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Charles Snead Houston

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Charles Snead Houston August 24, 1913 – September 27, 2009 was an American physician, mountaineer, high-altitude investigator, inventor, author, film-maker, and former Peace Corps administrator He made two important and celebrated attempts to climb the mountain K2 in the Karakoram Range


  • 1 Early life and education
  • 2 Mountaineering
  • 3 Medical practice and teaching
  • 4 Medical research
  • 5 Peace Corps service
  • 6 Works by Charles S Houston
  • 7 References
  • 8 External links
  • 9 Notes

Early life and education

Houston was born in New York in 1913 and grew up in Great Neck on Long Island He was educated at The Hotchkiss School and Harvard University, and he earned a Doctor of Medicine from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons


Houston began climbing in the Alps with his big brother where they met Scottish mountaineer T Graham Brown He then gained experience on several expeditions to Canada and America making the second ascent of Mount Foraker in 1934, with T Graham Brown and Chychele Waterston In 1936, Houston was a member of the British–American Himalayan Expedition led by the British climber HW Tilman to the top of Nanda Devi in India, the highest mountain climbed at that time In 1938, he was the leader of the first American Karakoram expedition to K2 Although he did not reach the summit, his party mapped a route to the top that was later used by the Italian team that first summited the mountain in 1954 In 1950 Houston and Tilman led a trekking expedition to the Khumbu Glacier, just west of Mount Everest They were the first Westerners to get there and amongst the first mountaineers to be allowed into Nepal They examined the Khumbu Icefall to see whether it provided a means of climbing Everest and were the first observers of the higher parts of Everest from Khumbu - the route subsequently taken by Sir Edmund Hillary in Everest's first successful ascent

He attempted K2 again in 1953 see Third American Karakoram Expedition A member of the team, Art Gilkey, became ill probably with thrombophlebitis as they approached the summit The team reversed direction and tried to carry Gilkey down However, he was lost in a disastrous cascade of events precipitated by a fall where upon multiple ropes became entangled, resulting in most of the team sliding out of control roped together down the mountain When the last roped man, Pete Schoening, was about to be plucked off by the accelerating climbers, he was remarkably able to arrest the fall of all six climbers using an ice axe belay "The Belay" was one of the most famous events in mountaineering history

After the 1953 K2 expedition, Houston then age 40 never participated on any further technical climbs

Medical practice and teaching

Houston practiced internal medicine in Exeter, New Hampshire and Aspen, Colorado Later, he joined the faculty at the University of Vermont as Professor of Medicine He retired from the faculty in 1979

Medical research

Houston began his study of the effects of high altitude as a naval flight surgeon in World War II He was in charge of Operation Everest 1947 in which four subjects were taken to a simulated altitude of 8850 m over 34 days in a compression chamber These studies demonstrated that careful acclimatization would allow pilots to fly unpressurized planes to altitudes of 15,000 feet and higher This capacity afforded the US Army Air Force an important tactical advantage

He was among the first to study High Altitude Pulmonary Edema 1958, and High Altitude Retinal Hemorrhage 1968 He authored numerous books and articles about mountain medicine Starting in 1975, he organized the International Hypoxia Symposia in the Canadian Rockies

In 1996 he was awarded the King Albert Medal of Merit to honor his "singular achievements" in the mountain world

Houston was also involved with early attempts to construct an artificial heart Although not successful, his design was influential in later developments, including the Jarvik-7 model that was used with some success

Peace Corps service

From 1962 to 1965, Houston served as the first Country Director of the Peace Corps for India During his tenure, the volunteers in India grew from 6 to 250 He was instrumental in developing a doctors' division within the Corps

Works by Charles S Houston

Robert H Bates; Charles S Houston 1939 Five Miles High New York, NY: The Lyons Press 

Charles S Houston; Robert H Bates 1954 K2, The Savage Mountain New York, NY: The Lyons Press 

Charles S Houston 1980 Going high, the story of man and altitude American Alpine Club 

Charles S Houston 1982 High Altitude Physiology Study: Collected Papers Arctic Institute of North America 

John R Sutton, Charles S Houston, Geoffrey Coates eds 1987 Hypoxia and cold New York: Praeger CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list link CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list link

Charles Houston 1993 High altitude: illness and wellness Merrillville, IN: ICS Books 

Charles Houston 2005 Going Higher: Oxygen Man and Mountains 5th ed Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers Books 


Bernadette McDonald 2007 Brotherhood of the Rope: The biography of Charles Houston Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers Books 

External links

  • Charles Houston Papers MSS 716 Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library
  • Dr Charles Houston - Daily Telegraph obituary
  • Doctor Charles Houston Independent obituary, 1 October 2009


  1. ^ "Doctor, climber Houston dies at 96" Burlington free Press 2009-09-30 
  2. ^ Borneman, Walter R 2003 Alaska : saga of a bold land 1st ed New York, NY: HarperCollins p 322 ISBN 0-06-050306-8 
  3. ^ Isserman, Maurice; Weaver, Stewart 2008 Fallen Giants : A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes 1 ed New Haven: Yale University Press pp 254–261 ISBN 9780300115017 
  4. ^ "Schoening Ice Axe" Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum 
  5. ^ Rowell, Galen 1977 In The Throne Room of the Mountain Gods San Francisco: Sierra Club Books pp 226–234 ISBN 0-87156-184-0 

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