A Mountain Called Her By Name

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unsoeld_and_daughter_200The ripple effect from Devi Unsoeld’s arrival as a new junior in our high school in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately.  My best friend elbowed me, pointing out a new girl being escorted down the hall by the assistant principal.  Students stared at the wake she left behind: Devi had wildly flowing wavy long blonde hair, a friendly smile and bold curious eyes making contact with everyone she met.  From the neck up, she fit right in with the standard appearance at the time:  as the younger sisters of the 60’s generation of free thinking flower children, we tried to emulate them in our dress and style, going braless and choosing bright colors and usually skirts that were too short and tight.   There was the pretense we didn’t really care how we looked, but of course we did care very much, with hours spent daily preparing the “casual carefree” look that would perfectly express our freedom from fashion trends and feminist longings.  Our nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.  But Devi didn’t look like she cared what anyone else thought of her.  The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, wondering whether she was “for real” and viewed her suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.

She preferred baggy torn khaki shorts or peasant skirts with uneven hems, loose fitting faded T shirts and ripped tennis shoes without shoelaces.  Her legs were covered with long blonde hair, as were her armpits.   She pulled whole cucumbers from her backpack in class and ate them like cobs of corn, rind and all.  She smelled like she had been camping without a shower for three days, but then riding her bike to school from her home 8 miles away in all kinds of weather accounted for that.   One memorable day she arrived late to school, pushing her bike through 6 inches of snow in soaking tennis shoes, wearing her usual broad smile of satisfaction.

As a daughter of two Peace Corps workers who had just moved back to the U.S. after years of service in Nepal, Devi had lived very little of her life in the United States.  Her father Willi Unsoeld, one of the first American climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest up the difficult west face, had recently accepted a professorship at a local college, so moved his family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks,  suddenly immersing his large family in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.

Devi recycled simply by never buying anything new and never throwing anything useful away, involved herself in social justice issues before anyone had coined the phrase, and was an activist behind the scenes more often than a leader, facilitating and encouraging others to speak out at anti-war rallies, organizing sit-ins for world hunger and volunteering in the local soup kitchen.  She mentored adolescent peers to get beyond their self-consciousness and self-absorption to explore the world beyond the high school walls.

Regretfully, few of us followed her lead.  We preferred the camaraderie of hanging out at the local drive-in to taking a shift at the local 24 hour crisis line.  We showed up for our graduation ceremony in caps and gowns while Devi stood at the top of Mt. Rainier with her father that day.

I never saw Devi after high school but heard of her plans in 1976 to climb with an expedition to the summit of Nanda Devi,  the peak in India for which she was named.  She never returned, dying in her father’s arms as she suffered irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit.  She lies forever buried in the ice on the faraway peak that called her by name.  Her father died in an avalanche only a few years later, as he led an expedition of college students on a climb on Mt. Rainier, only 60 miles from home.

Had Devi lived these last 32 years, I have no doubt she would have led our generation with her combination of charismatic boldness and excitement about each day’s new adventure.  She lived without pretense, without a mask of fad and fashion and without the desire for wealth or comfort.

I wish I had learned what she had to teach me back when she sat beside me in class, when she encouraged me in my tentative attempts at activism,  and when I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in her  nonconformity.  Instead, I mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she left behind on a snowy mountain peak.

17 thoughts on “A Mountain Called Her By Name

  1. Hey Briarcroft –
    So great to read your words. They echo in my heart, as an Evergreener who only knew Devi a year + before she left for her final climb.
    So who are You, how do you know her, and what prompted you to write now?
    I appreciate it!!
    Jack Van Valkenburgh

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  2. I’m a classmate of Devi’s from Olympia High Class of ’72, and think of her whenever I gaze at the snowy peak of Mount Baker out my kitchen window.

    I regret I did not become Devi’s friend when I had the chance, preferring to admire her character from a distance.

    I wanted to make sure I said it in some way.

    Emily

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  3. Will was the director of Peace Corps Nepal, and later of USAID/Nepal Rural Devel. Section and therefore my mentor while I lived in Nepal for 41/2 years (1963-68). The qualities you mention of Devi reflect the same passion for life and celebration of individuality that characterize both Will and Jolene Unsoeld, who raised four remarkable children: and if the truth be known, the 39 of us Nepal II volunteers who served when Willi was director: their house and hearts were always open.

