A 55-year-old millionaire businessman who took up serious mountain climbing just four years ago has become the first person ever to stand on the summits of the world's seven continents, climaxing the adventure Tuesday with his ascent of 29,028-foot Mt. Everest, the world's highest peak, on the border of China and Nepal.
Richard D. Bass of Dallas and Utah fulfilled his personal dream and won the race to climb the highest mountain on each continent over several younger competitors, including Italian Reinhold Messner, considered the world's most accomplished and daring mountaineer.
Bass became also the oldest person to climb Mt. Everest when he reached the summit with David Braeshears, 29, of Newton, Mass., and Ang Phurba, 25, of Nepal. They departed for the peak from their high camp at 2 a.m. and climbed in fine weather via the South Col route pioneered in 1953 by Everest's first conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary, the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism reported Wednesday.
Fourteen other members of a Norwegian-organized team that included Bass also reached the summit during a 12-day period.
Rick Ridgeway of Ventura, a veteran climber, said of Bass' achievement: "No mountain climber has ever been able to do this before. It has been passionately pursued by a number of other people."
Bass, a Texas oilman and rancher who owns Utah's popular Snowbird ski resort, jointly began the "Seven Summits Odyssey" in 1981 with Frank G. Wells, 53, of Beverly Hills, then president of the Warner Bros. film company. However, business considerations forced Wells to abandon the quest before he reached the top of Everest.
The two men, who wanted to scale all seven peaks in one year, climbed six of them in 1983:
--South America: Mt. Aconcagua, 22,834 feet above sea level, on the border of Argentina and Chile.
--North America: Mt. McKinley, 20,320, in Alaska.
--Africa: Kilimanjaro, 19,340, Tanzania.
--Europe: Mt. Elbrus, 18,510, the Soviet Union.
--Antarctica: Vinson Massif, 16,664.
--Australia: Mt. Kosciusko, 7,310, New South Wales.
Only Everest had eluded them. Bass and Wells were members of unsuccessful Everest expeditions from both the Chinese and Nepalese sides in 1982 and 1983. Bass tried again in 1984 but was thwarted when the government of Nepal denied him a permit to climb.
Dropped Out in '84
Wells had left Warner Bros. to pursue the seven summits. But he dropped out of the project in 1984 to become president of Walt Disney Productions.
He got the news of Bass' success in a 3 a.m. telephone call from Katmandu to his hotel room in New York City.
"I got quite emotional," Wells said. "It's beyond belief. It's a perfect capper for me. I did six and got within a day of seven (on Everest). Now I'm climbing my own mountain, in a sense, with the Disney company."
Wells added in a telephone interview: "I frankly wondered what my own reaction would be--a tinge of envy? But I've got this incredible job, something I wouldn't trade for the world. There really wasn't a touch of envy."
As for Bass, Ridgeway said: "He simply won't give up. That distinguishes both these guys. They're so tenacious in what they do. Without doubt, that is a big ingredient in their success in business."
Wealth a Key Factor
Other important ingredients included their personal wealth and their abilities to leave their businesses for long periods. Mountain climbing can be an expensive and time-consuming hobby.
All seven mountains, except perhaps Australia's Kosciusko, can involve serious climbing and a variety of dangers. Naomi Uemura, a renowned Japanese climber, died in severe weather on Alaska's McKinley while pursuing his own seven-summits quest.
Both Messner and Pat Morrow, a Canadian, had been hot on Bass' heels. They may have had sharper climbing skills, but the Bass-Wells business acumen and ready financing gave them the edge in getting to the remote Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
Because no government assistance was available, Wells and Bass were forced to locate and charter perhaps the only privately owned airplane capable of landing them near the foot of the mountain. It was a DC-3 equipped with turboprop engines and landing skis. Then, they had to persuade the government of Chile to help them establish a fuel dump to give the aircraft sufficient range.
Climb Took Three Weeks
The Vinson Massif climb itself took three weeks, Ridgeway said.
Morrow chartered the same plane and also made arrangements for a Chilean fuel dump late last year. But mechanical problems kept the craft from flying the final leg to Vinson Massif, and Morrow's plans were dashed for that summer season in the Antarctic.
Wells first got the idea for the seven-summit adventure after climbing Kilimanjaro in 1954 while on spring break from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar. Bass got the same idea years later while climbing Mt. McKinley in Alaska.
They learned of their common desire to climb each continent's highest peak through a mutual acquaintance in 1981. "They immediately met and shook hands and agreed to do it together," Ridgeway said.