WILLI: One day when I was climbing in the Tetons, there were four of us who on this one practice climb found a ledge halfway up this rock wall hanging over this big waterfall and we said “Let’s go up and eat lunch.” The first guy worked his way up the wooded slope, and the second guy cut across the rock wall, and the third guy cut across a little steeper, and so when I came, you know, I had to make a little riskier route so I went straight up that rock face, and I got up about fifty feet or so, and suddenly, man, I was plastered against that wall, just spread eagled, I could neither advance nor retreat, I was just hanging there waiting for my strength to drain out through my fingers. And by forcing all my power into my left hand I could move the right looking for another hold, and there wasn’t any – just smooth rock – so I forced all my power into my right hand and felt with my left and there was one fingerhold – you gotta be kidding – and I looked down and there’s this big boulder field right below me – I had visions of hamburger spread all over the rocks. I figured I had forty seconds left – you can judge it by the chill in your wrists – it’s a unique experience – so I finally swallowed my considerable pride and yelled up “Hey guys, throw me the rope!” And they just burst into raucous laughter: “It’s on your back, dopey!” A point which had escaped my notice. So about this time it begins to come home to me – this is real fear. I became aware of a burning sensation under my foreskin – which is what is known as having the piss scared out of you – and suddenly everything snapped into a focus that was just intense. The rock changed – I could see through it – it glowed – we pass through life so dully – I tell you, man, in that little bit of rock it just jumped out at me – one fingerhold? Why not? And with the last bit of cunning I rocked out, rocked in, and grabbed – and the hold was there. That was the kinda thing we used to live for. We just ate it up. We never felt the climb had been really worthwhile unless we had been that close.

The Story

Renowned mountaineer Willi Unsoeld takes us on three of his most harrowing climbs, challenges us to push our own personal boundaries, and comes face-to-face with the realization of his own vulnerability in this 90-minute one-person show about the terrifying holiness of wilderness.

The Backstory

In 1985 I was asked by a Hollywood producer to adapt a biography of the mountain climber Willi Unsoeld for Robert Redford’s film company. I thought the bio was lousy, and told him so. He convinced me to write the script anyway. On the way to Olympia, Washington to meet the Unsoeld family, the producer said to me, “By the way, don’t tell them you’ve read the bio.” Huh?

Because of my opinion of the book, I knew I was going to have to depend on the Unsoeld family to get most of my information. So when Jolene, Willi’s widow, asked what I had read about Willi, I told her the truth. She hit the ceiling. The book, as it turned out, had been the center of a legal battle between the author and the family – the author had, it seemed, written some pretty false and libelous things about Willi, most of which had been removed before the book went to print. The producer had lied to the family about the part this book would play in the writing of the movie, and everything got off to a terrible start.

Over the course of a long visit with the family, I came to admire them all – and Willi – very deeply. I left the film project when the producer spent a day-and-a-half obsessively giving me one note on my first draft. Aside from being a liar, I decided, he was either wildly irrational or a little too fond of recreational drugs. And that, I believed, was the end of my journey with Willi. A few years later I had lunch with Willi’s youngest daughter Terres in New York. During the course of my time with Jolene, I had listened to the many hours of recorded talks Willi had given during the last fifteen years of his life. He was an inspiring speaker, addressing everyone from mountaineers to school teachers, and I mentioned to Terres that these talks would make a wonderful one-person show. She jumped on the idea, became very pro-active (as the Unsoelds are known to do), and after getting her family’s approval contacted a friend at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle and got me a commission to write the play. When it finally came time for a production, the two actors I wanted to do it were both unavailable, and so I stepped in at the last moment. The production was a huge success – the play has been produced in many non-mountainous communities too – and I still on occasion perform it myself.

So when Jolene, Willi’s widow, asked what I had read about Willi, I told her the truth. She hit the ceiling.

Willi was very risk-oriented, and loved the emotional places to which risk-taking brought people. As a climber-philosopher he was both worshipped and criticized in his life, the latter often by people who mistake risk-taking for recklessness, and embrace fear as the better part of caution. “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,” Helen Keller said, and I ask that this quote of hers be printed in the program of every production of the play. It amazes me, every time I perform the play, what Willi’s simple challenge can do to people. Willi himself was a personality polar-opposite from me, yet I get such joy in allowing myself to dig into the Willi-corner of my soul. Risk-taking doesn’t have to take place in mountains; it can happen anywhere in life, even on the stage. I like to think Willi would agree.