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Charlie!

Posted on: July 22, 2014


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 2.

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

Charlie Porter, in front of his workshop, rented at an old resort in Briceburg, California, where he designed and modified specific gear for his new routes on El Capitan. "What I wouldn't give to spend a summer's afternoon sitting in the shade laughing with that man again," says Phil Gleason, who lived there with Porter for a short time. [Photo] Phil Gleason

When Beverly Johnson and I walked into Camp 4 in September 1973, her boyfriend, Charlie Porter, was, as usual, covered in dirt. Sand dusted his hair. Dark smudges of earth ran across his cheeks. There was even dirt on his lashes and eyelids. He and Walter Rosenthal had been excavating cracks on a new route to accommodate pins or fingers. Most of the mud and twigs adhered to Charlie, who'd been doing all the leading.

As the youngest and least experienced climber in our group, I listened in awe while Charlie expounded on the day's progress, waving his arms about to show the position of imaginary cracks and holds. I'd heard the Valley climbers talk about how he aided cracks that no one else could touch. In person, he reminded me of a teddy bear: messy, sweet, a little round and burly, and utterly huggable.

Charlie turned to Bev, and with a grin that flashed against his dirt-coated face, he offered to loan us gear for El Cap. I eagerly accepted: Bev and I were hoping to make the first all-female ascent, but the only "big-wall" equipment I had was my father's old forty-meter rope. And so, before we set off, Bev went to "say goodbye to Charlie" (and to borrow the gear).

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In those days, Charlie lived alone in a cabin in Briceburg, down the Merced River, at the intersection of Highway 40 and Incline Road. As the only full-time resident, he'd become the "mayor." After a few days of no Bev, I got anxious: school started in little more than a week. I found someone to drive me to Charlie's tiny shack. Inside, haulbags slumped against the walls. Ropes and gear were scattered about the room. Bev sat cross-legged on the floor, sorting through varied pins and carabiners. Charlie was known for innovative designs, each one adapted to one of his difficult routes. He'd start up some new, improbably hard climb, look at the features ahead, come down and then design the gear that he expected to use. For the first ascent of The Shield, he'd created specific "corner RURPs." He'd also played with "grasshoppers," a RURP with two legs that came down at a forty-five-degree angle for stability in horizontal placements, as well as expanding sliders, with two nuts abutting each other on a cable.

"What do you need?" Charlie asked. He looked cleaner than when I'd last seen him, but he was still in a torn shirt and baggy pants full of holes. Before I had a chance to reply, he started pulling equipment out of a haulbag. A rope, one-inch angles, Lost Arrows, baby angles, biners and a hammer—all went into a pile, until his bag was nearly empty. He wouldn't be able to go up any walls while we climbed, though he assured me that he didn't mind: he had plenty of tinkering to do with his new RURPs.

Bev and I started fixing on the Triple Direct the next day. There were no topos yet, and our only map was a verbal description. By the time we reached Block Ledge, we were lost: the grey diorite above us showed no pin scars. The next morning, Bev started up a likely crack, but it soon petered out. She lowered off and said, "Charlie will know where it goes."

"Umm, yes," I said. "But Charlie isn't here."

"He'll be watching us," she said. Bev leaned out and shouted, "Charlie! Charlie!" We heard no reply. After hollering for a while, Bev ventured up a second crack, which also led nowhere. And a third. This one kept going, and we stood on the summit six days later.

Later on, I found out that Charlie had indeed been in the Meadow, observing our progress through high-powered binoculars. He'd even heard Bev yelling, but the high winds had muffled his response. Nonetheless, he'd given so much to make our ascent possible that we never even considered retreating. We had to put in all our effort, to try every option, just as he would.

When most people reminisce about Charlie, they mention his difficult solos in grim weather. What I recall was his tremendous support for his friends. It was his rope, his pins and his gruff, warm smile that encouraged us ever upward. Today, I still attempt climbs that are too hard, too long, too improbable. Charlie and Bev are both gone now, but sometimes, partway up another granite crack, I remember the dirt in Charlie's hair, the assurance in Bev's eyes—and her powerful voice in the autumn air shouting: "Charlie!"

[CLICK HERE to read Matt Samet's introduction to Porter's "anti-legacy" and the other five essays.—Ed.]

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