Why the Seven Summits Vision of Dick Bass Still Matters

In the early 1980s, Dick Bass (1930-2015) to set out with the resource-intensive goal of climbing the so-called Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the seven continents:

  1. Denali (Mt. McKinley), North America
  2. Aconcagua, South America
  3. Mt. Elbrus, Europe
  4. Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa
  5. Vinson Massif, Antarctica
  6. Mount Kosciuszko, Australia
  7. Mt. Everest, Asia.

He completed his quest in April 1985. Bass died this week.

Twenty years of hindsight and revisionist history might dismiss what Bass did. We shouldn’t let it.

Bass’ accomplishment is up against choices of the peaks he climbed and even whether the challenge was hardcore enough. For the former, some argue whether the roof of Europe is really Mont Blanc by claiming that Elbrus is in Asia (though this isn’t the popular take). Even more argue whether Oceana’s highest point is really Puncak Jaya rather than Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko. In fact, Bass’ accomplishment is somewhat eroded by Pat Morrow of Canada, who was the first person to climb the Puncak Jaya version (a.k.a. Messner version) of the Seven Summits. And let’s face it. These mountains are high, but they’re not much to look at. In fact, the Second Summits — the second-highest peaks on each continent — are often more aesthetically pleasing and have proved to be the more interesting challenge for technically ambitious climbers.

Bass was also a man of means. He was nearly the stereotype of a Texas oilman, with a thick Texas drawl and money to fund his dreams. He got his education in the East Coast Ivy League School, Yale, and got his degree in geology. And his greatest motivation was always came from those that said it can’t or couldn’t be done. Setting out to climb the seven continents highest peak was one of those things; the furthest anyone had gotten was five in 1956. That year, William Hackett stopped due to lack of resources; he climbed Mont Blanc (then considered Europe’s roof), was turned around on Mount Vinson, and while he obtained a permit for Mount Everest he didn’t get the chance to follow-through and try for the top.

Dick Bass was the Duke of the Abruzzi of our age. Luigi Amedeo (the Duke of the Abruzzi of Italy, who lived from 1873-1933) traveled the world to climb the highest peaks, including Mount Saint Elias in Alaska (the first ascent) and a serious attempt on K2. His resources allowed him to hopscotch across the globe when global travel was an intense undertaking. Of course, Bass wasn’t royalty. He was American and was “new-money.” He wasn’t truly an explorer, though, rather he was an adventurer. His quest, like Luigi Amedeo’s (the Duke), was global. And both could easily have said it wasn’t worth it and retreated.

The Seven Summits are somewhat of a random collection of peaks, whichever list you adhere to, of varying elevations and challenges. Mount Kosciuszko is practically a hike, while climbing Denali or Everest requires great physical endurance and technical mountaineering skills. And to repeat the endeavor takes wealth, even if you went unguided, to reach the destinations and make the attempts.

Bass had a vision, set his goal, and followed through. His wealth constantly comes up — and may easily dismiss his worth. It was an essential piece to his success. He certainly was no dirtbag climber seeking a pure mountain experience. Rather, Bass was a great peak bagger. What you and I should remember is his vision and follow-through. No one else before him did what he did. No one said he had to do it. No one said he had to finish.

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Sources: 1) Personal recollections from past reading uncited; 2) “A Man and His Mountains,” Ski, January 1988.