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
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The faultless clear sky had been replaced by a portentous veneer of thin cirrus, and when we awoke at 10 the sun was backlighting a glitter of sprinkling snow, the kind mountaineers call angel’s dust.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.
The sun inched behind Vinson. As we climbed into shadow, a slight breeze blew out of the broad, flat col between Mt. Shinn and Vinson, and the combination was numbing. As we stopped to put on another layer of clothing, the cold penetrated my torso. It occurred to me that this temperature--at least 30 below--was cold enough to be dangerous. If I were to pop into a crevasse, I might freeze up before I could complete a self-rescue. It was a sobering thought, and I kept a watchful eye out for the telltale depressions in the snow’s surface that pinpointed the chasms.
We climbed back into sunlight, and things cheered up. Soon we arrived at an inviting flat bench just below the edge where the slope dropped away down the steep west side of Vinson.
“Good-looking campsite,” I said.
“Except it’s bloody exposed if a storm brews up,” Bonington said.
“Well, I think everything’s going to be just fine,” Bass said. “The clouds seem to be clearing.”
The worrisome high clouds did seem to be dissipating. By the time we had camp pitched and dinner finished it was 2 a.m., and we were all confident we were only hours from success. We awoke at 6, and by 9 we were off, carrying only extra clothing and a few candy bars. We followed the ridge line, and had a grand view of the ice cap 8,000 feet below. Behind us we could see the other peaks of the Ellsworth Range running in a line like an island archipelago frozen in an otherworldly icescape.
“This had to be the most fantastic day of my whole climbing career,” Bonington said.
Coming from perhaps the most experienced expedition mountaineer alive, that judgment put the austere beauty of Vinson in perspective.
Then I felt the first wind. It was only a breath, but enough to give the air a sting. It calmed for a moment, then puffed again. This time the puff, like an ominous portent, did not die. Soon the gusts were coming in at us through the col, hitting 20, 30, then 40 m.p.h. We hunched over into the head wind, looking up only to verify our course. We had only a few hundred more yards to the col, but then what? There we would be exposed to the full force of the wind, and if it were to increase any more, we might be forced back. I glanced around at the others and saw their figures blurred through the spindrift now scudding across the hard snow.
I stopped to fasten the chin snap on my parka hood. I couldn’t seem to get the two parts to match, and I motioned Bonington to give me a hand. By the time he had it secured the others had caught up, and for a moment we rested. It was so cold we couldn’t sit, so we walked in little circles, stomping our feet and swinging our arms to force blood into our numbed fingertips.
Wells lowered his face mask to clean his goggles.
“Let me look at your nose,” Bonington yelled above the wind to him.
“What’s it look like?”
“Completely white. First stage of frostbite. You’ve got to go down.”
Wells digested this news. If he went down, and the others continued and made it, that left him without anyone to go with for another attempt. On the other hand, Bass would make it, so at least one of them would be successful. And obviously it wasn’t worth losing his nose.
“OK, I’ll go back.”
“Someone has to go with you.”
Steve Marts, along to film the Seven Summits saga, agreed to go down, and Miura and Tae Maeda said they would go back, too; and Wells realized he had a chance for another attempt.
“If they’re going back, I’m going too,” Bass yelled.
“What do you mean?” Bonington asked incredulously.
“What are you talking about?” Wells yelled. “We may not get another chance. You’ve got to go up. So at least one of us will have made it.”
“He who fights and runs away,” Bass yelled, quoting Falstaff, “lives to fight another day, but he who in the battle is slain, will never rise to fight again.”
“Dick, don’t be so flippant,” Wells yelled.
“Hell’s bells,” Bass yelled back, “you’re the one always saying you have more than one chance on these climbs.”
“I’ll go down too,” I said.
“Don’t be silly,” Wells yelled. “You’re going with Bonington, and that’s it.”
No one said anything. Wells spoke with such final authority things seemed settled. So Wells, Bass and the others turned downwind while Bonington and I lowered our heads and continued toward the summit.
