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The Unsoeld Story

by Jolene Unsoeld |

Editor's Note: A number of smokejumpers have asked what happened to Willi Unsoeld, who first jumped out of Cave Junction in 1950. We were able to contact his widow, Jolene Unsoeld, residing in the Olympia, Washington area, and she very graciously provided us with information and pictures of Willi and members of the family. (Jolene served for four years in the Washington State legislature and then six years as a U.S. Congresswoman from Washington.)

Willi was born in Arcata, California and attended high school in Eugene, Oregon and Shafter, California.He graduated from Oregon State College at Corvallis, Oregon in 1951, earning a B.S. in physics, a year after he first became a smokejumper at Cave Junction, Oregon. He attended Oberlin Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin, Ohio and then received a B.D. in theology from the Pacific School of Religion at Berkely, California in 1954. Willi spent four years at the University of Washington in Seattle, and in 1959 earned a Ph.E in philosophy.

He held a number of positions from 1958 through 1979, to include being an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Oregon State University; Director of the Nepal Peace Corps Project; and a faculty member of the Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington, which included being associated with six different programs at that institution.

Willi's great love was mountaineering. At the age of 12 he was climbing mountains and through 1946 had scaled peaks in the Washington and Oregon Cascades, Yosemite Valley and the Tetons.

Some of his adventures included being on the first successful ascent of Masherbrum (25,660') in the Western Himalaya with the American-Pakistan Karakoram Expedition in 1960. Willi was with the first ascent of the West Ridge route on Mt. Everest in Nepal with the American Mt. Everest Expedition during 1963, and this adventure included the first successful traverse of any Himalayan peak and set an altitude record for survival, following a forced bivouac at 28,000'. (Mt. Everest is 29,028' high.) In 1976 he was co-leader of the Indo-American Nanda Devi Expedition, which made the first ascent of the North Ridge. Willi once served as a mountain-climbing instructor at the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun, and at the Washington and Oregon State Universities.

He was the co-recipient of the Hubbard Medal, National Geographic Society, 1963 and the Elisha Kent Kane Medal, Geographic Society of Philadelphia, 1963.

The family had four children, Regon, Krag, Terres and Devi. Devi was named for Nanda Devi Mountain in the Indian Himalaya area, a name that means Shining Goddess. Tragedy struck the Unsoeld family in 1976. Devi suffered a blood clot while climbing that mountain and conditions were such that it was impossible to recover her body and she remains there today. Willi said that experience opened his life to the reality of death and he could never look at it again quite the same way.

He had asked, "How does one handle the death of a surpassing human being?" His answer was, "You don't. It handles you. It rubs your nose in the reality of your mortality...We are not in charge in the face of reality and nature, and in the final analysis, I wouldn't have it any other way."

On March 4, 1979, Willi was with a group of his students from the Evergreen State College and they had been on Mt. Rainier—elevation 14,410', 40 miles southeast of Tacoma, Washington—for a week participating in a winter mountaineering expedition, which was part of the Outdoor Education program he taught at the college. Inclement weather had kept them down low on the mountain early in the week, but by mid-week good weather and stable snow conditions allowed them to ascend to Camp Muir and then establish a base camp at 11,800', from which the group made an unsuccessful attempt to reach the summit.

The party was hit by a storm late that Saturday and on Sunday was descending in high winds and heavy snowfall when an accident occurred. Willie and Jani Diepenbrock, one of his students, were on the lead rope when an avalanche was triggered, carrying them 500' down the slope and burying them under several feet of snow. The third person on the rope managed to keep a hand above the snow and was quickly located by a fourth person who had been only partially buried. Quick rescue efforts by him and the second rope team helped save the third climber, but Willi and Jani died under the suffocating snow before they were located, about 45 minutes after the incident. This expedition had been the first real mountain attempt by Willi after he had had both of his arthritically-deformed hips resurfaced in March and June of the previous year. During that expedition Willi had been jubilant at being back at 10,000'. As a youngster he had written on his parka, "Life begins at 10,000". He had experienced great joy being back in the clouds, snow and icy slopes Jolene later wrote to friends.

Jolene also wrote: "The empty space which has been left in our lives, as in so many others, often feels as deep as the crevasses Willi used to leap and as vast as the mountainous regions of the world that used to echo his joyous yodels. Yet through our tears breaks an understanding smile, a shared recognition that here went two remarkable people doing what they chose to do, knowing that in the mountains they would find wonderous beauty along with risk and the lesson of each other."

Another wrote, "And if Willi felt the push of high mountain snow, tons and tons and tons of it, hugging him tightly and blotting out the sky—it might have been just the kind of ride he'd ask for. They say he's dead; buried by an avalanche. But don't believe them, for it's not true. Hey Willi! You up there! Beautiful show! And Willi—Hey! Don't you ever, ever rest in peace..."

"Death," Willi once said, "is not too great a price to pay for a life full-lived."

At the age of 52, Willi, one-time smokejumper, mountaineer and an incredible individual, had lived life like few people have. He was found of saying, "It doesn't matter what it is, you have to have something to fight. Doesn't have to be a mountain, but it has to be something. And it isn't important whether you win or lose. Only that you keep fighting."