Land surveyors in the state of New Hampshire are a hardy lot. We have plenty of rough terrain to cover and often in freezing weather conditions. Add some bugs, wildlife, angry neighbors, some scrapes, bruises, and we tend to keep pretty busy with our share of survey work.
Intrigue is not necessarily a part of our state’s normal stock-in-trade. However, the life of the late, great land surveyor and mountaineer, William Pendleton House, NH LLS #53, is one of those rare tales that has it all.
Bill passed away more than 20 years ago, but his appetite for adventure and exploration is still legendary among outdoorsmen in the Northeast today. He became one of the first people to climb Canada’s Mount Waddington, followed by record-setting climbs of Wyoming’s Devils Tower and at K2 — later called “House’s Chimney” in his honor and chronicled in the book, “Five Miles High.”
Over the years, each of Bill’s expeditions were more blood-curdling than the last. His was a big life filled with passions that he vigorously pursued, setting world records in the process. But he never boasted about any of it, of course.
Now that enough time has passed, I will boast for him and share what many don’t know about Bill House, a man of great intrigue, a great land surveyor and friend who was always reaching for the sky.
From Yale College Grad to Thrill-Seeking Mountain Climber
William Pendleton House was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 30, 1913. With more than 100 state parks stretching across the Appalachian Mountains in the Keystone State, it’s no surprise Bill became such a decorated outdoorsmen.
There isn’t much to say about House’s formative years until the age of 17, when he found himself in Switzerland at the Dent du Midi (“Teeth of Noon”) mountain. At 10,686 feet, the mountain ridge has seven distinctly pointed summits that reach into the Chablais Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais. The sun reaching the mountain’s summits or “teeth” at noon being how it got its name.
Bill saw the mountain ridge and was obsessed with the prospect of exploring, so the story goes. His mother paid for a guide to take him up, and they ended up climbing in a storm. The whole experience nearly ended his interest in climbing, Bill told me. Fortunately, he was just as stubborn as he was adventurous.
Bill graduated from Yale University in 1935 and two years later completed the Yale School of Forestry with a master’s thesis on “The Application of Rural Zoning to Some Land Problems.”
However, Bill House was no ordinary forestry student interested in zoning. He sought out adventure and wanted to achieve heights most people could only dream. Although an Ivy League education was absolutely a high point in his life, he was on a mission to go higher.
In between conquering classes at Yale, House conquered mountains. He continued climbing local cliffs in the Connecticut River Valley, honing his skills, developing a love of rock and ice climbing.
On occasion, Yale’s ivy covered buildings suited him, too. Some of us remember stricter rules for college dormitories when curfews were standard fare, but I guess Bill had a problem with the rules. When he missed curfew, those sturdy ivy vines were his “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Or perhaps his “Get Back In Undetected” card is more accurate.
Bill was already a seasoned climber by then and always up for a challenge. So needless to say the stories of him using his abilities for mischief didn’t stop there.
One evening, (though I can’t reveal my source), Bill and some of his Yale classmates hatched a devious plan. They scaled a campus clubhouse to steal the skull from the inner sanctum of the Order of Skull and Bones society — of which George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and John Kerry were reportedly prominent members.
Although I can’t actually swear to the fact that they stole the skull, there wouldn’t be much news about the crime if they did. Skull and Bones remains an unaffiliated, secret society at Yale University, and Bill knew how to keep a secret as good as the rest of them.
“Mystery Mountain” and Wyoming’s Devils Tower
Young Bill started his surveying career at an early age, working in coalmines, and he helped in mapping the mines and tunnels of the Northeast.
He used to tell me how different that type of surveying was: You set your plumb bob under the point right over the top of your transit. Traverse stations were nails in the ceiling of the tunnels. But he always got the job done, whether surveying or climbing a cliff face.
In the winter of 1934, Bill and Allen Wilcox, another climbing enthusiast, set a record by making the first ascent of the Central Gulley left wall variation of Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington.
Then in 1936, Bill became one of the first people to reach the peak of British Columbia’s 13,260-foot Mount Waddington with the help of free climber Fritz H. Wiessner. There were several parties competing for the honor of being first that season, but Bill and Wiessner were the only two to reach the top, beating out 16 previously failed attempts.
