OK 'Fatal' dives into climber's philosophy

FATAL MOUNTAINEER: THE HIGH-ALTITUDE LIFE AND DEATH OF WILLI UNSOELD, AMERICAN HIMALAYAN LEGEND, by Robert Roper, St. Martin's Press, 256 pages, $24.95.

Willi Unsoeld is an American mountaineering legend, and this new book examines his life, triumphs and the deaths of him and his daughter during high-altitude climbs.

The book starts off strongly with a capsulized look at Unsoeld's own death in an avalanche on Mount Rainier on March 4, 1979, but it gives way too much detail on his life and philosophies that are explored in the rest of book. It does recover somewhat in Chapter 22 as it recounts the death of Willi's daughter, Devi, while climbing Nanda Devi in India on Sept. 7, 1976. (Devi was named after the pyramidlike mountain, India's highest.)

Unsoeld's daughter became increasingly ill from altitude sickness during the climb and no other team member — especially her father — was forceful enough to make her quit.

Willi Unsoeld was a member of the 18-member American team that conquered Mount Everest in 1963 on a never-climbed-before west face route, though he lost nine of his 10 toes during the adventure. (He had to wear special-order hiking boots thereafter.)

A philosophy professor, Unsoeld climbed Rainier some 200 times and took a group of 29 college students on the fateful climb — his first since his daughter's death almost three years earlier.

Weather played a key factor in both deaths.

March is historically a bad avalanche month, and there was a heavy snowfall during the ascent. But Unsoeld was undeterred; he wanted to be at the summit for a solar eclipse.

One other student also perished in the avalanche, but somehow the rest made it back despite blizzard conditions.

On the Nanda Devi climb, a late monsoon season and continued heavy snowfall on the mountain also makes you wonder why the group kept going. The climbers could not carry Devi's body off the mountain, so they wrapped her a sleeping bag and hurled her body off a cliff. Unsoeld was incapable of carrying his daughter's pack and belongings off the mountain, so they had to be discarded.

Overall, this book, which features eight pages of photographs, is a cautionary tale of how pursuit of a mountain at any cost and in any weather can have deadly consequences. Unsoeld's philosophy — that life begins at 10,000 feet and above — must be challenged by his and his daughter's deaths.


E-MAIL: lynn@desnews.com

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