome, but the name sounded close.

Past the thick, dark trees, we caught our first glimpse of the wall: it faced more east than north and gleamed like an oiled grey skillet in the gauzy sunlight. There were numerous crack systems, a few roofs–and no visible ledges. As we staggered uphill, we guzzled a gallon of water, which left us with just two gallons for the wall. We fixed one pitch that first day, then set out the next morning. Up on the face, we had only an hour or two of shade before the sun came around, its bright yellow disk beating mercilessly on our backs from a cloudless sky. To avoid wasting energy, we tugged on the haul rope to communicate–it seemed simpler than yelling. We handled pitons and carabiners carefully, lest we singe our palms. Sweat stung our eyes, turning them into crimson slits. We sucked on a bolt or a small rock to moisten our palates.

Halfway into the second day, I fumbled to clean the gear as I followed, and I wondered how Charlie was faring above me. When I arrived at the belay, he’d burned bright pink. I’d never seen him in such bad shape, yet there was no talk of going down. We bivied that evening on a “one-cheek stance” under the stars. On other walls, you could sometimes hear groups of climbers well into the night. Here, the air was quiet, and there were no visible signs of people or civilization. You couldn’t even see the headlights emerging from the Wawona Tunnel. Our water had run out, but in the morning Charlie led the final pitch of easy aid and free climbing, and we were free of our sweltering prison.

On the descent, we found a black, brackish puddle that tasted like donkey shit, though the moisture was divine. After drinking, we could finally speak again. Down the Half Dome Trail, we stopped at Emerald Pool, between Vernal and Nevada falls, and let the cool water flow onto our bodies, soaking into our pores. It felt wonderful…until a VIP ranger showed up and told us to get out, lest the current pull us over Vernal Fall and our corpses sully Yosemite’s water supply.

When the summer ended, I went to Castro Valley, California, to complete my student teaching. That autumn, however, none of Charlie’s other partners wanted to go up the Shield Headwall on El Cap because of its potential for long, blank pitches and difficult retreat. And so I came back, for Charlie and for El Cap. Charlie had several pitches fixed, a few haulbags already in place. We spent the night on Mammoth Terraces, one of the last real ledges until the top of the headwall. The Shield hung above us, wild, wind-blasted–a planed, impossibly steep anomaly untouched by human hands.

Porter gives a moose’s salute with John Svenson and Mike Clark on the West Summit of The Mooses Tooth, Alaska Range, 1974, during the first ascent of the Moose Antler Route (VI 5.8 A4, 800m). [Photo] Gary Bocarde

That climb and its thrills are well documented, as many climbers watched us from the Meadow below. Its most famous lead, the Triple Cracks, featured tied-off knifeblades and Lost Arrows, plus thirty-five RURPs in a row. As Charlie moved up, I paid out rope from a hanging belay with only one quarter-inch bolt and one Lost Arrow. Back then, the pitons weren’t as good as the current ones–both the RURPs and the knifeblades would bend and break. Since we had a limited supply, Charlie often rapped or lowered to retrieve them.

The tinking of Charlie’s hammer blows was the only sound until a strange thrumming came from off to our right: one of Yosemite’s first helicopter-assisted rescues was taking place on the Nose. The bird buzzed by a few times to check on us. But Charlie never complained, rarely cursed or showed signs of fear. To keep things lighthearted on his insane lead, I yelled, “Don’t fall, Charlie, as you’ll zipper the pitch and take us both to the ground!” though I was only half-kidding. He just laughed.

That season was the last time we climbed together in Yosemite. I moved back to Alaska and started a guiding business. Later, Charlie and I did some fine climbs there, including a new route on The Mooses Tooth in 1974 over the course of six days with Michael Clark and John Svenson. We hauled a moose antler up the wall, twenty pounds of bone dangling below our haulbag from frayed parachute cord. When the face gave way to snow, we humped the antler to the summit, and left it there in the cornice. I don’t know that Charlie ever fulfilled his entire wish list–it was so long I don’t think anyone could–but I’m certain that he gave it an honest effort. Although most of his routes were serious undertakings, he tried not to take climbing too seriously. He didn’t climb for ego, but for joy. And he rarely, if ever, backed down. I can still picture him at that one-cheek bivy on Quarter Dome, parched, pink, and covered in brine, sucking pensively on a pebble as we waited for another hot day to dawn.

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