August 18—In the hut at Mount Robson. A seven-hour climb up 5,000 feet from Kinney Lake. With a late start yesterday, we walked in there the night before, my nervousness subsiding as we had to talk with the other people in the campground. One fellow, a Quebecois from Montreal, told us how terrible the snow and rock was and what a bad idea it was to climb—not what I needed to hear.
The descent down that trail will be a killer.
Friends remember that Nicholas Vanderbilt was apprehensive about his climbing vacation in the Canadian Rockies, but not unduly so. Six years earlier Vanderbilt, 25, and his climbing partner, Francis Gledhill Jr., 29, a data processor at the University of California at Berkeley, had attempted to scale 12,972-foot Mount Robson, the Monarch of the Rockies, only to retreat when the weather turned foul. Last month, when the two Harvard graduates set out again to conquer the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, the weather was perfect, their equipment brand new. They set out at 5:30 a.m. on August 21, climbing all day on the rock and ice of the Wishbone Ridge on the mountain’s west flank. After nightfall pinpricks of light from their helmet lamps were spotted about 2,000 feet below the summit. Next day Vanderbilt and Gledhill were seen near the same place. The following afternoon bad weather moved in, cloaking the mountain in cloud and dropping a six-inch blanket of snow. When the climbers failed to return as scheduled, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police launched a helicopter search-and-rescue operation. The Mounties were soon joined by a private team of volunteer climbers, partly funded by Vanderbilt’s father, multimillionaire racehorse owner Alfred Vanderbilt, 72. For a while Jean Harvey Vanderbilt, 47, divorced from Nicholas’ father since 1975, joined the search party, hovering above the forbidding mountain in a Mountie helicopter, scanning the rocks below for some sign of her son. The aerial search was suspended a week later without finding any trace of the missing duo. Vanderbilt’s diary, containing a record of the fateful expedition, was recovered from a shelter at 8,400 feet on the mountain.
Simply because of his surname—which became virtually a synonym for great wealth after Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt created a huge shipping and railroad empire in the 19th century—the disappearance and presumed death of Nicholas Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s great-great-grandson, made headlines across America. The publicity was ironic, Nick’s friends say, because he never wanted to be treated as a Vanderbilt. Not that he rejected his background; he simply shied away from it. A devoutly religious, nonsmoking teetotaler, Vanderbilt chose to live in Austin, Texas, far from the flight patterns of the jet set. There he attended Roman Catholic services, worked two days a month as a volunteer in a soup kitchen and spent most of the rest of his time at his typewriter working on a screenplay and magazine articles, among them a piece planned for PEOPLE. “He was just another kid,” says Tony Downer, Vanderbilt’s best friend. “The name Vanderbilt had nothing to do with it. It was Schmanderbilt as far as anybody was concerned.”
Nicholas Harvey Vanderbilt was born into what economist Thorstein Veblen dubbed the “leisure class.” Nick’s father, Alfred, devoted his life to horse racing. After inheriting his mother’s stable of Thoroughbreds at the age of 21, Alfred became a famed breeder of racehorses, including the great Native Dancer, who dominated Thoroughbred racing in the early ’50s. Nicholas received a classically aristocratic education. He prepped at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy and did his undergraduate work at Harvard. At Exeter, Vanderbilt was known as a grind, too busy with studies for such popular extracurricular activities as booze and dope. At Harvard, says Downer, who roomed with him, Nick loosened up. “He spent more time doing the Sunday crossword puzzle,” says Downer, “than he did on his courses.” He still did well in school, yet he enjoyed himself more. Vanderbilt particularly enjoyed climbing mountains—he was president of the Harvard Mountaineering Club—and also loved skiing and writing. In 1979 he wrote the book for the Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ annual musical comedy. His effort, titled Overtures in Asia Minor, contained the usual atrocious puns that characterize all Hasty Pudding farces. “I sit and age like someone’s cheese,” went one of Vanderbilt’s lines, “and I Camembert it any longer.”
After he graduated in 1980, Vanderbilt tried his hand at writing for a living, cushioning the tougher blows of what he once wryly called the “mean wiles of fate” with an income from a family trust fund. It was not a lot of money, his friends insist. “He was the recipient of a modest trust,” says Downer. “The income from that was adequate. It enabled him to live in a reasonably nice apartment. It allowed him a little bit of travel. His tastes were not extravagant.”
In 1981 Vanderbilt moved from Long Island to Austin. The main reason for the move was so that he could be close to Susan Overbey, 50, a housewife and mother of eight who considered herself an “extra mother” to Nick. It was Overbey who met him in Alaska, in 1976, when he was working on a pipeline, and later steered him into Catholicism. “He was on Long Island, trying to write, with a lot of distractions,” recalls Overbey. “He had a decision to make: East Coast or West Coast. And of course we offered our house. He went to a cabin in New Hampshire and asked God what to do. He had a very deep spiritual conversation going with God.” The entries in the diary found on Mount Robson reflect Vanderbilt’s mystical spirituality:
God is real, not in explanations but in mystery, in unexplainable things, in people’s joy or excitement about him. That is one of the things that caught me—seeing light in other people. From the few moments when I have been a light to someone—I know what that is—I would like to be this light always.
Vanderbilt’s religious conversion did not turn him into a proselytizer. “He didn’t preach,” says Downer. “He wasn’t at all holier than thou.” On the first and third Mondays of every month, he got up early and drove to an Austin soup kitchen called Angels House, where he spent the morning slicing meat and vegetables into huge pots and cooking stew, which he served to winos and street people for lunch. According to Overbey he also bought a car and some groceries for the family of a poor preacher. “He felt as though he needed to share what he had to the point of keeping himself quite broke,” she says.
Day by day, though, it was not religion that occupied Vanderbilt, but writing. “He was so social that to write was a tremendous exercise in self-discipline,” says Overbey, “but he made himself do it from about five to eight hours a day.” Despite all that effort Vanderbilt’s writing career was not overwhelmingly successful. He sold a profile to a Texas magazine called Third Coast and a travel piece on the racing scene at Saratoga to Vogue. Among his last works was a screenplay that he was writing with friend and fellow mountaineer Brinton Young. Titled Above the Dawn, it was about a mountain climbing expedition in which one climber dies.
Through much of this past summer, he prepared intensely for his renewed assault on Mount Robson. “He trained for a month for Robson, running up and down the bleachers at Texas Stadium in the summer heat,” says Dennis Darling, a photographer who had worked with Vanderbilt on magazine stories. “He thought the challenge [of Mount Robson] would get the mountains out of his system for a while.”
In early August Vanderbilt met his friend Francis Gledhill in Berkeley and headed toward British Columbia, admiring the scenery along the way.
We tried to climb Forbidden Peak but couldn’t find it. When we got to the end of the trail, the clouds hadn’t lifted and we had no idea where we were in the basin. Wandering around in the snowfields, with the clouds parting now and then, I remember what I love about being in the mountains….Sweating profusely, walking up the very steep trail to the climb, I think, why do I do this?
On August 17 Vanderbilt and Gledhill began their trek up the lower slopes of Mount Robson. They made it to the 8-by-14-foot shelter hut but a snowstorm and heavy clouds kept them there for three days. It was a tedious three days: The men played gin rummy, checked the weather every 10 minutes and ate sparingly, hoping to conserve their food for the climb. The last entry in the diary is dated August 20:
Lunch is two bits of jerky, three slices of cheese and peanut butter and a cup of soup. Francis says we are more likely to get bedsores than climbing injuries….By 9 this evening, the sky is clear and we are planning to go tomorrow.