Fatal Mountaineer - The High-Altitude Life and Death of Willy Unsoeld, by Robert Roper
St. Martin's Press
$29.95 hard cover, $15.95 paperback
Let me say up front that, if you enjoy mountaineering books in general, you will like Fatal Mountaineer by Robert Roper. It tells the story of Willi Unsoeld, renowned American mountaineer, through both an examination of his life and a retelling of his tragic 1976 expedition to India’s Nanda Devi. Roper delivers everything we have come to expect from the mountaineering genre: the drama of a team of climbers forging a new route up one of the Himalayas’ tallest peaks, the gory details of the interpersonal friction with which such a team always grapples, the technical details of the climbing itself, and a tragic ending complete with personal regret and inter-team recrimination. Mix this together with a broad overview of the philosophic and personal details of Unsoeld’s life, and you have everything needed for a riveting tale of mountaineering glory and tragedy—everything, that is, except the tale itself.
The difficulty with Fatal Mountaineer is that, unlike the many books written by Reinhold Messner, Chris Bonnington, or Ed Webster, it was not written by one of the ’76 expedition’s members. As an outside journalist Roper can only guess at the details of the route by which the ’76 expedition climbed Nanda Devi, at the motivations and opinions of the team members, at the technical challenges of the climbing, and at the true significance of Unsoeld’s daughter’s death to Willi and the rest of the expedition. The books is, and reads like, a hazy second hand account. To make matters worse, many of the people who knew Willi or were on the expedition were unwilling to share their knowledge with Roper—either out of a desire to protect their own, or Willi’s, reputation. As a result, the book is composed of short chapters relating the details of the ’76 expedition broken up by longer chapters exploring the details of Willi’s life and personal philosophy—and thus ends up feeling like a magazine article extended to book length through the addition of a considerable amount of filler.
Having said all this, I want to emphasize again that I enjoyed reading Fatal Mountaineer, even given its flaws. The book helped me pass two days on an airplane and four days in Las Vegas on business, and helped me to ignore the fact that I had no time to climb in Red Rocks…and there is definitely something to be said for that.