Years ago, at a party, I heard a Dick Bass story. Bass, who is no relation to the Basses of Fort Worth, is a Dallas oilman, adventurer. and developer of the Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah. In the story, Bass gets on a transcontinental flight. As he sits down in first-class, his seatmate recognizes him.
“I just read your book. Seven Summits,” the plain-looking man gushes. “I loved it.” An unlikely flatlander, Dick Bass was the first person to climb the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents. He cooked up the feat with the late Frank Wells, the former president of Walt Disney Productions.
Bass proceeds to hypnotize his admirer for the next three hours. He talks him up Mount McKinley, up Aconcagua in South America, and up Mount Vinson in Antarctica, where Bass’ group was only the third party in history to climb the most remote of the seven summits. Bass leads the rapt passenger up Elbrus in Europe and Kilimanjaro in Africa. They hike to the top of Kosciusko in Australia. Eventually Bass has the man teetering on a knife-edged ridge on Mount Everest at very nearly the same altitude as the airliner.
During the course of the flight, Bass tells tales of other adventures: a climb of the Matterhom with his children, a swim across the Hellespont, a retracing of Phidippides’ run from Marathon to Athens that inspires the modern marathon.
At the point at which the captain informs the passengers to raise tray tables and seatbacks, Bass abruptly stops talking. “I just realized,” he says, horrified. “I’ve been talking about myself the entire flight. I haven’t asked anything about you.” Surely the man had a favorite outdoor story. Perhaps a bear carrying off an ice chest. “I haven’t even asked your name.” Bass says.
“Oh, that’s okay.” responds his good-natured companion, offering his hand. “I’m Neil Armstrong.”
I started calling Bass because I had an idea to climb the seven summits of Dallas with him. No one has ever climbed them all, not the least of which is because there aren’t seven summits in Dallas, but I thought we’d walk up Flagpole Hill and the stairs of Bank America Tower together. Some friends were determined to see us climb the new bleachers at SMU. I thought we’d share a few laughs, and Bass would tell me about his life. I’m here to report that Dick Bass needs no such scheme to loosen up. But you do have to track him down — and that’s not easy.
Years ago, Bass purchased a first-class air pass from American Airlines entitling him and a companion to unlimited travel anywhere the company flies. For life. Consequently, it’s nothing for Bass to spend a week in Spain followed by a week in China. When I finally caught him at his house in University Park, Lorraine Fry answered. Lorraine is Bass’ “Girl Friday,” a title he uses but she does not. “He’s right here.” she said. “Do you want to talk to him?”
Lorraine’s hand covered the receiver. She knew what I wanted. I’d been calling for months. “Hello, Jeff,” Bass boomed. “Look, I don’t know when we can get together. I’m supposed to be down at the ranch today, and I’m going out of town tomorrow.” Bass has a 6,000-acre place straddling the Bosque River near Waco. He briefly considered hauling me off to the ranch. During the pause, I repeat the Neil Armstrong story to him. He laughs out loud. “Herbert Hunt’s been telling people that story for years,” Bass said. “I’ve heard it all over the world. He improves on it every time he tells it. Not long ago I told him, ‘Dammit, Herbert, that’s my story. I know what really happened. I knew exactly who he was. I was on the plane.’”
The trip to the ranch was postponed. “Why don’t we get a quick bite to eat?” he said. “Meet me over at my house at noon and we’ll run and get something.”
When I got to Bass’ house he greeted me dressed for South Florida: golf shirt, khakis, Teva sandals. We chatted for a few minutes and then moved into the study to watch a video made for him for his 70th birthday by son-in-law Jim Moroney. The video featured birthday jibes from Martha Stewart, Ray Romano, and Dale Hansen. Romano said something about having twins himself (Bass has grown twin daughters) and that Bass should quit using them as an excuse to talk twice as much. Before we left, we watched a computer-animated video of a planned expansion at Snowbird.
Lorraine and Alice Bass, Dick’s wife, whom he calls “Sweet Alice from Dallas,” and I piled into a new Dodge Durango. His children gave him the Durango to go along with the video. Apparently it came with a Snowbird bumper sticker. “What do you like?” he asked me. “Mexican food? A sandwich?”
We settled on a seafood place in Snider Plaza, near SMU. Bass dropped us off at the curb and pulled around to park. As soon as he walked into the restaurant, he made his way, not to our table, but to the table of a Chinese grad student eating alone. It turns out that she lives in a house he owns nearby. When she came to Dallas, she spoke halting English. I felt sorry for her. Learning English, even a little of it, from Dick Bass must have been like learning to drive in a rocketcar.
When Bass finally sat down at our table, the conversation started in earnest. Between oysters on the half shell and crab cake sandwiches, he picked up his life story in elementary school, in the classroom of Miss Coleman, a big woman who never married. “She made poetry and literature come so alive that even the rough-and-tumble boys loved it,” Bass said. She taught him that poetry is the distilled essence of feeling and thought. “I like rhyme and meter,” he told me between swigs of iced tea. “It makes poetry easier to remember.” Throughout our day together, Bass repeated aphorisms: “If you never stop you can’t get stuck,” and “It’s good to have a lot of problems — they can’t get out of proportion.” He recited poetry, too. Bass is partial to Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service. “Can I recite one of Service’s poems to you?” he asked. Whereupon he launched into a performance of “The Men That Don’t Fit In.”
