Fatal Mountaineer: 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

by Robert Roper

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In 1963, Willi Unsoeld became an international hero for his conquest of the West Ridge of Everest. A charismatic professor of philosophy, Unsoeld was one of the greatest climbers of the twentiethth century, a man whose raw physical power and casual fearlessness inspired a generation of adventurers.

In 1976, during an expedition to Nanda Devi, the tallest peak in India, Unsoeld's philosophy of spiritual growth through mortal risk was tragically tested. The outcome of that expedition continues to fuel one of the most fascinating debates in mountaineering history.

Fatal Mountaineer is a gripping look at Willi Unsoeld and the epic climbs that defined him—-a classic narrative blending action with ethics, fame with tragedy, a man's ambition with a father's anguish.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312302665
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/20/2003
Series: High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Hima
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Robert Roper is the author of many novels and story collections including Cuervo Tales, The Trespassers, and In Caverns of Blue Ice. He contributes to Men's Journal and has also written for Outside, National Geographic Adventure, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

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July 14, 1976: Climbers and porters mill about outside a drenched village, Lata, in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. Only two and a half years before the accident on Rainier, everything is different for Willi.

For one thing, his hips haven't deteriorated completely. He gets along okay on his stumpy, toeless feet, in his funny foreshortened boots. A man of average dimensions — five feet ten inches, never more than 170 pounds — he has always harbored enormous power in his ordinary-looking limbs. And here he is at forty-nine, setting out without much preparation to climb Nanda Devi, at 25,645 feet the tallest peak in India. Not for Willi the punishing gymrat regimes, the special diets and two hundred pull-ups in an hour of the hardbody climbers just then emerging on the scene; instead you shape up by going on a couple of hikes, maybe playing some handball during lunch hour, and you rely on the trek to the base of the peak to get the lard out of your ass.

On this unpromising, drizzly day, nine American and two Indian climbers are at last getting going, having traveled by truck to the end of the road. Beyond Lata is nothing but goat paths, steep forest tracks, rock ridges; the eleven, whom we might as well call sahibs, after the Indian fashion, are accompanied by eighty porters from the nearby villages, each with an ungainly sixty-pound bundle tied to his back.

There isn't a special moment, an on-your-mark, get-set, GO signaling the start of a mountain adventure; instead there's turmoil, last-minute uncertainty, out of which this or that portion of the group can at last be seen heading up the trail. Adding to the general harum-scarumness is the presence of 120 goats, each wearing a set of wool saddlebags containing food for the porters. Driven this way and that by the bhakriwallahs — the native goatherds — the animals move with sudden flurries of hooves, looking like a school of frightened fish.

Willi is the coleader of this impressive disorderly undertaking. He is surrounded by some of the people he loves best in the world. The offhandedness of the moment is much to his taste, too: in his beloved Himalaya, which he has been visiting most of his life, questionable caravans have been setting out for thousands of years in just this style, in rain and mud, to the bleating of goats, with the percussive sound of porters, many of whom look tubercular, hawking on the greasy stones.

Willi's coleader, H. Adams Carter, is editor of the American Alpine Journal, house organ of the distinguished American Alpine Club. Carter is as close as an American can get to incarnating the Victorian ideal of climbing's golden age, the era of the great British expeditions, Mallory and all that. There is a sweetness, a forthright decency, about Carter, a sort of Goodbye, Mr. Chips quality — which is exactly right, given that he is Mr. Chips, a legendary French and Spanish teacher at Milton Academy in Massachusetts. Carter has been a mentor and an admirer of Willi's for years. Carter and his wife, Ann, who at this moment is nursing a sore back in Delhi, two hundred miles to the southwest, are close to Unsoeld's wife and four children.

One of those children — Willi's vital, splendidly blond, glowingly warm twenty-two year-old daughter, Devi — is another of the sahibs who at last have started moving up the trail. Her full name is Nanda Devi Unsoeld, and indeed, she's setting out today to climb her mountain, the mountain she's named for, after years of planning this trip and a lifetime of dreaming about it.

How an American girl comes to be named after an Indian mountain, which itself bears the name of the most awesome, most ecstatically worshiped goddess in the Hindu pantheon, is a story in itself. Willi has been telling it for years: how, as a green twenty-one-year-old, he went bumming around the world, traveled by tramp steamer, climbed in the Alps, got an iron-working job in Sweden, and when he reached India, tried to climb Nilkanta, another peak in the Garhwal — only to fail miserably. Sick, broke, and dressed like a beggar in rags, he was eventually rescued by a medical missionary. And then one day, as Willi likes to tell audiences, "I went wandering up on a windy ridge, and from afar off I saw this superb peak, and I was absolutely smitten by its symmetry and its mystery. And the thought occurred to me, twenty-one years old and a little retarded, 'You know, I need a wife,' a logical first step in the acquisition of a daughter. Because I suddenly wanted a daughter badly, I wanted her so that I could name her after that captivating mountain."

