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October 5, 1926|
Arcata, California, United States
|Died||March 4, 1979
|Alma mater||Oregon State University
University of California, Berkeley
University of Washington
|Known for||First ascent of the West Ridge of Mount Everest|
Willi Unsoeld (October 5, 1926 – March 4, 1979) was an American mountaineer who, along with Tom Hornbein, were members of the first American expedition to summit Mount Everest on May 22, 1963. Unsoeld and Hornbein's legendary climb was the first ascent from the peak's west ridge, and the first major traverse of a Himalayan peak. His subsequent activities included working as a U.S. Forest Service Smokejumper, Peace Corps director in Nepal, speaker for Outward Bound, faculty member at Oregon State University and The Evergreen State College and mountaineering guide. An avalanche during a winter climb of Mount Rainier took his life.
Born in Arcata, California, Unsoeld was raised in Eugene, Oregon, and received degrees from Oregon State University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington. He helped to create the OSC Mountain Club during his time at Oregon State University.
Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein ascended Everest’s difficult West Ridge route in May 1963 on a National Geographic Society sponsored expedition while Barry Bishop and Lute Jerstad followed Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s South Col route established during their 1953 climb. It was the first simultaneous attempt from two directions.
The grueling expedition cost Unsoeld nine of his toes and required several months of recovery in the hospital. Unsoeld and the team reunited in July 1963 when they were presented with the National Geographic Society’s highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, by John F. Kennedy.
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After his stint in the Peace Corps, Unsoeld joined Outward Bound and traveled about the country giving speeches and promoting the organization. Unsoeld lived and died by his philosophy that spirituality and a real grasp of the soul could be gained by risk and pushing past one's personal comfort zone.
After leaving Outward Bound he became one of the founding faculty at The Evergreen State College in Washington State. He was highlighted prominently in the first recruiting video in 1971, advising that "not every student should come to Evergreen".
It was at The Evergreen State College where he conceived an Outdoor Education Program. This program consisted of four distinct Habitat Groups, one of which was the Winter Mountaineering Group. Academic programs at the college at the time were designed to last a year or less.
Unsoeld married Jolene Bishoprick in the 1950s; they had two daughters and two sons. Jolene Unsoeld and their two sons, Krag and Regon, reside in Olympia, Washington.
In 1976, Unsoeld and his daughter Nanda Devi were on an expedition to climb her namesake mountain Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in India. His daughter died during the climb, which was plagued by accidents and eventual tragedy. Asked at his home (where a picture of Devi was displayed over the fireplace) how he could continue climbing after losing his daughter, Willi responded: "What – you want me to die of a heart attack, drinking beer, eating potato chips, and watching a golf tournament on TV???"
Unsoeld died in an avalanche during an Outdoor Education Winter Expedition climb of Mt. Rainier in March 1979 at the age of 52. He was leading over a dozen students from The Evergreen State College on an ascent of Mt. Rainier at the time. He died during the descent from their high camp in Cadaver Gap along with one student, Janie Diepenbrock from Sacramento, California.
A later analysis of the mishap, excerpts of which were published by the American Alpine Club, said in part: "There are many guides who would not have taken on this particular climb with this particular group, but this is a matter of personal preference rather than a determination as to whether this climb was proper to attempt or not." 
Known as "The Father of Experiential Education," Willi Unsoeld influenced the growth of outdoor education, inspiring educational leaders like Simon Priest. His philosophical approach to living and global perspective mentored environmental visionaries like Caril Ridley.
His philosophy focused on experiencing the sacred in nature, the importance of risk in education and getting personal experience rather than relying on the experience of others. His dynamic style of mentoring inspired thousands of followers.
Why don’t you stay in the wilderness? Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s 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 doesn’t, 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; it’s failed. You go to nature for an experience of the sacred...to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s 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 man might be realized.
Evergreen’s annual Willi Unsoeld Seminar is held as a living memorial to Unsoeld as a mountaineer, a philosopher and a theologian.
- "Guide to the Willi Unsoeld Collection 1963–1979". Nwda-db.orbiscascade.org. 1979-03-04. Retrieved 2012-01-11.
- Hornbein, Thomas F. (1965). Everest: The West Ridge. The Sierra Club. ISBN 0-04-796013-2.
- Unsworth, Walt. (1981) Everest. Allen Lane (Penguin Books) ISBN 0-7139-1108-5. pp 363–392
- Ullman, James Ramsey. (1963) Americans on Everest. J.B. Lippincott, Philadelphia
- Roskelly, John (2000) Nanda Devi: The Tragic Expedition Mountaineer Books
- Roper, R. (2002). Fatal mountaineer: The high-altitude life and death of Willi Unsoeld, American Himalayan legend. New York: St. Martin's Press. 306 pages. ISBN 0-312-26153-5.
- Avalanche, Bad Weather, Washington, Mt. Rainier - AAC Publications - Search The American Alpine Journal and Accidents In North American Mountaineering
- Leamer, Laurence (1999) Ascent: The Spiritual and Physical Quest of Legendary Mountaineer Willi Unsoeld Quill books
- Unsoeld, W. (1974). Spiritual values in wilderness. Paper presented at the Association for Experiential Education Conference, Estes Park, CO.