As a college senior in 1953, Frank Wells remembers feeling “there could be no more noble purpose than to climb Everest.” Alas, Sir Edmund Hillary reached the 29,028-foot summit first, but the following year, Wells set out with a friend to climb Kenya’s 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. “Even though I was sick all the way up,” Wells recalls, “I said to myself, ‘I just climbed the tallest mountain in Africa. Now I want to climb the highest mountain on each continent.’ ” Flash forward 27 years. In 1981 a mutual friend introduced Wells to Dick Bass, now 54, who had just climbed North America’s highest peak, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Wells, 51, the politically liberal former president and co-chief executive of Warner Bros., and Bass, the ultra-conservative Texan financier (he’s the millionaire owner of Utah’s popular Snowbird ski resort) found they held a vision in common: Both men wanted to reach the top of each continent—the legendary “seven summits.”
In 1982 Wells and Bass laid their plans to become the first climbers to master all seven peaks in one calendar year. They bankrolled the climbs at what Wells terms “a modest six-figure amount,” including the cost of preserving the odyssey on film with the help of cameraman Steven Marts, 44. They want to release a movie of their adventure. Says Bass: “I want to sit there when I’m 90, with the palsy and the shakes, and say, ‘Look at that guy go!’ ” Throughout that year Wells shaped up two hours a day by running up and down the bleachers at the UCLA track with two 25-pound weights in his backpack. On warm-up climbs Bass usually breezed to the summits, but Wells failed to reach the top of all five peaks they attempted, including Everest, which they tried with a 1982 American expedition. Climber Larry Nielson came closest to the top but suffered severe frostbite, and a team member, Marty Hoey, died in a fall. After that Wells and Bass vowed to spend a month rethinking, says Wells, “but we realized that this was a totally unique experience in our lives and that we had to go for it in 1983.”
They began on New Year’s Day with the first expedition’s departure for Argentina’s 22,831-foot Mount Aconcagua. Working with a team that included such mountaineering notables as Yvon Chouinard, Gary Neptune and Rick Ridgeway, Wells gained the summit on Jan. 21, two hours behind Bass. Next came Everest, which they assaulted with 13 climbers, 31 Sherpas and 22,000 pounds of food and supplies. Wells got within 3,000 feet of the top, passing the 8,000-meter mark that distinguishes the world’s loftiest peaks, before 100-mph winds forced him to turn back. Bass was bitterly disappointed when his Sherpas balked at snow conditions only 1,000 feet below the summit. Two squads of their expedition’s climbers did make it, however, including Nielson, who reached the top without oxygen. “We felt like managers of a baseball team that had just won the World Series,” says Wells.
McKinley, Kilimanjaro and Russia’s 18,481-foot Mount Elbrus fell in succession. Then, in 13 days of—35°F temperatures, the party scaled Antarctica’s 16,864-foot Vinson Massif, only the third expedition to do so. Afterward Wells phoned his wife, Luanne, to say they were safe. “She said, ‘This is the only night in the year I’ll be able to sleep.’ That’s when I realized the toll this had taken on her.”
On Dec. 14 Luanne was waiting for Frank at the top of Australia’s Mount Kosciusko, an easy 7,310-foot walk-up, to toast the end of an adventurous year with champagne and extort a promise that he would hang up his ice ax.
Both men treasure the friendships formed during the climbs. “We’re like the Odd Couple,” says Bass. “We argue like hell, but underneath we have great respect for each other.” Wells says the adventure will live in such memories as “fighting a storm on the way up McKinley, finally making it to the top, where you see all over Alaska; or marching to the top of Elbrus, arm-in-arm with Bass, reciting poetry as we often did.” And he continues to cast a wistful eye toward fellow mountaineer Gary Neptune’s plans to climb Everest in 1990. “There are still,” he says, “3,000 feet of Everest left at least to dream about.”