Devi, as she's called, is a good-looking, big-shouldered, pearly-toothed dreamboat very much in the countercultural style of the seventies. She's a feminist pioneer in a way, since women are still extremely rare on Himalayan climbs. She has a smile that breaks hearts and that heals them, too. She speaks pretty good Hindi, and the porters, spooked perhaps by her awesome name, and by her golden good looks (said to be a distinguishing mark of the goddess), by her Western female openness and naturalness, are already calling her didi, which means "older sister." As Lou Reichardt, another member of the team, will later write in an account for the American Alpine Journal, "Many may have suspected she was the Goddess Nanda returning to visit her mountain."

Three of the sahibs, with black umbrellas over their heads, suddenly break out of the mess of goats and porters and uncertainty. They sprint up the trail as if to put as much distance between themselves and the others as possible. Shreds of cloud obscure their going, and they soon disappear in the rhododendron forest.

All is not well with the Indo-American Nanda Devi Expedition of 1976.

Conceived of as an anniversary climb — to honor the first ascent of the peak, in 1936, by the Englishmen H. W. Tilman and N. E. Odell — already the expedition has an opéra bouffe quality, with hints of complete fiasco. The climbers have divided with shocking viciousness into two factions. Just the day before, the team's strongest technical climber, John Roskelley, a twenty-seven-year-old enfant terrible from Spokane, Washington, lit into the dignified, sweetly decent Ad Carter, accusing him of ineptitude. As Roskelley would later claim, in a self-serving and highly readable book, Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition, his beef with Carter was a matter of logistics and common sense: he wanted either Willi or Ad to step up, take the helm, no more of this coleader crap. Somebody has to give the orders and really mean it, assign tasks to the lazier team members, with the goal of everyone making it to the mountain in reasonably decent shape.

This outburst, not the first and not the last from Roskelley, and staged with maximal brutality, but in the name of "common sense," provoked Willi to an uncharacteristic rage. It also left Carter feeling deeply hurt. Carter personifies common sense, and he has been working hard for a year to see that they arrive at the base of the mountain with everything they need for a shot at the summit. To attack Carter and his mountaineering judgment is to ... to attack mountaineering history itself! To impugn the essence of Himalayan climbing! Carter was on that first ascent of Nanda Devi way back in '36, a mere stripling of twenty-two who didn't get the summit but who carried well and earned a lot of merit, and his bona fides are not to be doubted.

The incredible snottiness of this Roskelley fellow, who was invited along only for his alpine skills (certainly not his charm), put Ad in a blue mood, and he confessed to Jim States, the team doctor, that he was thinking about not going to the mountain after all. That he didn't feel "needed." This is a little like General Eisenhower telling his men on the eve of D-day that he feels unloved and is thinking about sitting out the invasion of France.

In any case, a breach, a chasm, has opened up within the group. On the one side is Roskelley and his fellow Spokane climber, Dr. States, a recent med-school grad and director of Spokane's methadone program, a bearish, red-bearded fellow who has climbed all over with Roskelley, acting as his Sancho Panza. On the other side is everybody else: Willi; Devi; Carter; the expedition's only other woman, twenty-four-year-old Marty Hoey; Peter Lev, thirty-five, an experienced Tetons mountain guide; Andy Harvard, a law student and Himalayan veteran at twenty-seven; and Elliot Fisher, twenty-three, a Carter protégé on his way to Harvard Medical School.

Willi's faction wants an alpine-style ascent of the mountain: light, fast, aesthetic, leaving Nanda Devi roughly as found, with few signs of human presence. Roskelley and States want that summit by any means necessary, and they intend to get there by following the never-before-climbed North Ridge route. The Roskelley group considers it madness to think of scaling a peak as enormous, as deadly, as Nanda Devi in midmonsoon season without a ladder of camps at several elevations, plus lots of fixed rope for jugging along between the camps. There has already been a tremendous hassle over how much rope to haul in for fixing pitches on the mountain. Thousands of feet, shipped from Germany in six-hundred-foot spools, have been left behind in Delhi, despite Roskelley's loud protests. And before that, Lou Reichardt, joining Roskelley and States, secretly stuffed extra rope in what would become the porter loads, having despaired of convincing the others of the dire need for it.

But the rope problem is nothing compared to the toilet paper problem.

