RICHARD C. HOUSTON
A phrase used by Dick Houston over his many years climbing and trekking points to the essence of the man. It would be under adverse conditions—say, three-fog-bound in a two-man mountain tent with hostile elements closing in. At the very moment when despair seemed to be gaining the upper hand, invariably Dick would counter with a lusty bellow. “This group is having fun!”
Teacher, climber, runner, friend. Even the most casual association would lead a perceptive man or woman to guess that his profession was teaching. Graduate of the University of California with a Master’s Degree from San Francisco State University, Dick taught high school science in San Francisco for 32 years, the last 18 as science-department chairman.
He was drawn to Yosemite’s granite in his late teens through the influence of the Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section, by then the dominant organization of rockcraft on the West Coast. But World War II intervened. As a navigator in the Army Air Force, Dick flew many combat missions over Germany, strengthening a bond with fellow Air Force officers, Robin Hansen and Fritz Lippmann, two who had been at the cutting edge among the Yosemite climbers before their enlistment.
After the war Dick resumed climbing with the RCS, often in exploratory probes of Yosemite’s uncharted walls. Perhaps Hansen best summarized those years in his words at the Houston Memorial gathering. “Dick, together with the climbers of his era, provided experience that enabled the next generation to improve equipment, climbing techniques, and to set their sights on ever more difficult climbs as those who went before him gave him a shoulder-stand.”
In 1947 he joined an RCS expedition to the Mount Waddington region, accomplishing new ascents on various summits surrounding the Upper Tellot Glacier. Three years later he returned, a member of the summit team on a first ascent of the Southeast Chimney, third for Waddington itself, and sharing in the many first ascents made on satellite peaks ringing the Tiedemann. After a warmup ascent of Robson in 1953, expedition climbing for Dick culminated the next year in a first attempt of Makalu where he was regularly among those thrusting higher on the mountain. In later years Dick’s mountain interest shifted toward climbing treks, with a focus on the Bella Coola region of British Columbia where in the late 50s and early 60s he joined friends on a number of ventures, pioneering new routes and making occasional first ascents. His last big climb was Kilimanjaro in 1972, although he continued treks in the Sierra Nevada with family and friends for several more years.
Dick served several terms on the executive committee for the parent chapter of the Sierra Club as well as on that club’s mountaineering committee. An AAC member since 1948, he was the first chairman of the newly formed Sierra Nevada Section in 1956 and also was Acting Editor of the American Alpine Journal that year.
With a lifelong interest in track and field, he blossomed as a serious distance runner, completing a Boston Marathon at age 54 on the hottest Patriot’s Day on record; shortly thereafter, he knew he was afflicted with cancer and underwent surgery. Yet within months Dick was again in training, often with his wife Lola, daughter Cheryl, or son Jeff. Soon he was running marathons and longer distance races, later setting national records for his age group. He kept it up until his last year.
A gentle, unpretentious man has passed, one who cared for mountains as he cared for people and who had the rare capacity to make the rest of us smile when winds blew ill.
William W. Dunmire