BURLINGTON, Vt. - Dr. Charles Houston, described by one mountain-climbing journal as a "luminary of 20 th century alpinism," has died at the age of 96. He was also known as a leading researcher in the human physiology of high altitude.
As well, Houston was remembered for his time in Aspen during the 1950s, when he practiced medicine and, in his spare time, built an experimental artificial heart, which he implanted in a dog.
The son of a mountaineering lawyer, Houston began climbing mountains in the Alps when he was 12. As an undergraduate at Harvard in 1934, he was part of the first group to climb Mount Foraker in Alaska. In 1936, he organized an expedition that put two men atop 25,645-foot Nanda Devi, a Himalayan peak that, until 1950, remained the highest peak ever climbed. He also climbed near the summit of Everest several years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay first got to the summit in 1950.
K2 was his greatest challenge - and nearly his death. Second only to Everest in height, it is by all accounts a far more dangerous mountain. In 1938, he was a member of the first American expedition on K-2.
He returned again in 1953 and led a team of eight climbers to within 3,000 feet of the summit when a severe summer storm forced them to stay put for two weeks. During that time, one of the climbers, Art Gilkey, developed phlebitis in his leg. As a doctor and a student of high altitudes, Houston realized that the clots would likely soon reach the climber's lungs if he was not lowered down the mountain. At great peril but without question, the other climbers began doing so.
That's when one of the climbers slipped down a perilously steep slope, pulling the other climbers - they were all roped together - with him. Only one managed to sink an ax deep into the ice.
But even after they had climbed back to safety, all was not well. They left the injured climber aside while they laboured with the task of setting up camp. That achieved, they discovered he was gone - swept away by an avalanche they decided. Years later, Houston decided Gilkey had chosen to push himself into the precipice rather than risk the lives of the others.
Houston later recounted the harrowing adventure in a book, K2: The Savage Peak. As for the ice ax, it's on display at the American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colo.
After his climbing ended, Houston devoted himself to human physiology at high elevations. Even during World War II, he had argued that pilots would benefit from acclimatization, giving fighter and bomber squadrons a tactical advantage when flying missions above 15,000 feet, higher than the German and Japanese pilots. In its obituary, the Washington Pos t credits Houston with helping tens of thousands of American pilots.