Dick Dorworth, Mountain Man

Instead of conquering the top, one of America's most famed skier adventurers wound up in a solo descent off the mountain as he was suffering with cerebral edema.

High-altitude cerebral edema is a spontaneous, often fatal, filling of the brain cavity with fluid. Dorworth was stricken at 20,000 feet. A sure treatment is rapid descent. Dorworth's case was advancing quickly. He had become so weak and uncoordinated that he was unable to tie his bootlaces.

Leaving his partners to continue their summit bid, Dorworth lurched downward for 5,000 vertical, somehow making it into base camp at 15,000 feet. After some rest, he began recovering and gathered enough strength to hitchhike to the nearest hospital, 100 miles away.

"How do you feel?" He was asked at the hospital.

"Every man has his mountain. I'm still carving mine," he responded.

Adventure/ explorers seem to derive their drive from a combination of physical and mental deprivations. They often sleep very little; they hallucinate; feel stark loneliness; and they appear, in hindsight, to sense a looming presence of death at times. All of this is more acceptable to them than to the rest of us. Such people also often show us a new way of looking for meaning along the margins of the world.

"It's all about expanding horizons," Dorworth says. "Not everyone wants to expand his or her horizons, curiosity withstanding. Most people are satisfied by material comfort, not spirituality. Sleep deprivation, the possibility of dying? Those are experiences that make you grow and learn what's inside you. To me, we're here on earth to see who we are, not to show how big a house we can build."

Dorworth does not own a house or much of anything. By choice, most of his possessions fit in his station wagon: computer, clothes, skis and climbing gear. It's a big part of who he is. As he admits," I've paid a price for my lifestyle. My search has been in the moment, not down the road. Wealth for an individual comes in many different forms, and I don't think any of us, from George Bush to a rice farmer, are that different."

A practicing Buddhist, Dorworth enjoys speaking in parables. A favorite story of his deals with his deceased climbing and skiing friend, Steve McKinney.

"Steve's real father never had anything to do with him and it bugged Steve a lot. As an adult he eventually tracked his father down only to be flat out rejected. It really hurt Steve. I asked him how he felt. Steve responded simply that his father was doing the best he could with what he had to work with. Now, if that's not an amazing broad grasp of life!"

Dorworth has lived much of his life on the edge-athletically and spiritually. He grew up at Lake Tahoe and began ski racing in 1949. Within a year he became Far West Champion and he was acclaimed one of the top racers in America. By 1962 he was chosen by National Team coach, Bob Beattie, to be on the first-ever U.S. National Development Team. A year later, during a break in training with teammates in Portillo, Chile, Dorworth became one of the first to put pure speed and ego on the map. He cracked the existing world speed-skiing record by going 106.8 miles per hour.

"My soul changed through speed skiing. It was a rite of passage for me. In Chile I learned that there comes a point in your life when you either push through or back off. I decided the price of backing off was more than I was willing to pay. It could haunt you."

Dorworth didn't start climbing until he was twenty-nine years old. A year later, in 1969, he climbed Fitzroy, still considered one of South America's most difficult peak ascents.

"I convinced Yvon Chouinard, the climbing leader, to take me along," recalls Dorworth. "At times it was terror, but I was so raw I didn't know what to be afraid of. Summiting Fitzroy gave me five years of climbing

Dorworth then turned to further adventures. He roamed from Fitzroy to mountaineering in Tibet and beyond. He became an unconventional spirit with the articulation of an aristocrat. His hair grew; his escapades grew more.

He was part of the first American expedition to the north side of Everest and he climbed Denali. But it was his self-possession, more than his exploits that made him, by the early 1970s, an iconic warrior to the counter-culture and a nuisance to the non-accepting bourgeoisie.

In 1972 he quit as a coach of the U.S Ski Team over what he perceived to be too much authoritarian control over athletes' lives. Twenty years later his unwillingness to conform cost him a safe-haven position as Director of Skiing at Aspen.

"Dorworth has always been a bit of an anarchist within the ski establishment. One always wondered who was his next target," explains ski photographer Tom Lippert. "He might have been anti-establishment, but he was a good observer. Amazingly, he continues to make a good living within the ski industry without getting into the business end. That's unique."

Dorworth grew up in Zephyr Cove, Nevada, the son of an avowed liberal father who managed the New China Club Casino in Reno--the only casino at the time where blacks were allowed to gamble. Dorworth was nourished by the political and social climate of the 1960s, and he was sensitive to the stirring of reeds in the wind. The mysteries of the times ate at his good looks, He became a hero that skiing needed, a guy central to his time who was full of contradictions, but who reached into alienated circles, explored social progress, and discussed salty issues.

His essays and photography graced national outdoor publications and embodied an ethic whose depth and power gave them a place among the most evocative of their era. His greatest notoriety came as a columnist for the Mountain Gazette, a poly-functional outsized tabloid published in Denver for the "temps moderne" of the international hip set.

In 1974, his "Night Driving" was published. It remains, according to Mountain Gazette editor Michael Moore," one of the most outstanding pieces ever published in a magazine." Dorworth's longevity and journalistic acumen eventually earned him a lifetime achievement award from the International Skiing History Association in 2001.

Now a resident of Ketchum, Idaho, Dorworth writes a weekly column for the town's local newspaper and continues to contribute for national publications. During summer months he lives in a rudimentary cabin without running water and guides clients up routes in the Tetons of Wyoming.

So what are the dominant forces in the constellation of adventure? Are skill and courage ennobling and transcendent things, positive forces that make the world a better place? Or are they just phenomenology, meaningless qualities, the luck of the draw? Is there no universal reason that makes life like a mountain that every man has to carve?

"In some ways, it's about karma," says Dorworth. "Every day we may lead a life that we think is monotonous, but every little decision we make has certain effects. Whatever you're doing you're always in the moment, so always dig deeper, always try to do better. I'm trying to be a better person every day. Honesty needs a lot of maintenance. It's enough in itself."

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