Dick Bass, the exuberant, energetic businessman who came up with the idea of climbing the tallest peak on each of earth’s seven continents and then was the first to do so, died last night at age 85.
His friend and frequent climbing partner, filmmaker David Breashears, announced on Facebook, “It is with great sadness that I convey the news of the passing of Richard D. Bass late in the evening of July 26. Dick passed away peacefully in the company of friends and family; he was eighty-five-years old.”
Bass and his partner, Frank Wells, who was the former president of Disney, conceived the idea together and set about climbing the peaks, though neither had much experience. They first tackled Aconcagua, then Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Vinson, and Kosciusko. They attempted Everest twice but were turned back, and it took Bass two more attempts on Everest to complete his quest, finally topping out on April 30, 1985. (Wells was killed in a helicopter crash in 1994 as he returned from skiing in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.)
Breashears was with Bass on his final summit and also spent time with him recently.
“I had a lovely visit with Dick in Dallas this past Thursday and Friday,” he wrote. “We laughed and smiled as we recounted the expedition and the friendship forged during those special days. Dick loved the mountains, but especially the people he met and befriended during his many expeditions near and far.”
Bass was a force of nature, and his qualities, he said himself, included “blanket curiosity, nonstop verbosity, and hyper-enthusiasm.” One magazine profile on him was titled “Largemouth Bass.” After nailing the Seven Summits, he and Wells penned a book on their effort, called Seven Summits ($12; amazon.com), which is credited, along with the attention Bass generated, with kickstarting the modern, high-mountain paid guiding industry. Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air said that Bass’s ascent of Mount Everest pulled the mountain into a “postmodern era” wherein commercial guided expeditions became big business and encouraged climbers with limited experience to pay large sums of money to these enterprises in order to ascend Everest.
Bass himself acknowledged the impact of his quest. In a 2003 interview with Forbes, he was asked how mountaineering had changed since the Seven Summits.
“It has expanded dramatically. When Frank and I climbed, there wasn’t much of an industry. We learned the basics with traditional guides on Rainier and McKinley, then paid world-class climbers to accompany us to more distant peaks. They were just thrilled to have the opportunity to go to such remote places.
“Before [the book] there were relatively few guiding services. But in addition to Seven Summits, people also began to realize that there’s more to life. I’ve been successful in business. If that’s all I was chasing, it would be an empty bauble of accomplishment. I know a lot of executives who wake up and say, “My God, there’s got to be more.” That’s why they want to climb mountains at an older age. They want to win the self-respect that comes from doing something that really lays it on the line.”
Photo courtesy Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort