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I Wish I Could Have Met Willi

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59) |

I knew that one of the legends in mountain-climbing had rookied at Cave Junction in 1950. Several books, articles and Google searches later, I've become fascinated by the life of Willi Unsoeld.

Back in October 1997, Jack Demmons (MSO-50) wrote a piece for The Static Line that shed light on Unsoeld's life and times. I'd like to expand a little on that article, and add to the historical record some of my own insights and research.

In 1963, Unsoeld and climbing partner Tom Hornbein became the first individuals to scale Mount Everest via the peak's treacherous West Ridge. 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 all accounts, 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."

Unsoeld died in an avalanche on Mount Rainier in 1979. He was up there with a bunch of students from Evergreen College, where he taught philosophy. One of the students died too.

These days, it seems as if anyone with enough cash can make it to the summit-thanks to state-of-the-art equipment and expert assistance. But the challenge is still formidable, and the danger still persists-as evidenced in May 1996, when eight climbers, including two team leaders, died in a 24-hour period on the peak.

Everest was formally discovered in 1852, but it wasn't until 1953 that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the 29,035-foot-high summit.
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.

Norman Dyhrenfurth aimed to change that. As the leader of the first U.S. expedition to Everest in 1963, Dyhrenfurth pegged team members Unsoeld and Hornbein for the job. The odds were against them, but in my book, success was imminent: I mean, who better than a Gobi smokejumper to take on the menacing West Ridge?

At first, there was talk of canceling the climb, a prospect Hornbein found deeply disturbing. "Dammit, how could they do it to us?" he's said to have asked the seemingly unfazed Unsoeld. "And how can you be so damn calm?" Hornbein added. Replied Unsoeld: "Got to, Tom. Just to keep you out of trouble."

Tackling the West Ridge was an enormous undertaking. Dodging avalanches and contending with 100-mph winds, the climbers set up camp at a biologically brutalizing 27,250 feet. Zones above 24,000 feet are known as "death zones," due to the fact that in these regions, human life will deteriorate rapidly without supplemental oxygen (which may be why most Everest summiteers don't hang around too long to enjoy the view).

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.

Articles I've read report that 3 p.m. is when climbers typically must begin their descent back to camp in order to survive. It was 6:15 p.m. when Unsoeld and Hornbein reached the top. After a 20-minute stay, they started down via the South Col route, facing the uncertain prospect of descending via an unknown route in the dark. By 7:15, it was so black that Hornbein couldn't see Unsoeld, even though only a short length of rope tethered them. Then Unsoeld's oxygen ran out.

At 9:30, they encountered fellow expedition members Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop, who were near exhaustion and nearly out of oxygen. Jerstad and Bishop had reached the summit via the South Col route at 3:30 that afternoon and had left at 4:15, figuring no one would be any later than they were.

The two sets of climbers joined forces, staggering through the darkness. Midnight came and went before they decided it was too dangerous to continue. It had taken three hours to descend 300 feet- the same distance they could probably have covered in 15 minutes during the day. The four men huddled until 4 a.m., when daylight began to appear. Hornbein noted Unsoeld's high tolerance for pain, as he was not complaining about his feet.

They resumed their descent, meeting up with expedition members bearing the priceless gift of extra oxygen. That night, they made it to camp. Unsoeld's feet were cold and hard as ice. So were Jerstad's and Bishop's. All three would ride the backs of Sherpas on the descent from base camp, and in the end, both Bishop and Unsoeld would lose toes.

Unsoeld and Hornbein had done it. They were the eleventh and twelfth individuals to scale Everest, but the first to do so via the peak's West Ridge. What's more, they had descended via a different route, which was considered to be as great a feat as the initial climb. In July 1963, President John F. Kennedy presented each member of the U.S. expedition, as well as each of the Sherpas who had been so instrumental to the team's success, with the National Geographic Society's Hubbard medal.

