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Mountain News: Legendary climber Houston dead at 96

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.

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.

In 1947, he conducted tests in a 35-day experiment in which subjects were taken gradually to a simulated atmosphere of 30,000 feet, higher even than Mount Everest. Even so, at the altitude of Everest, two volunteers managed to pedal a stationary bicycle for 20 minutes, showing that it was at least possible that the mountain could be climbed without bottled oxygen.

In 1974, he started the International Hypoxia Symposium, which continues to meet every two years at Lake Louise, Alberta. In 1980, he published Going Higher: Oxygen, Man and Mountains , which after multiple updates, remains the bible for high-altitude researchers.

Broadcaster Bill Moyer interviewed Houston in 2004. "His work in the high-altitude field, I think will stand as a tribute to him for all time to come," he told one newspaper.

One obituary blogger on the Burlington Free Press , Charles Batchelder of Rome, N.Y., said of Houston: "He had a quality that was never mentioned and that was he treated everyone he met the same. He never looked down his nose at anyone, although he might have had that right to do so."

Testifying to his prominence in the mountaineering world, The New York Times, Washington Post , the Guardian and other newspapers climbing journals carried prominent obituaries.


Real estate like silver bust

ASPEN, Colo. - Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland warns against expecting a return of the brawling real-estate economy. That era, just like the silver mining boom in which the town was founded in 1880, has passed, he says.

That silver boom yielded most of the town's Victorian mansions and most significant public buildings. Then, in 1893, the federal government ended its subsidy, to the chagrin of miners from Silverton, Colo., to Ketchum, Idaho. While populist politicians of the era, among them perennial Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, called for the return of the silver standard, it never happened. Aspen's boom had ceased, and the town withered to a place of only 700 residents.

"We can't react to the changes in the economy like the silver miners did and think that silver is going to come back," Ireland said at a recent session covered by the Aspen Daily News.

"It didn't. And we're not going back to the days when people bought things over the phone sight unseen. It is not that we won't be strong. People will still be interested at looking at property and will spend real money on it. But it is not going to be quite as reckless."

The median price of property under contract today in Aspen is 18 per cent less than last year at this time, reported real estate broker Carol Hood.

Will tourism plug this gap? Not in the very short term. Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central reservations agency, reported sparse advance bookings. Indeed, the Aspen Skiing Co. is worried enough about Christmas that it has announced discounted prices in advance, only the second time it has done so.

"In the past, the resort was filled out over the holiday," said Jeff Hanle, the company's public relations director. "There was no reason to incentivize people because the resort was maxed out. But now there is."

David Perry, the senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co., predicts improvement in 2010. "The second half (of the ski season) is going to loosen up and things will start happening," he said.


Real estate sales off by half

JACKSON, Wyo. - Real estate sales in Teton County, where Jackson is located, are off by half in terms of both volume and value, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide.

Auctioneer William Burke of Progressive Auction Exchange claims that an auction he supervised showed that property values in the county are down 30 to 50 per cent.

Real-estate agent Tim Mayo told the newspaper that prospective buyers lack confidence in both the national and world economy.

Still, he's hopeful that springtime will restore that confidence, as has been detected in other parts of the country. "We run a year behind the rest of the nation," he said. "Hopefully, next spring we'll start seeing those signs of recovery in our market as well."


Transportation source of most emissions

JACKSON, Wyo. - Following in the path of Aspen, Park City and other mountain towns, Jackson Hole commissioned a study that establishes the sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions. While heating and electrification of buildings causes nearly half the greenhouse emissions nationally, in Jackson Hole they were dwarfed by transportation, which causes nearly 80 per cent of emissions.

Tim Young, director of Friends of Pathways, said the report should redirect the priorities of the community's sustainability project to focus more on ground transportation and less on improving energy efficiency in buildings. He called it a wake-up call.

Ground transportation - mostly cars and trucks - accounted for 61 per cent of the carbon dioxide, while air travel was credited with 17 per cent.

These results were somewhat different than those at Aspen, owing to somewhat different methodologies but also to different dynamics of the two communities, reports Rick Heede, of Climate Mitigation Services, who did both as well as one in Frisco, Colo.


Vail Resorts draws a crowd

DENVER, Colo. - You've got to hand it to Vail Resorts. The company's chief executive, Rob Katz, sure knows how to line up the politicians.

Three years ago, when announcing its purchase of renewable energy credits sufficient to power all of its five ski areas, the company held a press conference and managed to get two of Colorado's most prominent politicians - a Democrat and a Republican - together. The story and photos ended up on the front page of what were then Denver's two daily newspapers. The New York Times also gave the story prominent play.

The cost of that commitment for 152,000 megawatts, the second largest corporate purchase in the country at that time, was never revealed. But a conservative estimate of the value of publicity was $800,000.

For this announcement, Katz had the Denver mayor, the Colorado governor, a Congresswoman, a U.S. senator, and one member of President Barack Obama's cabinet on hand to lend a few comments, mostly laudatory to Vail.

The company has not renewed its purchase of renewable energy credits, but this time will donate 1,500 hours of company labour coupled with a $750,000 donation to the U.S. Forest Service to help restore portions of the Hayman Fire.

