Image for - Brotherhood of the Rope: The Biography of Charles Houston

Brotherhood of the Rope: The Biography of Charles Houston

AuthorBernadette McDonald
Publisher Bāton Wicks
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateThursday, 19 November 2009
Rating 3.5 out of 5

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On 12 February 1962, the American physician and mountaineer Charles Houston was close to the edge of mental breakdown. ‘My life is filled with blackness so much of the time,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘my hopes are dashed so often, my dreams occupy a larger and larger segment of life – and are more and more devoid of realisation – that I begin to believe – almost – that I am sick.’ At 48 years old, he felt himself to be finished, burned up. Looking back at what he had achieved in the course of his life, Houston experienced profound disappointment. He feared, he wrote, becoming ‘one of the amiably dreaming failures so bitterly drawn in the New Yorker.’

Forty-one years later, I watched a room full of leading high-altitude physiology researchers in Canada in a state of near-reverence as Houston talked modestly about the landmark expeditions that have punctuated his life, and the research he conducted. He led two expeditions to K2, in 1938 and 1953, the latter famous for the dramatic attempted rescue of Art Gilkey, who developed a blood clot in his leg at Camp VIII and was immobilised. Rather than abandon him to save their own lives, as they would have been quite justified in doing given the circumstances, Houston and his six companions struggled to lower Gilkey to safety from 25,200ft. When George Bell slipped, most of the team were dragged off with him, to be held on a boot and ice axe belay by Pete Schoening in what was comfortably the fall-arrest of the century.

Houston was also a prime mover in the successful 1936 expedition to Nanda Devi, which put H W Tilman and Noel Odell on the summit. (It should have been Houston himself that joined Odell, until a contaminated tin of meat consumed at high camp ended his chances. Houston, whose manners are impeccable, served Odell first, from the top of the can, leaving the poisoned remainder for himself.) In 1950, he shared another exploratory expedition with Tilman as the first westerners to experience the Khumbu valley below Everest. Then there is the medical work, which is extensive. Houston was the first man to describe, in English at least, high-altitude pulmonary oedema. He developed an early working prototype of an artificial heart, designed and built in his cellar. Added to all that, in the 1960s he was director of the newly established Peace Corps in India, developing friendships with men like J K Galbraith, Bill Moyer, Robert MacNamara and Sargent Shriver.

Given the ocean of good fortune, opportunity and realised dreams on which Houston has charted the course of his life, the crippling self-doubt I’ve quoted is arresting. There is much to recommend in Bernadette McDonald’s biography of Charlie Houston, but her greatest success is in the near-forensic examination she makes of his mercurial personality. I can’t help wondering what that room of admiring physicians will make of his uncertainties and self-absorption, but as a portrait of a different kind of American hero, I found it fascinating.

I don’t know Houston, but I’ve met him on odd occasions. He is an attractive figure, a tad grouchy perhaps, but humorous too, managing that rare trick of matching a scalpel-sharp intellect with wry self-deprecation. When I met him that night in 2003, I was reminded of Tennyson’s Tithonus, ‘A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream / The ever-silent spaces of the East.’ Deep into old age, and in poor health, I admired the flickering interest he took in the women who fussed around him. The slow, quizzical smile still shone. But I wished I had a sense of him at the height of his powers.

This is what Macdonald provides us, a sharp image of a man born into considerable privilege, and reaching maturity in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, inoculated from that disaster by his father’s prospering legal practice. Oscar Houston had something of the thwarted explorer about him, and bankrolled his son’s mountain enthusiasms, developed during vacations in France. At Harvard he fell in with a group of ambitious young thrusters who would become known as the Harvard Five, and he joined some of them on his first exploratory expedition to Alaska’s Mount Crillon, led by the precocious Brad Washburn, already famous for his books and nipping around in a sports car on the proceeds.