With Waddington in the record books, Bill celebrated finishing graduate school by climbing Wyoming’s Devils Tower (4,358 feet) also with Wiessner. You may have seen Devil’s Tower in the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It’s a big steep rock, and there was lots and lots of red tape before permits were finally issued for their attempt.
Devils Tower was only scaled once before in the 19th century, but the climbers had used ladders made from two-by-fours. Bill and Wiessner were looking to accomplish a “pure” climb. Based on their reputation as climbers, they received their permits and began their quest on June 28, 1937. Fellow mountaineer Lawrence Coveney also joined the expedition.
According to a report filed right after the event by the Devil’s Tower National Monument Superintendent, Newell F. Joyner, the total time spent on the climbing and descent was “exactly seven hours.” Joyner also reported that the party only used one “piton,” a small iron pin with an eye, which was driven into a crack in the rock.
Wiessner later regretted using that one safety item. The three climbers carried few provisions with them and Joyner met the weary adventurers at the base of the vertical wall with canteens of fresh water when they arrived back down. Joyner recorded that the water was “received gratefully.” Bill is quoted at the time as saying, “Three cans of grapefruit juice and orange juice don’t go very far… but if we had carried up all of the water we wanted, we wouldn’t have had any strength left to climb the Tower.”
The First to Climb K2’s 100-Foot House’s Chimney
With another historic climb added to his list accomplishments, William P. House came to New Hampshire with his forestry and land surveying training and went to work for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.
Founded by a handful of concerned citizens in 1901, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests is one of our country’s most effective statewide land conservation organizations today. A membership-driven nonprofit, the Forest Society protects the state’s landscapes while promoting the wise use of its renewable natural resources.
Bill was a mere six months into starting his new job when he received an irresistible invitation. The offer was a chance to join three other veteran climbers: Charles Snead Houston, Bob Bates and Paul Petzoldt on a climb attempt of K2, the second highest mountain in the world.
“For many climbers, K2 – even more than Everest – is the ultimate mountain. At 28,250 feet, it is second only to Everest, a scant 800 feet higher,” Houston wrote about the 1938 expedition. “With its classic pyramidal shape, K2 is steep on all sides. It is the perfect embodiment of our mental image of what a great mountain should be like. The climber who has designs on K2’s summit must not only contend with the extreme altitude and difficult rock and ice, but with sudden storms that deplete strength and erode willpower. More than 160 climbers have now reached K2’s summit, but for every seven persons who have accomplished this feat, one has died. In this respect, K2 is four times more deadly than Everest.”
K2’s summit, like Mount Everest, was still elusive at the time, and Bill wanted that notch for his climbing axe. He worried that he would lose his job at the Forest Society by asking for so much time off so early in his employment. But ask he did, and later he recalled, “My boss never answered me.” He jumped at the chance for his next brass ring and was off.
Bill recalled that “the K2 thing was the biggest thing in my climbing career, and it was a great privilege to get out into the Himalayas.”
Significant advances in climbing technology have occurred since their trip up the mountain. For one, they didn’t have oxygen tanks or some of the special winterized gear you can purchase now. What they did were wool mittens and very heavy wool coats, leather boots, as well as 75 porters, 25 packhorses, six Sherpas and food for four months to get there and back. Traveling over 300 miles by foot across deserts and crossing raging rivers on rope bridges helped them acclimate to the environment.
Only two members of their party reached the 26,000-foot elevation, but the mountain fought back with monsoons and avalanches. With falling stones piercing one of their tents and food supplies running low, they reassessed their conditions.
Bill had a foothold break on one descent, a route that he had traveled several times. He dropped his axe and fell, landing on his elbows. He was not tied into any fixed rope and his feet were hanging over the ledge. He managed to get back down to camp with some assistance.
In a documentary film on alpinism, “Brotherhood of the Rope,” Bill and the expedition’s other climbers all got the chance to share their experience tackling K2. The expedition team also published a journal of their adventure in the book, “Five Miles High: The Thrilling True Story of the First American Expedition to K2.” It’s rare to find a first printing, I read Bill’s copy and was finally able to purchase a reprint edition a few years ago, unfortunately too late for me to obtain his autograph.
“The surface of the rock - here lying at about 80 - degrees had given the impression from Camp IV that it was well broken by cracks and tiny ledges. The ledges turned out to be diminutive indeed and sloping so sharply that they were of little use for anything but friction holds,” shares Bill in “Five Miles High.” “The cracks were too narrow to insert a finger into and penetrated the rock only an inch or so. We at last decided to try a great slanting gash that led off to the left, which, because it slanted diagonally, partially compensated for the steepness of the cliff. Two other routes we had considered looked no easier and their tops were guarded by 10-foot overhanging snow cornices. It was this choice or none, we thought.”
Years later he told me that he still recalled the feeling of freezing for a while, not from the cold, but from the experience. Although the mission was unsuccessful for Bill, he still left something on the mountain to add another notch to his axe just the same.
To this day, there is an 100-foot tall, 3-foot wide “chimney” high up on K2 called “House’s Chimney.” Bill was the first person to scale the route and future K2 expeditions have been successful because of it.
From Leading Armed Forces to Forestry
Bill House, never one to back down from a challenge, used his knowledge and experience with harsh weather conditions to come to the aid of his country. When he returned to New Hampshire, House was an observer with the United States Army’s Quartermaster Corps’ “Operation Musk Ox.”
For 81 days in the winter of 1945 – 1946, Bill went on a 3,000-mile trek with fifty soldiers through northern Canada from Churchill, on Hudson Bay to Edmonton. According to an account published in the January 1947 edition of “Popular Mechanics Magazine”:
Mr. House made on-the-spot changes in types of American clothing, food, and equipment. On the basis of his recommendations special equipment was developed in the United States and flown to the Canadian arctic to be tested under the same conditions as those which caused the recommendations to be made.
Bill’s efforts helped to prepare the armed forces and indirectly, the surveyors of today. Upon returning to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, he became chairman of the board and was also elected as a Paul Harris Fellow of the Keene Rotary Club.
Under his private land surveying practice, Bill promoted good forestry practices to private landowners and surveyed many parcels of land in the area. Settling into the community life of Harrisville, New Hampshire, with his wife, Elaine, Bill also served as a Town Selectman and Planning Board Member just like most of the rest of us.
When his climbing partners, Houston and Bates wanted to try K2 again in 1953 he was invited to join them. However, Bill declined, stating, “Marriage and mountains do not mix.” Just as well. That 1953 expedition saw one of the team members tragically lost in an avalanche. His remains not discovered until 40 years later in 1993.
Bill and I spent many days in the field. No man, I repeat, no man, to this day, that I have ever known has been able to withstand the cold like he could. I recall one January day that we were on frozen Lake Nubanusit with the mercury at about minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind blowing out of the north. My fingers hurt. My toes hurt. My hair hurt. I was cold.
Around 10 a.m. after two and a half hours on the ice, House tells me that it is time to go back to the car. Upon arriving back at the car, Bill who was always calm, cool and collected; always the gentleman who never bragged or boasted of his many achievements, suddenly acted out of character. This man who took on the elements was cold.
We found every single car door, window, and lock frozen. Here we were, faced with our own little savage winter conditions and after trying every door and latch again, he punched the driver’s side door with surprising force and uttered the only off color words that I had ever heard from him. I smiled and turned away to snicker. This legendary figure was human after all. He had some of the same character flaws that many of us have, only he carried them much better than anyone.
Bill retired from all of his committees and work schedules when he was in his very late seventies. He called me up one day, long after I had established my own land surveying practice, and he wanted me to go for a drive with him. He wanted to show me his big woodlot about 30 miles away from his home. He wanted me to resurvey this 300-acre parcel that he had purchased in the early 60s. He wanted me to re-blaze and paint the boundary lines and give him an up-to-date map of the property.
For me, it was a special drive. Bill and Elaine never had any children, and by then he had had a couple of small strokes and was very aware of his mortality. He talked to me more during that drive than I can ever remember. He reflected on his life and the things he had done and wished that he could still do. It was a bittersweet ride.
I finished the project, re-blazed and painted all of his boundaries and prepared a new plan of the conditions that I had found. There are some lots that you just enjoy being on, and this was one of them.
Bill passed away on Dec. 18, 1997, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Bill House’s hanging file map cabinet containing over a thousand plans was donated to the Cheshire County Registry of Deeds in Keene, New Hampshire, and is kept in a closing room with several collections available to researchers. His files are in my office in Marlborough.
As friends, Bill would always leave me messages on my phone answering machine ending with, “that is all.” A funeral in his honor took place on his birthday at the little Community Church in Chesham where he was a faithful member. How fitting. How complete. That’s all.