Tuesday 19 March 2013

Fatal Mountaineer

Fatal Mountaineer is a story of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan legend who in 1963 became a hero by climbing the Everest by the West Ridge along with Tom Hornbien. In fact, Unsoeld is a hero for Jon krakauer the author of Into Thin Air. Though the title Fatal Mountaineer is misleading in the sense that this book, unlike what is publicized, is not a biography on Unsoeld.

Ice climbing

The story unfolds with the death of Willi on Rainier mountain in an avalanche in 1979 and then proceeds on to the 1976 Nanda Devi expedition. Even on the expedition the book is less about Willi but more about the factional fights among the climbers. A lot of content talks about John Roskelley, the man who climbed Nanda Devi by a new route along with Louis Reichardt and Jim States. Also Roskelley was vehemently against any females joining the expedition fearing that it jeopardizes chances of success.

The book, winner of Boardman Tasker Prize for literature, delves a lot on Unsoeld’s daughter whom he had named Nanda Devi at birth for he was enchanted with the mountain. In the end Nanda Devi the climber is committed (dies at 24000 ft on the mountain) to Nanda Devi the mountain or Nanda Devi the goddess as is known in the Garhwal Himalayas. In fact lot many years later also people are questioning whether it was wise for her to continue climbing when she was not fit enough. But I feel that high on the mountains it is you yourself who can take that call and no one else.

Nanda Devi sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains closed for all activities either for the locals or the outsiders and was opened for a short time. But the book also reveals, which I was completely unaware of, that the CIA in connivance with the CBI tried to place a nuclear device on top of this mountain in 1965 to spy on the Sinkiang region of China during those cold war days with disastrous consequences. They were unable to reach the top and dumped the nuclear device to come back the next year to complete the process and when they came they could not find the device as it was completed hidden by snow and ice debris and it is even possible that some radio active leakage may be wrecking havoc in this sanctuary even now.

What is lacking in the book by Robert Roper is that it only delves on two of Willi’s climbs of his climbing life (Everest and Nanda Devi) and more or less completely ignores his other achievements. 

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