ANNOUNCER: From our studios in New York, Bill Moyers and David Brancaccio.
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. Little do we know of the many people in this country who have lived lives of achievement largely unrecognized. No cover stories in celebrity magazines. No bells, whistles, or parades. No interviews with Barbara, Diane, or Katie. But undeterred by the absence of adulation, they go about setting one new marker after another for themselves and for those of us who know them. Sometimes their accomplishments rearrange the world to make it a little more hospitable for countless strangers.
MOYERS: Take my friend Charlie Houston. Pass him on Ledge Street in Burlington, Vermont as he and his dog Pooh Bear take their daily walk and you'd never know this 91-year-old had scaled some of the world's towering mountains, to become one of the world's foremost authorities on high altitude medicine. You'd never guess what he did to help defeat the Japanese warlords and Hitler's Luftwaffe or that he had been a fine teacher and pioneering physician who helped invent a forerunner of the Jarvik artificial heart. You wouldn't know he'd led the first Peace Corps project in India, where I met him over 40 years ago, or that he never fails to fill the bird feeder at his home overlooking Lake Champlain.
Charlie's almost blind now, although you'd never know that either. It's not in his nature to complain or boast except of Dorcas, with whom he lived for 58 years, and their three children. For Charlie Houston, life has been one continuing exploration and it began a long time ago.
MOYERS: Charlie Houston is losing his sight, but he tells me his memories fill in where he can no longer see. And what memories they are. He was drawn again and again to forbidding and dangerous heights, where the world looks different, and life is never again the same. Lucky for us, he took along his camera and filmed it all.
MOYERS: What drew you to climbing?
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 just liked climbing. I like the feel of the rocks.
MOYERS: The feel of the rocks?
HOUSTON: Rock feels good, yes.
MOYERS: How? I mean, you're talking to somebody who doesn't climb.
HOUSTON: Well, rock climbing, you have a sense of the rock. Almost as though it were a living thing under your hands and you learn to explore... 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.
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.
HOUSTON: I was sick the whole time. I was scared to death. Came back and I said, "Oh, I've got to do this."
MOYERS: You were scared, but…
HOUSTON: But that's when I started climbing.
MOYERS: Although you were scared to death, you wanted to climb?
HOUSTON: Totally, yeah.
MOYERS: While an undergraduate at Harvard he was exploring the Alaska range, including, in 1934, the knife-edge ridges and steep steps of Mt. Foraker.
MOYERS: Why did you want to go higher and higher?
HOUSTON: Ooh, 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. So, my urge was not so much to get to the higher mountain, but to go where no people had been.
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. They invited four Brits to go along, including the veteran climber, Bill Tilman, a skeptical Brit who wasn't sure Yankees were up to the task. Just getting to Nanda Devi's base they had to travel on foot for 175 miles across daunting territory. Tilman was impressed.
TILMAN: The Americans and ourselves do not always see eye to eye, but on those rare occasions when we come together to do a job of work, we seem to pull together very well.
MOYERS: And it was the Brits who almost turned back.
HOUSTON: We had a tragedy which almost ended the expedition. The entire supply of tea fell off the cliff and disappeared into the snow. We spent several days looking for it. The Brits said they were going home, they said you couldn't have an expedition with out tea. We persuaded them to try our drinks, Horlick's malted milk and so forth and they stayed, maybe because the sun came out again and we could see these wonderful mountains which rim the sanctuary around Nanda Devi.
MOYERS: You didn't make it to the summit. What happened?
HOUSTON: Well, 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.
MOYERS: You call that a holiday!
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.
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 Mt. Everest. Again, just getting to the jumping off place required endless grit and gumption this time during a trek of 350 miles.
HOUSTON: We came to the first rope bridges, so called rope bridges, a euphemism for twisted vines and twigs and branches.
MOYERS: Below those rope bridges, slippery rocks. Icy waters. I mean, what would have happened if the bridge had…
HOUSTON: You're dead. You're dead. It's ice water. Fast water. You're gone. Rope bridges make Christians out of mountaineers.
MOYERS: And then, the payoff their first view of the summit.
HOUSTON: It was awesome. I think all of us thought, "Ooh, we've got to go up that mountain?" And yes, yes we did. It was spectacular.
