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.

12 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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