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Transcript:

October 9, 2009


BILL MOYERS:
I lost a great friend last week, and the world lost a great character. When Charlie Houston died at 96, newspapers took note as far and wide as the INDEPENDENT and the GUARDIAN in Britain, the NEW YORK TIMES and WASHINGTON POST, and the FREE PRESS in Burlington, Vermont, where he lived for more than half his life.

All of them hailed him for his exploits climbing towering mountains, and as a foremost authority on high altitude medicine. They noted his early work on the artificial heart, his game-changing role in World War II, his devotion to teaching medical students.

I remember him for saving my life in India a long time ago when both of us were in the Peace Corps. I remember him for his love of books and phone calls and long conversations, and for his wrestling to make sense of the world's beauty and cruelty - those painful paradoxes he couldn't explain or forget, but which he never let defeat him. Five years ago, as he turned 91, I called on him at his place overlooking Lake Champlain. Here is part of our conversation: What drew you to climbing?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: It's a beautiful thing to do. You're surrounded by beauty. No matter whether it's a storm, or a sunny day, or clouds, or not, the mountains are simply beautiful. I've never been a great climber. I'm just a competent climber and I know my limits. But I love getting out and doing it.

BILL MOYERS:
And he's been doing it since he was twelve years old. On a trip to the Alps with his adventuresome parents, he begged to climb a small peak.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: I was sick the whole time. I was scared to death. Came back and I said, "Oh, I've got to do this."

BILL MOYERS:
You were scared, but...

CHARLIE HOUSTON: But that's when I started climbing.

BILL MOYERS:
Although you were scared to death, you wanted to climb?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: I was very scared.

BILL MOYERS:
While an undergraduate at Harvard he was exploring the Alaska range, including, in 1934, the knife-edge ridges and steep steps of Mount Foraker. Why did you want to go higher and higher?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Oh, that's a hard question. I suppose it wasn't so much the matter of going higher and higher as it was going where nobody had gone before.

BILL MOYERS:
In 1936, after one year in Columbia Medical School, he and three friends mounted an expedition to Nanda Devi in northern India. At 26,660 feet, it was the highest summit ever climbed at the time. You didn't make it to the summit. What happened?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: We went up and we came probably within 300 feet. Got late in the day. It was rather difficult climbing. We knew we could do it the next day, easily. We went back to our tent, opened up a tin of corned beef hash to celebrate. I gave the top of the tin to Odell. I took the bottom. It was a punctured tin. The food was poisoned. And about two hours or an hour later, I was so sick I hoped I would die. I crawled out of the tent, apologizing to Odell every half hour, standing on those tiny platforms vomiting, having diarrhea. Just thinking, "This is the absolute end. It couldn't be any worse." No. I was glad to get off the mountain.

BILL MOYERS:
You call that a holiday?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: It was a holiday. Absolute holiday. You have to have a sense of humor. Almost the most important thing is sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh. Especially at yourself. And I always when I found somebody who couldn't laugh at himself, didn't have a sense of humor, didn't take them. I think that's very important. We did not look for stars. We never took superstars. Superstars are temperamental. They want to be the winner. And we wanted a team.

BILL MOYERS:
Just two years later in 1938, Charlie would put together a team for one of the biggest challenges in mountaineering. He and his friend Bob Bates were asked by the American Alpine Club to see if they could find a way up the world's second highest mountain, K2 - the "great mountain," as the Chinese called it - five miles high, and more perilous to climb than Mount Everest. Again, just getting to the jumping-off place required endless grit and gumption, this time during a trek of 350 miles.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: We came to the first rope bridges, so-called rope bridges, a euphemism for twisted vines and twigs and branches.

BILL MOYERS:
Below those rope bridges, slippery rocks. Icy waters. I mean, what would have happened if the bridge had--

CHARLIE HOUSTON: You're dead. You're dead. It's ice water. Fast water. You're gone. Rope bridges make Christians out of mountaineers.

BILL MOYERS:
They set new records, going higher on K2 than anyone before them and finding a ridge from which an assault on the summit seemed feasible.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: And we kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. We got higher and higher. When we got up to a little over 25 thousand feet, we were in good shape, well-acclimatized. But, believe it or not, we ran out of matches.

