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Spirituality & Outdoor Education

Willi Unsoeld
Brief Biography & Quotes

James Neill
Last updated:
05 Nov 2006


Brief Biography

  • Willi Unsoeld (1926-1979)
  • 1963, one of the first Americans to climb Mt. Everest, via a more difficult route
  • Played a leading role in the Pacific Crest Outward Bound School before moving to Evergreen College
  • Charismatic and inspiring spokesperson for the outdoor education movement in North America
  • Philosophy focused on:
    • knowing the sacred in nature,
    • the importance of risk in education and
    • getting personal experience rather than relying on the experience of others,
    • all rolled into good humor
  • Lost his daughter, Nanda Devi, from "unknown causes" whilst climbing together with her on her namesake.  Willi Unsoeld died himself two years later while attempting a winter ascent of Mt. Rainier, aged 52, with Evergreen college students
  • His life has been recorded in biographies and plays


...Risk is at the heart of all education.

...Why not stay out there in the wilderness the rest of your daysÖ? Because that's not where men areÖThe final test for me of the legitimacy of the experience is 'How well does your experience of the sacred in nature enable you to cope more effectively with the problems of mankind when you come back to the city?'

...It has to be real enough to kill you.

...It doesn't matter what it is, you have to have something to fight. Doesn't have to be a mountain, but it has to be something. And it isn't important whether you win or lose. Only that you keep fighting.

...You've climbed the highest mountain in the world. What's left? It's all downhill from there. You've got to set your sights on something higher than Everest.

...The key to Unsoeld's evangelical credo about mountain climbing is that we have become alienated from our bodies and our "selves" because we're alienated from nature; that the experience of nature is so mysterious, so powerful and so fascinating that it cannot be put into words; that intense experience, to the point of putting your life at risk, is a path to discovering your bliss. He argues repeatedly that words cannot substitute for experience; to prove his point he even drags an audience member onto the stage (a foundation executive with one of the Arden's principal funders the night I saw it) to do a simple physical trust exercise. (Cary M. Mazer)

...He didn't climb a mountain merely "because it was there." His task was to know himself better, to test himself. Unsoeld was instrumental in establishing the Outward Bound program, premised on the notion of pushing beyond one's personal comfort zone to gain a deeper grasp of the soul. He was once asked by a fearful mother if he could guarantee her son's safety; no, he told her. But by sheltering her son from risk, he added, she would guarantee the death of his soul. (Rick Pender)

...Why donít you stay in the wilderness?  Because that isnít where it is at; itís back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles.  The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people.  If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems - and sometimes it doesnít, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life - then when that happens, by my scale of value; itís failed.  You go to nature for an experience of the sacred...to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where itís really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively.  Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of people might be realized. (Unsoeld, 1974)

...Willi Unsoeld, the short, ebullient pioneer of the first ascent of the West Ridge of Everest during the successful American Everest Expedition...

After spending time working as a Peace Corps director in Nepal, he joined Outward Bound and traveled about the country giving speeches and promoting Outward Bound.  Outward Bound could not have found a better spokesman, for Unsoeld was a dynamic, charismatic speaker.  Eventually Unsoeld became disenchanted with personalities in the higher levels of the organization and took a job with an experimental school in Washington, Evergreen College.  With no departments, no faculty rank, no grades, no required courses, Evergreen was to the liberal-minded Unsoeld an educator's dream.  Unsoeld taught year-long courses such as "Individual in America," utilizing wilderness recreation as a means to stimulate philosophical study and discussion.  (* Some of his classes became so unstructured that most of the class time was spent simply hammering out what students wanted to get out of class.  Some of his brightest students dropped out in frustration.)

A few years earlier, Unsoeld had been a spokesman for Outward Bound, but his increasing popularity made him a spokesman for the whole wilderness recreation movement.  More people than ever before were flocking to the mountains, rivers, and wilderness areas.  His life, full of energy, changed tragically when his daughter, Devi, died while attempting to climb the Himalayan mountain, Nanda Devi, for which she was named.  Two and a half years later, Unsoeld and a young student were caught and both died in an avalanche while his party of Evergreen students were attempting a winter ascent of Mount Rainier. (Ron Watters)

Biographical Detail

prepared by Jackson Wilson, 2003
  • Born October 5, 1926, Arcata, California, USA
  • Schooling
    • Eugene, OR
      • High School
    • Oregon State College
      • B.S. Physics
    • Oberlin College Graduate School of Theology
    • University of California, Berkeley
      • B.D. Theology
    • University of Washington
      • Ph.E. Philosophy 1959
  • Family
    • Married to Jolene Unsoeld
      • Jolene served 4 years in the WA state legislature and 6 years as a US congress woman from WA
    • Two daughters
      • Terres
      • Nanda Devi
        • Devi died on the Himalayan mountain that she was named after in a 1976 expedition up the mountain with her father. The cause of death was probably due to high altitude blood clotting problems.
    • Two sons
      • Krag
      • Regon
  • Work
    • Smoke Jumper (forest fire fighter who parachutes in)
    • Climbing Instructor
      • Oregon State University
      • Washington State University
      • Indian Military Academy
    • Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Oregon State College
    • Outward Bound Executive
    • Director of Peace Corps in Nepal
    • Professor of philosophy and founding faculty at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington
  • Climbing
    • Part of the Yosemite climbing scene
    • Guided in the Tetons
    • 1960 Led the first successful ascent of Masherburn, 25,660 feet.
    • 1963 Summitted Mt. Everest via the West Ridge with Thomas Hornbein
    • First traverse of Everest or any major Himalayan peak
      • Summitted at 6pm
      • Bivouacked overnight at 28,000 feet
      • Barry Bishop Quote on Everest Expedition:
        • For the next five and a half hours we remain anchored to that rock. [Our teammates] Willi [Unsoeld] and Tom [Hornbein] occupy a spot where they can move a bit. Tom struggles out of his crampons. Then, with typical selflessness, Willi removes Tom's overboots, boots, and socks and warms the feet by rubbing them against his own belly."
      • Willi and Barry lost toes from frostbite
    • Received the Hubbard Medal, National Geographic Society
    • Received the Elisha Kent Kane Medal, Geographic Society of Philadelphia
    • Died in an avalanche on March 4, 1979
      • Was leading an Evergreen State College expedition on Mt. Rainier when an avalanche killed himself and one student, Janie Diepenbrock
  • Literature
    • Ascent: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Legendary Mountaineer Willi Unsoeld; Laurence Leamer, 1999; Quill
    • Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition; John Roskelly, 2000, Mountaineer Books
    • Fatal Mountaineer: The High Altitude Life and Death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan Legend; Robert Roper, 2003; Griffin
  • Other
    • Subject of 1998 biographical play, "Willi"
    • The Northwest chapter of the Association for Experiential Education gives an annual award away that is dedication to Willi Unsoeld