American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Frank G. Wells, 1932-1994

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1995

FRANK G. WELLS

1932-1994

Frank G. Wells was tragically killed on April 3, 1994 in a helicopter crash in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. In the same accident, the well known female climber Beverly Johnson, Yosemite climber Paul Scannell and the pilot Dave Walton also lost their lives; climber and mountain film maker Mike Hoover, Johnson’s husband, was severely injured. Among other climbs, Beverly Johnson made the first all-female ascent of El Capitan with Sibylle Hechtel in 1973 via the 3-D Route, linking the Salathé and Muir walls and the Nose, and she completed an impressive 10-day solo ascent of El Capitan’s Dihedral Wall in 1979.—Editor.

When I first met Frank in 1982, he had called me into his office at Warner Brothers to talk over the idea he had of climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. After I was escorted into a posh room where a dozen people were huddled about a table discussing plans for a block-buster film, Frank looked up and said, “Okay, boys. Meeting’s over. I’ve got some important business.”

At first, I assumed that Frank was a soon-to-be-50 executive in need of finding himself. Then I looked again. Here was a man who had spent his adult life climbing the corporate ladder, reaching the top rung. Now he was proposing to leave all that utterly behind to go on a venture which he knew little or nothing about, for which he had a far greater chance of failing than of succeeding. Something was going on, and I was curious to learn what.

Over the next year, from Aconcagua, to Mount Everest, to the highest point in Antarctica, I found out. It wasn't about discovering himself. It wasn't about taking risk either. It was about embracing change. Every good climber knows how to take risks. Calculating and controlling risk is one of the pleasures of the sport, as it can be one of thrills of business. But I know very few climbers who know how to embrace change. In that there is a significant difference, and that difference was part of Frank's genius.

When we made our first climb in South America, Aconcagua, Frank was close to helpless. He couldn’t set up a tent, pack his gear, start a stove, much less boil water. He slipped, fell, struggled, even crawled—but he made it to the top. By the end of the year, on the Vinson Massif, he had metamorphosed. He built snow walls, pitched tents, sharpened crampons; he was lean and strong. On the way out, pinned by storm at an Antarctic base, he even learned to cook, heating his soup in a microwave. When he got home, he couldn’t wait to tell his wife Luanne. “It was fantastic. You push all these buttons and presto. Darling, we’ve got to get one.” “Frank,” she said, “We’ve had one for twelve years.” He had climbed all of the Seven Summits but one in a single year. Mount Everest alone eluded him, but he did reach the South Col.

When the Seven Summits was over, a reporter asked Frank why he climbed. Frank quoted the last line of his favorite Robert Service poem, “I want to see it all.” To do that, he had the courage to send his life into an unknown direction. When the climbing year was over, he had no idea of what lay ahead. He had no job, no planned direction, no grand design. But what he did have was verve and a zest for life. He had embodied Goethe’s maxim, “Whatever you dream, you can do. Begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic.” We all know where these qualities took him in the last ten years of his life. That was Frank’s testimony and that is his endowment to us.

Rick Ridgeway

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