On that day of the 31st of July 1954, Dr Charles Houston completely forgot who he was. For as much as he tried, he could not remember a single thing about his identity. His name, his profession, the reason why he was in the small town forty kilometers from where he lived. All of this appeared to have simply gone from his mind.
Charles was a strong men, of that he was sure. There was something in him telling him that he had what it takes to survive, although he could not be sure of where that conviction was coming from. It was perhaps for this conviction that Charles was feeling almost dizzy as he was walking around in that suburban town.
“What a strange feeling not to remember one’s own identity”, this was the thought that accompanied Charles as he was distinctively perceiving the different phases of his amnesia. At the end of the day he was still a doctor, although he had no memory of it!
At first Charles could feel a sense of astonishment, just like when one forgets what he was meant to say. To that followed a feeling of being out of place (we are not meant to forget who we are!). The last feeling was a desire to discovery, to find out the name attached to that familiar face.
It was precisely this feeling that moved Dr Houston’s next steps in his quest for his identity. He wanted to find out who he was and why he was there.
A first, natural move was to look into his own pockets. Perhaps he might have been so lucky to find an ID card, a diary, a note, or at least a clue of his name. Nothing, nothing at all. All of his pockets were as empty as his mind.
It was with a strange sense of hope that he decided to go to the local hospital to find out more about who he was, or at least a little bit of human sympathy for his condition.
The receptionist of the hospital had been particularly kind to Dr Houston. She was perhaps used to people attending the hospital in altered states. Besides, Dr Houston appeared to be a composed and elegant man in his forties. There was nothing in his appearance that could make her judge him badly for what she could tell.
The diagnoses made by the doctor who check Charles Houston spoke clearly: global amnesia due to a stressful event. An hospital would have been of little use in a case like that. What was needed was somebody who could help the patient remembering who he was. Somebody like a parent or a police man.
The engine of the police car was still warm when the young deputy found a clue to help the poor Charles to find out more about his name. A label on Charles’ tie, told the young officer that the man in front of him was an esteemed medical practitioner from Exeter, New Hampshire. What was needed was now just a short car ride to get get Dr Houston to his familiar environment.
As Charles was approaching his hometown his mind, just like the sky after a storm, appeared to becoming clear again and his memories started to surface back again. First slowly, then all in a rush, just like overflowing river.
It did not take it long for Charles to remember it all. The storm, the frost, the hunger. The desire to go back, to get down from that icy, beautiful hell. The fight for life. The hate for his German leader in his first attempt to the peak. The bereavement of his friend Art Gilkey who fell down the mountain despite the friends’ attempt to bring him down after Charles diagnosed thrombophlebitic leg. The hope to make it the next time, when the new expedition would have finally been ready to reach Pakistan.
More than else Charles remembered the fierce sense of disappointment when he heard the names of those two Italian men who took away the trophy for which Charles risked his life just the year before.
Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli. These were the names who took away Dr Houston’s life dream: to be the first one to climb the K2.
Little was left to Dr Charles Houston in that summer day. “Been there, done that”, this was the thought that was reverberating in his mind as he was finally able to recall who he was. The man who almost made it to the K2.
This story has been inspired by the BBC documentary Mountain Men: The Ghosts of K2. I encourage you to watch it if you like stories of expeditions. I believe Dr Charles Houston and his fellows have been incredibly brave in trying their second attempt to conquer the K2. They just have been the unlucky subjects to a series of unfortunate events.
Also, I have met Mario Lacedelli, the grandson of one of the two men who conquered K2, in person. A strong mountain man indeed!