Devi, who spent several years as a child in Nepal — Willi had been director of the Peace Corps there, from 1962 to 1965 — knows the folkways of the Himalaya much more intimately than does the average longhaired tourist. When she was a little blond kid, she was playing with Nepalese children her age, learning their languages, their games, sharing their outlook and their gastrointestinal infections. When Devi says something on the order of People here have been shitting happily for five thousand years without using toilet paper, so why should we? she may sound like a typical hippie diphead, rejecting all manifestations of bourgeois Western hygiene, the body-fearing obsession with being odor-free and squeaky-clean; but though she may sound that way, she's not just talking through her hat, and she's willing to put her privileged American bottom on the line. A year ago, at the planning session for the expedition, she was already taking a hard position on TP, mocking Roskelley for his wipe worries and making the environmental case against wasting trees. The general idea is that their trip to her sacred mountain be exemplary in as many ways as possible, the antithesis of the lumbering, siege-mountaineering extravaganzas of the past. They will not waste hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they will not leave behind a typical Western garbage-strew. (Roskelley, feeling he was in the presence of true madness, "made a mental note to add six rolls to my travel bag, just in case she won the argument.")

Peter Lev will later say about their expedition that "everyone acted out of character," meaning that the angry confrontations over every damned thing warped everyone's behavior. "Even Roskelley, who if he'd been on a trip only with his redneck pals, would never have caused the intense bad feeling that he did." Redneck vs. hippie, old school vs. new, the mainstream, oppressive, materialist American silent-majoritarian colossus vs. the airy-fairy, leave-no-trace, exquisitely sensitive youth-cult New Age. A quarter century after those strange days, it's difficult to recapture the state of mind that could lead educated adults to think that world history turned on how they wiped their behinds! Along with the toilet paper issue, there went a great debate over what food to take, Roskelley and his allies, who came to include Lou Reichardt, opting for ordinary freeze-dried fare up on the mountain, while the Willi-Devi-Lev-Harvard group argued for eating the local grub found along the way, in order to carry less but also to bring them closer to the native folk. The point is not that reasonable people might disagree about food, an important and vexed issue on any serious climb, but that they thought they were proving some larger point, that "the whole world is watching."

Ad Carter, prep school disciplinarian, might have been expected to put a stop to this nonsense. But Carter is strangely cowed (or maybe just dismayed) by the ferocious intensity of every debate. The thing about being a grand old man and a WASP blue blood is that it's fun only up to the point where people stop acknowledging your authority; when you have to really bang their heads, get them to behave, the point of the whole venture has already been lost. Carter keeps wanting to go off and photograph flowers. He's come this way before, up the torrential Rishi Ganga {ganga means "river," as in Ganges), and he wants to commune with his forty-year-old memories. His great climb with the immortal Tilman wasn't spent arguing about toilet paper!

That leaves Willi, but Willi is deeply implicated in the brouhaha. Cannot claim an impartial position at all. And truth be told, he kind of likes the turmoil. Why not invite a guy like Roskelley on your trip, a guy with a serious reputation as a hard-ass, a bigmouth, an in-your-face Iago. Aside from the fact that Roskelley's a brilliant climber — very much in Willi's own mold as a younger man — there's something promising about getting people of wildly different temperaments together and forcing them to deal with stark utter fear. They aren't proposing to climb Nanda Devi by the old milk-run route, but by a line on the mountain that nobody really knows anything about. There aren't even any decent photos of it. And they'll be climbing during the monsoon, when huge dumps of snow will create horrendous avalanche conditions. Somewhere in the back of everybody's mind is the thought I could die here, I could really die, along with the opposite thought, Nowhere else I want to be. Too unspeakably beautiful and thrilling. Oh, Jesus ...

Now, that's a promising paradox. Willi thrives on impossible situations where you dig deep down and by some indescribable Promethean juju save your ass — and incidentally make your mark. Quite lovely to be acknowledged best in the world — he climbed the West Ridge, yeah, that red-haired guy over there — but that's not the point. On Everest thirteen years before, one of his fellow climbers, a sociologist trained at the University of Minnesota, conducted a study called "Communication Feedback in Small Groups Under Stress" while high on the peak, one of those ridiculous scientific-sounding excuses for getting more money from sponsors. Except that this guy, Richard Emerson, an old friend of Willi's and Tom Hornbein's, actually discovered something of note. Willi has been quoting it and elaborating on it in his lectures for years, and it somehow goes to the very heart of what dicey Himalayan expeditions are about for him, to wit: that intense desire and excitement vary inversely with certainty. When the outcome is shadowed by doubt and you may well be on a suicide mission, you feel most intensely alive.

Given a secure outcome, your average member of a small group will tend to go slack. Given a piece-of-cake proposition, a summit handily in reach, such as Everest's by the South Col, that insufficiently stressed member will even manufacture uncertainty to keep his head in the game, his feelings fresh. This current Nanda Devi venture, then, in line with Dick Emerson's insight, promises to be exceptionally on the alert, a hill scramble for the ages. Not only do they have the weather to worry about, and the unknown route, and the avalanches, and the porters and their bleating goats, plus who knows how many other objective obstacles to confront in the coming weeks — they also have each other. They will be attempting to climb this awesome peak while hating each other's guts.


Excerpted from "Fatal Mountaineer"
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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roper.
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