Interview by Marc Peruzzi | photograph Scott Markewitz
How to summarize a life? The resúmé part is easy. Born in 1938, Dick Dorworth grew up on skis after his parents settled in South Lake Tahoe after WWII. After college, his ski racing career took him to Europe, and Portillo, Chile, where he set the world speed skiing record of 106mph. Later, while teaching skiing at Squaw Valley, he gave free lessons to some of his buddies that he partied with. They in turn, offered to teach him to climb. He didn’t realize until he’d been in Yosemite for a month that his friends were among the best climbers in the world at the time. As that summer came to an end, Dorworth joined a crew on an extended road trip to Patagonia to climb 11,171 foot Fitz Roy, which at the time had only been summitted by two parties. His partners on that six-month journey where Yvon Chouinard (who would go on to found Patagonia and what is now Black Diamond), Doug Tompkins (the founder of The North Face with his wife Susie), Lito Tejada-Flores (the Bolivian climber who would go on to become a world renowned photographer and author), and Chris Jones (who also would live a life as a climber and author). After two months on the mountain—at one point relegated to two 10-by-10 snow caves for 15 days straight, the team peaked out and unraveled a now famous flag. It read: Viva Los Fun Hogs. The words speak to Dorworth’s life. In the decades that followed he’s lived as an alpine and rock guide, ski school director, film skier, and an author of five books with one more in the works. At 81, he still skis 100 days a season, and only recently gave up climbing when Dupuytren’s Contracture made his hands no longer reliable.
Those are merely the bulleted slugs of a life. And while Dorworth, who is a practicing Buddhist, is connected to his past and maintains 50-year old friendships, he’s not attached to the past’s alluring nostalgia nor its aching scars. That detachment allows perspective: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” is a Robert Frost quote he’s fond of. In life, Dorworth believes, one must “Let go or be dragged.”
Today, Dorworth splits his time between Sun Valley and Bozeman where he lives with his 20-year life partner, the athlete (climbing, XC and Randonee), Jeannie Wall. We caught up with Dorworth on the phone in Truckee, California, where he was attending a fundraiser for the University of Nevada ski team that he once raced for in the 1950s.
I visited Alta in 1970 and that was that. At the time I was doing a lot of climbing and had a lot of rescue training. I spent a year there ski bumming, then got on patrol in ’71. I’d been hanging out with patrollers and showing interest. Snowbird was opening up that same year. I wouldn’t have been hired if they hadn’t taken seven patrollers from Alta.
During World War II, I lived in boarding houses while my mom worked and my dad was away in charge of a military warehouse on Guam. My uncle owned the land that became Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Saloon in South Lake Tahoe. When my father and his relatives returned from the war with nothing to do, we moved to Tahoe and helped Harvey build his casino. My parents weren’t skiers, but I got to ski to school. I had a jump and a slalom hill in the backyard.
There was a little rope tow on Ski Hill Boulevard that is now the road to Heavenly Valley. We also skied at a little area called White Hills. That’s where I got into competition. In those days we all did four events: downhill, slalom, jumping and cross country. Specialists didn’t exist back then.
In college, I would ski for a semester and then take a semester off classes. It took me seven years to finish. I was on the All Amercian Ski Team in 1962, and on the first national training team in ’63, the same year I set the world speed record on skis. That was my highlight. I also set a record for the Diamond Sun in Sun Valley, a standard race which no longer exists. Organizers would set a starting gate and a finish gate and you would find your own line down.
I set the speed skiing record on the worst ski you could have for speed skiing. They were 220-centimeter metal downhill skis from Head. The top was metal and the inside was wood. They were fairly modern in that they had one piece metal edges and good bases. But metal is the worst for a speed ski because of the immense vibrations. We were still in lace up leather boots and the skis were just bouncing off the snow at those speeds.
In 1964 I fell at 100 miles per hour and got hurt pretty badly. I broke a leg and bruised my body beyond belief.
I was in Italy at the time. I went to Europe to ski for a month, but I sold my plane ticket and skied for a year and a half.
I was done with racing after that. Actually, I knew I was done a year before I quit. In the winter of 64/65 I was on a train on the way to the Lauberhorn—the most beautiful downhill ski race in the world. But in my mind and in my spirit I was just going to another ski race. Racing was over for me. I didn’t want to end my career on a fall, though. The psych was gone, but it was a thing of duty to finish, so I competed in my last speed skiing competition in Italy in 1965.
