Dick Bass’ journey to the top of the world

Let those who wish have their respectability. I want freedom, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.

Richard Halliburton, 1925, The Royal Road to Romance


Young Dick Bass, 10 years old, is engrossed in a book, a tantalizing fable of faraway places and exotic dreams. The book tells the story of an adventurer who shuns the dictates of his upper-class upbringing and sets out to explore the world. Dick, the second-born son of a wealthy Texas oilman, can already sympathize with the rebellious yearnings of the boy in the book. Mesmerized, he reads and rereads passages that catapult him up the craggy slopes of the Alps to the Taj Mahal, across the arid Himalayas and through the monsoons of Siam, with all manner of adventures in between. He makes a solemn vow to follow in the footsteps of author Richard Halliburton, who would someday lead him down The Royal Road to Romance.


Now a lad of 19, on summer break from his classes at Yale University, Dick sets off for a month in Europe with three friends from Dallas. As he gallivants from country to country, the inner stirrings he felt as a boy reading Hal-liburton’s travel epic are but a distant memory, until he gazes at the majestic Matterhorn. Fortified by the energy of youth and a rekindled determination to follow Halliburton’s lead, Dick and his friends decide to climb the Mat-terhorn. They engage an Alpine guide and set out for the summit. It is a profound and thrilling climb. Perched atop the world’s most beautiful peak, Dick makes another vow: to return someday to the Matterhorn with his children.


In the midst of a Navy tour during the Korean War, Dick spies another object of Halliburton’s fancy: the highest mountain in Japan. Again, he follows the path to freedom outlined by his idol and climbs Mount Fujiyama. Although it will be some time before he stands again on a mountaintop, Dick has tasted the exhilaration of the climb. It will stay with him throughout his life.

THIS IS THE stuff movies are made of. And fear not-Dick Bass is making one. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

To enjoy the full effect of this native son, you first have to make him sit still, and that’s not easy to do. We caught up with him on his way to his daughter’s wedding, via his office in Mercantile Dallas Building, en route to Africa. Trim and disciplined for an August afternoon in a white dress shirt and tie, Dick likes to describe himself as finicky-the type of man who likes “everything in its place.” And yet his idea of a good time is a trek through the backwoods of Nepal in tennis shoes. He’s Felix linger with Oscar Madison’s dreams.

Dick Bass is boyish-looking for his 53 years, with twinkling eyes and a frequent, dimpled smile. He is a man who relishes talk, especially his own. Sometimes he labors over careful phrases with punch; other times, his words spill over each other like water on slippery rocks. The task at hand is to explain how he came to his present goal: to climb the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. To do that, he has to back up a bit.

For the two and a half decades after his release from the Navy in 1953, Dick confined his mountain ascents to chairlifts-and skied his way down. Skiing was but a joyful pastime in his life, a life that revolved around his wife, the former Rita Crocker; a growing family; and the Bass interests in oil, ranching and coal. Over the years, his passion for skiing grew into full-scale high finance. In 1962, Dick and his brother, Harry, bought into a fledgling Colorado ski resort called Vail. Seven years later, he struck out on his own. On a mountain in Utah, Dick set out to build the premier ski resort in the world.

The first time Dick laid eyes on Snowbird, a ripe-for-developing ski area outside Salt Lake City, he knew he could build it into a world-class winter resort. Annual snowfall there averaged more than 450 inches-twice as much as in Colorado. The scenery was breathtaking. The location was good. The potential was there.

With his partner, Ted Johnson, Dick toured the major European resorts in search of the finest equipment. They hired architects to carve fitting monuments into the mountainsides. They began phase one of construction. They leveraged themselves to the hilt.

Dick’s struggle to make Snowbird fiscally fit brought him to the brink of bankruptcy several times. At one point, his debt swelled to $37 million-due in 30-day demand notes. Paying two over prime-at a time when interest rates soared well over 20 percent-only tightened the noose. One major lender was pressuring Dick to sell off personal assets. Dick’s partners, including Johnson, wanted out.

Then, in 1974, in the midst of his money troubles, Dick’s 22-year marriage came to an end. (Rita later married former governor Bill Clements.) The Bass’ twin daughters, Barbara and Bonnie (then in high school), left home with their mother. Two teen-age sons, Danny and Jimmy, stayed behind with their dad. It was, for Dick, a devastating blow.