It's perfectly symmetrical. Beautiful pyramid of white and black. Big glaciers. It's just immense and it stands alone.
MOYERS: What made K2 so challenging to the climber?
HOUSTON: It had never been explored.
MOYERS: So you didn't know a way up. You had to find a way up.
HOUSTON: We had to find the way. We were sent out to find a way by which a stronger party could go out the next year and climb it. We looked at three different ways up. We went as far as we could go on two different routes and finally decided on the third route which looked the least good, but actually turned out to be the standard route. It's now the common route.
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.
HOUSTON: And we kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. We got higher and higher. When we got up to a little over 25,000 feet, we were in good shape, well-acclimatized. But, believe it or not, we ran out of matches.
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 the 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 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.
MOYERS: Reaching those heights as both a climber and doctor, Charlie learned a lot about how the body reacts to 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 50,000 pilots and air crew in high altitude flying.
MOYERS: So this enabled American planners to send our bombers higher than the enemy might reach them. Knowing that the pilots could survive that height.
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.
HOUSTON: We proved that acclimatization would add 5,000 feet to the altitude ceiling of a pilot breathing oxygen. That was a great project. Great project.
MOYERS: When the war was over, Charlie returned to his private practice but his mind was still on the mountains. In 1950 he and his father, Oscar, whose passion was hiking, became the first westerners to sight the south face of Mt. Everest, the world's tallest mountain. Charlie returned with the first 16mm films of the region. But K2 still commanded his imagination, and in 1953 Charlie and Bob Bates returned to K2 with a new team. This time they brought plenty of matches, but their gear was simple by today's standards, and there were no oxygen tanks. They did have Charlie's camera and a tape recorder and one member of the team who brought his artist's palette. 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.
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 mean, I cannot imagine what goes through a man's mind under those elements. And against those circumstances.
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.
MOYERS: No obstacle was more forbidding than House's Chimney.
HOUSTON: House's Chimney is a barrel 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 22,000 feet. I'd always been afraid of that chimney, because it's a dangerous place. Several very distinguished climbers has said it's the hardest climbing at altitude in the Himalayas.
MOYERS: You were making good progress, though, until you came to what you called a black pyramid.
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 holes and it's a very dangerous place.
MOYERS: You were within striking distance of the summit.
HOUSTON: We were getting close.
MOYERS: And you were getting ready…
MOYERS: To make that last assault. This would have been the triumph…
MOYERS: …that you had been hoping for all this time.
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…
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 gonna get him down?
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.
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 gonna try to get him down or else. We were gonna do it.
MOYERS: It was a nightmare descent. Inch by inch they crept down. Until…disaster.
STREATHER: Well, George had been frozen fairly badly, I remember looking up and seeing him climb across, but I remember seeing him appear to take a hand hold and then begin to slip…
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 fall 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.
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.
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.
MOYERS: Traumatized, hurt, and beginning to experience frostbite, the survivors still had to get down.
CRAIG: Then began, I think, one of the most desperate parts of the trip because we were by no means out of danger and the mountain fought us all the way down to Camp 2.
MOYERS: It would be 5 days before they reached base camp.
HOUSTON: And what got us down that mountain was that we were a team bonded together.
MOYERS: In your film, you use an expression I've never heard before. You talk about the "fellowship of the rope." What is that?
HOUSTON: Herman Melville, in MOBY DICK, speaks about the monkey rope. It's a fascinating story. On a whaling ship, there's a bow man, who rows bow in a whaling, in the whale boat, that goes and kills a whale. And there's the man who shoots, the harpooner. The harpooner, once a whale is tied up, the harpooner climbs down from the ship, stands on the dying whale, in this rolling, rocking ocean, with the sharks gathering around.
And he has a big leather belt around his waist, and it's attached to a rope. And that rope goes up to the ship, to the bow man who is standing on the deck of the ship with another belt. And the rope attached to that. Tradition says that if the harpooner falls into the ocean that the bow man goes with him and they both die, by sharks or drowning.
Tradition says that when you're bound with the monkey rope to the harpooner, they both go.
MOYERS: You certainly experienced that on that mountain.
HOUSTON: Yes. 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.
HOUSTON: This is base camp. It's 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.
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.
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.
MOYERS: Just like that?
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.
