Book Review: Seven Summits by Dick Bass and Frank Wells
I picked this book up in a used paperback book store. This nonfiction with a Mountainscape of Everest complete with Clint Eastwood quote called out to me in an otherwise exclusively fiction book store. I bought it reminding myself of the resolve to read all the mountaineering literature I can get my hands on. Its one of the ways I find my people.
The book takes place in the early 1980’s when two affluent middle aged men, Dick Bass and Frank Wells, decide that they should climb the seven summits. They would be the first to accomplish this particular feat. This was an interesting thought, not least of which because these men did not have an appreciable amount of mountaineering experience to speak of. Frank Wells climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as a young man and Dick Bass had just taken a guided tour of Mount Denali (nee McKinley). They decided on a preposterous goal that they seemed ill equipped to achieve, but they had connections, money, and the will to succeed.
The Seven Summits, for the uninitiated, are the 7 tallest mountains in each of the 7 continents. There is a dispute about how some of the continents are divided (even today), and it turned out to be important since they had an out from behind competitor in Pat Morrow. They were neck and neck for the title but Pat climbed a different mountain in what he considered Asia, but Dick Bass and Frank Wells climbed a summit in Australia. This is Since Dick Bass and Frank Wells were first, I think they get to call it. The Seven Summits are Kilimanjaro in Africa, Aconcagua in South America, Mount Denali in North America, Mount Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, and Kosciusko in Australia.
The book follows these men through their struggles obtaining permits, their performance on each peak, and each of the losses they encounter.
Dick Bass was a stronger mountaineer than Frank Wells, and in a better position to succeed than he did did, but that’s not to say that he could have done it without Frank. Frank Wells quit his job as one of the heads of Warner brothers studio to succeed at this goal, and ended up being the pathfinder for the team. He organized the flights and equipment and customs to make this goal happen. Climbing the Seven Summits can be done in 11 months now with little to no planning using charted flights and guided trips, but these pathways weren’t available in 1982, and it was Frank Wells that made it happen. Dick Bass physically climbed all of the routes, making him the first man to do so (and the oldest man to climb Everest at the time too boot), but I would consider Frank Wells a trailblazer.
These men had grit. There was an abundance mentality that I found inspirational to read about. They knew going in that there wasn’t a problem they couldn’t handle, and knowing that at the onset alone pulled them through many obstacles. They had an inspiring tenacity. Seeing them tackle each mountain like a series of problems to be solved was like a course in living your best life. Sure, in some of the expeditions they had over 30 years of age on their guides. And they were often held back in both lack of physical fitness and high altitude experience, but these were just problems to be solved. They didn’t let nay-sayers deter them, even when the nay-sayers really had a good point.
They climbed these mountains in a peculiar way, in my opinion. They attempted each route over and over again until they summited. They succeeded on Everest only on the fourth attempt. Additionally, Everest was one of the first routes they climbed. Many people train for years before they get to Everest, or at the very least spend a season regrouping after a failure due to lack of physical ability, but not Frank and Dick. They trained while they were on the mountain. They faked it until they made it. Some may say that they were able to do this because they had the money to attempt Everest multiple times. Sure, if I ever made it onto an expedition the financial burden alone would lead me to treat the adventure preciously knowing that I had one shot. But I don’t think it was the financial freedom that led them to make that decision. They took four attempts because they had four attempts. They took every single shot at an open permit that they had. They took every shot they had because you miss every shot you don’t take.
But that’s not how I would climb a mountain. I would have spent hundreds of hours on a stairmaster before attempting even the first of the seven summits. I would have proven myself on smaller mountains before tackling the biggest in the world. I think mountain climbing is more fun when you don’t epic. I think mountain climbing is fun when you have energy at the top and have facility of all of your fingers and toes. That being said, if you don’t Epic, you don’t have a good story. (see my trip report on Venusian blinds, one of my lamest and consequently most verbose trip reports).
I bet Bass and Wells would agree if they were around today. They didn’t do so hot, especially not at first. No local training mountains were climbed. They started doing better at the end because they were starting to get used to it. Their legs were getting stronger, their tendons thicker, their perceptions more attuned to hidden dangers. All the dramas they had were from a lack of preparation but that’s what made it a good story. It’s a story that modern day climbers would shake their heads at, but its this type of bravado that lets them be the first.
Trailblazers inherently aren’t cautious people.
The book is out of print but its Available on Amazon. I have an extra copy that I would love to upcycle so please contact me if you are interested in having me send it to you. (sort of like a very slow book club). Thank you for reading!