It’s easy to sell me $1.99, even $2.99, eBooks for my Kindle reader, but I generally avoid newly issued titles costing $13.99. Susan Froderberg’s essay on how she came to write her new mountain-climbing novel Mysterium has a lot of the same kind of over-the-top enthusiasm I like about the writing of my friend Steve Bodio. And she sold me. I’m buying both of her books.
In 2008, one of the climbing heroes I had read and heard tales about, John Roskelley, led the way for a group of us to the 17,000 foot base camp of Gangkhar Puensum, in Bhutan, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. In 1978, Roskelley was one of the first Americans to summit K2. An American expedition team had first made an attempt in 1938, but it wasnâ€™t until 1954 that the Italians would be the first to arrive to its summit. I still have the 1979 National Geographic Magazine with Roskelleyâ€™s K2 photograph on the cover: Rick Ridgeway looking like the tin man shackled in a high altitude suit with face covered by a silver mask, walking a knife-edge snow crest. (And looking relaxed!) Every time I gaze at this picture it blows me away.
For three weeks I followed behind Roskelley on the Bhutan trek, and when I wasnâ€™t thinking through this or that notion or ambition or life complication, or simply letting my mind wander not pondering at all (what is walking for, after all?), I was listening to his stories. I still recall details of a few that will forever stick in my mind, even when I reach the age of not being able to recall my childrenâ€™s names (or remember that I donâ€™t have any). For example, he did not change his clothes at all (at all!) on one two-month-long expedition, day or night, for the sake of carrying less weight, and when he got off the mountain and finally had a chance to bathe he discovered the fabric of his clothing had embedded into his flesh and could not be washed away. Another time, he and a friend showed up to the base of a mountain in the Canadian Rockies they had hoped to ice climb the next day, and found the floor of the womenâ€™s restroom in a park campground a suitable enough place to bivouac for the night in below zero cold. (The menâ€™s room was, evidently, unacceptable.) Roskelley was full of anecdotes like these, but he was reticent about incidents having to do with the Nanda Devi expedition. His hesitancy to speak about the Unsoelds or what happened on that trip fascinated me all the more. He had written a book and published an account of the teamâ€™s ascent (he and Lou Reichardt made the summit) and maybe there he had said all he wanted or needed to say.
Willi Unsoeld was one of the first Americans to summit Mount Everest on an expedition in 1963. He and Tom Hornbein traversed the west ridgeâ€”a legendary climb that has not since been accomplished. (Ueli Steck, the famed Swiss climber, plunged 3,200 feet to his death in 2017 on an acclimatizing climb for an attempt on the Unsoeld/Hornbein west ridge route.) Unsoeld taught philosophy and theology at Evergreen College. He died at the age of 52, two years after the death of his daughter on the Nanda Devi expedition, as he was guiding a group of his students on a summit climb of Mount Rainier. He and a student, a young woman who would have been about his daughter Deviâ€™s age when she died, were killed in an avalanche on the descent.
Unsoeld named his daughter Nanda Devi after what was once the highest peak in India (it is now the second highest peak: in 1975 Sikkim joined the republic of India). â€œI dreamed of having a daughter to name after the peak,â€ he said. He did, and she grew up wanting to summit the mountain for which she had been christened.
It was the irony of the naming that compelled me to write the story. How would a father manage such a tragedy? A philosophy professor. What did he feel? How did he think? How did he carry on?
What would it be like to be him?
What would it be like to be Devi? To follow an ambition given to her by the name she had been named? To climb with her father, one of the most highly regarded climbers in American history? To meet and fall in love with a fellow team member on the trip and halfway up the mountain be engaged to be married to him? To be young and in love and at the top of the world with all of everything ahead of you? I donâ€™t know, I can only imagine. No one can know. She is not here to tell us. I realized I would have to write the book I had been hoping to read.