Picture the Von Trapp family singing and yodeling their way across the Alps. Dick, remember, has this dream of climbing the Mat-terhorn en famille. When the aftermath of divorce splits the family in half, Dick thinks of a way to bring the kids together again: a month’s holiday abroad. So climb the Matter-horn they do. Five-strong, in knickers and hiking boots, the Bass family heads up the Alps on foot. An unexpected snowstorm forces their retreat barely a-third of the way up.


Bonnie, Barbara, Danny and Jimmy are having Christmas dinner with their father, when he makes an unexpected appeal: “Do me one last favor before you all go your separate ways in the world. Come with me to Switzerland, and let’s make another run at the Matterhorn.” To his surprise, no one balks. So he pushes a little more. “If we’ve gone that far, we might as well take a little side trip to Nepal. And as long as we’re halfway around the world . . .”

SO BEGAN the next phase of Dick’s journey to the top of the world: the launching of the “Bass Odyssey a la Hallibur-ton.” For five months, Dick and his kids followed Hallibur-ton’s lead down the Royal Road and discovered some diversionary sidetracks of their own.

Though neither Dick nor his college-aged kids had ever swam more than a mile, they plodded two and a half miles across the icy currents of the Hellespont, a la Lord Byron, to challenge an ancient Greek myth. They cruised the Greek Islands and the Aegean Sea. Following in the footsteps of Pheidippides, the Athenian courier who dropped dead after running to Sparta to deliver news of a sea victory over Persia, they traced the 30-mile course of the original marathon. They joined a Dallas theology scholar on a tour of the Holy Land. They trekked through the foothills of the Himalayas, by way of Nepal. They tried again to climb the Mat-terhorn and again were forced to turn back.

Dick says the Halliburton-esque adventure changed his life. “I wanted two things out of this trip for my kids: I wanted them to test their daring and stamina, and I wanted them to realize that we are all part of an international family of man. But what I didn’t count on was what I got out of the odyssey myself: a renewed self-respect. I didn’t even realize it, but I had really been hammered down-by bankers, by competitors, by environmental groups, by people with their hands in the cookie jar. Plus, I had a divorce thrown in there, too. On that trip, in our physical adventures, I realized that it was just me and the elements. There was no one in that freezing water telling me “no.” Nobody thwarted me as I struggled up the mountainside. I had definite goals, and I relished the tangible sense of accomplishment. What I started for my kids turned out to be God’s way of giving me what I needed myself.”

As the plane taxied down the D/FW runway to bring the Bass family home, Dick launched into another of his famous “heart -to-hearts.” “I want to thank you all for the time you’ve given me on this trip,” he began. “I know now that each of you has the energy and the heart to make it on your own. What’s more, we have the closest of friendships, the kind that come from being together with our fannies in the sling.

“But I’m going to be 50 in two days, and the way I look at it, I’ve spent the first half of my life concentrating on the ’shoulds’and the ’have-to’s.’ From here on out, I’m going to do a lot of the ’want-to’s’. I’ll always be there for you, but what I want to say is, you’re going to have a tough time finding me. Don’t think you have to see me on my birthday-and I don’t want to have to see you on yours.’’


Dick falls in love with Marian Martin and proposes to her. He’s got this great idea: climb the Matterhorn, then helicopter Marian and a preacher to the summit and get married on the mountaintop. Marian says, “No way.” She doesn’t like heights.

The indefatigable Dick has an alternate plan. First, they’ll get married in Dallas, then he’ll climb the Matterhorn with his kids. When he comes off the mountain, Marian will be waiting below, and they’ll have their union blessed in the Anglican church in the valley.

That’s exactly what they do. For the third time, Dick and all four children trek up the Matterhorn, but this time they make it to the top. “I can’t tell you how the tears rolled down my face when I trudeed up that last hill and saw the four of them lined up at the top,” Dick says. “Then we all gathered again in the little churchyard below. Thirty-one years after I’d told my guide I’d be back, he was down there waiting for us. At 79 years old, that guide stood at the ceremony as my best man.”


An employee banquet is held to celebrate the 10-year terms of two “Snowbirders.” After the dinner, over nightcaps in the lounge, somebody asks Dick to tell about the Bass Odyssey of ’79. “I launch into this dramatic monologue for about 15 minutes,” he says. “I’m going on and on about the Hellespont and all, and I notice this gal sitting over to one side with a real disgusted look on her face,” Dick says.

“Everybody else, you know, is asking questions and laughing and all, and this one woman looks kind of bored. Then someone says, ’Hey Dick, did you know that Marty Hoey here is the only female guide on Mount McKinley?’

