Richard Bass, a poetry-spouting Texas oilman who was the first climber to scale the highest peak on each of the seven continents and for a time was the oldest to top Mount Everest, died July 26 at his home in Dallas. He was 85.
He had pulmonary fibrosis, according to a statement from Snowbird, the Utah ski resort Mr. Bass started in 1971 and owned until 2014.
At various times in his career, he also was a part-owner of ski areas in Vail and Aspen, Colo., and owned ranches in Texas and coal mines in Alaska. He grew up around the oil fields of Oklahoma, where his father, Harry W. Bass, developed portable drilling rigs and became one of the largest natural-gas processors in the United States.
“I chose my father very carefully,” Mr. Bass later said. “He gave me the perfect launching pad.”
Often described as a larger-than-life character, Mr. Bass blended relentless enthusiasm and profound optimism with operatic intentions and raw guts.
“He is an honest, likable man haunted by a need to keep proving himself,” the Boston Globe said in 2000. “He will bring himself to tears talking about the value of integrity and the gift of life.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, David Breashears, one of the world’s top climbers and the first American to ascend Everest twice, described Mr. Bass as “a poet, a visionary and a mountaineer with the heart of a lion.”
An active skier and tennis player, Mr. Bass never trained for his grueling climbs.
“I was befuddled by his astonishing ability to perform at high altitude,” said Breashears, who accompanied Mr. Bass at Everest. “I had to tell myself I wasn’t imagining it. It made no sense to me.”
Mr. Bass, who said he “never planned to climb anything, except out of bed in the morning,” was 51 when he started his record-setting expeditions. He was 55 when he bagged Everest on April 30, 1985, having already climbed Aconcagua in South America; Denali in Alaska; Elbrus in Russia; Kilimanjaro in Africa; Kosciuszko in Australia; and Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
Frank Wells, his main climbing partner, succeeded on all of the peaks but Everest. Wells, who quit his job as president of Warner Bros. Studio for the grand effort, also was a novice.
“At first glance, I just thought they were a couple of dilettantes having a midlife crisis,” said Rick Ridgeway, a renowned climber who was hired by the pair to organize and guide several of the treks.
After a little time with them, Ridgeway said, he changed his mind.
“They had hardly any chance of pulling it off, but they were going to do it with verve, vigor and no looking back. They became mentors to me; their example was a guide to what passion, commitment and tenacity can get you.”
On Aconcagua, Mr. Bass stumbled into a hole, shredded a leg muscle and hobbled down 10,000 feet before Argentine soldiers on maneuvers loaded him onto a mule and led him 20 miles to a road.
In one of Mr. Bass’s three attempts at Everest, Marty Hoey, a female guide who accompanied him on Denali, plunged 6,000 feet to her death. Her body was never found.
At times, Mr. Bass would lift his party’s spirits by breaking into verse. On Vinson Massif in Antarctica, the temperature was at least 40 degrees below zero, and water in the canteens was frozen when Mr. Bass turned poetic:
“Talk of your cold, through the parka’s fold, it stabbed like a driven nail . . .”
It was a line from Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” one of the Yukon bard’s many sagas that Mr. Bass would recite, unbidden, on the trail and in the tent.
Richard Daniel Bass was born in Tulsa on Dec. 21, 1929, and grew up in Dallas. His early ambition was to be a teacher.“Did you ever see ‘Dead Poets Society’?” he said to the publication Utah Business in 1991. “That was me. I was going to be that very thing.”
Instead, he studied geology at Yale University and did graduate work in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas. He served on a Navy aircraft carrier during the Korean War and had his first taste of climbing — though he always called himself “a high-altitude trekker” rather than a climber — at Mount Fuji in Japan.
In 1962, Mr. Bass was among the original investors in Vail. He and his brother Harry Bass Jr. later developed the nearby Beaver Creek ski resort.
Developing Snowbird, Mr. Bass came close to bankruptcy a number of times and went through a divorce.Physical achievement — whether on mountains, or running the original marathon route laid out by the ancient courier Phidippides, or swimming the Hellespont a la Lord Byron — was an antidote.
Over the years, Mr. Bass encountered his share of critics. In his popular book “Into Thin Air,” author Jon Krakauer dismissively described Mr. Bass as a wealthy Texan who was “ushered to the top of Everest.”
“Previously, Everest had by and large been the province of elite mountaineers,” Krakauer wrote. “Bass’ ascent changed all that.”
Phil Powers, a mountaineer who is chief executive of the American Alpine Club, said Mr. Bass’s well-publicized pursuit of the seven summits “launched a whole new world of adventure travel and a whole new business channel for guides.”
He said the quest had a healthy ripple effect on people who weren’t about to brave Antarctica but might be inspired to take a weekend hike.
Mr. Bass was blunt about his critics.
“They resent some 55-year-old yahoo from Texas climbing these mountains they’d dreamed about,” he said. “When I see guides now, they hug me because the seven summits made the mountain-guiding profession. It made them!”
Mr. Bass’s marriages to Rita Crocker and Marian Martin ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 23 years, the former Alice Worsham of Dallas; four children from his first two marriages; five stepchildren; and 24 grandchildren.
In his later years, Mr. Bass planned to return to Everest and reclaim his title as its oldest climber, which had since been surpassed. He never did, but he was active until his illness forced him to use a wheelchair.
According to one widely circulated story, he was on a cross-country flight when, in his loquacious way, he deluged his seatmate for hours with details of his treks on all seven continents. As they were about to land, he realized he hadn’t paused to ask his new friend anything about himself, his job, or even his name.
“That’s okay,” the man responded, extending his hand. “I’m Neil Armstrong.”