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  4. Devi was one I knew and admired only in passing, when I was a student at TESC. Willi, her father was my professor the year after she died. I, at the time, had no idea what it was like to ‘lose’ a daughter. Now I am his age when he died and maybe I know or have experienced a bit more. His grief and despair must have been nearly unbearable at the time. I just spoke with Jolene, Devi’s mother, to let her know my husband is now on a trek going to the base of Nanda Devi, he knew Devi and is going to be with her now on his trip. It is Halloween, day of the dead, a time to think of and possibly communicate with those who have passed over.

    Your post and photos are a lovely remembrance of an incredible human being. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. A nice remembrance, thank you.

    I never met Willi Unsoeld but knew and climbed with a few of his protégés in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They revered him, and from them I learned Devi’s story. One thought–you refer to her dying from “high altitude sickness,” but I don’t believe they really thought this was the case–more likely something related to the hernia she was dealing with or possibly appendicitis?

    Willi wrote this in “Nanda Devi from the North”:

    “The fact that we will never know the exact cause is somehow additionally significant. It was none of the usual high-altitude maladies which claimed her so suddenly.”
    http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12197700100/print

    No doubt her death occurred at high altitude, but the evidence didn’t seem to indicate that it was caused by a high altitude sickness, that’s all.

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  6. I knew Devi and went to school with her in the 60`s when my family lived in Katmandu. Unfortunately I was very young, age 8 -11, and don’t remember too much about her. The thing that stands out in my mind most is Devi telling me on her father’s birthday the family had presented him with a cake that had three of his toes that had been amputated from frostbite on the top of the cake. Not very appealing but definitely something a young child would remember from all those years ago!

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  7. I dated Devi in our senior year, Olympia High School Class of ’72. Devi was the most unassuming yet charismatic woman I’ve met. After graduating Devi went on to Evergreen State College and I went to the dorm’s the other side of town at St. Martin’s College. Although only a short distance apart, college studies, dorm life, and part-time work took priority and we drifted apart. After almost 40 years, remember as clearly as if it was yesterday the shock, dismay, and grief picking up that October 1976 issue of People magazine at the McChord AFB Clinic waiting for my USAF flight physical. Looking at her picture in People, I was overwhelmed with disbelief and irony that she died on the mountain from which she was named. For those who knew her, she was as much a free spirit as any and a very special young lady.

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  8. Good to hear from you, Robert! Yes, I remember you at St. Martins while I was there for a semester. I hope what I wrote did Devi justice, as I really only “knew” her from afar.

    Emily

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  9. Emily – A fine job of capturing Devi. Chuckled at some of the detail, which was absolutely spot on – Robbie

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  10. First time I’ve heard about that story. I’m very impressed about this tragedy. 2009 I’ve been in Pacific Northwest. Nice lovely weekend 2 all of u.

    Boris Germany

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  11. I also attended Olympia High School in 1970, and Devi was my lab partner in Zoology class. She was a kind, friendly, humble, and beautiful person! I liked the way she was so accepting of everyone and nonjudgmental. She had a relaxed and unique way that she dressed and presented herself, and she smiled a lot. I myself never really fit in with the in-crowd and I sort of had an inferiority complex, but Devi was so accepting of me and seemed happy to be my lab partner and that made me feel great! She was lot of fun, really friendly and she was smart. And she never bragged or talked to me about her famous Dad, in fact I didn’t even know she was related to Willi Unsoeld until the end of the school year when he (And if I remember correctly, Jim Whittaker) and Devi did a mountain climbing presentation for the high school. I was just shocked! Later on, about 4 or 5 years, I was very saddened when I heard that my friend and lab partner Devi had died from what was believed to be altitude sickness while attempting to fulfill her lifelong dream to climb Nanda Devi, the mountain in India she was named after. I was also very sorry to hear of her dad Willi’s death two years later during a climb.

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  12. I very much enjoyed your account of what Devi was like in high school – thank you. Clicking on links while remembering the Unsoelds brought me here. I knew Devi’s younger sister Terres, and would go to their house whenever possible back in the early 70’s because – in addition to my being crazy about Terres – it was simply a great adventure to do anything with the Unsoelds. I only met Devi a couple of times, but I can say with certainty that she made an incredible impression wherever she went. She was absolutely beautiful, with an amazing smile that could knock you over. When I heard about her passing just after my senior year at OHS, it didn’t seem like it could be true. Thank you again for sharing your memories of this gentile spirit.