“I turn around and say, ’Well, no, Marty, that’s just great.’ I’m really trying to be nice. Then I say, ’I’d really like to climb McKinley sometime. Would you consider being my guide?

“And Marty sits there for a minute, then she looks at me with this real deadpan stare. And she says, ’Bass, your hot air’s not gonna get you up that mountain.’ “

That’s all Dick Bass needs to hear. The next morning, he is up engineering that climb. One of Marty’s fellow patrolmen at Snowbird convinces her to go along as co-guide. Several other Snowbird employees and the four Bass children sign on, too. The climb is set for the spring of 1981.

MARTY, DICK says, had it out for him from the start. She wanted him to jog in high altitudes every day for two months to train for the climb. He ran the course about four times in those two months.

In late spring, the group assembled for a test climb on Mount Rainier. The day before the summit attempt, Dick got leg cramps. “Boy, she really tore into my hide,” he says. “She dug in the knife and twisted it as far as she could. She railed for an hour about how I hadn’t done my training, and it wasn’t right to take her time, and jeopardize the others, and on and on. She said I probably wouldn’t make Rainier, and I darn sure wouldn’t make McKinley. Then she addressed the whole group: ’I’m going to get everybody up tomorrow morning at 3 a.m. I want you to be ready to roll into your gear, eat breakfast and be off in ropes at 3:30. I’ll say right now that some of you aren’t going to make it to the top. I’ll take you as far as you can go, but when I say that’s it, that’s it. There will be no appeals.’

“The more she talked like that, the more determined I got that I could do anything, by golly, that that female could do.”


Dick is struggling to get a 70-pound pack on his back and a 35-pound sled around his waist and carry his skis. The straps are cutting through his shoulders, the waist harness is killing his hips and sweat is pouring into his eyes. He is scared to death:

“I really don’t think I can make it 10 feet, much less to the top. But that woman has me so damn mad, I’m determined that she will never hear me wince or cry aloud. If I want to stop, that’s one thing; but I don’t want her to be the one to tell me to turn back. All I can think of is that 13,000 feet of vertical ahead.

“Well, she’s sticking it to me, giving me a hard time, but every day I get a little stronger and it gets easier. Every time she stops, I lean way over on my poles and just breathe like hell.

“We go on up to the high camp at 17.2 [ 17,200 feet] and get snowed in for two days. On the second day of the snowstorm, Bonnie and Barbara turn back. The next day, it’s clear. We go for it, and we make it.

“I feel like gangbusters. Tears are pouring out of my eyes. After all the frustration of 10 years at Snowbird, I can say, ’Well, by God, I did this. And I’m gonna go back down in that valley and I’m gonna hang in there.’

“So I feel great. But you don’t really dilly-dally around much when you’re on top. Marty is worried about a couple of the climbers who aren’t feeling well. We take some pictures and head down.

“Jimmy and Liam FitzGerald, who are with me, just fall on their sleeping bags. But I start melting snow for coffee and soup. Not because I’m a selfless, wonderful campmate (it is polite to do that, but I’m not motivated to be polite), but because I want to nail that woman the minute she walks in.

“About 10:45 p.m., Marty comes back to camp. I wait four or five minutes, then I say, just as saucy as I can, ’Hoey, you said I couldn’t make it-didn’t you? Well, I did make it, and what’s more, I feel great!’ I have to tell you that for 13 days, all I heard about was the great climbers of the world. Marty called them ’animals.’ So when she waddles over to me, pecks me on the cheek and says, ’Bass, you’re an animal’ . . . I just about die.

“Then I say, ’Now, I know you’re going to scoff at this, Marty, but I’ve been thinking on the way down. And if I can climb McKinley, then I’m going to climb the highest mountains on the seven continents.’

“And she sits there awhile, then she says, ’No, Bass, I’m not going to scoff at you. I’m going with you.’ “


Dick picks up the phone one day in his office and learns about a man named Frank Wells. The guy on the line is Jack Wheeler, a fellow from California, who arranges adventure tours. Wheeler asks, “Bass, did you go to McKinley?” Dick answers,”Yes, I did.” “Did you go to climb?” “Yes, I did.” Long pause. “Did you make it?” “Yes, Jack, I did.” ’ ’Was it difficult?’’ Two long pauses. “No, Jack, it wasn’t much of a hill for a climber.”

