'I Am Going to Die,' Whispered Nanda Devi on the Mountain She Regarded as Her Own

In 1948 William Unsoeld caught his first breathtaking glimpse of majestic, snow-capped Nanda Devi, rising more than 25,000 feet in northern India’s Himalayan range. “I had a dream about Nanda Devi,” he later recalled. “I dreamed of having a daughter to name after the peak.” Twenty-eight years later Unsoeld, 50, returned to the mountain with an Indo-American expedition. (A veteran climber, he conquered Everest in 1963, losing nine toes to frostbite.) He was determined to scale Nanda Devi via the treacherous north ridge for the first time. Among the climbers assembled at the base camp last July was one of his four children, a blond and charming 22-year-old daughter, Nanda Devi Unsoeld.

Nanda Devi was an accomplished mountaineer, trained on the Himalayas during her father’s five years with the Peace Corps in Nepal, and later on the Cascades, Olympics and Tetons in the United States. At Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where her father taught comparative religion, she majored in wildlife biology and wanted to help preserve endangered species, especially the great cats of the East. She considered full-time climbing a form of escapism. “If you feel involved with social problems,” she said, “you cannot like that kind of thing for long.” But she felt almost mystical about the climb she was about to undertake. “I can’t describe it,” she said, “but there is something within me about this mountain ever since I was born.”

On July 10 the team of 13 climbers began the ascent. Two months later, just 1,500 feet below the summit, Unsoeld sent down a message by runner. Eventually a telegram reached the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. It read: REGRET REPORT DEATH ON SEPTEMBER EIGHT OF NANDA DEVI AT CAMP IV…BODY COMMITTED TO THE MOUNTAIN.

Trouble had plagued the expedition from the beginning. Late, heavy snows had cost time and added risk, and in July the only other woman on the climb, Marty Hoey, 24, became ill with dysentery and dehydration. She nearly died before a helicopter evacuated her. On Sept. 1 three men reached the summit. Shortly after, Devi, at a lower level with her father and two other climbers, was struck by abdominal cramps and diarrhea. She had a history of stomach trouble, and the team’s physician, Dr. James States, ordered her by radio to descend to a lower camp. She ignored his advice. “Nanda Devi,” says her father, “was something of a stoic about illness.” On Sept. 8, Unsoeld remembers, “She complained of an extreme pain in her stomach.” Her last whispered words were, “I am going to die.” Dr. States said the abdominal ailment, complicated by high altitude, killed her. Unsoeld buried his daughter in the snow near Camp IV.

Reaction to the tragedy in New Delhi was almost reverent. The chairman of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation wrote a letter to the co-leader of the climb, Adams Carter of Milton, Mass., which said, “Was it the mountain’s love for her or her love for the mountain that was greater? One will never know.”

As Unsoeld prepared to rejoin his family in the U.S., he had no regrets. “To do so would be denying reality,” he said. “Nanda Devi died fulfilling her dream. There are worse ways of dying.”

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