Skip to content
Home » Features » 76 Visions of Charlie Porter

76 Visions of Charlie Porter

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, Russell McLean, Stephen Venables and Greg Landreth share a few memories of one of the twentieth century’s greatest climbers. With an introduction by Matt Samet.

Click on the photos below to read their stories.

Charlie Porter: A Selected Timeline

1966-1969 | Charlie Porter started climbing as a Massachusetts high-school student; he spent his summers hitchhiking west in search of higher cliffs.

Summer 1972 | On a ledge, seven pitches up a solo first ascent of El Capitan’s New Dawn (VI 5.9 A4), Porter unclipped a haulbag only to have it roll away. Unanchored, he sprinted after it, catching himself just in time. Despite the loss of his sleeping bag, hammock and much of his food, Porter spent eleven days on the wall. He bivied in a belay seat wearing an ensolite-pad tunic.

October 1972 | As Porter led the 130-foot Triple Cracks (then A5), during the first ascent of The Shield (VI 5.9 A5), he used thirty-five RURPs. To preserve hardware, his partner Gary Bocarde belayed from one quarter-inch bolt and one Lost Arrow. Bocarde joked that he’d have to cut the rope if Porter fell.

November 1972 | Porter completed the solo first ascent of Zodiac (VI 5.7 A3) with, at the time, many A4 and A5 pitches. This El Cap route was named for the Bay Area’s Zodiac Killer, who claimed more victims during each of Porter’s attempts.

April 1973 | Porter and Jean-Paul de St. Croix established Tangerine Trip (VI 5.9 A4), finishing an El Cap project that Royal Robbins had abandoned. The steep angle sheltered them from the rain and snow that fell on eight of their ten days.

October 1973 | Steve Sutton, Hugh Burton, Chris Nelson and Porter made the first ascent of Mescalito (VI 5.9 A4), up the huge, seemingly blank panel right of El Cap’s Nose. “We didn’t take chisels up there and make our own placements,” Porter explained in a 1993 Rock & Ice interview. “We considered that taboo.”

Spring 1974 | Porter and Bev Johnson put up Grape Race (VI 5.9 A5), just left of the Nose. After seven days, they ran low on provisions and dashed for the top by moonlight and headlamp.

June 1974 | Porter, John Svenson, Michael Clark and Gary Bocarde climbed the 2,500-foot southwest wall to the West Summit of The Mooses Tooth in Alaska. After fixing ropes on the first four and a half pitches, the men continued their new route in alpine style, lugging a moose antler over what Bocarde described as “rotten, crackless rock that resembled dirt” (American Alpine Journal 1975).

October 1974 | With only three bivies, Porter and Hugh Burton blazed up the first ascent of Horse Chute (VI 5.9 A4), featuring a striking double-overhanging corner on El Cap’s southwest face.

Winter 1974-1975 | Porter, Bugs McKeith and Alan and Adrian Burgess made the first ascent of Polar Circus (V WI5), the giant waterfall-ice classic of the Canadian Rockies.

August-September 1975 | Porter created the world’s first Grade VII on the 3,000-foot northwest face (5.10 A4) of Mt. Asgard, Baffin Island. For a month, he ferried loads with a pole strapped to his pack to safeguard against crevasse falls. He spent nine days on the wall, climbing forty pitches and bivying in a Whillans Box improvised from scrap lumber found at a nearby lake. Near the summit, he encountered a storm. Having left his double boots below, Porter froze his feet in his Robbins rock boots and had to lick his jumars to get them to stick on his ice-plastered ropes. During the ten-day crawl/hobble out, Porter ran out of food. His feet were so swollen that he had to cut his boots open.

1975 | Porter and Hugh Burton completed Excalibur (VI 5.9 A5) on El Capitan. For the notorious four-to-ten-inch offwidths, Porter manufactured six aluminum blocks milled to nest alongside bongs.

May 1976 | On Porter’s initial attempt to solo Denali’s Cassin Ridge, he climbed too quickly and retreated with altitude sickness. In the midst of his second go, he noticed bubbling in his lungs at 19,000 feet. He continued up, taking diuretics and peeing “all [his] body liquids out” on the summit. During the descent, he staggered into Gary Bocarde and Michael Covington’s camp at 17,000 feet. Desperate to get to a lower elevation, Porter couldn’t be persuaded to rest for long. The 1977 AAJ reported, “With his usual reticence, Porter has given us no details.”

June 1976 | Over ten days, Porter and Russell McLean made the first ascent of Middle Triple Peak (8,835′) in the Kichatna Spires, via its west face. Falling ice broke Porter’s fingers.

1977 | Porter and Gary Bocarde attempted the great couloir on the north face of Mt. Hunter, Alaska. They retreated after sixteen pitches of “high-angle front-pointing and avalanche dodging,” Bocarde reported (AAJ 1978).

1979 | After attempting the east face of Cerro Fortaleza in the Torres del Paine with McLean, Porter navigated the southern Patagonia fjords in his modified kayak (with the sliding seat and oars of a rowing shell), mapping ancient Indian portages and natural history.

Porter became one of the first to kayak around Cape Horn, through the perilous waters of the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica.

1984-2014 | Porter established the Patagonia Research Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to conducting climatological, botanical, oceanographic and archaeological surveys from floating laboratories, such as his steel yacht, Gondwana. For thirty years, he worked with scientists from the Fundacion CEQUA, the Universidad de Magallanes, the University of Maine and Lund University. His expeditions set up automated weather stations in isolated places from Puerto Eden to Cape Horn and South Georgia.

April 1995 | Porter, Stephen Venables, Tim Macartney-Snape, Jim Wickwire and John Roskelley set out in Gondwana for the seldom-climbed Monte Sarmiento in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. On the southwest face of the west peak, Wickwire and Porter were blown off a ridge crest in nearly the same spot, one day apart. Wickwire sprained his ankle; Porter dislocated and broke his shoulder. With his arm in a sling, accompanied by Wickwire, Porter piloted Gondwana across the Strait of Magellan to seek medical attention. On April 26, the three remaining men finished the climb.

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