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William Francis "Willi" Unsoeld ( Cave Junction 1950 )

posted: Jan 1, 2002

Willie, 52, died March 4, 1979, in an avalanche on Mt. Rainier, Oregon. He was leading a group of Evergreen State College students at the time. One of his students was also killed in the avalanche. There were 22 climbers in the group when they were hit by the avalanche at the 11,000-foot level. Willie, a philosophy and religion professor at Evergreen, was leading the group on a week-long climb. He was born October 5, 1926, in Arcata, California and had degrees from Oberlin College, U.C. Berkeley and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington.

In 1963, Willie and his climbing partner Tom Hornbein became the first individuals to scale Mount Everest via the peak's treacherous West Ridge route. The feat has been called one of the great "firsts" of mountaineering history and is regarded by National Geographic as one of the top-five Everest climbs of all time. By 1963, routes along two of Everest's three ridges were well established. The third route, up the West Ridge, was considered too difficult, and had not been ascended.

At 6:50 a.m. on May 22, 1963, Unsoeld and Hornbein left camp to begin their summit attempt. Four hours later, they had traveled only 400 feet. With Unsoeld leading the way through fierce 60-mph winds, they encountered a 60-foot rock wall, which they scaled using two pitons. This marked the point of no return, and they pushed on. They had to make it up and over or die. They reached a point where the ridge narrowed to a steep knife-edge and then arrived at the top. They summited at 6:15 p.m., three hours past what is considered the arrival time needed in order to survive the climb and get off the summit. Their bivouac at 28,000 feet was (is?) the highest on record.

By all accounts from Cave Junction, Unsoeld was a nice guy. Jumpers who knew him remember a climbing enthusiast who loved travel and books, and who relished crossword puzzles. Above all, he was unflappable. As Orv Looper (CJ-49) put it, "Nothing ever bothered him. He was the type of recruit every squadleader dreams of. Willi was very quick to learn, and nothing ever bothered him. I had to take away his crossword puzzle to get him into the door on his first jump! After waving his streamer upon landing, he took the puzzle out of his leg pocket and finished it. He was the calmest person I have ever been around; nothing bothered him."

Willie jumped the 1950 season at Cave Junction.