BILL MOYERS:
Matches?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Can't believe it. We ran out of matches. And without matches, you can't make a stove. And without a stove, you can't make water. And without water, you don't live very long. And in those days, you didn't push the envelope the way they do now. The weather was turning bad. We had a ring around the sun. And a storm was coming. So, having found the way up, and getting within a few thousand feet of the summit, we said, "Mission successful." And turned around and went home.

And we celebrated with a little bit of the Hudson Bay Demerara rum and as we started back on the 350-mile walk to Kashmir, we looked at those glorious mountains and I think most of us knew in our hearts that we would be coming back there again.

BILL MOYERS:
Reaching those heights as both a climber and doctor, Charlie learned a lot about how the body reacts in thin air. It couldn't have been more timely, because America soon found itself at war. In 1941 he volunteered for the Navy and became a flight surgeon. Aircraft cabins weren't pressurized in those days, but Charlie had a hunch that with special training, pilots could be acclimatized to fly higher than was thought possible. His landmark Operation Everest research climaxed the training of over 50 thousand pilots and air crew in high altitude flying.

ANNOUNCER: The attack was made at a height of something of 20,000 or 30,000 feet. And the clear weather allowed the camera to get conclusive evidence at the time of the plastering of the target.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: We proved that acclimatization would add 5 thousand feet to the altitude ceiling of a pilot breathing oxygen. That was a great project. Great project.

BILL MOYERS:
When the war was over, Charlie returned to his private practice but his mind was still on the mountains, and in 1953 Charlie and Bob Bates returned to K2 with a new team. Little did they know at the time, but they would be recording one of the most gripping sagas in the annals of mountaineering, a story of survival on what became the Savage Mountain.

BILL MOYERS:
I looked at the footage you took of that 1953 expedition. The avalanches that kept thundering down around you. The knife edge of ice and snow along which you made your way. The bits of stone that came tumbling down. The ice blowing down the mountain all the time. The wind lifting the fragile little tents you have. I cannot imagine what goes through a man's mind under those elements and against those circumstances.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: I can't say it's fun. We struggled. It's cold. And you're uncomfortable. And, you're always hungry and you're always thirsty. And there are all kinds of problems. But there is that overwhelming sense of being engaged in a great adventure with some good people.

BILL MOYERS:
No obstacle was more forbidding than House's Chimney.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: House's Chimney is a narrow crack about two feet wide at the top. And about eight, ten feet wide at the bottom. It goes up this black wall. And it tapers up like that. And you have to get into that chimney. And first, you put your back on one side, and your feet on the other where it's wide. And then you push up and get to where it's more narrow. Then you can do it with your arms and then, finally, you just climb on the rocks. It's a very difficult piece of work at 22 thousand feet. Very distinguished climbers has said it's the hardest climbing at altitude in the Himalayas.

BILL MOYERS:
You were making good progress, though, until you came to what you called the black pyramid.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Yes. Black pyramid is a pyramidal shaped area, where the stone and ice have largely peeled away, and it's just rock. Very smoothly polished rock. And it's very steep, and it's very difficult to find holds and it's a very dangerous place.

BILL MOYERS:
You were within striking distance of the summit.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: We were getting close.

BILL MOYERS:
And you were getting ready...

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS:
To make that last assault. This would have been the triumph that you had been hoping for all this time

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Yes.

BILL MOYERS:
For seven days a blizzard pinned them down at Camp VIII below the summit. They couldn't leave their tents, couldn't sleep, had little to eat or drink. Immobilized, they were dehydrated and weak. Then--

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Art Gilkey got out of his tent, in a lull in the storm and fainted. And I examined him and he had blood clots in his leg. And he couldn't walk. And we were now-- we'd come over this horrendous climb up the black pyramid, House's Chimney. How were we going to get him down?

BILL MOYERS:
Art Gilkey was 27, from Iowa, a geologist, one of the country's most promising scholars. Everyone knew that if they didn't get him down, Art would die. Bob Bates later wrote that all of them knew that they were beginning the most dangerous day's work of their lifetime.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: I thought our chances were one in ten of surviving. But there was no choice. I mean, looking back on it, we've been very roundly criticized, by risking the lives of five people to save one. But we, as far as we were concerned, there was no choice. We were going to try to get him down or else. We were going to do it.