In the years after the climb, Hornbein became a professor at the University of Washington's School of Medicine. Unsoeld joined academia too, but not before stints with the Peace Corps and Outward Bound. Unsoeld was in his element at the laid-back Evergreen College, a liberal-arts school in Washington state.

In 1976, Unsoeld and his wife, Jolene, lost their 22-year-old daughter, Devi, on the slopes of Nanda Devi, the Himalayan peak for which she had been named. It was just over two years later that Unsoeld himself died on Mount Rainier.

To learn more about Unsoeld, I contacted some of the jumpers who knew him back in his Cave Junction days. Here's what they shared with me.

As told by Orv Looper (CJ-49):
"In the summer of 1950, I was training the CJ jumpers. Willi Unsoeld was hitchhiking to Eugene on the Redwoods Highway, which ran right by the base. Anyway, he saw us and asked what was going on. I explained to him what we were doing. He asked if we needed any more men. We were two men shy, so I sent him down to see foreman Cliff Marshall (CJ-46), and he was hired and started the next day.

"Willi had been on his way home from a trip around the world, which he did on a near-empty pocketbook. He had paid his way by giving climbing lessons and talks on climbing.

"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."

As told by Al Boucher (CJ-49):
"I knew Willi as 'Bill.' He fascinated me, because in 1950, you didn't know many civilians who had traveled so much or done so many things. I talked to some of the 1950 jumpers at the CJ reunion, including Bud Proctor (CJ-50) and Buzz Florip (CJ-50). They roomed with Bill at college and are two sharp guys. Buzz spent his career as a radio broadcaster. I also talked with Dick Courson (CJ-46), our old-time squadleader, who was a Marine paratrooper in World War II. He thought Bill was just a nutcase. He wasn't.

"I think that Bernie Welch (CJ-61) looked up Bill once when he was in India. Several of the jumpers at the base would go with Bill and climb mountains on the weekend. I declined, as I had better things to do than spend nights strapped to a cold rock at 8,000 feet.

"Bill was also skilled in the use of the sling for throwing rocks-much to the dismay of Courson. I'm sure you know that Bill's widow represented the state of Washington in the [U.S. House of Representatives]."

As told by Bob "Rigger" Snyder (CJ-48):
"I remember him for a couple things. He always kept a book with his jumpsuit, and whenever he was in the plane, he sat there and read and didn't talk. Also, he would disappear on Friday night and show up Monday morning after spending the weekend climbing a mountain somewhere."

As told by Terry Fieldhouse (CJ-47):
"Although I didn't realize it at the time, it was evident from conversations with Unsoeld that he'd been influenced by Eastern [religion] during his travels around India. He described to me traveling third class on an Indian train and getting terribly sick. A group of nurses brought him back to good health. I was always impressed with how cool he was in all situations. I was one of the younger jumpers, and Willi always seemed to be one of the more mature of the bunch. That wasn't at the expense of having a sense of humor."

As told by Don Wallace (CJ-49):
"I remember him clearly as a guy who got along well with everyone and who always carried his share of the load. But I also remember him as…somewhat 'apart.' He was certainly more intellectually mature than any of us, Dick Courson excepted, in spite of our being military veterans and college students. He told us that he had already been around the world on tramp steamers and had already climbed some important mountains. Willi was not the type to exaggerate, so I have no reason to doubt what he told us.

"On the way to a fire, all of us would be yakking away, trying to keep our minds off that scary first step into thin air. All except Willi, that is. He would be sitting there quietly practicing climbing knots with two short cords of rope that he always carried with him. Cliff Marshall said that this was Willi's way of whistling in the dark."

As told by Ed Hinkle (CJ-50):
"I knew Bill as well or better than most on the Gobi that summer. We became fair buddies. First we knew him as 'Bill'-these were his pre-'Willi' years. He was a very quiet, reserved guy, not a beer-drinker or hell-raiser, as some of us were prone to be.

