Peter Shelton

Largemouth Bass

Posted in More Sport, Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on July 31, 2015

We were waiting for Dick Bass. That was normal – waiting for Richard D. Bass: never-say-no human magnet, whirlwind of positive energy, Texas oil tycoon, builder of the Snowbird Resort in Utah, conceiver of the seven-summits project, first man to climb the highest mountain on all seven continents, and at that time (1985) the oldest man, at 55, to climb Everest. Life was a feast too big even for his prodigious appetites. He was constantly suffering, he would tell you, in his raspy Dallas drawl, from “the tyranny o’ the urgent.”

Cramming too much in, or trying to cram more in than the hard rules of time and distance will allow, was Dick Bass’ m.o. So why would it be any different here in Switzerland in the winter of 1986 as a contingent of Snowbird people gathered at the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof to cement a newly engaged sister-city relationship – Zermatt and Snowbird?

The banquet was due to start in two hours. The folks from the Zermatt tourist office had already visited Utah, earlier that winter, with an appropriately angular, 400-pound chunk of the Matterhorn as a gift. Bass was supposed to present the Americans’ return offering, a set of exquisite Navajo sand paintings. The rest of the group had been in Switzerland for three days. But Bass still had not arrived, and the snow that had been pounding the high valleys of the Rhone River for 24 hours showed no sign of letting up.

Then, suddenly, there he was bursting through the lobby doors. “Pedro! How are ya, buddy?” (I had been invited along as a member of the fourth estate, if indeed Powder Magazine qualified.) “Yeah, we made it! I haven’t slept in three nights. I was givin’ a speech in Pebble Beach – I give speeches now! Ha-ha! And the limo broke down so we had to thumb. Missed the plane in San Francisco then caught one outta San Jose, but that put us late into Frankfurt. Missed the train, so we took a plane to Geneva where they lost our skis and . . . Hoopie! Amigo!” Bass greeted Snowbird vice president of mountain operations Kent Hoopingarner.

When after dinner it was Bass’ turn to speak he apologized in advance for his tendency to hold forth, referring to himself with a chuckle as Largemouth Bass. “Most of you know I have big lungs from talkin’ so much. That’s how I trained for Everest. Ha-ha!” When Bass laughed it was a big, square-mouthed grin, eyes squinting nearly shut ala Teddy Roosevelt.

He stood up and raised a glass in the direction of Emil Perren, a local guide sitting across the table, a mountain of man still, albeit slowed with age. “I lost my climbin’ virginity on the Matterhorn in 1949,” Bass said. “It’s every schoolboy’s vision of the Alps – and that’s where my heart will always be.” His eyes brimmed with tears.

“Emil, remember when we climbed the mountain [Bass was 19] an’ the snow went out from under me. And my heart went into my throat. I was gone. Sayonara. But your brother-in-law, Theodore, burrowed in an’ saved me. Here’s this bright-eyed flatlander from Dallas, Texas, hangin’ on the end of a rope! . . Don’t worry, I won’t talk all night.”

On and on the stories flowed. Stories about his plans for Snowbird beyond the skiing. “I’m a dreamer; dreams have always sustained me.” Dreams of a Snowbird Center for Human Understanding – literature, painting, opera! It would be “dedicated to the development of the body, mind, and spirit.” Bass said these things, and they didn’t sound corny. His enthusiasm was pure, contagious.

The emotion rose in his eyes again. “Let me tell you somethin’ Kazantzakis [Zorba the Greek] said: ‘By believing passionately enough in that which does not exist, we create.’ Now, that could be the motto of Snowbird. I’m goin’ to create the finest ski resort in the world. I know it.

“Up on Everest, I slipped once, an’ only a little patch of soft snow saved me from eternity in a crevasse. I said to myself God is savin’ me for a higher purpose. An’ that’s when I had the idea for the Snowbird Center. Negative thoughts drain you. An’ fear just takes your strength right now! I see it as a renaissance thing: the forward and upward thrust of humanity.”

His knee was bopping under the white tablecloth. “So anyway, it’s 7,000 feet down one way, 8,000 down the other way. I told myself, you slip you’re jiggered boy, your life is suckered . . .”

The headwaiter had to come, finally, to kick us out of the dining room. It was past midnight. And Bass was still talking.

Dick Bass died on Sunday, July 26, 2015, of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 85. He died at home in University Park, in an 11,000-square-foot house crammed with art. He was fond of Robert Service: “To scorn all strife, and view all life/With the curious eyes of a child . . .” Marching up Mount Elbrus, the fourth of his seven summits, Bass recited Kipling’s Gunga Din from memory.

He came to my cabin in the Colorado high country once. He owned a piece of land nearby. “Pedro,” he said, “one of these years I’m gonna build me a cabin like this an’ put my feet up on the porch rail an’ write poetry!”

He never did it. He liked to say, “If you never stop, you can’t get stuck.” Stopping long enough to put his feet up wasn’t in his genes.

Back in Zermatt, the snow continued without a break. All that night avalanches poured off the cliffs, burying the only road up from Visp, cutting off the train. “We’re interlodged!” Bass said in the morning, referring to the condition at Snowbird when slide danger is so high that guests are required to stay inside the lodges. “Say, Zermatt an’ Snowbird have more in common than I thought!

“But it is half important that I get to Frankfurt for an 11 a.m. plane tomorrow. I have to make a weddin’ – one of Marian’s kids – in Dallas. I don’t know if the marriage counselor could smooth that one over!” Marian was the second of his three marriages.

The thing was, no one was coming in or going out. The valley was officially closed. But, as Lauren Talgo from Snowbird’s marketing department told me, “The worst mistake anyone can make is to say to Dick, ‘No, that’s impossible. You can’t do that.’”

And sure enough, by mid-morning, Bass had commandeered a helicopter and, in limited visibility, was winging his way toward the next improbable deadline.

2 Responses

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  1. Jim Bedford said, on August 1, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Thanks Peter.

  2. talkinggourds said, on August 3, 2015 at 7:21 am

    as elegantly written an elegy as i’ve seen, pedro. bass comes across bigger than life.

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