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Charles Houston, 96; climber led, learned from K-2 trip

CHARLES HOUSTON CHARLES HOUSTON
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / October 3, 2009

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NEW YORK - Dr. Charles S. Houston, who, motivated by what he called “the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience,’’ led a legendary but unsuccessful Himalayan expedition and did trailblazing research on high-altitude medicine, died Sunday in Burlington, Vt. He was 96.

In 1953, Dr. Houston led a team of eight to within 3,000 feet of the 28,251-foot summit of K-2, the second-highest mountain in the world. They expected to reach the top in two or three days.

Instead, the climbers experienced what became a famous series of harrowing events. Their heroic response came to exemplify how utterly self-sacrificing a team of mountaineers can be. Dr. Houston called it “the brotherhood of the rope.’’

As a result of the high altitude, a team member developed clotting in his veins and faced death if a clot reached his lungs. The other team members knew they faced grave danger if they tried to carry him to safety, but they did not hesitate.

Connected by rope, six of them inched downward. Suddenly, five tumbled down a precipitous slope. The sixth clung to a wall of ice with an ax and used the rope to stop their fall after 300 feet, holding on for more than an hour as they worked their way to safety.

The injured man, wrapped in a sleeping bag and tent, was also saved. He was anchored to the slope while the others set up a camp nearby. But when they returned, he was gone. Most assumed he was swept away by an avalanche. But as years passed, Dr. Houston came to believe he had committed suicide to spare compatriots further risk.

In 1936, Dr. Houston was part of the trek to the summit of 25,645-foot Nanda Devi in India, the highest mountain then climbed. In 1938, as a member of the first American expedition on K-2, he had come even closer to the summit than he did in 1953. In 1950, he was with a group that climbed the south face of Everest, blazing the trail used by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to its summit three years later.

After the 1953 K-2 climb, however, Dr. Houston never again climbed a mountain. His son Robin said that he was consumed with guilt over the death of his companion and that he did not think it fair to his family to take big risks again.

But Dr. Houston found other challenges. He became a leader in the study of human physiology at high altitudes, developing new understandings of how the body functions with reduced oxygen. In particular, he was among the first to study retinal bleeding at high altitudes.

In 1975, he started the International Hypoxia Symposium, which meets every two years in Alberta, Canada, and attracts scientists from all over the world. From 1962 to 1965, he was the first Peace Corps country director for India. He helped create a doctors division within the Peace Corps.

Charles Snead Houston was born in Manhattan and grew up in Great Neck, N.Y.

His son said that Dr. Houston’s father, Oscar, liked walking in the mountains, but was not a technically skilled alpinist. An admiralty lawyer, the elder Houston financed his son’s expeditions, often accompanying him as far as base camp.

The family loved to travel, and Dr. Houston first climbed mountains in the Alps when he was 12. While a Harvard undergraduate in 1934, he was part of the first group to climb Mount Foraker in Alaska.

After graduating from Harvard with a degree in biochemistry, he earned his medical degree in 1939 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

Dr. Houston began his study of the effects of altitude as a US Navy flight surgeon in World War II. In 1946, he led Operation Everest, a study for the Navy that used a chamber simulating high altitudes to show that humans could gradually acclimatize themselves to survive in the reduced oxygen of the highest point on earth. Nearly 40 years later, his Operation Everest II study produced 45 papers to expand that work.

Dr. Houston practiced general internal medicine in Exeter, N.H.; Aspen, Colo.; and Burlington, Vt. He wrote nearly 100 papers about high-altitude medicine, books that included tales of his alpine adventures, and repeated editions of “Going Higher: Oxygen, Man and Mountains,’’ a standard work on the subject.

An Italian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, who made the first solo ascents of Everest with no oxygen and is often cited as the greatest mountain climber of all time, said that he admired Dr. Houston’s doomed 1953 expedition.

“They were decent,’’ he said. “They were strong. And they failed in the most beautiful way you can imagine.’’