An hour later we reached the col and felt the full blast of the wind. My goggles were iced so badly that to navigate I was forced to stay on Bonington’s heels, following the fuzzy form of his boots making one step, then another, as we angled up a steepening slope. To save time we had agreed to unrope: There was an unspoken understanding that each man was on his own. Temperatures were probably 30 below, and the gusts now approached 60. That made the wind chill, what? One hundred below zero? Whatever it was, it was brutal.
Bonington stopped and turned to me. “These have to be the worst conditions I’ve ever climbed in.”
I reminded him later that this judgment followed his earlier one--that it was the most fantastic day he had ever climbed in--by about four hours.
He pulled ahead. I couldn’t keep up. I moved slowly but deliberately, placing my boots carefully, testing each handhold. But my head was swimming; I was off balance. I looked down. It was a several-hundred-foot drop on both sides. I hunkered in the lee of a rock and tried to think.
I realized in my condition there was a good chance I might make a fatal slip. That settled it. I turned and started back, glancing around after a few dozen yards. Now I could see Bonington, past the rocky traverse, approaching the final slope to the summit. I continued down; past the col I stopped once more to study the summit block. Where was he? Then I saw him, a lone red dot. He was on the summit, perched on top the highest mountain in Antarctica. I smiled. The expedition was a success. . . .
Bonington looked exhausted when he got back to camp. We fixed him tea, but there was so much ice in his beard he couldn’t get the cup to his mouth, so we had to cut out the chunks with a Swiss Army knife. With the brew in him, he perked up.
“Fabulous view up there, but I was also able to see off toward the Weddell Sea. There are some very sinister-looking clouds moving our way. I think we have no choice but to pack up and get out of here immediately. Down to the snow cave.”
“What about our next attempt?” Wells asked. “We would have to come all the way back.”
“I’d rather have you do that than risk getting caught here in a big blow. If a fierce wind blew these tents apart, you might not be able to find your way down.”
There was silence; then Bonington, a bit reflectively but in dead earnest, added, “Mountaineering is a serious game. Believe me, Frank, I know.”
“I think Chris is right,” I said. “We shouldn’t risk it.”
“I don’t agree,” Wells said, “but I suppose I’ll have to defer.”
“Well, I’ll just go along with our leaders,” Bass said. “I’m sure we’ll still get our chance.”
Though we had now been on Vinson for a week, it remained an odd feeling to go to sleep with light and wake up with light. The weather looked about the same, and we passed the next 12 hours sitting in the tent swapping stories until finally, around midnight, we got drowsy enough once more to go to sleep.
It was nearly noon the next day when we awoke. The clouds were thinning, and up higher it looked like the wind was dying.
“Let’s wait awhile and make sure it’s a solid spell,” Wells said.
“We might as well wait until about 3 a.m. or so,” Bass added. “That way we would be making most of the climb during the highest sun.”
Even with the 24-hour daylight we had noticed that it was warmer during the “daytime” part of the 24-hour cycle. Consequently, we decided to wait for these warmer hours and then try to climb directly from Camp 1 to the summit, bypassing Camp 2. We felt that if the good weather was short-lived, this strategy would be our best hope for success.
We used the few hours remaining before our planned departure to catch a little more sleep. We awoke at 3 a.m., but now the clouds were scudding over the ridge above camp, indicating wind above. By 6 it had eased, and though it was cloudy, we decided to chance it.
We made good time, but with each step forward, the clouds seemed to close an increment inward. By the time we reached the site where before we had set up Camp 2 we knew our luck was out, and we retraced our steps down to Camp 1.
As the storm continued for another day and a half, we slept, ate and sat in Wells and Bass’ tent telling stories or listening to Bass recite poetry.
We still planned on our next attempt to climb directly from this camp to the summit--more than 5,000 feet of vertical gain--reasoning that if we only had a short window of good weather, this strategy would be more likely to succeed. But Miura and Maeda had a different thought.
“Frank is maybe not strong enough to go all the way at once. Maybe it would be better if we carry up and make Camp 2 again, rest there, then go to top.”
“But it will take longer,” I countered.
“I have an idea,” Wells said. “What if Steve and I stay at Camp 2, and the rest of you go in one push?”
