American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Oscar R. Houston, 1883-1969

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1970

OSCAR R. HOUSTON 1883-1969

On December 19, 1970, The American Alpine Club lost one of its older and most distinguished members with the death of Oscar Houston. Though a lifelong outdoorsman and conservationist, and a famous fisherman, he did not begin serious climbing until middle age, when he had already become internationally known as a maritime lawyer. Prior to this time he had moved from Logan, Ohio, where he was born in 1883, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia, and become editor of the Law Review at Columbia. His brilliant law career continued as a partner of Bigham, Englar, Jones and Houston, where he was principal counsel for cargo interests in the maritime disasters of the Titanic, Lusitania, Morro Castle, Normandie and Andrea Doria. He served both as president of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and the International Law Association, and for many years headed the Adirondack League Club.

Oscar Houston married Nelly S. MacDonald in 1912. Their three children are Barbara (Mrs. Grose), Janet (Mrs. Beal) and Dr. Charles S. Houston, whose mountaineering record is internationally known. Father and son shared a love for mountaineering, and many expeditions were proposed, assembled and sent off from their hospitable home in Great Neck, Long Island.

Oscar Houston contributed to American mountaineering in many ways. He encouraged young climbers, helped to develop and support climbing, and with his son organized the party that in 1934 made the first ascent of Mount Foraker in Mount McKinley National Park. In 1937 he led an expedition to Mount Hayes in the Alaska Range. Even more important to climbers, however, was his part in bringing about the successful ascent of Mount Everest, for in 1950, when he was 68 years old, he somehow (even his son doesn’t know how) broke the political barrier that prevented climbers from entering Nepal, and he, his son, H. W. Tilman, Anderson Bakewell and Mrs. Elizabeth Cowles penetrated to Thangboche Lamasery. Charles Houston and Tilman a day later reached a point where they could see into the Khumbu Icefall, and so discovered the potential for the only route by which Everest has yet been climbed. Oscar Houston’s imagination and resourcefulness were clearly responsible for the disclosure of the Khumbu route. And so at the age of 68 he changed the world of mountaineering!

Had he not been so modest, at the end of his life this admirable fellow member of ours could have quoted from Ulysses,

Much have I seen and known – cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least – but honored of them all –

Robert H. Bates

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