The news this week of the deaths of climbers on Nanda Devi peak in Nepal recalls the story of my high school classmate, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, whose body still rests on that mountain for which she was named.
The ripple effect from Nanda Devi’s arrival as a new junior in Olympia High School in 1970 reached me within minutes, as I felt the impact of her presence on campus immediately. One of my friends 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 greeting 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 amid our feminist longings. Practicing careful nonconformity perfectly fit our peers’ expectations and aggravated our parents.
But Devi never looked like she cared what anyone else thought of her. The high school girls honestly weren’t sure what to make of her, speculating together whether she was “for real” and viewed her somewhat suspiciously, as if she was putting on an act.
The boys were mesmerized.
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 which she showed off while wearing tank tops. 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 a bit 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 in comparative religion at a local college. He moved his wife and family back to the northwest to be near his beloved snowy peaks, suddenly immersing four children in an affluent culture that seemed foreign and wasteful.
Devi recycled before there was a word for it 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 security of high school walls.
Regretfully, few of us followed her lead. We preferred the relative security and 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 the rumor was that 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 severe abdominal pain and irreversible high altitude sickness just below the summit. She lies forever buried in the ice on that faraway peak in India. 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 40 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 hiding behind a mask of fad and fashion and conformity and without the desire for wealth or comfort.
I wish I had learned what she had to teach me when she sat beside me in class, encouraging me by her example to become someone more than the dictates of societal expectations. I secretly admired the freedom she embodied in not being concerned in the least about fitting in. Instead, I still mourn her loss all these years later, having to be content with the legacy she has now left behind on a snowy mountain peak that called her by name.