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Seven Summits

Seven Summits. Dick Bass and Frank Wells, with Rick Ridgeway. Warner Books, New York, 1986. 336 pages, color photographs. $19.95.

The late, and much lamented, Tom Patey, had, as readers of his luminous book, One Man’s Mountains, know, a fine ear for song. One of my favorites, to be sung to the tune of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” is entitled “Onward, Christian Bonington.” Here is the first verse:

Onward, Christian Bonington of the A.C.G.

Write another page of Alpine history.

He has climbed the Eigerwand, he has climbed the Dru—

For a mere ten thousand francs, he will climb with you:

Onward, Christian Bonington of the A.C.G.

If you name the mountain, he will name the fee.

This verse came to mind as I read the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of this book, Seven Summits. I am sure that I don’t have to remind the readers of our journal that the seven summits in question are the highest mountains on each of the seven continents and that these were climbed for the first time as a group by at least one of two of the authors of the so-named book. (This last sentence sounds like something out of a police report; but so be it.) The twelfth and thirteenth chapters have to do with the climb of Mount Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica on which the authors toiled in the company of none other than the above-mentioned Christian Bonington. What I liked about this chapter was that it was the only one in which one gets some sense of what this entire caper must have cost—although the costs that are discussed must represent— pardon the allusion—just the tip of the iceberg. Chapter Twelve opens with a conversation between one of the principals—Frank Wells—and a climber called Pat Morrow who, it turns out, is also trying to climb the seven summits. I have no idea whether it is a verbatim transcript of an actual conversation, but here is what is reported. It begins with Morrow:

“I’ve seen the Fortune article [a remarkably apt venue for an article on this enterprise] about you and Dick and I wondered if I might ask how you two are planning to get to Antarctica?”

“Do you have $200,000?” Frank asked.

“No.”

“Well, that’s what it takes.”

That is, one gathers, what it took for starters. A fee of a mere $90,000 is tossed off for rebuilding an airplane. A description of this is followed by a wonderful exchange:

“They were halfway through the task [of rebuilding the plane] when Frank called Dick with yet another hurdle.”

“Just got a call from Chile. They’re having trouble down there finding enough money to keep the country going. The price of copper is so low they may scrap their whole Antarctic program. If that goes, our fuel drop goes, and if the fuel drop goes, we don’t go.”

That’s what I call getting one’s priorities straight. The Chilean economy be swiggered; it’s the goddamned fuel drop!

Not long ago, I saw a Richard Pryor special. In it, he describes the occasions when his daughter brings home a galaxy of her nubile teen-age girl friends. Pryor finds himself all but consumed by animal urges and then, he says, they start to talk. Horrible teen-age honking sounds come out of their mouths and his libido collapses like a punctured inner tube. “It’s the only thing that saves them,” Pryor added with a wistful look. That is a little how I feel about this book. I have great admiration for the feat. It was a crazy and wonderful idea and then they start to talk. Much of what they say makes me cringe—like reading Mozart’s letters to his cousin Bäsle. It is wheeling and dealing; Dallas in the mountains. We all know that climbers—usually rather pathetically—try to wheel and deal. But these people have raised wheeling and dealing in the mountains to an art form. I find that while I am impressed, I cannot work up much affection. Reading this book was, for me, a little like watching one of those television sports broadcasts between two teams, when one doesn’t care which team wins. For Bass, who seems to have gone back to his oil and ranching interests in Texas, and for Wells, who has gone back to the film industry as the president of Walt Disney, the mountains were an interlude in their lives. One wishes that what they did, had been done by people with a deep, lifetime commitment of our activity.

Jeremy Bernstein