A generation of mountaineers knew him as one of the best of all time, a man who pioneered climbing routes at El Capitan and elsewhere. A future generation of climate change scientists knew him as one of their own.
On Feb. 23, Charles Talbot Porter, 63, died of a heart attack in Punta Arenas, Chile. He had lived in Walpole, Maine, and Puerto Williams, Chile, and traveled the globe, both in search of adventure and in pursuit of knowledge.
At the time of his death, Porter was a research associate for the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, according to CCI’s director, Paul Mayewski.
“Charlie had a very rare ability and a staunch drive to understand as much as he could about the physical, chemical, biological and socio-cultural aspects of some of Earth’s most remote places, most notably Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia,” Mayewski wrote in an email.
To that end, Porter not only studied different regions, he lived in them.
Along the way, he caught the eye of UMaine scientists. Since the 1990s, he has helped conduct research in the southern hemisphere as well as provide logistical support that his special set of mountaineering and sailing skills made possible.
“He was a one-of-a-kind person,” said Brenda Hall, a professor who works in UMaine’s Climate Change Institute and the school of earth and climate sciences. “I didn’t know him in his climbing days, really. But he’s a legend in the climbing world for the climbs he did alone that seemed impossible with equipment that wasn’t modern equipment. And he invented a lot of it.”
According to an obituary supplied by his nephew, Sam Goldsmith, Porter was the CEO of the Patagonia Research Foundation and operated a charter boat service for scientists, explorers and film crews.
Among his notable climbing feats: Porter was the first to ascend “The Shield” on El Capitan in 1972. He also pioneered other routes on the famous rock face.
In 1978, Porter rowed around Cape Horn, a 2,000-mile voyage.
“He is an adventurer, was an adventurer,” Hall said. “Every trip with Charlie was a bit of an adventure. You [were] out of contact with the world and it was pretty tough sailing.”
Hall praised Porter’s kindness and honesty, and said his fitness level was off the charts, even as he turned 60.
“Nobody could keep up with him,” Hall said. “Nothing was an obstacle. I think a lot of us saw him as invincible. All of us felt safe traveling with him in conditions that perhaps weren’t so safe.”
Hall said Porter never bragged about his climbing exploits, but she said another UMaine professor, George Denton, could sometimes get him to tell a story or two.
“He never [climbed] for the fame. I’m pretty sure of that,” Hall said. “He saw it as a challenge, and he liked being creative and finding ways to overcome things that nobody had overcome before.”
Now, Hall realizes, she and others will have to overcome the fact that Porter won’t be alongside them on future expeditions.
“Personally, there are several of us that are going to miss him quite a bit,” she said. “As far as our research, it’s definitely quite a blow because we worked closely with him … he was part of our science team.”
And the science that Porter was pursuing will be hard to replicate, Hall said. Among those projects is one in which he hiked and climbed in order to set up 30 automated weather stations in remote, hard-to-reach locations in South America.
“It’s impossible to fill his shoes,” Hall said. “One thing we worry about a little bit is what’s going to happen to these networks that he set. No one else really has the skills to maintain what he set.”