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  13. My friend Katya and her friends met Nanda Devi in Greece in 1972. They travelled overland with her to India. Devi knew the languages and the people along the way. Katya told me her story when she returned. She knew that her experience with Nanda Devi and what kind of a person she was would impress me too. We both wanted to be free.

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  14. totally sounds like the Devi I knew – that would have been right after she graduated from high school. Thanks for the that interesting additional piece of her history. Emily

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  15. Emily,L

    I am Krag (rhymes with frog), Devi’s younger brother. I came across your blogs last night and was touched by what you said about Devi. It is also amazing to see comments by old friends and former Peace Corps volunteers from Nepal days.

    The Unsoelds spent five years in Nepal. For the kids, this was where we developed our sense of who we were. We moved back to the U.S. by living in Andover, Massachusetts for three years. Andover, or should i say New England, is not exactly a warm, fuzzy place to be strangers in a strange land… So we were definitely outsiders!

    When we moved to Olympia in 1970, Willi was on the planning faculty for The Evergreen State College. Olympia was as pretty small town (although it seemed like a metropolis compared to Andover!) which was being shaken up by the siting of Evergreen. We had some kindred spirits to hang out with — other faculty brats as we were known. Basically children of other planning faculty for Evergreen.

    One of the things that kept both Devi and me going through high school was our dream of returning to our homeland, Nepal. Devi got out of school six months early so that she could leave to wend her way back to Nepal, first by getting to Europe, and then making an overland passage through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and then Nepal.

    She arrived in Nepal and let me know that i had better be there by Christmas of 1973 or she might just leave on her own. I first had to get approval to graduate a year early from Olympia HS. Then i had to recruit my buddy, and fellow faculty brat, Greg Youtz, to accompany me. Greg left for Europe before i did since i needed to earn some money by working an outdoor program for adjudicated adolescents in Missouri and working at the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch (no, this is not where they put old climbers out to pasture, it is a place where climbers could stay overnight while climbing in the Tetons). Then my brother, Regon, and i hitchhiked to St. Louis, picked up his old VW bus, and drove to the East Coast so i could catch my flight to Germany out of JFK. We spent a night in the van on the streets of NYC. Granted, we were at the address of the American Alpine Club (they run the Teton Climbers Ranch), so it was not a bad part of the city.

    When i got to Europe i had great difficulty contacting Greg. Remember the 70s? There was no email, no internet and no cell phones. I had to stand in line at post offices to be able to pay though my nose to use a public phone to call his folks to see what they had heard from him. I finally tracked him down in Leysin, Switzerland. He was staying at the Club Vagabond, and doing work to get a hotel ready for the upcoming ski season. From an anthropological perspective he was torn between seeing the town open for ski season and coming with me to Nepal. It was made more complicated since his parents sort of preferred that he sojourn longer in Europe and not head off overland to Nepal.

    Greg decided to come with me.

    [i’m not sure why i am writing so much, but story telling is something Unsoelds are known for.]

    Greg and i made a beeline for Nepal. We left Rome at the end of November. We flew to Istanbul with 60% discounts because we had student ID cards. We then took a passenger freighter down the north coast of Turkey, took buses to the Iranian border (i think we had 3 flat tires in the last 20 miles that had to have the bus jacked up, the tire removed, the inner tube patched, and so forth….), Mercedes buses across Iran, dilapidated buses across Afghanistan, over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, buses to India, a train to New Delhi. We were going to take a train to the Nepal border but the Indian RR workers went on strike. We had to get ticket refunds and a bunch of foreigners leased buses to get us to Nepal. We arrived 2 days before Christmas.

    Devi, Greg and i, along with a few other friends who showed up from time to time, and new friends that we met, did lots of trekking in Nepal. We were also fortunate to meet up with a Smithsonian scientist who was researching leopards and tigers for Nepal. They had just established Chitwan National Park to protect tigers and leopards, but they had no idea how many there were, nor what kind of range and prey species populations were needed to sustain them. We spent a month and a half in what is known as the southern jungle of Nepal, counting prey species, keeping 25-7 tabs on a radio-collared leopard with cubs, and avoiding encounters with the one-horned Indian rhinoceros.

