The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan Legend

Fatal Mountaineer: The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan Legend

Martin, Bruce

Roper, R. (2002). Fatal Mountaineer: The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan Legend. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 306 pages. ISBN: 0-312-26153-5.

Fatal Mountaineer is a tale of the life and death of Willi Unsoeld. It recounts his days as a mountain guide in the western United States, his feats on Everest in 1963, his stint with the Peace Corps, his career as a college professor and lecturer, and his philosophy with regard to the natural world. The book, however, centers on Unsoeld’s relationship with a mountain that captured his heart while traveling in India as a young man. While trekking through India at the age of 21, Unsoeld encountered Nanda Devi, at 25,645 feet, the highest peak in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. Unsoeld became immediately enamored with the peak. As he often told it, on first seeing the peak, he was immediately inspired to find a wife. He wanted a wife so that he could have a daughter and name his daughter after this splendid mountain. Unsoeld did just that. He found a wife, he eventually had a daughter, and he named his daughter Nanda Devi. As Roper describes her, Devi personifies the spirit of her namesake. She is intelligent, beautiful, confident, and enchanting. She embodies the counter-cultural attitude of the 1960s and 1970s, the period in which she grew up, embracing the Hindu culture of her namesake and joining the group of early females to venture into the world of high-altitude Himalayan mountaineering. Roper describes her as a toothy, blonde-haired dreamboat. From Unsoeld’s early encounter with Nanda Devi, the mountain, his fate and the fate of his daughter become entwined with the spirit of the mountain.

Prior to reading Fatal Mountaineer, I knew little of Willi Unsoeld. I knew only that he was a famous mountaineer and outdoor educator who died in an avalanche in the late 1970s. I was familiar with his beliefs concerning the value of risk in the educational process. These strongly stated beliefs have always seemed a little sardonic to me considering the nature of his death. Unsoeld has always seemed to be a somewhat heroic though tragic figure to me because of the fact that he died living his creed. Prior to reading the book, I did not know the basis of Unsoeld’s fame as a mountaineer. I did not know that he and Tom Hornbein traversed Mount Everest in 1963, ascending the West Ridge of the mountain and then descending the Southeast Ridge. This, according to Roper, was the first and, to date, only major Himalayan traverse. I learned much more about the life of Willi Unsoeld as I read the book, but, more importantly, I learned more about myself.

While studying for a master’s degree in experiential education at Minnesota State University, Mankato, one of the courses that interested me the most was a course entitled, Wilderness and the Sacred taught by Jasper Hunt. I was not able to participate in the actual course, but I completed the requirements of the course through a directed study under Hunt’s supervision. I eventually wrote my final graduate paper at Mankato on the topic. The topic has been an interest of mine ever since. While reading Fatal Mountaineer, I became aware of the source of Hunt’s own interest in the topic. Hunt was a student of Unsoeld’s while studying philosophy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Unsoeld, I have discovered, had a profound influence on Hunt’s life, and Hunt has had a profound influence on mine. One of Unsoeld’s lifelong interests was the relationship of the idea of the sacred to the natural world. Unsoeld attended both Oberlin College and the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California to study theology. He completed a bachelor of divinity (the equivalent of a master of divinity, today), but he ultimately decided against ordination. He completed a doctor of philosophy degree at the University of Washington and went on to teach philosophy at The Evergreen State College. Throughout his studies, Unsoeld was drawn to the works of the likes of Rudolph Otto, Henri Bergson, and other theologians and philosophers who explored the non-rational nature of the divine. Unsoeld, along with Otto and Bergson, believed that the divine could be experienced most genuinely only through intuitive, non-rational experiences. These experiences presented themselves most readily to Unsoeld while mountaineering.

Unsoeld’s relationship with Nanda Devi [the mountain] seems to take on the sense of mysticism represented in his ideas on the relationship of wilderness and the sacred. Nanda Devi, [named for the goddess Nanda] according to Roper, is “the most ecstatically worshipped goddess in the Hindu pantheon” (Roper, 2002, p. 3). The Garwhal region of India is as sacred in the Hindu tradition as Jerusalem is in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. William Harold Tilman, the first person to summit Nanda Devi, writes, “The Garwhal region is the birthplace of the Hindu religion . . . the traditional home of most of the gods . . . and the terrestrial scene of their exploits” (Tilman, 1937; as cited in Roper, 2002, p. 16). He notes that nearly every geographical feature in the region is, in some way, devoted to the goddess Nanda. She is personified most in the mountain that bears her name. On the day that Tilman reached the summit of Nanda Devi, August 29, 1936, forty people drowned when a stream flooded a nearby village through which his expedition had passed on its way toward the mountain. Roper writes, “a respected Indian newspaper said of the drownings that the anger of the goddess had certainly been provoked, and that she had avenged the violation of her sanctuary ‘blindly but terribly'” (Roper, 2002, p. 17). Tilman himself indicates that he felt a great sense of remorse after accomplishing his quest for the summit. He felt as though he had committed an act of sacrilege. Unsoeld’s story takes on this same sense of sacrilege and vengeance. The sense of tragedy that pervades the story seems to be the inevitable consequence of a man engaged in an act of great hubris.

After finishing the book, I am left wondering if Roper overplays the significance of Nanda Devi in shaping Unsoeld’s life. I wonder if he, too, wholly wraps Unsoeld’s life in his relationship with the goddess mountain. Surely Unsoeld’s life held significance beyond the scope of this relationship, even though this might have been one of the defining storylines in his life. As I read, I wondered about Unsoeld’s relationship with his other children, one of whom I incidentally met in Oregon about a year prior to reading this book. I wonder what they think of this tale of the life and death of their father.

Bruce Martin is an assistant professor of Outdoor Education at the University of Northern Colorado. He can be reached at 223-B Butler-Hancock Hall, School of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO 80639; or bruce.martin@unco.edu.

Copyright Association for Experiential Education 2003

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