Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fatal Mountaineer, by Robert Roper

Robert Roper, in Fatal Mountaineer: The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American  Himalayan Legend, writes a limited, but deeply analytical biography of one of the United States' most complex climbers. Roper frames the narrative around Unsoeld's 1976 expedition to Nanda Devi, using Unsoeld's actions and decisions on the mountain to define him, and setting up expedition member John Roskelley as Unsoeld's foil. The story of Unsoeld is closely tied to the story of American mountaineering in the 1960s and 1970s, though he doesn't always fit into it neatly. His philosophy, a John Muir-esque transcendental / Christian mix, often  puts him at odds or extremes in relation to his fellow climbers, but those who come to know him closely generally form a healthy respect for him. The 1976 expedition is a highly contentious one, with firebrand Roskelley pushing against Unsoeld throughout the climb. Marty Hoey comes down with cerebral oedema and is evacuated, while Devi Unsoeld, Willi's daughter, dies high on the mountain during the summit climb. This is a limited biography, however, and I was left wanted to read more about Unsoeld's Masherbrum expedition and other earlier climbs.

Willi Unsoeld is perhaps most famous for making a traverse of Everest via the West Ridge along with Tom Hornbein during the American Mount Everest Expedition in 1963 (see Hornbein's Everest: The West Ridge). Roper covers the expedition in a chapter, noting that Hornbein sets up the expedition as an us-versus-them struggle with Unsoeld as the behind-the-scenes hero of the West Ridge. Roper states that expedition leader Dyhrenfurth, as a filmmaker, from the beginning tried to set up a Hollywood-worthy struggle within his expedition. He also mentions Unsoeld aversion to the science going on during the expedition, especially the two-pound diaries they had to carry at all times. Roper considers Dyhrenfurth's lobbying the Peace Corps' director as the primary force that allowed Unsoeld to participate in the climb, but he overlooks the potential influence of Unsoeld's direct supervisor at the time, Charles Houston, a man equally drawn to the high mountains, famous for his exploits on K2.

Fatal Mountaineer is a great look at Unsoeld. There is also an earlier biography of Unsoeld, Laurence Leamer's Ascent, which I hope to read soon to make a comparison.

This post is a revision and expansion of an earlier entry, which can be found here

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