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On the Seven Summits Odyssey : The Challenge Was to Climb the Highest Peak on Each Continent. Freezing Storms Nearly Kept Them From the Top of Antarctica's Vinson Massif

March 09, 1986|RICK RIDGEWAY | Rick Ridgeway, an internationally known climber, is a Ventura-based writer and film maker.

Their goal was to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents in a single year. It was an imposing list: Aconcagua in South America, Everest in Asia, McKinley in North America, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, Kosciusko in Australia.

No one had ever scaled all seven summits. To do so would be an accomplishment coveted by the world's best mountaineers. Thus it was even more improbable that Frank Wells and Dick Bass proposed to try it, both of them having so little climbing experience that they could hardly be ranked amateur, much less world-class. And if that wasn't enough, both men would be over 50 by the time they set out to tackle the peaks.

They took with them on each climb the best mountaineers they could find, who assisted in the planning and safe execution of the expeditions. In the end, though, there was only one way to the top: to put one foot in front of the other.

What made them think they had a chance? Part of it was naivete--they knew so little about high altitude mountaineering they didn't realize just how preposterous their proposal was. But part was their strong conviction that with enough hard work and perseverance they could accomplish anything. It was a conviction that for both of them had led to successful business careers: Wells was then president of Warner Bros. Studios . Bass was an entrepreneur with an oil business in Texas, a ski resort in Utah and coal interests in Alaska. They figured that if determination worked in business, why not in mountain climbing? So they set out to accomplish the impossible.

The faultless clear sky had been replaced by a portentous veneer of thin cirrus, and when we awoke at 10 the sun was backlighting a glitter of sprinkling snow, the kind mountaineers call angel's dust. After breakfast we finished the snow cave, and by mid-afternoon conditions were the same.

"I wish it would either storm or clear," lead climber Chris Bonington said. "This is frustrating."

"But not so bad," one of our Japanese teammates, Yuichiro Miura, added. "I think maybe OK to climb to the next camp."

We considered Miura's suggestion. With the comfort of knowing we had a bombproof snow cave in the neighborhood should a storm move in, we agreed it made sense to risk moving up. At 6 in the evening we were packed and ready to leave. What a great treat it was to be able to ignore the clock and climb at whatever time of the day we felt like moving.

We were all optimistic that in another 20 or 30 hours we would be at the summit. Our plan now was to carry everything we would need to make the next camp, and there pitch our tents, sleep a few hours, then continue without packs to the summit. That would put us back down to the plane only six days after arriving.

The air in Antarctica has no water vapor, no dust, no anything, so you can see for hundreds of miles. Distances and sizes are very deceptive. The slopes of Vinson Massif are moderate, but they are at an altitude of more than 16,000 feet, at a latitude only 700 miles from the South Pole. That far south, that altitude--because the atmospheric envelope gets thinner toward the poles--is equal to 20,000 feet in the Himalaya. The summit of Vinson is the highest point on Earth at such an extreme latitude.

Frank Wells' interest in mountain climbing dated back 30 years, to his undergraduate days at Pomona College, when he used to daydream about becoming the first to climb Everest--even though at the time his only experience had been a hike to the top of Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada. One day while studying for finals, his fraternity brother, who also shared the Everest fantasy, called and said, "Well, we blew it. Some guy named Hillary just climbed it."

At 6-foot-4, with a cordial but sincere smile, and a habit of cutting extraneous fat from phone calls, meetings or any conversation to get to the heart of the matter, his career at Warner Bros. had been a steady rise to the presidency. But he never forgot that mountain-climbing fantasy; and in 1980 he climbed Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps.

Dick Bass is a raw-boned and rangy man, with a wide Texas grin and a habit of belting out a Tarzan yell of triumph: "Aah-eah-eaahhh!" He has a physique made for his high-stakes entrepreneurial life, and an optimism that gives him an ability to smile in the face of adversity. At 5-foot-10, with a medium build, he has very low blood pressure and a resting pulse of only 41, "except it goes up to 48 when I start talking, which is most of the time. That's why they call me 'Large-Mouth Bass.' " And at 51, even without disciplined exercise, he seemed always to be in good shape. He had shown that when he climbed to the summit of Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet the highest point on the North American continent, without any prior conditioning.

Everything when we landed in Antarctica suggested a straightforward climb, a four- or five-day enterprise. Conditions seemed perfect: no clouds, no wind, daylight 24 hours.

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