There’s a point in your maturation where you have this huge need to prove yourself to the world. And then, after a while, you realize that life is about the experience and not proving yourself to other people.
I was not tired of skiing. It was just that being a competitor didn’t matter to me anymore.
Like every ski town in America, Warren Miller would come through Reno on tour. But over the years I got to know him from the ski world and we became friends. At one point, I hadn’t seen him for two or three years, and in the interim I’d let my hair and beard grow out. Warren was conservative and I knew that what my hair and beard represented was everything that Warren despised. We were great friends, but we didn’t agree on much. It was at that time that I got a letter from Warren saying he wanted to go to Europe and make a ski film. He asked me if I would join him. I wrote back and told him ‘You have to know that since you’ve seen me I’ve grown a long beard and long hair and I don’t want to cut it for your film.’ I didn’t hear back, and I’d thought he’d washed his hands of me. But then I got a letter saying ‘phone me up.’ When I did Warren said, ‘You know Dick, I’ve always thought it was what’s in a man’s head that matters, not what’s on it.’ He was a beautiful human being.
I wore that yellow and red sweater [see image] and stretch pants for the film. I would never wear yellow otherwise. I’m actually staying at the home of the photographer that took that shot in 1973 right now in Truckee. Tom Lippert is a great friend of mine.
I was teaching skiing in Squaw Valley in ‘68. Through a friend I met Dougal Haston. All I knew was that he was a climber from Scotland. We became instant friends. We liked to drink beer and tell stories. He asked me if I wanted to learn how to climb and he took me out. I realized that climbing had been missing from my life. I had also given free lessons to my friend Jim Bridwell. He taught me as well. I didn’t realize that Haston and Bridwell were generational climbers. I just gave them free ski lessons because we partied together.
The plan was always to climb Fitz Roy. At that point Fitz Roy had been climbed twice. Yvon, who was the most experienced, had that plan. I was so far over my head it was pathetic.
Even today, Fitz Roy is a very serious climb. I’d never climbed anything except some rocks. I keyed off all of them, but largely Chouinard. ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it,’ I told them, ‘but be careful what you tell me because I’ll do exactly that.’
Doug Tompkins died in 2015 of course, but we’re all very good friends today. That’s unusual for climbing partners.
We were in a cave for a long time because of the weather. That has something to do with our friendship. It was a singular dynamic. We absolutely needed each other. You couldn’t get pissy and say fuck you and leave. You couldn’t leave.
Years later I ended up with the Viva Los Fun Hogs flag. I gave it to Patagonia and they have it in their archives.
I made my living guiding from that trip forward.
I almost died twice at altitude from altitude sickness. Pulmonary edema on Denali and cerebral edema on Muztagh Ata, in China. It’s over 24,000 feet. On Denali I was with Tompkins and Lito again and we didn’t know any better. On Muztagh it was an unhealthy dynamic. Everyone was going too fast and competing with each other.
Ski guiding wasn’t much of a thing during my guiding career. I skied a lot of backcountry, but I was out for the tour not to ski a steep line. We did ski tours in the Sierra around Lake Tahoe. I skied from the Wind Rivers to Jackson. It was about being out in the mountains. I never sought out the steep skiing of today.
Longevity is pure luck. I must have good genetics. I have always been active though. And I haven’t eaten meat in 50 years. I also haven’t had a drink or a drug of any kind in more than 30 years. I do yoga and meditate and I eat well.
I was always a big party guy. As were Dougal and Bridwell and most of my friends. We’d climb and ski and go out and party. I think a lot of people with the adventure mentality need to do that at a certain level.
I just quit one day all at once. There was a moment in my life that I realized that if I kept drinking and drugging like I’d always done that I wouldn’t be around for much longer. That’s 33 years this winter. I wish I’d quit 20 years earlier.
Skiing has changed. It used to be a business of passion. Dave McCoy built Mammoth because he was a skier. Dick Durance did the same thing at Aspen. Now it’s a corporate world and the focus is on the bottom line. That’s why Patagonia still stands apart. Yvon’s passion is still running the place.
I haven’t been professionally involved in skiing for 20 years because of that change. But I ski every day. That part is still fun. I get out probably a hundred days each winter and backcountry ski once or twice a week.
The trite answer is correct, and that’s follow your passion. It’s trite, but it’s true. I’m 81 years old and I’ve been visiting old friends lately. The ones that followed their passions over their incomes are the ones that are better off. Whatever you do will cost you, of course. Passion isn’t free. And you have to make a living. But it’s amazing how little you need to have a good life.