Alpinist, Doctor Charles S. Houston Dies at 96

Charles S. Houston crosses a rope bridge on his way up the 28,251-foot Himalayan peak K2. He pioneered high-altitude medicine after a K2 tragedy.
Charles S. Houston crosses a rope bridge on his way up the 28,251-foot Himalayan peak K2. He pioneered high-altitude medicine after a K2 tragedy. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

Charles S. Houston, 96, who pioneered the field of high-altitude medicine after an expedition up the world's second-highest mountain claimed the life of a fellow mountaineer, died Sept. 27 at his home in Burlington, Vt. No cause of death was reported.

In 1953, Dr. Houston, an experienced alpinist, led a team of eight climbers almost to the top of the 28,251-foot Himalayan peak of K2. On its icy slopes just 3,000 feet below the summit, Dr. Houston and his party stalled after a blizzard set in and raged for two weeks. During the wait for better weather, geologist Art Gilkey developed phlebitis in a leg, resulting in such bad swelling that he was unable to continue.

Dr. Houston, who had begun studying high-altitude physiology, thought it likely that a fatal blood clot would reach his lungs. The healthy members of the team, knowing they faced an almost-impossible task of saving Gilkey, nonetheless wrapped him in his sleeping bag and tent and lowered him down the mountain, inch by inch.

But one man slipped, and the team, tied together, fell. Only because the youngest member of the party anchored his ice ax in time did they all avoid certain death. It took an hour for the climbers to recover their ground, but when they reached Gilkey's position, he was gone, presumably swept to his death by sliding snow.

Dr. Houston wrote movingly of Gilkey's life and death in "K2: The Savage Mountain" (1954), which has become a classic in mountaineering literature, and he carried guilt over the episode for many years thereafter.

As a result, Dr. Houston (pronounced HOW-stun) gave up mountaineering and devoted himself to the medical dangers faced by climbers. Four years later, while treating a sick skier in Aspen, Colo., Dr. Houston was the first to document high-altitude pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs, one of a complex of potentially fatal illnesses that beset alpinists.

A decade later, he was the first to identify high-altitude retinal hemorrhages, which were similar to a condition sometimes found in newborns. In 1975, he launched the Mountain Medicine Symposium, which became the International Hypoxia Symposium, the premier venue for high-altitude medical studies, in which he stayed involved almost to the end of his life.

He also helped found the medical branch of the Peace Corps after serving as the Peace Corps' first country director in India.

Charles Snead Houston was born in 1913 in New York and began climbing at age 12, first in the Alps and later in Alaska. He graduated from Harvard College and received a medical degree from Columbia University. While in medical school in 1936, he was the first to top the Nanda Devi in India, then the world's highest ascent. In 1938, he led another climbing party on a reconnaissance of K2, reaching 26,000 feet before time and food ran out.

"I felt that all my previous life had reached a climax in these last hours of intense struggle," he later wrote.

During World War II, Dr. Houston served in the Navy, doing research and training that helped tens of thousands of American pilots survive low-oxygen conditions to fly above German and Japanese fighters. In 1947, he directed a 34-day study known as "Operation Everest," which proved that men could gradually adjust to work in situations of low oxygen. He also was the principal investigator in 1985 when the study was updated.

"One of his closest friends was [former Defense Secretary] Bob McNamara, and before his death, he said Charlie's work changed military strategy, as well as medicine, forever," said broadcaster Bill Moyers, who was a friend of Dr. Houston's since recruiting him to the Peace Corps. "His work in the high-altitude field, I think, will stand as a tribute to him for all time to come."

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