BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROPE: The Biography of Charles Houston
by Bernadette McDonald. The Mountaineers Books, USA.pp250
I find this an extraordinarily moving book about an extraordinary human being who happens to possess among other talents a rare understanding of what mountaineering really means. Charlie Houston is a mountaineer who maintains his own inimitable style and exemplifies in his life core values in an age when the sport is being eroded by the competitive marketeering of peaks. (Recently the Hindustan Times advertised a housing scheme in Patiala that offers Everest climbers a discount – but only if they reached the summit and have a certificate to prove it, thus putting Mallory on the waiting list).
Kekoo Naoroji’s awareness is that there is more to mountains than their summits. Some might detect in the book the Wasp view of life but remarkably it is the East Coast elitist background of that strengthens his revulsion against the arrogant handing down of western wisdom to the rest of the world. At the age of 93 the blind Charlie still climbs on to a soap box to share in public his opinion of the American president whom he accuses of having lost his moral compass. (The book would serve admirably as a one-man rescue operation for the reputation of Uncle Sam.)
In a scintillating introduction Dr Tom Hornbein describes Charlie as a meddlesome magnum opus. The biographical details are superbly researched and elegantly written by Bernadette McDonald. Dr Charles Houston’s passionate involvement in medical philanthropy is characterized by a haphazard career graph executed in a deliberate low key manner. What makes him appear old-fashioned is his unswerving loyalty to enduring standards of mountain behaviour. The super-Alpinist Messner compliments Houston’s several near misses on several summits including K2 as “beautiful failures” but Houston no doubt would question (without expressing it) how anything truly beautiful can ever be a failure.
The author brings out the complex nature of her subject (Houston we have a problem!) but Charlie’s contradictions curiously only serve to reinforce his humanity. He is embarrassed by being born to a wealthy and influential family and compensates by cultivating the common touch in his dealings with ordinary people. But he is shrewd enough to avail of his family contacts to get plum permission to explore exotic locations like before it was opened to tourists. Typically this well heeled American accustomed to the best of living luxuriates in the raw stimulus of trekking the in the buff save for umbrella (if the DVD is to be believed.)
The DVD is wonderfully atmospheric and ennobling. Charlie’s philosophy of conscious risk-taking to enable us to feel fully alive is akin to that of the maverick Willi Unsoeld. Yet over the tragic and splenetic Nanda Devi commemorative expedition chooses to defend the abrasive Roskelley against the purists Willi and Adams Carter. Because his involvement with the Himalaya has been so long and distinguished, is able to demonstrate the selfish motivation of certain climbers who extract fame and fortune from the Great range and put precious little back. Brotherhood of the Rope explores feelings for the mountains that are crucial to restore the health of modern mountaineering. As a contender of the 2007-08 Kekoo Award this literary offering poses a serious challenge that will be hard to beat.