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For days the weather on the mountain had been bad, but Sunday dawned bright and clear. Mount Rainier stood alone, sovereign over the northwestern skies. Passengers on the ferry north to Victoria looked back and saw rising beyond the blue waters of Puget Sound the peak many in Washington State call simply "the mountain." To city dwellers in Seattle heading out into the wilderness for the first sunny Sunday in weeks the mountain appeared a great white beacon eighty miles away. Further south in Tacoma the stench of the pulp mills blanketed part of the city, yet a person had only to look up to see the 14,410-foot peak way off there, so pure and clean. In Olympia, at the southern end of Puget Sound, Mount Rainier stood above the town to the east as if to remind the politicians that the state capital could never become a place where the monuments of mere humans rise above nature.
From a distance Mount Rainier appeared an exquisite, benign work of art. Six days before, however, on March 4, 1979, the mountain had taken the lives of fifty-two-year-old William F.(Willi) Unsoeld, a faculty member, and twenty-one-year-old Janie Diepenbrock, a student, at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
"The eulogies that followed the news of Unsoeld's death are not the sort reserved merely for a man who was among the first Americans to conquer Mount Everest," the Bellevue Daily Journal-American editorialized. "They are reserved for a hero. A hero who taught who virtually personified the values of self-reliance and persistence in the face of discouragement."
Willi was a strong, redheaded son of the American Northwest. To some people he seemed a character straight out of a novelby Ken Kesey, the northwest novelist whom he physically resembled Willie, the philosophy-spouting, back-slapping individualist. To others he was an American Odysseus on a journey to the unpeopled places. To still others he was a contemporary Captain Ahab:bearded, toeless old Willi out there with his plastic hips, searching for meaning and purity until white death dragged him down. Many heralded Willi as a saint, while some whispered privately that the man was virtually a murderer. Most considered Willi's concern for other human beings genuine and profound, while a few thought him a shameless manipulator.
Though the two bodies were still up on the mountain there would be a "memorable celebration" on campus this afternoon to commemorate Willi's and Janie's lives. On this fine day they had come from all over to tell tales of Willi, to sing the songs he sang, to remember what he had said and thought and felt, to laugh and to cry.
Some had known him when he had been a guide in the Tetons. Others remembered him as a philosophy professor to whom the mountains were not a weekend diversion but his crucible. A few had gone with him on the Everest expedition when he had climbed the Himalayan peak by the unknown, uncharted West Ridge, one of the great feats of mountaineering history. There was a contingent from his Peace Corps days when, as director in Nepal, he had been turned into a symbol for that idealistic young agency. Still others had met him while he was executive vice-president of Outward Bound, and he had seemed the embodiment of that organization. Some had climbed with him on expeditions, shared his triumphs, witnessed his tragedy. Many had studied under him, and whether the course was called outdoor education, philosophy, ethics, orwilderness consciousness, what they studied was Willi and his life. While still a teenager Willie had sung a song of daring and danger that is now heard on every hill, highland and mountain in the American wilderness. Willi had been a backpacking sojourner when the rest of America was getting on with the business at home, a precursor of the millions of people who seek solace and spiritual rejuvenation in the wilderness. Willie was a teacher who believed in risk as other pedagogues believe in the rod, or Latin, or weekly essays.
The day was well on its way to becoming the warmest March 11 since the Weather Bureau started keeping records. The even rows of folding chairs (including special orange ones for smokers) set out in front of the portable stage were filling up. People sprawled on the cropped green lawns or squatted on the red-brick walk.
It was 12:30 by the time on the great gray rectangular slab clock tower that Willi and his students used to rappel down. The clock had no numbers. The clock appeared an abstraction, like Evergreen's burnished gray cement buildings designed as much for form as for function. Over six hundred people had arrived already and more were coming. They filled much of this square through which Willi had come bursting several times a day, as likely as not fifteen minutes late for his next meeting. Of course, it was different on the days when the pain in his hips was bad, and he moved along at a tortured uneven gait, struggling against his crippled self. In the end, moving across campus, he had looked like the old man of the mountain. He had a seer's deep, tiny, glowing eyes and an unruly nest of beard, only a few embers of reddish-brown left among the silver and gray.
Willi's wife, Jolene, and his surviving children, Regon, Krag, and Terres, had put this gathering together. Although all three children would speak, Jolene had chosen not to say anything. She was a woman with intensity and energy that burned off any extra flesh on her body. In recent years she had become a one-woman good government crusade in the state, a familiar figure striding singlemindedly through the marble corridors in the state capital pursuing malefactors of power.
Regon Unsoeld moved to the microphone. Off and on for a good number of years Willi's twenty-six-year-old son had been a student at Evergreen. He was well known on campus. He had a curly brown beard and long hair that wreathed his face, softening intense, earnest features that resembled his mother's. "We saw that people were starting to fall in the aisles 'cause of this weird weather so we're breaking with Evergreen tradition and getting started within an hour of the scheduled starting time," Regon began."Regon and I have been trying to figure out some way to introduce this event today," twenty-two-year-old Krag Unsoeld said in a folksy voice. He, too, had a full beard and, unlike his older brother, the more laid-back manner of the sixties. "And I guess in many ways there are some things that need to be explained maybe to a lot of people. And that's why this event is billed as a memorable celebration. And this is really something which is completely natural. This celebration is an attempt to represent that living is a full circle and that in dying there is both joy and sorrow."
"Two minutes!" Terres Unsoeld's voice shot out when Krag's monologue had exceeded the agreed upon time limit. Willi's diminutive twenty-year-old daughter, an aspiring actress, was not about to let her brother destroy the drama she had helped orchestrate.
"One point that Regon and Krag didn't mention," Terres said in a spirited, lively voice like her father's. "We have generations and eras of many different people here to speak and the first group is outdoor ed. This is the program Dad was teaching this year at Evergreen.