Willi Unsoeld, the first ascent of Mt. Everest’s West Ridge and fatal death
Willi Unsoeld

During the 1960s and 1970s, Willi Unsoeld was possibly the most prominent high-altitude mountain climber. He was also a professor of philosophy at Evergreen State College, where he was well known for being an engaging and “spellbinding” speaker. Unsoeld made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1963. A significant portion of Roper’s captivating biography is devoted to describing Unsoeld’s 1976 Indo-American Nanda Devi Expedition. This expedition was conceived by Unsoeld as a tribute to both the first ascent of India’s tallest peak in 1936 and to his daughter, Devi, who was 22 years old at the time and who joined the expedition as the realization of a dream. The disastrous trip, which was marked by infighting, sickness, and Devi’s fatal death from intestinal issues just short of the peak, is presented by Roper as a “sea-change” in mountaineering. While “the ethos of camaraderie” had been vital in Unsoeld’s 1963 ascent, by the middle of the 1970s, it had evaporated. As Roper notes, “it was the ‘Me Decade.'” This is about Tom Wolfe’s declaration. Through an examination of Unsoeld’s graduate studies in philosophy, Roper demonstrates that the Nanda Devi climb was, in many ways, the manifestation of Unsoeld’s conviction that when an “outcome is shadowed by doubt and you may well be on a suicide mission, you feel most intensely alive.” Roper’s study demonstrates that Unsoeld’s ascent was the realization of Unsoeld’s belief. However, throughout the two years of his life that remained to him (he passed away in 1979 as a result of an avalanche on Mount Rainier), Roper contends that Unsoeld was “devoted to an active refusal to recognize what had happened.” This is a thought-provoking look at a climber who is still considered legendary.

Death On March 4, 1979, Unsoeld, who was 52 years old at the time of his fatal death, was killed by an avalanche while participating in an Outdoor Education Winter Expedition ascent of Mount Rainier. At the time, he was participating in an ascent of Mount Rainier with more than a dozen students from Evergreen State College. Along with one other student, Janie Diepenbrock from Sacramento, California, he passed away when they were descending from their high camp at Cadaver Gap.

“There are many guides who would not have taken on this particular climb with this particular group, but this is a matter of personal preference rather than a determination as to whether this climb was proper to attempt or not,” said one of the participants in a later analysis of the incident, excerpts of which were published by the American Alpine Club on their website.

Contemporary of Tom Hornbein, the American Willi Unsoeld disappeared in March 1979, 42 years ago. Portrait of this Everest-conquering mountaineer, and tragic tale of an expedition with his daughter.

The beginning of his climbing career is very uncertain. With a friend from his regiment, Willi Unsoeld took on the challenge of climbing in the Himalayas. But the mountains were far away, and it was first in the Swiss Alps that the two Americans honed their skills. It was the encounter with a woman, Laurie French, that accelerated their project. Together they would find the means to embark towards India.

Uncertain beginnings and repeated failures

In 1949, Unsoeld, French, and their friend Herbert Rickett were at the foot of their first Himalayan mountain. The Nilkantha, a 6,000-meter peak in the Garhwal. Rickett fell ill, and the project was quickly abandoned. Unsoeld continued to explore the region before returning home, determined to return to this part of the world. He discovered the existence of a summit that mesmerized him with its beauty: Nanda Devi.

In 1954, back in the Himalayas. This time in Nepal, for an attempt on a much more imposing mountain: Makalu. With a climbing partner, Unsoeld reached 7,150 meters but had to turn back as the summer weather approached. Another summit that eluded him, as the French/Terray duo succeeded in this first ascent a few months later. He did not succeed in this ascent but became a father. Unsurprisingly, his daughter was named Nanda Devi, after a mountain that means “joyful goddess.”

