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Remembering Charles Houston

Dr. Charles S. Houston [Photo] Giulio Malfer

Dr. Charles Snead Houston (August 24, 1913-September 27, 2009) died in his Burlington, Vt. home on Sunday.

Houston, 96, was a luminary of twentieth century alpinism who will be remembered not only for his mountaineering feats, but also for his quiet selflessness and strength of character. Houston’s contributions to science, mostly as the godfather of high-altitude research, continue to resonate through the climbing world and beyond.

Charlie Houston was perhaps best known for his heroic attempt on K2 in 1953. While attempting to rescue Art Gilkey from the upper reaches of the mountain, Houston and six other teammates battled exhaustion, atrocious weather, frostbite and perhaps the most famous fall in mountaineering history–in which Pete Shoening’s ice axe belay prevented five of his companions from plummeting to their deaths. It was Houston’s last expedition, but his scientific contributions to alpinism would span future decades.

Houston grew up in Great Neck, N.Y. and first went climbing at age 12 on a trip to the Alps with his parents. The experience terrified him, but years later he continued the pursuit as a Harvard undergraduate with notable results. He made the first ascents of Mt. Foraker and Mt. Crillon in Alaska in 1934. He forged friendships with fellow climbers at Harvard–Bob Bates, H. Adams Carter, Terris Moore and Bradford Washburn–and the friends later became known as the “Harvard Five.” The Harvard Mountaineering Club would remain prominent in world and especially Alaskan mountaineering well into the 1960s.

In 1936, the young medical student organized a British-American expedition to Nanda Devi, which put H.W. Tilman and Noel Odell on the summit (until 1950, the highest mountain yet climbed). Houston’s expedition approach emphasized small teams that relied on compatible partners. This approach stood in stark contrast to the traditional ethos, in which team members were chosen predominantly for their financial resources or marketability.

In 1938, the American Alpine Club selected Houston to lead a reconnaissance expedition to K2. He put together a team of strong Americans and led them to 26,000 feet. His decision to go down, while rankling some members of the AAC, demonstrated Houston’s conservative judgment and emphasis on the safety of his team.

The quest for 8,000-meter peaks was all but forgotten during World War II, but Charles Houston still lingered on the heights, if only simulated ones. Working as a physician for the U.S. Navy, Houston’s argument that pilots would benefit from acclimatization allowed fighter and bomber squadrons a tactical advantage when flying missions over 15,000 feet. In 1947, still working for the Navy, Houston ran his most famous experiment, Operation Everest. Four test subjects were taken gradually to a simulated altitude of 30,000 feet over thirty-five days. Houston’s work proved humans could function at high altitude, and in 1950, he was back in the mountains, this time locating a new, southern approach to Everest with his father, Oscar. But still it was K2 he had designs for.

His chance came in 1953. Houston organized and led another British-American expedition with help from one of the Harvard Five: Bob Bates. Houston emphasized that the team’s temperament would be most important for success. In the end, there were eight: Houston, Bates, George Bell, Bob Craig, Dee Molenaar, Pete Schoening, Art Gilkey, and Englishman Tony Streather. Houston’s judge of character paid off; he found himself leading a strong, fit, and unified team up the mountain. The eight climbers established themselves at camp VIII and drew straws to see which four men would make the two summit attempts. Houston withdrew himself from consideration, as did Molenaar, because each felt it imprudent to continue on the mountain with a wife and children at home.

Weather worsened, and the eight were pinned down for days. Houston and Bell’s tent ripped open, and fuel ran low. On the fifth day, Art Gilkey developed blood clots in his leg, fainting in the snow. Houston related the medical diagnosis to the rest of the team: Gilkey would rapidly deteriorate at that altitude. They wrapped Gilkey in a sleeping bag and tent-sheet, forgoing summit bids to descend in dangerous conditions, aware a disastrous outcome was probable. Snow froze goggles, several men became frostbitten, and conditions remained treacherous. Trying to reach Camp VII before night set in, the team negotiated a final pitch of 45-degree ice. Bell took a misstep, and soon Bell, Molenaar, Houston, Bates and Streather, tangled together on three separate ropes, were hurtling down the mountain. Schoening, who was belaying the invalid Gilkey with his ice axe cammed in a rock, suddenly felt the weight of the five falling men on his rope. Miraculously, the axe held, as did Schoening’s belay. The team limped towards Camp VII, tying Gilkey off. Upon returning for him, they found Gilkey gone, swept away by an avalanche.

Houston, injured, became delirious and his recollections of much of the descent were shaky. Weakened, he would frequently collapse, only getting up after worried haranguing by his teammates. But the team straggled back to base camp. Plagued with guilt about risking his family’s emotional safety, Houston would never climb again.

On a mountain whose heights often swirl with controversy and human drama, the 1953 expedition stands as the shining example of what Houston called “the brotherhood of the rope.” Alpinists still view the expedition as the paragon of mountaineering ethics. The very next year, Italians Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni summited K2 in a notorious ascent, leaving an embittered, young Walter Bonatti with a wrongly tarnished record and an infamous bivouac. Reinhold Messner said of the two climbs: “I have greater respect for the Americans and the way they failed in 1953. They were decent. They were strong. And they failed in the most beautiful way you can imagine. This is the inspiration of a lifetime.”

The surviving members of the 1953 expedition remained close friends, and reunions have become legends in their own right for the American Alpine Club. Pete Schoening’s ice axe is on display at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum. Houston and Bates’ book about the expedition, Savage Mountain, is a classic in the canon of mountaineering literature.

Houston’s groundbreaking research on altitude continued. In 1958 he was one of the first to detect High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE); in 1968 he effectively studied High Altitude Retinal Hemorrhage. Of his various books on the subject of high altitude, Going Higher is the definitive.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Houston took a post as the first country director for the Peace Corps in India from 1962 to 1965.

Houston moved to Burlington, Vt. in 1966, beginning tenure at the University of Vermont, which lasted until his retirement in 1979. Through his later years, he continued to study the effects of high altitude, work with biographers and filmmakers (a biography of Houston, Brotherhood of the Rope, by Bernadette McDonald, was released in 2007), and hold meetings with many of Burlington’s local youth.

Houston is survived by his two sons, his daughter, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His wife, nee Dorcas Teimeyer, died in 1999. They had been married since 1940.

Sources: Brotherhood of the Rope: The Biography of Charles Houston, Mountain Men,,,,