Raised in the bosom of the establishment, Houston found himself almost overwhelmed by contradictions. He felt there was important work to be done as a doctor at the local level in the kinds of communities that built America. That Protestant sense of duty to society was part of his cultural inheritance. But he found the stage of humble service too small for that part of him that needed recognition as a man of ability and intellect. Houston struggled to conceal his distaste for the mediocre or unremarkable. Hardly surprising, then, that some colleagues weren’t displeased to see him move on.

In a way, the culture that bred him instilled in Houston the expectation of recognition and success, the effortless self-confidence of the American century. Only no one told him of all the contradictions and complexities that real life strews in your path. Having encountered the easy, nomadic fulfillment on offer in mountaineering, brilliantly realized by men like Tilman, Houston was loath to knuckle down to domestic regularity, but that was what his class expected of him – and what he expected of himself. He took family responsibilities seriously, sometimes a little too seriously. Perhaps that’s why the expeditions he did go on were fixed in his mind as near-mythical expressions of friendship and common purpose. The best of the world of men, he felt, could be found in such enterprises, and that is why he had to return. In mountain climbing he found a moral code by which he could make sense of the world.

The truth, which Macdonald unpeels with respectful care, is that Houston’s cosseted upbringing had left this sensitive man rather naïve and adrift in a world of random chance and venal instincts. He was startled and rather disgusted to discover oral sex well into his 20s and serving as a doctor in the navy. (His virtue is in startling contrast to a near-contemporary, also serving in the navy and ultimately much closer to Jack Kennedy’s Camelot than Houston, Gore Vidal.) And his self-confessed snobbery made him determined to keep his low-rent in-laws at arms’ length, not meeting them again after his wedding to Dorcas. At times, he even found himself isolated from her, gloomily reflecting on her lack of intellectual curiosity.

Houston wanted to find the world could meet his standards. In Khumbu, he was, as were his companions, moved by the apparently unchanging way of life, and the spiritual security offered by Tibetan Buddhism in an innocent land – ‘a dream place,’ Houston called it. But that was the truth they chose to concentrate on. In the background, unseen by the enchanted explorers, were centuries of struggle, bitter deprivation, exodus and suffering, along with the sense of community that so appealed to Houston. It was later, working for the Peace Corps, that he deepened his understanding of South Asia and absorbed the contradictions, admitting that the can-do American approach was rarely in tune with the culture in which he found himself. He seems to have become less demanding of himself and the world there.

If all this sounds rather negative, then don’t be put off. Macdonald shows us why Houston inspires such devotion in his friends. All that doubt and restlessness are the fuel that powers his curiosity and his compassion. After all, it’s hard to empathise, if you don’t taste failure. Deep into his 90s, his moral compass still reads true, he’s still engaged by the world, fuming as greed and corporatism undermine the foundations of the United States – as well as his beloved mountaineering.

The book doesn’t entirely succeed. McDonald has the disadvantage that so many of Houston’s mountain adventures have been recounted before in books that have become classics, like The Ascent of Nanda Devi and K2: The Savage Mountain. (Some of the fact checking is a little creaky too, getting the date of President Kennedy’s assassination wrong, for example, or ascribing a quotation to Bill Tilman that is actually Kipling.) Where the book really comes alive is in her close mapping of Houston’s interior landscapes, the mountains of his mind.

As an added and very welcome bonus, the publisher has tucked a DVD inside the back cover that contains footage of the 1938 and 1953 K2 expeditions with a commentary by the grand old man himself. And the book has another rare feature, an introduction by a famous man that adds more to the book than his name. Tom Hornbein, just as grand, not quite as old, encountered Houston for the first time on the lawn of the Indian embassy just after Hornbein had, with Willi Unsoeld, made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Everest in 1963.

‘As Dr Houston and I sat on the grass together chatting and sweating, I shared with him the tale of our climb. His clear pleasure with our accomplishment was seasoned with a wistful speculation about whether it could have been done without the use of supplemental oxygen. I tasted firsthand Charlie’s philosophy that mountains should be approached with simplicity and reverence. It was a lesson in humility that has stayed with me ever since.’

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