When I was a kid I wanted to be Peter Pan,"" said Willi Unsoeld, the night before he died in an avalanche leading a group of...


ASCENT: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Willi Unsoeld

When I was a kid I wanted to be Peter Pan,"" said Willi Unsoeld, the night before he died in an avalanche leading a group of his Evergreen State College students down from a winter attempt on Mt. Rainier. ""The only never-never land I ever found was up here, above ten thousand feet."" Some faculty members thought the climb ill-advised, but Unsoeld disagreed: ""I've been doing this all my life, and I know what it does for people. I know what it gives people."" In this sensitive, balanced biography, Learner argues that what Unsoeld found in the mountains was a sort of mysterium tremendum, and that his life ""down below"" was a quest for something to match the beauty, intensity, and energy of climbing. He believed deeply in agapeic love and that, as a teacher, his life should be a moral lesson. Not your ordinary climber, then--but, at the height of his career, a brilliant one. (1960: first ascent of Nasherbrum, with George Bell; 1963: the epic first ascent of Everest's West Ridge, with Tom Hornbein.) Closer to sea level, Unsoeld was not an unqualified success. For years an itinerant grad student in religion and philosophy, he never settled down in academia and in the early Sixties jumped at the chance to go to Nepal as deputy head of the country's Peace Corps contingent. Though he impressed volunteers there as a dynamic personality (Learner among them), he was a ""dismal failure"" as an administrator. After Everest, he drifted in and out of the Outward Bound program; eventually he gravitated to Evergreen--a utopian college in Oregon where he taught courses like ""Wilderness and Consciousness,"" and became something of a guru to his students. His climbing hampered by arthritic hips, Unsoeld organized one final major expedition, in 1976, to Nanda Devi; the team included his daughter, named after the peak. On a personal level, almost everything went wrong: dissension split the Unsoelds from the young ""hard men,"" John Roskelley in particular, or whom there was no mysticism in climbing (perhaps, Learner suggests, Unsoeld finally met people he couldn't lead); and Devi Unsoeld died high on the mountain, in her father's arms. Privately, Willi may have blamed himself, but publicly ""it became an act of faith. . . that Devi's death did not refute Willi's philosophy."" Though haunted by the incident, Willi kept his faith in the mountains, and on his final climb led his students up Rainier in conditions that forced even the veteran Chouinard to retreat. Though Learner covers specific climbs (the West Ridge in detail), the focus here is on unraveling Unsoeld as a person--part Ahab, part Odysseus--a difficult assignment with which Learner copes admirably. For a large, variegated audience.

Pub Date: May 26, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982