There was wisdom in the proposal. It would maximize our chances if the good weather was only brief, and yet, if the good weather lasted, Wells would have a better shot at the top.
We agreed to the plan, then a short time later Miura and Maeda were back in the big tent saying they had decided they would go with Wells and Marts and also stay over in Camp 2. So it would be just Bass and me on the first attempt.
It was 4 in the afternoon when he and I got away. We realized that for the last half of our climb we would be in the coldest part of the 24-hour cycle, but if this good weather was to be brief, we wanted to take advantage of it while it lasted.
For the first several hours we were in sun and quite comfortable. We made good time back to the site of Camp 2 and stopped to unload Wells’ gear. Then the sun moved in its sideways crawl behind Vinson and we entered shadow. It had to be at least 40 below, and probably colder. At one point, after we had been moving for six hours without stop, Bass motioned he wanted to rest. He pulled his water bottle from his pack, and even though he had it encased in an insulated cover, it was frozen solid. My candy bar was frozen too, and biting on it was like chomping down on a bar of steel.
We had stopped for perhaps a minute when I realized we were quickly losing body heat.
“My toes are starting to go on me,” Bass said, “and my fingers, too. Lord, but it’s a cold mother.”
We were doing a little war dance, walking in circles, stamping our feet and swinging our arms.
Then Bass got poetic:
“Talk of your cold, through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.”
“No, Sam McGee. You know, I always enjoyed reading it, but living it is something else.”
“I think I’m getting more worn out from this rest than from climbing,” I said. “Let’s get moving.”
Bass was incredible. With only a couple of years of any real climbing experience, here he was scaling, unroped, a steep slope in the heart of Antarctica. It was almost midnight; we had been climbing with only two brief stops for nearly eight hours. And at 53, he showed no sign of fatigue.
We made it up the steep slope, then across the short ridge connecting the final summit rise. Bass was about 40 feet behind me. Ahead I could see the top of a ski pole sticking above the slope. It was maybe 30 feet away. I knew that the previous party who had climbed the mountain had left a ski pole buried on the top, but I was surprised to see it still there. I made the last few steps to the ridge crest: There was the summit, an easy 10 steps away. Bass was a few feet below me, still unable to see the pole.
“Dick, you’ve got maybe 30 feet before you’re standing on the highest point on the coldest continent.”
“Rick, are you pulling my leg?”
“No, Dick, we’ve got it!”
Bass crested the ridge, and arm in arm we marched the last steps to the top. Then we bear-hugged. It was a good, solid, long-lasting hug, and I wasn’t sure whether it was for joy or because we were freezing to death. I decided it must be joy because I had tears in my eyes. That presented a new problem when the tears quickly froze and glued my eyelashes together.
“When our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze, ‘til sometimes we couldn’t see.”
“Dan McGrew?” I asked.
“Still Sam McGee.”
The sky was faultless, there was no wind, and we commanded a view down the backbone of the Ellsworth Range, across the ice cap that stretched like a great frozen plain uninterrupted for the 700 miles between us and the South Pole.
“What’s that peak down the range there?” Bass asked. “That big one.”
“Must be Tyree,” I answered.
“It looks higher than this one!”
I gazed downrange and could see that while Tyree wasn’t necessarily higher than Vinson, it did certainly appear to be at least as high.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The survey of these peaks was done a while back, and the National Science Foundation does admit it wasn’t too accurate.”
“Can you imagine,” Bass said, “all the way down here, and we climb the wrong mountain.”
“Nah, this has got to be the highest peak,” I said. We stared downrange for a few more minutes, trying to convince ourselves. Then I noticed we were both starting to shiver uncontrollably.
“Time to get the hell out of here,” I said.
Bass agreed. So it was--in the best tradition of mountaineering, having worked our tails off to get there--that we were more than happy when it was time, as Bass put it, “to put this mother behind us.”
Meanwhile, at the Camp 2 site, Wells and the others erected their tents and crawled into their bags to wait for us. Wells was just waking up when he heard the faint squeak-squeak of approaching crampons.