I kept my eye on Sweet Alice from Dallas. She sometimes wears the glaze of a policeman who has heard it all before. Bass is not unaware of her drift. “Before we met,” he said, touching her on the elbow, “Alice had been praying that she would meet someone who liked to talk and travel. So she got a guy who has a lifetime air pass and who’s called ’Largemouth Bass’ by his friends. Remember,” he grinned, “we don’t have to be as careful of what we ask for so much as the amount.”
I can’t remember if any of us had dessert, but I do remember Bass telling me of his leaving Dallas for Yale at 16, in a lapel-less spoil coat. When he reached New Haven, he fell under the spell of Professor Hillis. “I learned the first day of Professor Hillis’ literature class that humor is the juxtaposition of incongruous elements.” Professor Hillis’ voice has proven valuable to Bass at difficult moments, not the least of which was on Mount Everest. “I got up Everest because of this awareness, of seeing the incongruity. On summit day I was with David Breashears. We were high, walking along a ridge, unroped to each other.”
Their situation was truly perilous. “If we slipped off one side, it was 7,000 feet down to Camp 3,” Bass remembered. “If we fell off the other, it was 9,000 feet down to Tibet. The snow was so hard that our crampons wouldn’t bite. I was so scared that I started hyperventilating. I’d already gone through all my poems and aphorisms. I was upbraiding myself for having done almost no conditioning, for spending only 12 days above base camp, for being 55 years old, for having a blown-out heel. And all the sudden I started laughing like hell. At the incongruity of it all. The laughter broke up the hyperventilation.” They made it to the top.
Breashears, a four-time Everest summiteer and director and expedition leader of the celebrated IMAX film on Everest, told me, “It would be easy to think that Dick does well at high altitude because he talks so much at low altitude. But the truth is that he was born with a rare gift to perform well in thin air. We weren’t clipped to some fixed line when we climbed Everest.”
After lunch, we drove back to Bass’ house. For the next three-and-a-half hours, phase two of our quick lunch together, he and I sat in his living room. I listened mostly. By five o’clock, we were both beginning to slump a little, him on the couch, me in a side chair. Lorraine had long since disappeared into the caverns of the house. Eventually Bass and I started talking about religion. “I went on a religious retreat once,” he told me. “A silent religious retreat.” It is impossible to imagine for him a mountain so high or airless. “I found out later that the others were placing bets on how long I could go,” he said.
As he talked about the retreat, I debated which way I would’ve bet. I started out thinking I’d bet against him. By the time he was through, I was glad I didn’t have the chance. “At the retreat, the only person you could talk to was the priest. Father Rocky Crandall. Every night I sat outside his office on a bench.
“Sometimes I had to wait until 1 a.m. to see him. In the very last session, he gathered us in the chapel and gave the most dramatic talk. He said that God made us because he loved us. He said that if we appreciated that love, we would become the person that God wanted us to be.” Bass paused, looked toward his backyard. It is lush, private, and overhung with trees — Eden with a swimming pool. “I do think I try,” he said.
He shouldn’t worry: It would be impossible for Dick Bass to be anyone else.
A few weeks after my day with Dick Bass, I called Herbert Hunt. In the course of our conversation, I told him that Bass had objected to the Neil Armstrong story. That’s okay with Hunt because he’s got more Dick Bass stories. Hunt and Bass have been buddies ever since they met at the Dallas Country Day School in 1937. Recently he and Bass met a businessman for lunch at the Tower Club to discuss an Alaskan coal mine. Hunt’s description of the lunch was so similar to my own with Dick Bass that I may take Hunt’s side of the matter on Armstrong.
“It was supposed to be a quick lunch to discuss business,” Hunt says. “It lasted two-and-a-half hours. First of all, it takes Dick about 15 or 20 minutes to get to the table because he’s got to say hello to everybody in the room. When he finally sits down with us, he starts telling this guy everything about his financial condition. The ups and the downs. I bet he told you,” Hunt said.
He had. In and around mountain climbing and poetry, Bass had told me about past indebtedness, current indebtedness, about not being able to sleep at night for almost 30 years. He told me that he once came within an hour of losing everything he owned. But all that’s behind him now.
“Anyway,” Hunt continued, “Dick then points at me and starts telling the guy about my financial ups and downs and how I was still his hero.” Although Hunt didn’t say so, it is easy to imagine his face slowly turning the color of stone. “So when Dick and I get up, I said to him, ‘Dick, I don’t mind if you want to tell everybody your financial secrets, but don’t feel like you need to tell ’em mine!’ That’s the thing about Dick Bass,” Hunt laughs. “He talks about himself, and then he talks about you.”
Dick Bass knows that his friends sometimes laugh at his compulsive curiosity and enthusiasm. In a sense, his life is their tonic, “If I have played well my part in the comedy of life,” he is often heard repeating, “your laughter will be my applause.”