After having unceremoniously ditched my mother to ski the big pow (as they call it) at Snowbird yesterday, I was determined to be a better daughter this morning. The weather was cooperating: It was sunny and cloudless instead of the virtual whiteout of the day before, and my mother wanted to ski. She was up early. My godfather, Dick Bass, who owns Snowbird, had invited her up on an early tram ride to see the sunrise and hear about his ever-evolving dreams for the resort. (I’d already heard this speech during my run down with the ski patrol a few days earlier and so I stayed behind.) Although never less than completely entertaining, Dick is what you’d safely call a talker. In a story, to his credit, that he often tells himself, he once rode the red-eye from New York to Los Angeles. For six hours, he bent the ear, non-stop, of the passenger next to him about his Everest climbs, his expedition to Antarctica, his vision for Snowbird. At the end of the flight, as they got out of their seats and prepared to deplane, he finally said, “By the way, I never caught your name.” The passenger replied, “My name is Neil Armstrong. Someday I’ll tell you about the trip I took.”
I met them on the plaza at the base of the tram. One virtue of Snowbird is that it is one of the few large mountains with a compact pedestrian village, instead of one of those sprawling, Disney-like, faux suburban towns that have sprung up at the base of so many other mountains. The exterior design is Bauhaus concrete, instead of cutesy Bavarian (partly because the buildings must be able to withstand the impact of an avalanche). All the restaurants, rental shops, and lodges are within easy walking distance of each other. Much to his financial detriment, Dick has refused to let any restaurant or hotel chains on the property. (Most resorts contract out such services to help reduce costs and to pad their profits.) He personally designed the Mission-style furniture in each room of the Cliff Lodge, and the place is decorated with souvenirs from his various travels: rugs from Tibet, inlaid mother-of-pearl furniture from Vietnam, paintings from China. In our cookie-cutter times, the effect is wonderfully idiosyncratic.
Dick, of course, is famous for being the first man to have climbed the highest mountain on every continent. Jon Krakauer, as I noted earlier, blames him for starting the Everest craze in Into Thin Air and all but likens him to Sandy Pittman, the socialite who paid to be hauled up the mountain by a Sherpa. I am obviously biased, but the charge is wildly unfair. At the time of Dick’s first Everest attempt, he was an experienced mountaineer, with as many climbs under his belt as Krakauer himself. He was never tethered to a Sherpa, or anyone else, but made the climb under his own steam and long before the rope hand-rail was installed at the top of Everest to help less-experienced climbers, including Krakauer, make the final ascent. One can argue with the wisdom of anyone risking his life to climb Everest, but Dick certainly had as much right to try as anyone.
My mother, who hadn’t been to Snowbird in years, wanted to start the morning on the intermediate runs off the Gadzoom lift, a high-speed quad. (These lifts have revolutionized the sport by greatly increasing the number of skiers that can be carried up a mountain. In the late 70’s, lift lines were often 45 minutes long. Now, even at high season, they are seldom more than 10.) We spent the day exploring the groomed slopes at mid-mountain: Bassackwards, Big Emma, Lunch Run. My mother worried about slowing me down, but she didn’t. Besides, I think I owed her after all those years she waited on me when I was a kid. At the top of one slope, I heard a ski instructor console a frustrated student, “We’re not trying to create a masterpiece here. We’re just trying to have fun.”
For dinner we met Dick, his wife Alice, Rich Salem, a developer of Telluride, and his wife, and Rick Ridgeway, contributor to Seven Summits (the book about Dick’s mountain-climbing adventures), and his family. I was sitting next to Rick, and we talked about Dick and Krakauer (Rick knows and likes them both) and the inherent dangers of climbing. Rick is the author of a new book, Below Another Sky, just out, about a climb he took with a close friend on a remote mountain in Tibet 20 years ago. They were caught in an avalanche and swept down several cliffs. Rick survived, but his friend didn’t, and Rick had to bury him on the mountain. At the time, the friend had an 18-month-old daughter, named Asia, and Rick stayed in touch with her. A few years ago, as a way of teaching her about her father, he took her on a pilgrimage to the site of her father’s death. Amazingly, they found his grave and reburied his bones.