Wells was out of his tent to give Bass a big hug. Bass and I were by then very tired, having climbed for 12 hours straight, and we wasted no time playing musical sleeping bags, switching places with Marts and Wells as they dressed and left with Miura and Maeda for their attempt.
It took them nearly eight hours to reach the steep slope below the final summit rise, and by then Wells was exhausted. He vomited twice, just minutes apart.
He thought, “Please, Steve, tell me I’m going too slow, that I’m too sick. Tell me I’ve got to turn back.”
Marts judged it would be a good idea to rope up for this next section. They were still in direct sun, and the temperature was now only about 20 below zero. They divided into two rope teams--Marts with Wells, Miura with Maeda. They scaled the steep slope at an agonizingly slow pace, and Marts knew that from there they had only a few hundred more feet to reach the top. Figuring that the exposed climbing was now behind them, Marts had Wells untie from the rope. What Marts didn’t know was that Wells was now pushing himself to his limit, that he felt like a drunkard in a world divorced of reality. Marts pulled ahead until the distance between the two men was 300 feet; Miura and Maeda were another 300 or so feet behind Wells. Ahead Wells saw Marts reach a ridge crest with nothing behind it but blue sky.
“Where’s the top?” Wells called.
“Over there.” Then Marts disappeared. Wells was certain by “over there” he had meant, “Over several more humps.”
Wells told himself, “I can’t make it much farther.”
Then he threw up again.
He recovered and convinced himself he could make it to the ridge crest anyway. It was now only 30 steps higher. He started counting them--4, 5, 6. He made 10 feet, then 20. He made another step and was just a foot short of the crest when suddenly his foot skidded from under him. He shifted weight and like a shot the other foot popped out.
“My God, I’m starting to fall!”
In an instant he began picking up speed. He fumbled for his ice ax, trying to remember how to stop himself. Fifty feet, 75 feet--he was going faster, faster. One hundred feet down; the slope steepened, then it seemed to drop off, down toward the basin to only God knew where.
“Get the ice ax, get the ice ax, where is it? Where’s that damn thing?” It was gone, out of his hands. He had dropped it.
There, below him, some rocks were sticking out.
The slope started to lay back. Wells slowed, then grabbed for a rock. It popped from his hands. He grabbed another. It started to pull through his mittens--then it held. He stopped.
Panting, he stood and looked up. He had gone maybe 200 feet. He steeled himself to the task he knew he had to face, and slowly started climbing back toward Marts, picking up his ice ax on the way.
Once again he wondered how far he could get. He thought, “I dare not slip again because this is the last bit of energy I’ve got.”
He threw up again.
He recovered and thought, “And if the summit is still a distance away--I’ll never make it.”
He had three more steps to reach Marts and the top of the ridge crest when he looked over and saw the tip of the ski pole sticking up.
“You mean I’m going to make it?”
Suddenly the fatigue left his body, and he quickly made the last steps to the ski pole. Then, with one leg forward on the summit he pounded his ice ax into the slope once, twice, three times, venting all the frustration, the anxiety, the physical pain it had taken to get where he was.
On Aug. 4, 1985--four years to the day after Bass and Wells shook hands and agreed to do the Seven Summits--Bass held a banquet to celebrate the odyssey. It had taken more than the planned year, but Bass had succeeded in climbing all seven peaks (Everest had taken three tries), and Wells had made it to the top of all but Everest. There was a quiet moment that evening in memory of Marty Hoey, one of their group who had fallen to her death on Everest.
The only remaining uncertainty was that a new survey had placed the altitude of Vinson Massif at 16,067 feet, instead of 16,864--which made Mt. Tyree, by the old measurement, 16,200, a few feet higher. There had been a frustrating wait as the new survey results for Mt. Tyree’s elevation were completed.
Wells, now president of The Disney Co., interrupted the festivities to pull a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior from his pocket. The last line settled all doubts:
“We have just completed the new measurement for Mt. Tyree. The final altitude is 15,903 feet. So Vinson is still higher than Mt. Tyree--by 170 feet!”
Adapted from “Seven Summits,” by Dick Bass and Frank Wells with Rick Ridgeway, to be published in April by Warner Books Inc. Copyright 1986 by Frank Wells and Dick Bass.