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Charlie Houston Remembered

Posted on: September 28th, 2009 by Phil Powers

Charles Houston, 96, died peacefully in his Vermont home on Sunday.
I know Charlie mostly as a mountain climber. From his leadership on the first ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936—the highest mountain ascended until Annapurna was climbed fourteen years later—to his expeditions on K2 in ’38 and ’53, Charlie represented the best in climbing.
The seminal moment of Charlie’s climbing life came on K2 in 1953. He and his partners decided to put their entire effort into rescuing team member Art Gilkey, who was incapacitated by altitude sickness. They knew that the rescue was not only virtually impossible, but that it would also very likely cost them their lives. The men placed the contract of the belay—the brotherhood of the rope as Charlie would so often refer to it—above concern for self. They failed to save Gilkey. But, against great odds, they succeeded in bringing each other down alive. Reinhold Messner said, “I have great respect for the Italians who summitted K2 for the first time in 1954, but even 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.” Their heroic dedication to one another, to staying together and bringing each other down safely, remains an example for not only all climbers but for all people.
Charlie’s vision expanded well beyond the mountains. His book, Going Higher, was and is the bible of high altitude medicine for the lay reader. Charlie’s research brought attention and understanding to human adaptation to altitude and is the underpinning of the acclimatization strategies and medical regimens employed today. Charlie was a tireless investigator. His high altitude research on Mount Logan from 1967 to 1979, the “Operation Everest” high altitude chamber studies in 1946 and 1985, and his founding of the International Hypoxia Symposia are just a few examples. He even tinkered, in the family basement, with the creation of an artificial heart.
In 2006 I had the opportunity of an afternoon in the midst of the surviving members of that iconic expedition to K2. Our purpose was to sustain Charlie’s work in high altitude medicine with the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center and the establishment of an endowed chair in Charlie’s name. Mostly, however, we gathered to celebrate Charlie. And I noticed, as Streather, Bates, Craig, and Molenaar gathered around Charlie, that it was true what Charlie said: “We entered the mountains as strangers, but we left as brothers.”

Charles Houston, 96, died peacefully in his Vermont home on Sunday.

I knew Charlie mostly as a mountain climber. From his leadership on the first ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936—the highest mountain ascended until Annapurna was climbed 14 years later—to his expeditions on K2 in ’38 and ’53, Charlie represented the best in climbing.

The seminal moment of Charlie’s climbing life came on K2 in 1953. He and his partners decided to put their entire effort into rescuing team member Art Gilkey, who was incapacitated by altitude sickness. They knew that the rescue was not only virtually impossible, but that it would also very likely cost them their lives. The men placed the contract of the belay—the brotherhood of the rope as Charlie would so often refer to it—above concern for self. They failed to save Gilkey. But, against great odds, they succeeded in bringing each other down alive. Reinhold Messner said, “I have great respect for the Italians who summitted K2 for the first time in 1954, but even 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.” Their heroic dedication to one another, to staying together and bringing each other down safely, remains an example not only for all climbers but for all people.

Charlie’s vision expanded well beyond the mountains. His book Going Higher was and is the bible of high altitude medicine for the lay reader. Charlie’s research brought attention and understanding to human adaptation to altitude and is the underpinning of the acclimatization strategies and medical regimens employed today. Charlie was a tireless investigator. His high altitude research on Mt. Logan from 1967 to 1979, the “Operation Everest” high altitude chamber studies in 1946 and 1985, and his founding of the International Hypoxia Symposia are just a few examples. He even tinkered, in the family basement, with the creation of an artificial heart.

In 2006 I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the midst of the surviving members of that iconic expedition to K2. Our purpose was to sustain Charlie’s work in high altitude medicine with the University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center, where an endowed chair was established in Charlie’s name. Mostly, however, we gathered to celebrate Charlie. As Streather, Bates, Craig, and Molenaar gathered around Charlie, I noticed that it was true what Charlie said: “We entered the mountains as strangers, but we left as brothers.”

—As remembered by Phil Powers