“So Jack tells me he wants me to meet a client of his, a fellow named Frank Wells, who’s the head of Warner Brothers. He says that Wells has a dream and McKinley is part of it. So I say, ’Okay, but what is this big dream?’ Jack says, ’For 30 years, Frank Wells has wanted to climb the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.’ “


Dick and Frank meet for the first time in an office at Warner Brothers. Frank is 6 feet 4 inches tall; Dick is 5 feet 10 inches. Frank is loose, disorganized and a “flaming liberal”; Dick is neat and nit-picking and is an archconser-vative.

“We’re the Odd Couple,” Dick says. “But once he starts talking, I sit back and say, “This man’s more like me than I am.’

“So we trade stories for a while, and then Frank says, ’Well, should we go for it?’ And I say, ’Sure.’ We walk across the room and shake hands, and that’s all there is to it.”


Dick and Frank make their first climb together. Frank has trouble keeping up. He doesn’t make it to the top.


Frank is forced to turn back before he reaches the summit. But he’s training, and his climbing technique improves.


Dick and Frank buy into an expedition of professional climbers organized by the head guide on Mount Rainier. It will take them up the Tibetan side, where few groups have climbed since China first opened the area to foreigners in 1979. Dick and Frank are the only amateurs on the climb.

About halfway up the mountain, four strong climbers go ahead to put ropes in. Marty Hoey is the fourth in line. One of her partners heads on up to deliver an extra coil of rope when Marty’s waist harness suddenly flies open, severing her from the main line. The weight of her backpack causes her to plunge some 3,000 feet on the snow and another 3,000 feet in the air. Her body is never recovered.


The Seven Summits Odyssey gets officially under way with a second climb of Aconcagua. Frank makes it to the top. In March, an American climbing team including Dick and Frank attempts to tackle Mount Everest again, this time from Nepal. Again, the stronger climbers go ahead putting in the ropes. Of the first two groups, six Americans and two sherpas (guides) are put on top. Dick’s group is third.

They make it to high camp at 26,2 but it’s hard going from there on up. It has snowed a lot and it’s difficult to get good footing. Dick recalls:’ ’We left the high camp about 5 a.m., and at 8 a.m., we stopped to rest. Perched on a rock at 27,3, 1 look over and there is the body of this German woman frozen in a block of ice.” Poor Mrs. Schmatz reached the Everest summit in 1979, but had tried to “bivouac” (sleep overnight) on the way down. She froze to death.

“Well, with extra oxygen we get up to 28,000 feet, and the sherpas say that’s it. They aren’t going any further. A doctor from upstate New York in our group says he isn’t feeling well and is returning to camp. That leaves me and a Nepalese police officer. About that time, a breeze picks up and the clouds start moving in, and he turns back. That leaves me. I can see the summit-it’s only l,000 feet away. I can’t tell you how frustrated I am, but I decide to go back down.”

MARTY’S DEATH ON Everest in 1982 left an indelible mark on Dick. “Even now, thinking back on it,” he says, “I get all choked up. I climbed Mount McKinley with a mad-on at that woman. But every other climb has been born out of pure inspiration.”

The fact that he came within 1,000 feet of the Everest summit last spring was a profound disappointment to Dick. He was afraid he would never get another shot at it. But his fellow climber, the Nepalese police officer, has promised to arrange permits for the group to try again in the spring of 1984. Between now and then, the Bass/Wells team will climb the highest mountains of the other six continents. They tackled McKinley in June, Kilimanjaro in August, Mount Elbrus in September. In November, they’ll attempt a logistically prohibitive climb: the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. That leaves Australia’s Mount Kosciusko, a relatively easy hike of 7,310 feet. They plan to jog up it!

All these adventures are being duly record-for a full-length, hour-and-a-half feature film. You get the picture: two men in their 50s push back from their executive desks to challenge nature in a way man has never successfully challenged it before. If they make lit, Everest in ’84 will be a fitting finale in cin坢ma v坢rit坢.


High above civilization, resplendent in theirblack tie and tails, two triumphant climberspop open a bottle of champagne in the crispmountain air. Friends and family gatheraround elaborate tables laden with exoticFrench cheeses, caviar, fresh oysters,Chateaubriand and dazzling arrays of breadsand fruits. In the center of each table, ornateice sculptures glisten in the bright sun.Superimposed on this idyllic scene are theweatherworn faces of the same two men, icein their beards, sipping gruel from an old tincup. As the camera fades back to the moun-taintop, Dick Bass and Frank Wells pick uptheir backpacks and slip them over their tuxes.Arm and arm, they head off into the sunset,down a narrow mountain trail.