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Ascent. The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Willi Unsoeld

Ascent. The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Willi Unsoeld, by Laurence Leamer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982. 392 pages, eight plates of black-and-white photographs, and N.G.S. pictorial drawing of Mount Everest. $17.50.

This biography of a great mountaineer of outstanding character is a shallow book written by a man who shows no understanding of the sport of mountaineering or the joy of climbing; or in my opinion of the man he writes about, for I knew Willi Unsoeld well. To Leamer, Unsoeld is a man obsessed with risk, who drives himself, his daughter and others to danger and death. Perhaps this approach sells books or movie rights, but it does not do justice to a man of extraordinary humanity and unselfishness who set high standards for himself and always had time to help others with their problems. Yes, Willi believed in risk as a confidence-and-character builder, so long as the risk was justifiable and the risk-taker was aware of the consequences of failure. Joining the Peace Corps is a risk. Marriage is a risk—but who wants to live in a risk-free world?

This book leaves a bad taste in the mouth, for it contorts an outgoing, outspoken, generous man into an egoist with a sick mind whose thoughts focus only on Everest and a death-wish so strong that he doesn’t care who dies with him. In similar manner, Unsoeld’s devotion to his close-knit family is questioned and his home life is treated with smug contempt. The well known stories of Willi’s climbs are the best part of the book. They shadow closely the original published versions familiar to climbers, but the often lengthy imaginary dialogues in the book are “based on recollections” only, yet read as if they were fact. Also some statements obviously made in jest are misinterpreted. Ignorance and carelessness result in numerous small errors too. Anyone who calls a glacial moraine “a long tongue of ice licking its way down the valley” or writes of the “ore-like rock of Everest’s summit” should not write about mountains or mountaineers. Willi deserves better.

Robert H Bates