K2 hero Charles Houston dies aged 96

Charles Houston has died at the age of 96. He was a leader of 2 expeditions to K2 before it was climbed in 1954 by an Italian expedition.

His first attempt on K2 was in 1938 as the leader of the first American expedition on the mountain. The party reached 7925m after setting up 8 camps. There was a shortage of supplies which contributed to the failure of the expedition to climb the mountain.

The route that his party mapped in 1938 became the one that was used when the Italians climbed the mountain in 1954. This is the route up the Abruzzi Ridge. They decided that this route was the ones that they looked at that could be climbed. It is still commonly used today.

Charles Houston is best known amongst mountaineers for the heroics of the 1953 expedition, which he led, to K2. This party once again attempted to climb the Abruzzi Ridge. However, they reached about 7800m before there was a blizzard that went for quite a few days. Art Gilkey developed what looked like thrombophlebitis. He was dangerously ill, yet none of the group abandoned Gilkey.

The attempted rescue of Gilkey by the members of this expedition, including Charles Houston, has became the stuff of legend. They decided to descend despite the bad weather because Gilkey’s condition looked so bad. Gilkey had to be lowered on a makeshift stretcher.

At one point a climber fell on a steep icy part of the Ridge and the rope tangled around the other climbers pulling all of them hurtling down the mountain. Pete Shoening stopped the fall of all of them by plunging his ice axe between rocks. Unfortunately Art Gilkey died later after possible an avalanche loosened the ice axes holding him in place when they were resting.

After this Charles Houston quit climbing because it taught him how dangerous it could be.

“I quit after the accident because I didn’t want to leave my wife and three children without me.”

Houston was also a doctor. He was well regarded in his knowledge of high altitude sickness.

The 1953 expedition led by Charles Houston is one of the most admired of all expeditions because of their bravery and sacrifice.


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