    Devi and i travelled back to Pakistan where Willi was going to do a Mt. Travel trek. Originally it was going to be to hike around Nanga Parbat. We learned that this was not feasible because of the centuries of warfare between the folks who lived in the two valleys on opposite sides of Mazeno Pass. We redirected our efforts and ended up staying in the Rupal Nullah (valley) and climbing a 20,000 ft. peak that we named Subzasahr (Urdu for forever green, which was the closest we could get to Evergreen in Urdu). To pull this off Willi, Devi and i had to spend three weeks doing a recon of the area in order to learn what was there.

    After the expedition, Devi and i travelled back to Europe with Roget Mellem, friend from the States. We made it back to Europe and had to work pulling carrots and picking apples in Switzerland to earn money to buy Devi a plane ticket home.

    When we arrived on the East Coast we visited old friends, including Ad Carter (officially, H. Adams Carter) who was, among other things the editor of the American Alpine Journal. We spent some time with him in December 1974. Ad had been part of the 1936 expedition that had first climbed Nanda Devi. We agreed that it would be pretty grand if we could do a 40th anniversary expedition to honor that accomplishment. Devi and i imagined a family-oriented endeavor with the Emersons, Hornbeins, Unsoeld, Carters, etc. We knew that the journey was more important than the actual arrival.

    However, Ad was a quintessential organizer and wanted to make sure the expedition came about. He invited the folks from a US Dhaulagiri expedition to join us. There were some amazing folks included in that group — Andy Harvard, Pete Lev, Marty Hoey, and so forth. But there was one who was overly self-centered. I decided that i did not want to climb with him and would do my own expedition in Alaska. We were going to traverse Mt. Silverthrone, the Tri Pyramids, and Mt. Brooks, which had not then been done.

    Unfortunately, i had a bicycle accident and was in a coma for 22 hours. This was the first of my traumatic head injuries. In the aftermath i believed that i was living in a dream and did not take anything seriously. Devi left during that period. When i “awoke” from my dream and accepted that it was real, i was a new person living a new life. I had not personally connected with Devi in my new life. I wrote her a long letter and she responded but this was not enough to give me the emotional and visceral connections to her. All my memories were third person, as if i had been told these stories about the events but with which i had no personal connection.

    At the end of the summer i was working in Denali for the National Park Service. It was there that i found out about Devi’s death. I knew that we were climbing, travel and life partners and that i should feel devastated. But i could not feel the way i knew i should feel because my connections were too distant. This made me feel bad so i decided i would hitchhike down the Alaska-Canada highway (really a gravel road in those days) to gain some perspective. I got south of Whitehorse and got so discouraged with the lack of traffic that i would put out my thumb to go the direction that any car or truck was going. I eventually made it 100 miles north back to Whitehorse so i could fly to Vancouver, B.C. and hitch from there.

    The question on all of our minds was, “How do you handle death?”

    In Willi’s words, “You don’t. Death handles you. In rubs your nose in the reality of your mortality.”

    He went on to say, “I used to question why i hadn’t forbidden Devi to be on the mountain; why didn’t i muster all the shreds of whatever paternal authority i had over her to make her stay down? But i am old enough to know that these are the questions that you must not ask. These questions are illicit, illicit, you must cut them off at the bud. For that way madness lies…”

    Perhaps what Willi meant with this statement is that death is inevitable. There is no sense denying reality. When it happens we take it in stride and keep on keeping on.

    In closing here is Mary Elizabeth Frye’s 1932 poem,

    Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep

    Do not stand at my grave and weep
    I am not there; I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow,
    I am the diamond glints on snow,
    I am the sun on ripened grain,
    I am the gentle autumn rain.
    When you awaken in the morning’s hush
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circled flight.
    I am the soft stars that shine at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry,
    I am not there; I did not die.

    Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/do-not-stand-by-my-grave-and-weep-by-mary-elizabeth-frye

    Take care and be safe,

    Krag Unsoeld

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  16. Krag, It is wonderful to hear more Unsoeld history of Devi and your family and I appreciate you taking the time to fill in some gaps that I certainly had in my memories of her. I remember you from Mr Ray Arnold’s debate class – I think you were in debate at least a year and went to some tournaments?

    Thank you for the legacy you and your family have left with all the people and countries you have touched. It was a privilege to know you during those early years in Olympia!

    Emily (Polis) Gibson

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