Brotherhood of the Rope: the Biography of Charlie Houston

Publication Year: 2008.

Brotherhood of the Rope: the Biography of Charlie Houston. Bernadette McDonald. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2007. Hardcover $34.95; paperback $18.95.

Most contemporary climbers know the name Charles Houston, but many aren’t sure where or when they’ve heard it, and fewer still can recall his achievements. Until you bring up K2—high and wild K2. K2 was the scene of one of the most remarkable mountaineering tales of all time: that of the 1953 American K2 expedition and the dramatic fall while the team of climbers was lowering Art Gilkey.

Having grown up in Los Alamos, where George Bell lived for much of his life, I was very aware of the significance on the 1953 expedition from my early high school years, and in the early 1980s, borrowed Savage Mountain from a friend’s father, Eiichi Fukushima, himself part of the Mount Vinson first ascent team.

The 1953 trip was the epitome of friendship—a group of friends, some quite new to each other, deciding to evacuate another of the brethren from a dangerous mountain together, as a team, and possibly the most cohesive team of climbers that has ever existed. Savage Mountain is a good entré into the lives of a remarkable group of American mountaineers whose important climbing activities spanned many years, but in Brotherhood of the Rope: the Biography of Charlie Houston, Bernadette McDonald has given us the long view of perhaps one of the more significant members of that 1953 brotherhood: Charlie Houston.

Brought up in a setting of wealth and privilege, Houston stands out not so much for what he accomplished, but for how he did it—with grace and humility and diplomacy, and a continual questioning of his own self-worth and achievements. Indeed, McDonald so focuses on Houston’s insecurities that a non-climber-type reader might think he was some kind of insecure neurotic. To me, his story is remarkably like the stories of all climbers—the insecure- while-bold, navel-staring, ponderous bunch that climbers are.

But the story’s a good one, and it overshadows McDonald’s apparent qualms about Houston’s personality. After an apprenticeship in the Alps, he joined Brad Washburn’s expedition to then-unclimbed Mt. Crillon in southern Alaska in 1933. It was with Washburn, Bob Bates, Ad Carter, and Terris Moore that Houston became part of the legendary Harvard Five, a group of 1930s mountaineers whose climbing adventures would span the globe and several decades. Although they were unsuccessful on Crillon, Houston learned a great deal from Washburn, a true master of Alaskan expeditioneering.

“...Charlie learned from Washburn the critical importance of sound leadership,” McDonald notes. “Potential for a power struggle existed between the two, since both had strong personalities. Washburn recalled a small misunderstanding over some routefinding when he had to struggle to retain control of the situation. Despite the disagreement, Washburn contended that Charlie was the strongest climber in the group—much stronger than Bates. But Charlie insisted that he took a subservient role on Crillon, absorbing what he could from Washburn.”

The following year, Charlie’s father Oscar—something of an adventurer himself—suggested an attempt on Foraker, the fourth highest mountain on the continent, and one that “had not yet been mapped; few people had been near it, and none had described it.” Yet somehow Oscar had procured a sketch of the mountain. Charlie took what he’d learned on Crillon, and, with T. Graham Brown, Charles Storey, Chychele Waterston, Carl Anderson, and Oscar headed to the Yukon, where they climbed Foraker. Although Washburn, who was not invited, returned and climbed Crillon that year, he and Houston would never climb together again.

In 1936 Houston and several American youngsters joined forces with a handful of famed British mountaineers, including Noel Odell, Bill Tillman, Peter Lloyd, and T. Graham Brown, to climb Nanda Devi, the highest peak that would be climbed until Annapurna, in 1950. Although Houston and Odell managed to establish a high camp at 25,000 feet, Houston ate contaminated meat, and had to descend the next day. Tillman and Odell continued to the summit.

Houston’s next major climb was his almost-as-famous 1938 attempt on K2, with Bob Bates, Dick Burdsall, Paul Petzoldt, Bill House, and Briton Norman Streatfield, in which Houston and Petzoldt reached 26,000 feet. The failure was not entirely without achievement, as the climbers cracked the nut on a route that would, ultimately, become the standard route on the peak.

The 1953 expedition is also documented in detail, but thankfully does not distract from Houston and Bates’ own book on the subject (K2: The Savage Mountain), nor from the other sections of Houston’s life that are so well documented in Brotherhood.

Most readers will be interested in the other important aspect of Houston’s life: his research into altitude’s effects on the human body. Beginning early in his career, in WWII, Houston played a leading role in researching how oxygen and lack of it affected pilots, and then mountaineers, and pretty much anyone else whose life required them to get high.

In 1967 Houston got involved with the high-altitude physiology study (HAPS) on the upper slopes of Canada’s Mt. Logan, an ongoing series of summer experiments that would last until 1979. By 1975 Houston and his research team had identified and described acute mountain sickness (AMS), pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, and retinal involvement, four of the basic conditions considered standard for high-altitude mountaineers to know today.

“He always backed [his observations] up with research,” McDonald writes. “He offered up countless examples of preventative and coping measures for the debilitating effects of HAPE. His findings were used by climbers around the world, particularly those going to the highest range—the Himalaya. They changed the way climbers planned their acclimatization programs and how they treated and reacted to the early symptoms of high-altitude sickness. His research firmly established Houston as one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject—he undoubtedly saved lives in the mountains.”

His devotion to altitude research was a theme throughout, and, eventually, in 1980, Houston started work on Going Higher, a groundbreaking book that brought together medicine and altitude in a carefully woven balance. Self-published, it wildly outsold his expectations, has become the standard resource on the subject, and is currently in its fourth edition.

Houston was also an advocate for drug rehabilitation programs, and for community and family medicine, His devotion to his family is well-documented in this biotome. In Brotherhood, readers will find a treasure of American mountaineering’s most famous ascents, stories, characters, and periods, all told from the perspective of one of American mountaineering’s most noble sons.

Cameron M. Burns