"That summer, we overhauled an old '32 Plymouth that Bill had [acquired while] working in the Tetons. After the overhaul, it wouldn't start or even fire. I bet we pulled that old bitch for 30 miles up and down the strip trying to get it started. After about two days, me, the expert, finally figured out that I had the damned distributor in 180 degrees off. A few years later, Bill told me he was still driving it.

"Next, we decided to paint it using brushes. After a sand and prep, we went to work one early weekend morning down by the loft. That lying dog of a salesman said that we could simply apply the paint one way…and it would all flow together. Bullshit-it was the ugliest green Plymouth you ever saw!

"Bill read a lot, and I remember him deep in a book on our way to a fire jump."

As told by Bud Proctor (CJ-50):
"He was 'Bill' until later in life, when the international climbing community chose 'Willi.' Bill arrived late for training with a severely sunburned face from a training climb on Mount Shasta. He was quite good at yodeling, which he demonstrated whenever he was about to do something he considered exciting. Painting the toes of his friends' boots green showed a sense of humor that was just below the surface. I remember he never complained about anything. His endurance was unlimited, but he always stayed with the group and never flaunted it. His leadership skills weren't generally recognized, because he did not seek attention.

"We had a fire jump in the Trinity Alps and worked the fire for about 24 hours, before a ground crew from Yreka relieved us. I proceeded to get some sleep, but Bill had seen a huge monolith when we were flying to the fire and couldn't resist. He packed some food and water and went looking for it. About eight hours later, he returned, having found and climbed it. We flew to Yreka by chopper later that day. We bought some cheese with the little money we had-something he had done many times in Europe. This was just part of the adventure, and having the adventure was what it was all about.

"Out of high school, Bill worked his way to the East Coast, boarded a freighter and worked his way to Europe. At the Matterhorn, they told him he would need a professional guide. He felt [this] was too expensive, so he climbed it solo.

"At Oregon State, he worked at perfecting his climbing techniques, while keeping his grades close to A's. Climbs at the college often began early in the morning at the girls' dorm, where he would rappel from his girlfriend's dorm window.

"Later, while losing his toes to frostbite, he took pictures of the progress of their sloughing off. Made an interesting slideshow! Though he lost nine toes, he still could outdo most people in hiking and climbing. He commented, 'Losing my toes just gets me closer to the rock.'"

As told by Wilford "Ole" Olson (CJ-50):
"He was a very intelligent person and always had a book in his hip pocket. Each weekend, he took off in his clodhopper boots with a rope curled around his shoulder."

As told by Bob Scofield (CJ-49):
"He was not a hell-raiser, as we were wont to be; I don't remember a single occasion where he was found in the 'hoot.'

"He was a quiet sort, and a bit philosophical when he popped out with some witty quote. He was a hard worker.

"One thing I remember about Bill Unsoeld was when I got to go mountain-climbing with him-sort of mountain-climbing. Early in the season, Bill and I were given the job of carrying in supplies to the Pearsoll Peak lookout. The trail started on the Illinois River and climbed about 4,500 feet in four miles. I don't believe he stopped once on the way and definitely left me in the dust."

As told by Henry "Buzz" Florip (CJ-50):
"Bill and I both attended Oregon State College and lived at the Beaver Lodge, which was an off-campus co-op living group. Bill did succeed in getting me interested in mountain-climbing as a member of the OSC Mountain Club, and subsequently got me up a couple of mountains.

"We also had a lot of mutual friends at OSC who were interested in folk-dancing. Through that group, he met his future wife, Jolene Bishoprick. Her family was from Washington, and both she and Bill were later on the staff at Evergreen State College in Olympia.

"Bill and Jolene named their daughter after a mountain in [India] called Nanda Devi. The daughter later died on that mountain of pulmonary edema.

"I have a lot of fond memories of my association with Willi Unsoeld, even though I never caught his enthusiasm for mountain-climbing. Bill was a truly remarkable individual-very modest and unassuming, relatively small in stature, rather than [having a] 'super-athlete' appearance. [He was] a free-thinking individual who [had an] impact on those with whom he came into contact."