Charles Houston, 96

One of the great privileges of my life was hearing Dr. Charles Houston recount the greatest mountaineering story ever told.In 1953 he and seven companions, Art Gilkey, Bob Craig, George Bell, Dee Molenaar, Tony Streather, Bob Bates and Pete Schoening, set off up the then unclimbed peak K2 (28,253).

By Rock and Ice | February 2nd, 2010

One of the great privileges of my life was hearing Dr. Charles Houston recount the greatest mountaineering story ever told.

In 1953 he and seven companions, Art Gilkey, Bob Craig, George Bell, Dee Molenaar, Tony Streather, Bob Bates and Pete Schoening, set off up the then unclimbed peak K2 (28,253).

Reaching 25,500 feet, the little crew was nailed by a virulent storm. Five days later, Art Gilkey, 27, tried to stand up, and collapsed.

Houston, an internist and expedition co-leader, diagnosed altitude-induced blood clots in Gilkey’s legs, capable of deadly travel to his lungs. Despite the storm, Houston called for an immediate evacuation.

In an incredible example of courage against the odds, the embattled climbers wrapped Gilkey in a sleeping bag and tent, and tried to lower him down the mountain.

At 24,700 feet Bell slipped, pulling Streather down and through the rope between Houston and Bates, knocking them off a steep slope. As all slid distances of up to 80 or 100 feet toward a drop, Schoening alone, with a boot-axe belay, held their combined weight and that of the prone Gilkey.

Now near a lower platform, and having sustained injuries, the climbers anchored Gilkey on the slope, and set up two tents to regroup. When Craig and Streather returned to retrieve Gilkey, he had vanished, apparently taken in an avalanche.

We never considered leaving him, Houston said in his American Alpine Club slide show more than 20 years ago, adding that Gilkey never complained, always saying, Oh, I’m fine.

The last words of Houston’s show were: We all returned the very best of friends, and we remain the best of friends to this day.

Houston died September 27 in his home of Burlington, Vermont. He was a retired faculty member of the University of Vermont medical school, a graduate of Harvard University and the Columbia University medical school, and a pioneering researcher in the field of high-altitude physiology, in particular pulmonary edema and retinal hemorrhage. He founded the biannual International Hypoxia Symposium still held in Alberta, Canada. He was the first country director of the Peace Corps in India, and developed the Medical Peace Corps in Washington, D.C.

It was Houston who in later years raised the idea that Gilkey might have sacrificed himself, wiggling himself loose, as he told the interviewer Bill Moyers in 2004, to save the others. Craig, who helped set the ice-axe anchors, which were found lower on the mountain near a huge drop, says they had been 25 and 30 feet above Gilkey on the slope: too high, he felt, for the weakened Gilkey to reach. I think, he suggests of Houston’s idea, it gave him peace.

In 1934, while still a college student, Houston was part of the first ascent of Mount Foraker in Alaska. His team made the first ascent of Nanda Devi, in 1936, and in 1938, as expedition leader, he reached 26,000 feet on K2. In 1950 he was part of a team that forged the southern approach up Everest, completed three years later by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. After the devastating second expedition to K2, he never climbed another mountain.

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