William P. House, 1913-1997

Publication Year: 1998.


1913 - 1997

Bill House grew up in Pittsburgh, attended Choate, and went on to Yale, where he became an outstanding leader of the Yale Mountaineering Club. He made some difficult local ascents and, in 1932, with Alan Willcox, made the second ascent of the Pinnacle Gully on Mt. Washington, an ice climb often regarded as the most difficult climb in the White Mountains. Two years later, he and Betty Woolsey made a new route up Jagged Mountain (13,836'), then considered by the AAJ to be “the most difficult peak yet ascended in the Colorado Rockies.” This led to a trip with Betty Woolsey and Fritz Wiessner to Mt. Waddington in British Columbia. The mountain had turned back 16 previous expeditions, but Bill and Fritz climbed it. Their success also gained them permission to climb Devil’s Tower, the great Wyoming monadnock, where they made the first regular ascent.

Bill by now had graduated from Yale and the Yale Forestry School, and had landed a job with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. In 1936-37, jobs were scarce.

Charlie Houston (leader), Dick Burdsall and I met Bill at the American Alpine Club in New York and asked him to come on the First American Karakoram Expedition to K2 with us. This meant nearly a six-month commitment of his time: a month to get to India, a month to trek 350 miles in to the mountain, six weeks on the mountain and the same to return, with a little time for emergencies. He gave up his job and was told never to return.

Bill was a magnificent companion on the expedition. He solved the major problem on K2’s Abruzzi Ridge by leading a route up a break in a great reddish rock buttress, now known in mountain circles as the House Chimney. The expedition went 4,000 feet higher on K2 than anyone had climbed before, but it did not reach the summit. Bill’s climb of the House Chimney has been called by Messner and other major climbers to be the finest climb done at very high altitude before World War II.

In the fall of 1938, New England was struck by a tremendous hurricane that devastated miles of forests. Though Bill had been fired for leaving his job to go on the expedition, on his return he was eagerly welcomed back, and some years later became president of the society.

All his life, Bill was known for his honesty and sound judgment. He loved forestry but, like everyone else his age in 1941, he plunged into Army work, developing clothing and equipment at the Quartermaster General’s Office for the 10th Mountain Division and other troops. The development of nylon climbing rope was one of his successes.

At the end of the wa,r he married Elaine Johnson, beginning a very happy marriage in the house they built in Chesham, New Hampshire, with its grand views of Mt. Monadnock. He died peacefully.

Robert H. Bates