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Fatal Mountaineer: The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan Legend Paperback – March 20, 2003


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Product Details

  • Series: High-Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Hima
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (March 20, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312302665
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312302665
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #906,875 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Unsoeld, who made the first ascent of Mt. Everest's West Ridge in 1963, was perhaps the most influential high-altitude mountain climber of the 1960s and 1970s; as a professor of philosophy at Evergreen State College, he was also an entertaining and "spellbinding" lecturer. The bulk of Roper's gripping biography describes Unsoeld's 1976 Indo-American Nanda Devi Expedition, which he conceived as a tribute to both to the first ascent of India's tallest peak in 1936 and to his 22-year-old daughter, Devi, who was named after the mountain and who joined the expedition as the fulfillment of a dream. Roper presents the troubled expedition marked by infighting, sickness and Devi's death from intestinal problems just short of the peak as a "sea-change" in climbing: whereas "the ethos of camaraderie" had been essential in Unsoeld's 1963 ascent, by the mid-'70s, it had disappeared. ("As Tom Wolfe declared," Roper writes, "it was the `Me Decade.' ") Through an analysis of Unsoeld's graduate studies in philosophy, Roper shows how the Nanda Devi climb was, in many respects, the realization of Unsoeld's belief that when an "outcome is shadowed by doubt and you may well be on a suicide mission, you feel most intensely alive." But in the two years of life that remained to him (he died in a Mt. Rainier avalanche in 1979), Roper argues that Unsoeld was "devoted to an active refusal to recognize what had happened." This is a provocative look at a still-legendary climber. Two 8-page b&w photo inserts not seen by PW.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

A spirit-seeking hippie before hippies even existed, mountaineering legend Willi Unsoeld named his daughter after India's tallest peak: Nanda Devi. Twenty-two years later, in 1976, Nanda Devi died on Nanda Devi. Her fate, her father's attitude about climbing, and mountaineering's transition from amateur hobby to slick commercial enterprise are all covered in this book. Roper does not offer a biography (a niche filled by Lawrence Leamer's Ascent, 1982) but, rather, sorts out conflicting accounts of Unsoeld's dissension-wracked expedition to Nanda Devi. Ostensibly undertaken to commemorate its first summitting in 1936, the expedition's real motive was to facilitate Nanda Devi's intimate communing with her eponym. Famed as half the duo that first climbed Everest via its western ridge in 1963, Unsoeld was past his prime 13 years later. So the group included a younger, stronger alpinist named John Roskelly, who was not looking for Hindu deities or self-actualization; he hoped to become an entrepreneurial guide. Not the smoothest of narratives, Roper's story of the conflict will nevertheless gain purchase with fans of adventure books. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

This book does not deserve the one star I 'had' to give it.
30knotwind
Mr. Roper obviously had no endorsement from Unsoeld's family, he cites no printed sources, has no endnotes, and no bibliography.
sweetmolly
The author wasn't on Devi, he wasn't on Everest in '63 and he wasn't on Ranier with Unsoeld when he died.
"teamw"

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 30 people found the following review helpful By sweetmolly on August 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Picture thousands of notes on 3" x 5" file cards and 100 pages of John Roskelly's "Nanda Devi, The Tragic Expedition". Throw them up in the air. Wherever they land, pick them up and submit them as a manuscript. That is the only way I can conceive this disorganized, unedited book was published.
It is hard to categorize this book. It is not a biography (see Laurence Leamer's "Ascent"). It is not a memoir; I don't believe the author knew Willi Unsoeld in life. "Fatal Mountaineer" concentrates mainly on three defining moments in Willi's life: his brilliant traverse of Everest via the West Ridge in 1963 when Unsoeld was at the peak of his ability, the tragic death of his daughter Devi on her namesake mountain, and Willi's death in an avalanche on Mt. Rainier at age 54. There are explanations and definitions of Bergson and John Muir's philosophies throughout. These two philosophers supposedly had a significant influence on Willi's spiritual outlook.
Sometimes it was hard to tell who was the main subject of this book, Willi or John Roskelly. The author seems to have a love/hate relationship toward Roskelly referring to him as the "Buffalo Demon" and a wily self-promoter while praising his mountaineering abilities to the skies. Mr. Roper's extensive quoting from Roskelly's book is unacknowledged by the author except for an asterisk on page 265.
The Nanda Devi climb that culminated in the mysterious death of Unsoeld's daughter, aged 22, is given the most attention. As the expedition leader and as a father, Unsoeld's behavior was strange to say the least; his exploitation of this tragedy afterward via lectures, slideshows, and presentations was inexcusable.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful By S. Reynolds on October 15, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I agree whole-heartedly with sweetmolly's review--it's a fair assessment and right on. Further, I can add that "Fatal Mountaineer" is full of distortions and inaccuracies, more than I have ever seen in any mountaineering novel intended to be non-fiction.
Myself being a writer, a collector of mountaineering lit, a climber, and knowing about Willi's life and his expeditions, I was highly disappointed in this book. Overall, the book and subject were very poorly researched; bad preparation and bad writing go hand-in-hand. Knowing that many of Roper's statements are nothing more than second-hand, inaccurate speculations, it was painfully difficult to read. Besides painting John Roskelley as an "enfant terrible" and "buffalo demon" (both of which he is not) throughout the entire novel, Robert Roper (no relation to honorable climber-writer Steve Roper) couldn't even spell Roskelley's name correctly. Never are there citings or resources given--nor is there defined reasoning--for Roper's speculation and suppositions, of which this is one: "Roskelly (sic) is a special sort of bully, someone who tromps all over others in their most uncertain places, who gets his way by his willingness to say hateful things."
If you're thinking of reading Roper's "Fatal Mountaineer," don't. Read instead Roskelley's first-hand account of the expedition that fills most pages of Roper's novel, "Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition." And even though it has it's own shortcomings, a much better biography of Unsoeld is Lawrence Leamer's "Ascent: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of the Legendary Mountaineer Willi Unsoeld.
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21 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Anonymous on January 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I do not recommend this book because I knew Willi Unsoeld, and this book does not talk about the man I knew. Willi was my teacher in the classroom and in the mountains and I spent many hours with him. The author does not capture the spirit or the vitality of Willi Unsoeld and actually wrote this book against the wishes of Willi's family. Even the title of this book is offensive to people who knew Willi because it is so far from the man who really existed. The author includes many assumptions and speculations about Willi that are far off the mark. I would love a book that explored Willi's life and his remarkable accomplishments, but this is not it.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Ken Holmes on December 12, 2005
Format: Paperback
Having admired Roskelley's accout of the '76 Nanda Devi expedition, I was curious when I found Roper's book on Willi Unsoeld at the Albuquerque library.

Unlike other reviewers, I felt that Roper's "digressions"--on Bergson, Muir, and on the CIA's attempt to place a tracking device atop Nanda Devi in order to spy on Chinese nuclear testing--were all fascinating, and essential to Unsoeld's (and Devi's) story.

Roper is a fine writer, capable of vivid, even poetic prose, in an era when we seem to demand nothing but spare, no-frills accounts. Indeed, few books can match Joe Simpson's TOUCHING THE VOID or Herzog's ANNAPURNA in mountaineering lit, but I found this book riveting, both for its accounts of the three central climbs that informed Unsoeld's life and death (Everest, Nanda Devi, Rainier) and for the philosophy that informed his life.

I would have liked a bit more on Unsoeld's experiences as a guide in the Tetons and on his pre-Everest climbs, but overall, I found this book extremely well-written.
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