A solid account of the exploits of American mountaineer Willi Unsoeld, who made his reputation in 1963 as the first to climb Everest by the formidable West Face, a feat still not duplicated.
Unsoeld, who died at age 52 in an avalanche in 1979, was a professor of philosophy and wilderness guide between expeditions. Novelist and mountaineer Roper (Cuervo Tales, 1993, etc.) believes Unsoeld’s life also illustrates the transformation of mountaineering that occurred during the 1960s and ’70s. Roper follows in the footsteps of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997), which launched a flood of books describing extreme adventures accompanied by disasters that might have been avoided by strict adherence to the virtues of a previous era. Until the ’60s, climbing was pure sport. Climbers earned a living elsewhere; even large expeditions were assumed to work as a team. Books about mountaineering extolled bravery, suffering, and self-sacrifice, never mentioning conflicts and bickering. The “me decade” of the ’70s saw the flowering of professionals who could earn a living climbing mountains. These were superb athletes, but fiercely ambitious and self-absorbed. An intense competitive spirit appeared, and writers happily recorded the cliques, feuds, and controversies that accompanied each expedition. Roper concentrates on the landmark 1976 conquest of Nanda Devi, a remote and difficult Himalayan peak. Led by Unsoeld, the expedition mixed traditionalists with prickly, media-savvy, virtuoso climbers and included Unsoeld’s daughter Devi, herself a skilled mountaineer. She died struggling to reach the peak, and Roper tells a story packed with adventure, suffering, scandal, heroism, and controversy. Having the benefit of many written accounts of the expedition, the author tries to tease the facts from conflicting versions, draw lessons from the epic feat, and explain both Devi’s death and her father’s response to it, which seemed even to some friends to be almost creepily serene.
Roper has only spotty success in finding a deeper meaning in Unsoeld’s story, but the story itself is always fascinating.