The 2002 fire burned across 138,000 acres southwest of Denver. In some places, the fire burned so hotly that the soil was sterilized, precluding regeneration of trees for at least several decades, perhaps longer.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall used the occasion to make a plug for the Good Samaritan law, a bill he has pushed that would allow private-sector parties to help clean up mines in the Rocky Mountains that continue to produce polluted water. One of the poster cases for that is the Pennsylvania Mine, located near Keystone, a ski area operated by Vail.

Just as Vail Resorts, a private-sector business, is working with the Forest Service on the Hayman Fire restoration, he said, so should private-public partnerships be allowed for mine cleanups. Concerns about liability have so far precluded such partnerships.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was nothing if not magnanimous. "I like to think this is a big idea," he said of the private-public partnership.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agencies include the Forest Service, drew attention to the "connection between forests and water quality."

That was music to the ears of Rick Cables, the regional forester. For several years, Cables has been lobbying Washington for more money to remove dead trees in Colorado forests ravaged by bark beetles to reduce potential for large-scale fire in areas that serve as municipal watersheds. In Colorado, that's much of the forest.

"To have a secretary understand this is just a gift," said Cables.


Chicago's loss may help Colorado

DENVER, Colo. - Chicago's loss in attempting to secure the 2016 Summer Olympic Games may be Denver's gain if it decides to bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

The earliest opening for Denver is 2022, because the U.S. Olympic Committee has already ruled out a bid for the 2018 games. The common assumption was that if Chicago succeeded, any other U.S. location would be out of contention for a number of years.

Denver already landed the Olympics once before - for 1976. But in what remains a unique case in Olympic history, Colorado voters in 1972 denied further state funding. Denver organizers had planned poorly, indulged in luxuries, and failed to counter the perception that the Olympics would overwhelm a state that was already staggering from rapid population growth. Without state subsidies, the Denver Olympic organizers had to withdraw.

Mindful of that history, an editorial in The Denver Post urged Olympic hopefuls to avoid any surprises and to clearly define any local and state financial contributions - and ensure they're acceptable to voters.

"A Colorado Olympic Games would be a wonderful event for this sports-crazy state," concluded the paper. "But such an endeavor would have to be approached with clear-eyed realism rooted in the state's complicated history with the Olympics."

Olympic organizers have not said definitively whether they will pursue a bid through the U.S. Olympic Committee.


Bear follows woman into bedroom

VAIL, Colo. - Sally Rebehn went into her bedroom, aware of an animal following her. She thought it was her dog. Turning around, she saw it was a bear.

"I turned around, and it was so odd, your brain takes a while to register," she told the Vail Daily. "It's kind of like when you think you're about to drink a glass of water and it's a glass of milk."

The bear approached her, hissed and made what she described as a funny bop-bop-bop sound. She screamed, the bear got up on its hind legs, and she threw a pillow at it.

The bear fled the bedroom, and after charging at her son, then rummaged in the kitchen, taste-testing chili and ice cream before settling on barbecued chicken wings.

Police arrived to end the revelry of the bear and her cubs, but the animals returned twice more on later nights, ripping screens in an attempt to get in. Eventually, wildlife officers captured the sow and three cubs. They killed the sow and one cub, because they had entered a home and threatened residents, but relocated the two cubs that seemed fearful of people.


Biker stares down cougar

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - The Steamboat Pilot & Today reports that a local mountain bike rider had a stare-down with a mountain lion.

"It was one of the neatest encounters of my life," said Dave Dietrich. "It was almost one of the most interesting and the most frightening."

Dietrich, who works in a bike shop and has a degree in wildlife management, told the newspaper that he saw the adult lion walking across the trail. They were about 50 yards apart. He picked up his bike and held it over his head in an effort to look bigger, and started yelling and slamming his bike down, in hopes the cat would run away.

"It was unfazed," he said.

The two continued to examine each other for two or three minutes until Dietrich started backing down the trail until he could no longer see the lion, then hopped on the bike and vamoosed.

A local wildlife biologist credited Dietrich with doing "just about everything right."


Snowline likely to rise

PARK CITY, Utah - A group called Save Our Snow continues to press the case in Park City for reform necessary to curb the human role in climate change.

The Park Record reports that group recently sponsored a presentation by Colorado-based scientist Brian Lazar, who warned of Sierra cement-type of snow replacing Wasatch powder in coming decades, and then little snow altogether to support a viable skiing economy by the year 2075.

Temperatures in the Intermountain West have been rising more quickly than elsewhere in the United States, he said. Climate models project 2 to 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit increases by 2030 and 3 to 5 degrees by mid-century.

By 2075, he said, temperatures will rise 5 to 9 degrees as compared to those now, he said.


Prospects good for cat-skiing

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. -The U.S. Forest Service has drawn the boundaries for a potential backcountry cat-skiing operation at Lake Irwin, several miles from Crested Butte. Alan Bernholtz, the manager of the operation, tells the Crested Butte News that the 1,500 acres "allows us to access some of the finest cat ski terrain in the country." The area had been the site of various commercial skiing operations for 15 years in the past, but not for several years. A decision on final permits is expected in November.