Survivors of fabled K2 expedition reunite
DENVER – It was a bold enterprise.
Dr. Charles Houston and eight others went to the Himalayas in 1953 to climb K2, a mountain many consider far more treacherous than Mount Everest.
They never reached the summit, but the journey – lashed by a savage 10-day storm and crippled when one member died – became legend.
It led the climbers to write “K2: The Savage Mountain,” required reading today in climbing circles.
The five remaining survivors of the 1953 expedition reunited this weekend in Aurora for a fete honoring 93-year-old Houston, a mountaineer with ties to Aspen, best-selling author and the physician widely considered “father of modern altitude medicine.”
The University of Colorado’s Altitude Research Center planned to award Houston an honorary degree Friday during the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s commencement.
“I have spent most of my life practicing medicine and have always considered myself a physician first and foremost,” Houston said. “But the mountaineering gets the most attention.”
A symposium Saturday at the Fitzsimons campus honoring Houston featured U.S. Rep. Mark Udall and Dr. William Foege, a noted epidemiologist who played a key role in eradicating smallpox.
“Our core mission is to understand how the body functions in low-oxygen situations, not just at high altitude,” said Robert Roach, the research center’s associate director.
“That was really the big idea that Charlie has been pushing forward for decades,” he said.
Houston’s fascination with how the body responds in low-oxygen situations can be traced to his days as a Navy flight surgeon in World War II.
Questions about how high pilots could fly without supplemental oxygen led Houston and a colleague to establish Operation Everest.
During those experiments, Navy volunteers spent several weeks in a high-altitude chamber, gradually ascending to a simulated altitude equal to the mountain’s summit.
Houston’s career has led him to two extended stays in Colorado, where he founded the Colorado Altitude Research Institute in Keystone.
In 1957, Houston moved his family to Aspen to set up a health promotion plan.
It was there that Houston got the call one New Year’s Eve that a skier had become stranded – an event that would result in one of altitude medicine’s most significant discoveries. Houston was part of the team that rescued the skier, who was coughing and choking when found at about 9,000 feet.
Once put under an oxygen tent back in town, his condition improved.
“I thought he had pneumonia, but it became very clear after 24 hours it was something else,” Houston said.
Houston suspected the illness was altitude-induced, and in 1960 he published the first English account of high-altitude pulmonary edema, a life-threatening lung condition.
While pulmonary edema is a risk to mountain climbers, colleagues say Houston’s work is vital to understanding altitude sickness, which affects about 25 percent of Colorado visitors.
“When you look at acute altitude illness, the thing that needs to be emphasized is that millions of people come to Colorado each year for ski vacations, fly into Denver and head off to Summit County,” said Tom Hornbein, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“It’s not a trivial thing when they get sick and end up skipping a meal at a nice restaurant or don’t buy a lift ticket,” Hornbein said.
Houston also worked on one of the first models of the artificial heart.
While travel can be difficult for Houston, who is now almost blind and living in Vermont, he said he is looking forward to the reunion with his old friends and colleagues.
“I’ll be there if they have to bring me in a body bag,” Houston said.
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