Willi Unsoeld became an international hero during the Kennedy years, when he emerged as probably the greatest American climber of the Himalayan golden age. Displaying the sort of vigor that President Kennedy so admired, Unsoeld became the most visible hero of an ascent of Everest's previously-unclimbed West Ridge -- an ascent that cost him parts of both feet and nearly his life.
His casual fearlessness and physical power established the template for extreme adventure, and his lectures as a charismatic professor inspired the generation of the sixties to test itself in acts of physical daring. Fatal Mountaineer sets Willi Unsoeld's intense life against the story of two defining adventures: the triumph on Everest and a more ill-starred expedition in 1976, when he led a group of mountaineers up a new route on Nanda Devi, the tallest peak in India. One of that gifted group of climbers was Willi's daughter, Devi -- a golden girl named for the mountain she sought to ascend with her beloved father. The intense rivalries within the expedition team, and the dangers of the route, led to an outcome darkened by tragedy, an outcome that continues to fuel one of the most tormenting debates in mountaineering history.
Blending adventure with a frank look at the cultural background, Fatal Mountaineer considers the pressures on mountaineers in a period of our history torn by conflict. It balances hunger for fame with stark tragedy, a man's ambition with a father's love. Unsoeld emerges as an American classic, a self-invented genius of adventure to rank with Mark Twain or Will Rogers for sheer attractiveness. Under the close scrutiny of this thrilling story, his heroism turns out to be deeply authentic-as does his suffering.
Unsoeld, who made the first ascent of Mt. Everest's West Ridge in 1963, was perhaps the most influential high-altitude mountain climber of the 1960s and 1970s; as a professor of philosophy at Evergreen State College, he was also an entertaining and "spellbinding" lecturer. The bulk of Roper's gripping biography describes Unsoeld's 1976 Indo-American Nanda Devi Expedition, which he conceived as a tribute to both to the first ascent of India's tallest peak in 1936 and to his 22-year-old daughter, Devi, who was named after the mountain and who joined the expedition as the fulfillment of a dream. Roper presents the troubled expedition marked by infighting, sickness and Devi's death from intestinal problems just short of the peak as a "sea-change" in climbing: whereas "the ethos of camaraderie" had been essential in Unsoeld's 1963 ascent, by the mid-'70s, it had disappeared. ("As Tom Wolfe declared," Roper writes, "it was the 'Me Decade.' ") Through an analysis of Unsoeld's graduate studies in philosophy, Roper shows how the Nanda Devi climb was, in many respects, the realization of Unsoeld's belief that when an "outcome is shadowed by doubt and you may well be on a suicide mission, you feel most intensely alive." But in the two years of life that remained to him (he died in a Mt. Rainier avalanche in 1979), Roper argues that Unsoeld was "devoted to an active refusal to recognize what had happened." This is a provocative look at a still-legendary climber. Two 8-page b&w photo inserts not seen by PW.