2009: Charles Houston. By Tom Hornbein

Charles S. Houston, by Anne-Marie W. Littenberg

(Back to: Departments, In Memoriam)

Charles Snead Houston: 1913–2009

By Thomas Hornbein

The wise old guru and mentor for so many of us died peacefully in his Vermont home on September 27. He was 96, the last of the Harvard Mountaineering Club Five, with Terris Moore, H. Adams Carter, Bradford Washburn, and Robert Bates.

Charlie was scarcely 40 when he swore off mountaineering, but he packed a lot of it into the preceding two decades. During his Harvard undergrad years, first ascents of mounts Crillon and Foraker were among the crown jewels. While a supposedly serious medical student at Columbia, he conceived what was to be the first ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936, the highest mountain climbed until the French ascent of Annapurna 14 years later. He managed to enlist three seasoned Brits, Bill Tillman, Noel Odell, and Graham Brown, to join his young team. Two years later Charlie and Bob Bates put together an AAC-sponsored reconnaissance of K2. They might have reconnaissanced themselves to the top had they not run out of matches. Somehow he was granted the M.D. degree; perhaps the M was for mountaineering.

After Nepal opened its doors to Westerners, in 1950 Charlie and his father Oscar, Andy Bakewell, Betsy Cowles, and Bill Tillman pioneered a new approach to Everest. Charlie and Tillman became the first Westerners to view its infamous Icefall.

Fifteen years after their first K2 trip, Charlie and Bob Bates were back in the Baltoro with a team of young hard men. The 1953 K2 expedition is, like Shackleton’s voyage of the Endurance, one of those magnificent failures that provoke us all to reexamine our definition of success. The team was high on the mountain positioned for a summit attempt when the weather packed in, and Art Gilkey developed what Charlie diagnosed as thrombophlebitis. For him and his teammates, there was no choice but to try to lower Art down the mountain even though they figured the odds of succeeding were about zilch and that their own chances of getting down alive would be much diminished. That assumption was validated when one of the team fell, pulling off a sequence of four others in entangling ropes. It was only Pete Schoening’s ice-ax belay of Gilkey’s makeshift litter that kept all seven from hurtling thousands of feet to their deaths. Charlie, in his later years, came to call this iconic camaraderie of that team the “Brotherhood of the Rope,” used as the title of both a film he put together in his 90s about the two K2 expeditions and of his biography by Bernadette McDonald.

Even before K2 in 1953, Charlie’s affair with thin air was morphing into its next incarnation, that of high-altitude research. Though Charlie had no formal training, here too he dreamed big and with the same remarkable ability to make dreams happen. Insatiable curiosity and an instinct to seize a serendipitous moment were among the driving forces.

In 1946, while a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy, he convinced his superiors to allow him and Richard Riley to place Navy “volunteers” in an altitude chamber for 40 days, gradually acclimatizing them to higher and higher altitudes. The payoff was to demonstrate the value of acclimatization to fighter pilots flying unpressurized aircraft, but Charlie’s personal mission in Operation Everest was to demonstrate that an acclimatized person could survive at the summit of Everest, which had yet to be climbed.

After K2, Bob Craig and his boss, Walter Paepcke, brought Charlie to Aspen. Here, another pivotal event in his life as a researcher occurred when he rescued an ailing backcountry skier and discerned his breathing problem was something new. The result was a seminal report in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1960 on the entity we now call HAPE or high-altitude pulmonary edema. Then came the Logan years, 1967 to 1982, summers at 17,000 feet pursuing field research on human performance at altitude, including the discovery of high-altitude retinal hemorrhages. In 1985 Charlie pulled off his magnum opus, Operation Everest II. Volunteers gradually ascended to the equivalent of the summit of Everest in a hypobaric chamber. With Charlie as captain of the chamber, this effort yielded some three-dozen publications from an all-star cast of investigators. Two other major bits of his research legacy were the initiation of the International Hypoxia Symposium in 1979, a biennial gathering of scientists from many disciplines and many places, and the publication the following year of Going High, the story of how humans fare in thin air; the 5th edition, Going Higher, was completed in 2005, when Charlie was 92 and blind.

In 1962 Charlie, his wife Dorcas, and their three children left Aspen for India, where Charlie directed the Peace Corps. As the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition was returning home through New Delhi, our paths connected for the first time, though Charlie had entered my teenage life many years before from within the pages of James Ramsey Ullman’s mountaineering history High Conquest. I shared with Charlie our adventure on Everest’s West Ridge. His clear pleasure with our accomplishment was seasoned with a wistful wondering about whether it could have been done without supplemental oxygen. That encounter was my first exposure to his philosophy that mountains should be approached simply and with humility. Over the more than half century that we subsequently shared, I came to realize that this was more than a philosophy of mountaineering; it was a philosophy of life.

Charlie Houston was an explorer, scientist, caring doc, mentor, and a totally committed and at times stubbornly principled spokesman for making this world a better place. This self-effacing, sometimes courageously blunt and downright exasperating curmudgeon was his own harshest critic. Charlie is too marvelous and complex a character to capture in these few words, but to me two of his most precious gifts were his sorcerer’s ability to turn fantasy to reality and his total commitment to those he cherished.

Charles Snead Houston, 1913–2009

By Robert Craig

I have always felt there was a kind of classical Grecian quality about Charlie’s life. This was perhaps best expressed by Charlie’s and my boss, the great Walter Paepcke, founder of the Container Corporation of America and the Aspen Institute, who once said to me, “I think Charlie Houston is driven by the pursuit of virtue.” I don’t know whether this pursuit was inspired by his impressive father, Oscar, or by “Angel Bunny,” his equally impressive mother. I do know that the keeper of the flame of virtue was his Minerva-like wife, Dorcas. Virtue in the Greek sense demanded also the pursuit of excellence and certainly Charlie exemplified that in whatever he undertook. I also believe the absence of virtue in so much of contemporary life fueled his curmudgeonliness. He was happiest in the perfections of nature, of dogs, of children, and good science. He was an uncommon man and a great and demanding friend.

© American Alpine Club


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