By Beacon Staff

The day after Christmas in 1986, I was riding up to a party at a mountain restaurant in Beaver Creek when I met Frank Wells for the first time. Frank and his wife Luanne had a condo in the Vail Village. The next morning, he and I went out skiing together. From then on, almost every time he came to Vail, we managed to spend days skiing together. Occasionally, my wife Laurie would ski with us, and she was the only person who could beat Frank to the bottom of the hill. He was a fanatic about being in shape. From time to time he would have me meet him at the top of the mountain, have someone carry his skis up the lift and he would jog to the top before we skied hard all day.

In the spring of 1984, I got a phone call from Frank and he said, “Miller, come on out to Elko and ski with us this weekend. I’ve rounded up a bunch of friends and it’s the last weekend of the year ski celebration.” I said, “Frank, I can’t do that because Laurie and I have our trailer all packed up to go to the San Juan Islands for the summer and work on our new house.”

Frank called me back twice the next week and, finally, on Thursday he said, “Miller, this entire weekend is on me. It won’t cost you a dime. Free room and board, airplane ticket and helicopter rides. Where can you ever get a better deal than that?”

Again, I declined and said, “We are leaving Vail for the summer and the date is chiseled in granite because we have to meet our San Juan Island plumber on Saturday. Call me when you get back and thanks for the invitation.”

The drive from Vail to the San Juan Island is a two-day, almost thousand-mile-long drive, and when you have a dog and a couple of cats, it can seem like a two-week drive. We loaded up – and wrapped up in tarps – the stuff we would take to our new cottage on the islands and we started driving.

When we got there, it took the usual two or three days to get unpacked and moved into our 900-square-foot cottage, which was really a three-car garage built in 1934. I had remodeled it into a house with two bedrooms and it became our summer home for the next nine years.

On Tuesday afternoon the phone rang and it was Frank Wells’ son. What he said almost knocked me off of my feet.

“My mother would like you to speak at my father’s funeral.”

That was the first time I had heard about the helicopter accident. I went down and sat on the rocks overlooking the water and cried long and hard.

I thought about how Frank’s first real experience with snow and ice was when he was flying from Oxford in England to South Africa. He saw Mount Kilimanjaro from the air and decided to land so he could take a closer look at it. Stranded, they sat around a few days waiting for someone to come and help them. No one showed up, so they climbed the highest mountain on that continent. Frank later spent several years of his life trying to be one of the first people in the world to climb the highest mountain on all seven continents.

He, along with his climbing partner Dick Bass who developed Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, climbed all of them except Everest. After Frank was named the president of The Walt Disney Company, Dick Bass went on to complete the Everest ascent himself.

At the funeral, I had the privilege of saying a few words about Frank, along with Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and a half-dozen of his other close friends. Frank was an incredible human being and in the many years that I was privileged to ski with him, talk with him and have dinner together with his wife Luanne and my wife Laurie, I never tried to get him interested in any of my 100s of films. He was my friend and that was enough for me.

Had I gone on that ski weekend in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, I would have been sitting next to Frank Wells when that helicopter slammed into the ground. That’s something I have never quite gotten over.

He is missed.

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