Book Review: Wild Adventures We Have Known by Jolene Unsoeld

by Louis F. Reichardt

The name Unsoeld resonates among Americans of my generation because of Willi Unsoeld’s legendary West Ridge ascent, traverse, and bivouac on Mt. Everest with Tom Hornbein in 1963. Completed shortly after President John Kennedy’s speech committing the United States to reach the moon by the end of the decade, this mountaineering achievement captured our imaginations at a time when optimism about our country and the world was high. Written by Jolene Unsoeld, Willi’s wife, with extensive text transcribed from her husband’s myriad lectures, this book indeed describes two lives, each full of adventures as wild as advertised. For those interested in the remarkable careers of both Willi and Jolene, the text more than meets expectations. The pictures of family, mountains, and peoples of distant lands are well chosen and provide attractive and welcome supplements to the author’s text. Although Willi sadly died in 1979 in an avalanche on Mt. Rainier, he lectured so frequently that the book provides innumerable, vivid, first-person examples of his humor and adventurousness. The book is consequently written as much by Willi as by Jolene.
Jolene & Willi engagement photo.

From reading this book, my single most vivid impression is how much as Americans we have changed from our shared senses of purpose, trust in the value of government, and optimism that infused our citizenry during the decades after World War II before trust in government was shattered by the Vietnam War and Nixon presidency. The text describes the life of a family who lived when America built bridges to the world, the civil rights movement pushed us towards the original vision of our Declaration of Independence, and America initiated with little controversy bold and imaginative projects such as the Peace Corps and placing a man on the moon.

The text traces Willi’s and Jolene’s family histories from before their births during the Great Depression through their early adventures as individuals and a couple. This review can recapitulate only a tiny subset of the many images the book captures of their lives. As one example, using Willi’s lecture notes, it describes Willi’s early infatuation with climbing, including his first fall, happily only about 20 feet. Shortly after, he enlisted in the army in 1944 as a seventeen-year-old, too young for active duty, but old enough to experience basic training, including crawling through mud under fire of live ammunition. With a strong sense of immortality, he used a weekend pass while stationed in Kentucky to drive to Colorado where he completed a challenging technical ascent of the East Face of Longs Peak, somehow managing to hitchhike back to Kentucky before the 5 p.m. Monday deadline.

Camp on Nanda Devi.
Equally fascinating is Willi’s description of his hitchhiking by every imaginable mode of transportation around the world, leaving the U.S. with $300 in his pocket and returning with $250. Along the way, he completed several worthy ascents in the Alps, including a solo ascent of the Matterhorn, met several of Europe’s most illustrious climbers, and made an unsuccessful attempt on the then unclimbed Himalayan peak, Nilkanta. As Jolene summarizes, “one of the most important things Willi came back with is “... that people the world over are made of pretty much the same stuff. The best way of understanding the fellow on the other side of the world is to go live with him on his level,” truth that today faces challenge from the highest levels of our government.

Jolene’s early life was equally interesting and included two years in Shanghai shortly after the Japanese invasion of China. Happily, the family returned to the U.S. before Pearl Harbor and escaped internment. This international experience gave Jolene a very similar philosophy and sense of our shared humanity that Willi acquired in India.

Willi and Jolene met as students at Oregon State College, where both escaped frequently to the Cascades, and were married in 1951. The book’s descriptions of their subsequent life together include adventures in the Tetons, a shared first ascent of the North Face of Grand Teton, the fulfillment of their plan to have four children, and the subsequent close encounters of Jolene and her young children with the bears that shared the Teton campgrounds. Willi’s education during this period included completion of a BS in Physics and a doctorate in Philosophy and Comparative Religions. Within three years of their marriage, Willi’s mountaineering adventures expanded to Makalu in 1954 and Masherbrum in 1960. Jolene describes candidly the challenges this posed to a marriage in which one partner was left for months of uncertainty with young children after which they were reunited with a wealth of unshared, but rich experiences.