Willi Unsoeld: roped with Tom Hornbein

A few years later, it was Masherbrum that caught the Americans’ attention. Willi Unsoeld was part of the team. Alongside him, a doctor: Tom Hornbein. After several grueling weeks of expedition, he made the first ascent of this 7,821-meter mountain, with George Irving Bell.

Then came the 1963 expedition to Everest, by then three expeditions had already reached the summit of the world. The Americans could not remain on the sidelines; they had to be the fourth. Norman G. Dyhrenfurth led this expedition, which quickly turned into a nightmare, with a climber killed by a serac fall in the early days. Two teams were formed to explore two routes: Unsoeld and Hornbein (among others) aimed for the West Ridge. The result was soon to come, a few days later, the American flag was flying on Everest, the route via the South Col had paid off. The attempt via the West Ridge failed, and it was back to base camp.

As the season advanced, Unsoeld and a few others embarked on a final attempt. At a certain point, Hornbein and Unsoeld, now alone, realized they could no longer turn back. If they did not reach the summit, they would be trapped. Yet at around 6:15 p.m., a radio call came from the summit; the two men had managed to climb up the dizzying couloir, thereafter named the Hornbein Couloir. Oxygen bottles soon ran out, and without a tent or sleeping bag, the bivouac was harsh at 8,500 meters. Luckily, the wind died down. Two other climbers climbed up to meet them in the early morning: Hornbein and Unsoeld were saved. But the latter returned with far fewer toes, frozen on Everest.

Willi Unsoeld and Nanda Devi

Time passed, and in 1976, a new expedition was organized. Unsoeld’s daughter, named Nanda Devi in homage to the mountain, was behind it. She was 22 years old at the time and took on the organization of this very special expedition. Because the idea was to open a new route on Nanda Devi (the mountain this time) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first ascent, which dates back to 1936.

Among the members of the expedition were great figures of North American mountaineering of the time, including John Roskelley. In a few weeks, a first team of climbers opened a route on the north face of this mythical 7,816-meter mountain. A second team made its way to the summit, including Nanda Devi Unsoeld, who had been complaining of health problems for some time.

Willi was at base camp, ready to form the third team to climb to the summit. Devi exhausted herself to reach Camp 4 and did not find the strength to continue; two other climbers were with her. Soon three, since her father joined them as bad weather blocked them for several days. As all hope of a quick retreat vanished, Devi’s condition deteriorated further in a few hours. She died in the tent of Camp 4 alongside a climber who had become her boyfriend and her father. Her body was thrown, by Willi, into the northeast face, as a tomb.

A few years later, in 1979, it was an avalanche that carried Willi Unsoeld away on Mount Rainier.

A legacy

Willi Unsoeld, who is called “The Father of Experiential Education,” was a significant figure in the development of outdoor education and served as a source of motivation for educational leaders such as Simon Priest. His worldwide view and philosophical approach to life served as a mentor to environmental visionaries such as Caril Ridley.

Without relying on the experiences of others, his worldview emphasized the significance of taking risks in education, experiencing the holy in nature, and gaining personal experience rather than relying on the experiences of others. His engaging approach to mentoring served as an inspiration to thousands of followers.

Is it possible for you to remain in the wilderness? Because it is not located in that location; rather, it is located back in the city, namely in the downtown area of St. Louis and LA. The final test is to determine whether or not your encounters with the sacred make it possible for you to deal with the issues that others face more effectively. If it does not make it possible for you to deal with the issues more efficiently — and there are times when it does not, and there are also occasions when it pulls you out into the wilderness and you remain there for the rest of your life — then, according to my scale of worth, it is considered to have failed. You go to nature to have an experience of the divine… to reestablish your touch with the center of things, which is where it is truly at, to enable you to return to the world of people and function more effectively. To bring about the realization of the kingdom of man, you need first seek the kingdom of nature.

The annual Willi Unsoeld Seminar is conducted at Evergreen as a living monument to Unsoeld, who was a mountaineer, a philosopher, and a theologian.


About Author



Leave a Reply