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Jolene Unsoeld, Climber, Activist, Feminist, Congresswoman, Dies at 89

She lost her daughter and husband to the mountains, and gave her life to public service: “We have to rise up."

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Jolene Unsoeld on a high ridge. (Photo: Unsoeld Family Collection)

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, called  Jolene Unsoeld “a pioneering, progressive activist and public servant … fearless and principled.”

Jolene Unsoeld was a Congresswoman; she was also a lifelong adventurer and climber. She learned with the Portland-based Mazamas in 1949, climbing the south side of Mount Hood in logging boots. In the summer of 1950, after her first year at Oregon State College, she did the WyEast route on Mount Hood and then climbed Mount Shuksan. She met her future husband, Willi Unsoeld, that fall at OSC, and their first climb together was on North Sister. She always said he had fallen in love with her G.I. mountain pants, she with his Aladdin mountain stove—and his story telling around the campfire before the climb. They got engaged on the top of Mount Saint Helens, with OSC Mountain Club members in attendance.

Jolene on bergschrund North Face Grand Teton – Unsoeld Family (Photo: Unsoeld Family Collection)

Their first summer together as a married couple in 1951 was in the Grand Tetons, where Willi was hired as a guide. Thereafter, she got to climb every other summer, between when each new baby came along. Her climbing included Templeton’s Crack and Jensen’s Ridge (the hardest route on Symmetry Spire), and the first ascent of the Direct North Face of Grand Teton.

The “fierce intimacy of marriage,” as Jolene put it, and family life were of utmost importance to the parents of Regon, Devi, Krag, and Terres. They were able to manage through long expedition separations, including Willi’s expeditions to Makalu in 1954 and Everest in 1963, when he and Tom Hornbein pioneered the West Ridge. But the three years of Peace Corps in Nepal, where Willi was assigned as Deputy Director, was for Jolene an “ideal match for Bill and me: adventure, service, and full involvement of the whole family,” as she wrote in her memoir Wild Adventures We Have Known.

Those years in Nepal infused the Unsoelds with a global perspective. When Willi moved the family to Andover, Massachusetts, as Deputy Director of Outward Bound—it was the last place on earth the kids would have chosen after living in Nepal. It was here, though, that my wife, Perry, and I met them while also working for OB. It was obvious to us that a New England prep-school town was not their cup of tea, but one great day came when Bob Bates, who had been Peace Corps Director in Nepal, invited us all to their cabin in Ogunquit, Maine, for bouldering down on the beach.

In 1970, the Unsoelds returned to the Pacific Northwest, where Willi became a founding faculty member of Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. Jolene joined the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and the Coalition for Open Government. She registered herself as a lobbyist, occupation: “Professional meddler, unpaid.” The Unsoeld kids became environmentalists (their recycling included the boys getting 80 percent of their food from supermarket dumpsters) and formed what they called The Youth Coalition.

The following years included the death of Nanda Devi, at 22, in 1976 when she fell ill on the mountain she was named for, and Willi’s death, with that of a student, at 52 in an avalanche in 1979 while leading an Evergreen college group on Mount Rainier. Jolene managed those years by being politically active, and she also became a spokesperson for the value of risk. In 1979, I invited her to be the keynote speaker at the Association for Experiential Education. It was just four months after losing Willi. She spoke of her losses but also of the importance of taking risks. She elaborated on the topic in 1994 at the annual Wilderness Risk Managers Conference, also at my invitation.

Propelled by her grassroots environmental work, she ran for Congress in 1988 and served from 1989 to 1995. Archives from the House of Representatives state that she ran an “energetic” campaign, “driving her own car from stop to stop around the district …. Her willingness to stick to her convictions, especially on the environment, eventually won the admiration of even those who opposed her.” She was one of 30 women in the House, which numbered 435 in total, according to this tribute in Post Alley of Seattle. As a Congressperson, she was an early progressive, backing environmental and feminist causes and pushing for government transparency. Her environmental work extended to protection of watersheds and fisheries and advocating for sustainable forestry, while also trying to manage the complex practical needs of her constituency. In 1991 she achieved a nine-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the coast of Washington State.

When she first arrived in Washington, D.C., Jolene invited Perry and me to spend two days with her and the newly formed staff and devise a progressive series of experiential activities that would help build a solid team. She did not stand and observe! One staffer thought he was above such games and declined; his tenure was short.

From the 1990s to 2017, in addition to writing two autobiographies, Jolene would go on two-week adventures each year with her daughter Terres. Her last climb was an ascent with Terres of Kilimanjaro in 1995.

Jolene once said, in her speech at WRMC: “When tragedy strikes, we can’t just sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. We have to rise up and make something of our life—for no other reason than to keep ourselves from drowning in grief—but for a very much better reason of trying to make the world a better place—so when it is our turn to go, we can rest easy—knowing that somehow, in our own little way, we made a difference.”

She, who had lost both a daughter and husband to the mountains, also wrote in Wild Adventures We Have Known, “In all of our life together, Bill and I never lost hope. Even in our darkest hour, we always knew a new day would be dawning.”

Jolene, age 89, died at home November 28.

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.

See also this tribute in the Seattle Times.