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Lifetime Aspen Local Dies in Nepal

Raoul Wille hit with altitude sickness at 16,000 feet

Obituary adapted from Aspen Times -- October 13, 1998

Friends and family of Raoul Wille were stunned to learn the popular skiing coach and lifelong Aspenite had died while hiking in the Himalayas.

Wille, 45, died Sunday October 11, 1998, two days after he was struck with cerebral and pulmonary edema, forms of altitude sickness that cause the skull and lungs to fill with fluids.

Wille's family was contacted Monday morning by Richard (Dick) Jackson, a Basalt resident and mountain guide who was leading a dozen, mostly Aspen-area climbers to the summit of Mount Baruntse, a 23,525-foot peak. The group was only about 10 days into the six-week expedition when Wille became ill at about 16,000 feet.

Wille's brother, Andre Wille, said Jackson and a porter turned back with Wille and began treatment immediately. They put him in a one-man hyperbaric chamber designed to simulate lower elevations. Such treatment is only a stop-gap and descending to lower altitudes the priority for treatment of edema. But they were unable to move Wille down the mountain quickly enough, and he died at about 14,200 feet.

"It was very much a surprise he'd come down with edema at 16,000 feet -- and then die from it," said Andrew Wille.

Raoul Wille had been in the same region of the Himalayas last year, trekking at about 20,000 feet without difficulty. He was on his fourth trip to Nepal and was in excellent shape.

Andre Wille said Raoul, who had a reputation in Aspen for taking on nearly every physical challenge that came his way, "had mellowed out with age" and wasn't even sure he was going to try for the summit. "He wasn't doing any dangerous or crazy climbing. He was trekking at 16,000 feet and it killed him."

Aspen's Dr. Carl Schiller was also surprised to hear that Wille, who was fit and had spent his entire life at high altitudes, was struck at such a low altitude. Schiller said edema can strike anyone -- even the most seasoned climbers -- at altitudes as low as 8,000 feet. But most cases occur at higher altitudes and, in the case of pulmonary edema, more frequently involve people who smoke, are out of shape or already have pulmonary problems, he said.

Nonetheless, a read of the literature about altitude sickness reveals that no one is immune, and it strikes athletic and fit individuals with more frequency than one would assume.

Bottled oxygen and the portable hyperbaric chamber mentioned above are some of the treatments climbers use for severe altitude edema. But there is no substitute for getting a victim to lower altitudes.

Raoul Wille was born and raised in Aspen, Colorado, the oldest son of Louis and Lynne Wille. He graduated from Aspen High School in 1971 and went to the University of Colorado, where he was a member of the school's NCAA championship cross country ski team. He was also a member of the U.S. Nordic Ski Team in the mid-1970s.

Wille went on to become one of the most popular coaches in the Aspen area. He led the city of Aspen's nordic team to several tournament championships in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"He was just really loved by the whole skiing community," said Wille's longtime girlfriend, Sabra Van Dolsen. "There's a whole generation of kids who spent every afternoon, week after week, with Raoul."

Van Dolsen said Wille received invitations to weddings, graduations and other events every year from former racers.

"He loved to coach," said Van Dolsen, who had known Wille since he was 10 years old. "He brought a lot of enthusiasm to it and got a lot of performance out of those kids."

Along with coaching and skiing, Wille enjoyed pottery, paragliding, hiking, mountain climbing and scuba diving.

"He was the gutsiest guy in town," said his father Lou. "If there was any physical challenge, Raoul was involved in it."

In the recent years before his death, Wille applied his special brand of enthusiasm to the family business, The Tyrolean Lodge and Tyrol Apartments.

According to longtime Tyrolean employee David Trombetta, Wille spent much of his working career on Main Street, maintaining and managing the lodge for his parents. After the parents retirement, Wille took full control and began refurbishing the lodge room by room,.

Wille is survived by his 16-year-old son Cody, father Lou, brothers Pierre and Andre, and sister Shauna Wille Young.


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