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Peak performance

Ascending into the rarefied air of a poetic death



Ask 10 people and eight will give you the same answer: Faced with the choice of how they had to die, most would probably prefer to go unawares, passively and logically in their sleep, with no knowledge of forfeiting this earthly consciousness for good. Your answer, of course, probably depends on what, if anything, you think awaits us all in the hereafter. But if you are hoping to die with as little awareness as possible of the pain, fear or other ontological hang-ups of the Big Event, you can safely count yourself among the majority who would treat it like leaving on vacation: with a clean room and resting easier in the knowledge that somebody is coming by to feed the dog.

Trailing a bit in these irrelevant standings, one imagines, are those who would close their eyes one last time on the blazing realization that they were dying exactly the way they would have chosen to die. Which, when you think about it, has everything to do with how most of us want to live. Grand passions for the outdoors, for example, often make for poetic deaths of the type that invite us to make comparisons between the two, the life and the death, and how fitting for someone who went after mountains with every drop of life-loving zeal to die soundlessly in an avalanche. Funny how no one ever says this about people who like to stay home doing crossword puzzles. No one ever says, “Well, at least she died doing what she loved: redecorating.”

Fatal Mountaineer tells the story of Willi Unsoeld, a gifted and phenomenally charismatic climber and teacher whose death-defying 1963 West Ridge summit of Mount Everest (with fellow climber Tom Hornbein) vaulted him into the pantheon of 20th century American mountaineering. It wasn’t the first summit of the peak or even the first American summit, but it was audacious beyond belief—the equivalent, perhaps, not of the first four-minute mile, but of the first four-minute mile in flip-flops. And with the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a race for supremacy on earth and in space, Unsoeld’s daring clamber to the very top of the world made him a knight of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot and a national celebrity.

As the main biographical staging ground of Fatal Mountaineer, however, author Robert Roper has instead chosen the scene of a far more mitigated success for his subject (whose Everest escapade, incidentally, lost him nine-and-a-half toes to frostbite). The bulk of the action takes place on Nanda Devi, a peak of scarcely comprehensible religious significance for nearly a billion people, a literal and figurative and transubstantiated goddess towering above a capital E-shaped mountain sanctuary in the Himalayas of northern India. Unsoeld first looked on the face of Nanda Devi in 1948 and pledged to name a daughter in its honor. Far from insignificantly, the namesake daughter, now the same age as Willi when he made his pact with Nanda Devi, is joining her father for a 1976 climb to honor the 40th anniversary of its first ascent by British climbers.

The expedition pits the deeply spiritual, old-school Unsoeld, for whom mountaineering is as much an exercise in teamwork and brotherhood as an ecstatic communion with the life-giving, life-taking forces of nature, against a new breed of climber that emerged in the 1970s. His foil on the mission, which was proposed by Devi, is John Roskelly, the kind of hard-assed, me-first, type-triple-A personality awakening to the career potential of climbing mountains, the gravy train of sponsorships and slide shows and lecture fees already enjoyed by his counterparts in Europe. As Roper explains it, the M.O. of a climber of Roskelly’s type is to climb brilliantly, relentlessly and selfishly in such a way as to shame most of the expedition into pack-mule status for those gifted few whom a kind of mountain Darwinism has seeded for summit glory. Almost as soon as the hike is underway, Roskelly and his fellow new-schoolers have splintered off into their own summit clique, splitting the expedition into the wills and the will-nots. The strongest among them, not the elected leaders, will be the ones calling the shots at summit time.

Roper is a brilliant writer, easily capable of sustaining an engrossing narrative while bringing his own satchel full of analytical tools to work on one climber, in particular, whose self-perpetuating legend has toward the end of his active climbing career grown to obscure the facts of the man himself. The picture of Willi Unsoeld that emerges in Fatal Mountaineer is a fond and generous one, keenly aware of contradictions, quick to credit the almost mythical personality as a force of nature in itself but also willing to have a go at analyzing it well past the obvious early beckoning of mountains and into more philosophical territory. Roper can write a good game on the Romantics, the Transcendentalists and other formative influences on Unsoeld’s mountain spiritualism, though these chapters at times seem more the residue of Roper’s own inquiries and less a thorough attempt at sluicing Unsoeld’s unorthodox brand of spiritualism through the analytical reagent. Roper’s encapsulations of the various schools of thought, well-reasoned and absorbing in their own right, occasionally leave their subject floating half-digested in the juice.

Perhaps just as it should be, and a minor quibble at that. Roper certainly can’t be held responsible for failing to parse this highly-principled personality into all too human foibles. Neither can he be accused of pandering to the tastes of readers looking for unalloyed heroism or, at the other end, relentless hero-trashing in their adventure nonfiction. Roper does make the reader both sorry not to have known his subject and glad not to have been around to see any feet of clay poking out of a filthy sleeping bag. And it’s a whacking good read.

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