Willi & Devi in the North Cascades.
My favorite section of the book is one that describes their lives together in Nepal from 1962 to 1965, where Willi was first Deputy Director and then Director of the Peace Corp. The story of his recruitment by Bob Bates, the first Nepalese Peace Corp Director, is simply hilarious; an ascent of Glacier Peak in the North Cascades with only one crampon; a tent pole as an ice axe; and a long john top as a substitute for pants. At that time, Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy’s inlaw and national Peace Corp Director, interviewed all candidates and Willi’s interview took place during a flight to Chicago with Shriver, on such short notice that Willi had no chance to take luggage.

The first cohort of Peace Corp volunteers embarked with the Bates and the Unsoelds together for Nepal and spent the first year improvising at they learned how to make a difference in the lives of citizens of a foreign country with which Americans had little prior experience. The book brought back to me the joy and wonder I felt during my own first visit to Nepal and its wonderful people in 1969. Nothing I write in this review can do justice to Jolene’s descriptions of their experiences there.
Somehow, Willi’s full-time job as Deputy Director in Nepal did not dissuade Sargent Shriver from granting him leave to join Norman Dyhrenfurth’s 1963 Expedition to Mt. Everest where Tom Hornbein’s and Willi’s first ascent of the West Ridge and bivouac created a legend.

Jolene’s text includes descriptions by Willi of this expedition and his exceedingly long recovery from frostbite and hepatitis that I was not previously aware of. More importantly, the text focuses on the challenges of separation when one’s partner is left with small children in a foreign land. Willi’s and Jolene’s letters to each other provide an intimate portrait of the expedition and life in Nepal complemented by superb photography of the mountains, expedition, and Nepalese people.

After Everest, Willi assumed the directorship of the Nepalese Peace Corp and subsequently a less satisfying year’s assignment with the America’s Nepalese AID mission. The book describes their return to the States and difficulties of readjustment where Willi became Deputy Director of Outward Bound, responsible for overseeing activities at the first five American sites. Most interestingly, it describes the creation of Outward Bound by the German Jewish educator Kurt Hahn, which he started in the UK to enhance through “intense mini-life experiences, young people’s ... capacity to cope with life,” a program designed to increase survival of sailors whose ships had been torpedoed by German submarines. Willi and Jolene clearly adopted Kurt’s philosophy that the “intense personal challenges at Outward Bound force students to recognize ... their fears ... in order to perform well ... on a mountain, or in life.”

Following Outward Bound, both Unsoelds were involved in the State of Washington’s visionary creation of Evergreen State College, partly at least to deal with the unrest resulting from the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement, where Willi integrated his life’s experiences into teaching the next generation.

This was the period when Jolene took her first steps toward what became a remarkable career of public service as a Washington state legislator and three term Member of Congress. Only the first tentative steps in this career are described in this book, but the ethics and commitment that must have inspired the confidence of her constituents are present throughout.

The final chapters of the book focus on their children’s adventures when it was still safe for Americans to travel overland to Nepal, before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and revolution in Iran. These adventures culminated with Willi’s and their daughter Devi’s return to the Himalaya for an attempt on Nanda Devi, a peak that Willi first saw on his unsuccessful expedition to Nilkanta in 1949. Devi, the mountain’s namesake, died unexpectedly high on this mountain. The book describes the deepest emotions of Willi, Jolene, and their children as they coped with this loss, a downside of releasing a child to live a life of risk. For me, a member of this expedition who continues to think about the “what ifs” that might have altered this outcome, this was the most personally moving section of the book. The family’s photos of Devi, the mountains and the local people are beautiful.

Their tributes to her life will resonate with every reader. Finally, much more briefly, Jolene addresses her family’s loss of Willi during a winter climb on Mt. Rainier in 1979.

The book describes a family that has lived lives full of hope, optimism, and achievement, but has also suffered far more than its share of tragedy.

To attempt a summary, this is a book that will interest everyone who enjoys biographies describing lives of exceptional individuals. The text is well written, candid and moving throughout. One suspects that some of the text from Willi’s lectures might have been condensed if he had been able to personally adapt them for this book, but this is a minor quibble. Not every section will have the same appeal for each reader. Some may be more interested in the mountain episodes, others in Nepal, still others in family descriptions, but this should not be a deterrent. The exceptional lives, philosophies and ethics of Willi, Jolene and their children accompanied by exceptional photography make reading this tome a wonderful experience. Jolene is currently working on a description of the more recent stages in her life’s exceptional adventure in politics, including her service as a Congresswoman.

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