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. Each week, at his home in Burlington, he spends some time mentoring young people.
MOYERS: What do they want to know about?
HOUSTON: I usually set them up with something. One of my favorite things is to ask them whether they'd be willing to risk their life to save somebody else's? And I quote the Air Florida crash, when the plane crashed into the bridge.
MOYERS: In the Potomac River some years ago?
HOUSTON: Yes. And the young man dived into the river and saved the stewardess and then disappeared. And I say to Josh, would you do that? And he said, yea, I guess so. I can swim. And I say to Aida, would you do that? And she said, yes, I can swim. And then I say well, what would happen Aida if you had a baby at home? Would you still do it? No. Josh, would you do it if you had a baby at home?
No, I don't think so. So I say, well, why are we talking about this? And the reason is that this kind of question could come up almost any time in your everyday life.
So, I want them to have the feeling that we're tied to other people, how much we are tied to other people.
MOYERS: The fellowship of the rope.
HOUSTON: Yes, something like that.
MOYERS: For five years now, ever since the death of Dorcas, his wife of 58 years, Charlie has lived alone, here on Ledge Road in Burlington, with Pooh Bear.
MOYERS: How do you deal with being lonely?
HOUSTON: I'm not lonely. I have a lot of friends. I have people that read to me.
MOYERS: What are you reading right now?
HOUSTON: Right now we're finishing up TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. We've read three books about the American Revolution. Three biographies. Two novels about the Revolution. Two novels about the Civil War. Two biographies about the Civil War. And the four-volume set called the Raj Quartet. THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN, about India.
MOYERS: I never will forget, some years ago you called me and said you'd just finished reading something you thought I ought to read. And I said, "Well, send it to me." So a week or so later, this package arrived at home. And I open it up, and there are the three volumes of Gibbon's RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
HOUSTON: Well, I read that when I could read.
HOUSTON: That was… yes, I read it all. And it's worth reading. But…
MOYERS: Why was Gibbon worth reading at that particular time? Three volumes on the decline of the Roman Empire.
HOUSTON: Well, because it gives you a perspective on the past that you don't get unless you read a lot. And the first 100 pages of Gibbon, I have to admit, were hard going. But the more I read, the better I got used to it. Because it shows over and over again, civilizations rise, grow, peak, flourish, and then crash. And it happens over and over and over again. And there are lessons in that that we should be learning now. All living things rise and decay.
MOYERS: 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…
HOUSTON: The best.
MOYERS: The best?
MOYERS: Why was it the best?
HOUSTON: This was a great adventure for all of us. We all went there, not that we were gonna 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.
MOYERS: You write in the forward to your book, "No one on the mountain tried to answer the question then why? Why climb mountains? The answer cannot be simple. It is compounded of such elements as the great beauty of clear, cold air, of colors beyond the ordinary, of the lure of unknown regions beyond the rim of experience.
"The pleasure of physical fitness, the pride of conquering a steep and difficult rock, the thrill of danger, danger controlled by skill are also there. How can I phrase what seems to me the most important reason of all. It is the chance to be briefly free of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off non-essentials, to come down to the core of life itself: food, shelter, friends. These are the essentials. These plus faith and purpose and a deep and unrelenting determination.
"On great mountains, all purpose is concentrated on the single job at hand. Yet the summit is but a token of success. And the attempt is worthy in itself. It is for these reasons that we climb. And in climbing, find something greater than accomplishment."
HOUSTON: Hey, that's pretty good. Who wrote that? Did I write that, really?
MOYERS: Yes, he really did. But that's not all. Some forty years ago in Nepal, when I was a young Peace Corps official out on a visit from Washington, I became suddenly and desperately ill, and I knew I was about to die. I had flown from Katmandu to New Delhi on an old DC-3 loaded with goats and boxes, and there Charlie took me in, figured out what was wrong and nursed me back to health.
But no good deed goes unpunished, and ever since he's had to suffer my life-long gratitude and friendship.
BRANCACCIO: Of course, as you know, the noise of modern media doesn't usually quiet down enough to hear the voices of people like Charlie Houston. I'll be back in a moment with another of those voices, a world famous conductor who uses music to talk about the art of possibility.
Benjamin Zander will join us shortly. But first, if this public television station is going to continue to bring these voices to you, we need your support.
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