I meant to post something on this a few days back, but didn’t have the chance, but felt it is too important to not mention. On Sunday, the mountaineering community lost a true legend, as Dr. Charlie Houston passed away at the age of 96. He was instrumental in some of the early climbs in the Himalaya by American teams, and did some ground breaking research on the effects of altitude as well.
Back in 1936, Houston was a member of the first team to climb Nanda Devi in India. At the time, it was the tallest mountain in the world that had been summitted. In 1938, he went to the Karakorum to make an attempt on K2, and while that team did not reach the summit, they did map out the route that would eventually be used by the Italian team in 1954.
In 1953, he returned to K2 to give it another go, but he and the rest of the team turned back below the summit when team member Art Gilkey became ill. The expedition took a turn for the worse while they were descending, and Gilkey ended up going over the side and falling to his death. The other six members of the team nearly followed but, Pete Schoening arrested their fall with a single ice axe in what has become known in mountaineering circles as “The Belay”.
Houston would go on to chronicle their ordeal, along with Robert Bates and Jim Wickwire, in the mountaineering classic K2: The Savage Mountain. He would also write a number of other books on mountaineering and the effects of altitude on the body. His own story was told in the wonderful Brotherhood of the Rope as well.
But Houston’s legacy doesn’t end there. Besides being a doctor, mountaineer, and respected writer, he was also a film maker and the one time head of the Peace Corps. His research into high altitude medicine may be his lasting legacy however, as he was amongst the first to study its effects and was a leading expert in the field.
Few men have lived a life as rich and full as Charlie Houston. He had adventures around the globe and gave back in so many ways. He was an amazing man, and he truly lived every one of those 96 years. So long Charlie! We’ll miss you!
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