BILL MOYERS:
It was a nightmare descent. Inch by inch they crept down. Until-- disaster.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: One of the party slipped and fell, and pulled each of us off in turn. Pete Schoening is up here. Art is hanging by a rope from underneath Pete. And we're down here, and we've fallen in such a way that the ropes got tangled. So here's Pete up there, holding all six of us on a rope. Nylon rope. Which he said stretched and then stopped.

BILL MOYERS:
They were all injured. Charlie was knocked unconscious, with a concussion. Somehow miraculously, as they would remember it, they managed to regroup. But bundled in his sleeping bag, and anchored by two ice axes, Art Gilkey was separated from the group. They had to bring him over.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Three people went back to try to bring Art across this ice slope to us. And he was gone. There was no trace. And at the time, we assumed-- we believed that an avalanche had taken him. And we hadn't heard it, we hadn't seen it. We were only 150 feet away. But we hadn't heard it or seen it.

But we believe that an avalanche had taken him away. But whatever it was, we were then free. And as I look back on it, and I haven't said this before, as I look back on it, I think it's more than likely that Art Gilkey, knowing that we were hurt, knowing that we would never leave him, and knowing that we probably couldn't get him down-- I believe that he wiggled himself loose, and gave up his life to save ours.

BILL MOYERS:
It would be five agonizing days before they reached base camp.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: What got us down that mountain was that we were a team bonded together.

BILL MOYERS:
In your film you use an expression I've never heard before. You talk about the "fellowship of the rope." What is that?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: You knew that your life was in the hands of somebody else, and his was in your hands. And it made you climb perhaps more carefully. You didn't push the envelope quite so hard. But it also gave you a feeling of-- I don't think people spoke about this. Maybe even didn't think about it. But we did realize that there was an emotional or a psychological bond between us. That was at least as important as the physical bond. And that's why climbing with rope is-- To some extent, it's more dangerous, because if one man pulls, slips and pulls you off, you're both gone. But on the other hand, as happened in our case, the fact that we were roped together saved all our lives.

This is base camp. August 16th, and our badly battered expedition is down here again, and we're going to talk over the events of the last three weeks.

BILL MOYERS:
At base camp they treated their injuries, held a service in memory of Art, and started the long trip home across those 350 miles of rugged terrain.

CHARLIE HOUSTON: I just sat down and thought, "I don't want to do that again. I've got a wife and three kids I love. I've got my practice of medicine, which I love. I'm done with that. Off with it."

BILL MOYERS:
Just like that?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: I went cold turkey, gave it up. And I just came to the point where I really didn't want to take that risk again. Turned to other things.

BILL MOYERS:
He would take all he had learned on those mountains and put it to the service of medicine, founding a new clinic in the Rockies, teaching community medicine at the University of Vermont, writing scores of articles and books, including the bible of high altitude medicine.

Ever since the death of Dorcas, his wife of 58 years, Charlie has lived alone, here on Ledge Road in Burlington, with Pooh Bear. Let's go back to the mountain. I mean, I know it's not the only thing you did with your life, but it's...

CHARLIE HOUSTON: The best.

BILL MOYERS:
The best?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS:
Why was it the best?

CHARLIE HOUSTON: This was a great adventure for all of us. We all went there, not that we were going to get rich or fat or famous or anything like that. We went there because this was an exciting challenge.

This was reaching beyond your grasp. This is basically-- it's the-- even pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants can reach, can see further than the giants can. And it's part of the-- whatever you can do or think you can begin it, boldness has power and magic and genius in it. So, we were doing something beyond our reach, and trying to do something bigger than ourselves.

BILL MOYERS:
A final word about Charlie Houston. He could be ornery, blunt, and sometimes insufferable, but to the end he was a deeply moral man, and a real patriot. Virtually blind in his later years, he would go down to the city park in Burlington, stand on a soap box, and speak out against the shameful absence of universal medical care in America. Then he would go home and sit quietly while his neighbor, Anne-Marie Littenberg, read to him -- one hour, five days a week -- everything from Churchill's HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to Paul Scott's RAJ QUARTET. My friend who had conquered the thin air of the heights, found in the slender pages of a book his highest delight.

There's more about Charlie on our website, including my full interview with him, some other footage of his expeditions, and links to his written work. Log onto PBS.org and click on "Bill Moyers Journal."

That's it for this week. I'm Bill Moyers. See you next time.
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