Ned Gillette wants to row to Antarctica -- just why is another
matter -- and sometime within the next six weeks or so, weather
permitting, he will get his chance. In a red 28-foot-long aluminum
boat weighing 1,500 pounds, he and three other men will depart from
Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, and strike out across the
stormy Drake Passage for the Antarctic Peninsula, 603 miles to the
south. By Gillette's calculation, the voyage should take about 20
days and there can be no turning back. Harsh prevailing winds and
water currents will see to that.
For Gillette, 41, of Stowe, Vt., the row represents the
culmination of three years' hard work and is the riskiest and most
unusual adventure in his 15-year career as an adventurer. Though
hardly alone in this game--others have rowed, climbed and skied in
remote locations as he has--he has carved out a niche for himself as
one of the cleverest and most imaginative professional adventurers
going, with numerous substantive firsts to his credit. His
ski-mountaineering expeditions on six continents (''Only Antarctica
remains,'' he says) have helped popularize the hitherto cult-sport of
ski adventuring, while his climbs of such peaks as Pumori, near Mt.
Everest, and McKinley, in Alaska, have legitimized his name in
mountaineering circles. More than anything else, Gillette practices
the business of adventuring--the packaging, promoting and marketing
of it--better, perhaps, than anyone in his field. And his talents as
a writer, photographer and lecturer make him a hot property to
''Ned is unique in the world of adventure sports,'' says Hap
Klopp, president of The North Face, a California-based outdoor-supply
company that gave Gillette $24,000 to build his boat and has also
custom-designed the cold- weather clothing for the voyage. ''He's
attuned to what a sponsor wants both in terms of public relations and
product feedback. I wouldn't have fronted the money for the Antarctic
row to anyone else.''
Klopp's firm, which has retained Gillette's services as an outdoor
consultant since 1980, has provided gear and money for nine of his
previous expeditions. Other companies, such as Coca-Cola, Calvin
Klein and Budweiser, have also given Gillette support. RJR Nabisco
Inc., the tobacco and food company, underwrote a Gillette-led ski
circumnavigation of Mt. Everest to the tune of $127,000.
How does Gillette do it? ''It's very basic,'' says Dan Asay, a
California climber who accompanied Gillette and two others on a ski
expedition across the Karakoram Range in Pakistan in 1980. ''If
you're into expeditions of any kind, you need sponsorship. Even if
you're independently wealthy, you need the support of manufacturers
for specialized gear. But, in return, you have to show the sponsors
they'll get something back. Ned pays his dues to sponsors --with
slide shows, articles, lectures. He's developed a reputation as a guy
who delivers the goods. That makes new sponsors interested in the
next trip, and keeps old sponsors coming back.''
''Many mountaineering types are territorial, touchy, difficult to
deal with,'' says Tom Mann, marketing director for a West Coast
tentmaker. ''They tend to forget the sponsor once the expedition's
over. Ned never forgets his suppliers. He's got a lot more business
savvy than most of his peers.''
Gillette's formula for organizing an expedition shows equal savvy.
First, he says, you must think up a trip that's different, ideally
one that can be described in a single sentence. Second, solicit
sponsorship by using mailings, videotapes, phone calls and meetings
to sell your idea (for his Antarctic row, the budget for which is
about $150,000, Gillette used all these methods to line up eight
major sponsors and 39 equipment and service contributors). Third, on
the expedition itself, surround yourself with appropriate experts.
Fourth, during the expedition, take lots and lots of photographs.
Fifth, after the expedition's over, remember to say thanks.
To date, that formula has taken Gillette on 16 expeditions. He
says, ''I'm living a dream life,'' one that includes a black Saab
Turbo and a beautiful country home in Stowe, both bought with
expeditionary earnings. Things haven't always been so dreamy,
however. In the early years, there was friction with his family,
particularly with his father, over his odd choice of professions. And
he admits that his M.B.A.-like approach to expeditions, though
effective, has cost him a number of friendships.
Gillette has spent much of the past two summers at his parents'
second home in Quissett, near Woods Hole, Mass., testing and
outfitting his Antarctic boat, Sea Tomato. Gray has begun to fleck
his otherwise black curly hair, but at six feet and 170 pounds, he
is lean and deceptively strong from years of cross-country skiing and
more recent daily two-hour bouts on a rowing ergometer. He calls the
Antarctic row ''an Olympic-level effort,'' and he is confident he has
built the boat to help him succeed.
Ned Gillette was born on May 5, 1945 in Boston. In 1949 his
parents, Bob and Janet, moved the family to Barre, Vt., where Bob,
an MIT graduate, took a job as assistant general manager at the local
granite company, Rock of Ages. Having seen his own father's paper
company collapse during the Depression, Bob Gillette set an example
of hard work, thrift and responsibility for his children. He was
appointed to the board of directors of the venerable National Life
Insurance Company in nearby Montpelier and in 1954 became president
of Rock of Ages.
In the Gillette household you worked and saved for what you
wanted. You told the truth, paid your debts and kept your word. You
showed appreciation when someone did you a favor. You lived up to
your end of a deal.
In this conservative yet comfortable atmosphere, Ned grew up happy
and self- motivated. Bob and Janet, who both loved the outdoors,
never pushed athletics on their children, which may explain why both
Ned and his older sister, Debbie, easily picked up skiing. Ned was a
good backyard basketball player besides, and he learned to love
sailing and hiking.
When Ned was 13, his father, soon to become National Life's
chairman of the board, told him, ''I can't guarantee how you'll do in
life, but I can make sure you have a good education.'' Ned chose to
attend Holderness, a private school near Manchester, N.H., largely on
the strength of its Alpine ski-racing program. He also picked up
cross-country skiing, and when he was back in Barre over Christmas
vacation that year, he skied laps in a neighbor's three- acre garden
until he could do 30 in a row without tiring. In school the
following January, the skinny freshman shocked his cross-country
teammates and himself by winning the weekly time trials. By his
senior year he was Holderness's student president and its top
cross-country ski racer, winning eastern prep-school championship
honors and admission to Dartmouth, his first choice among colleges
because of its various skiing programs.
His parents were pleasantly surprised by these accomplishments.
''He had such tenacity,'' his mother says now. At Dartmouth,
Gillette's fluid skiing and witty, outgoing manner belied an intense
determination. He majored in economics and was the NCAA cross-country
skiing champion in 1967, his senior year. On the strength of his NCAA
performance, he made the U.S. Olympic cross- country team in 1968.
The Olympics were a disaster for Gillette. He overtrained and
slowed so precipitously that he was replaced by a teammate at the
starting line in . Grenoble, France. The following year he retired
His parents assumed he would settle down and go into business,
where he seemed to show the greatest aptitude, but Ned bridled at the
idea. ''I knew what I didn't want to do,'' he says now. ''The trouble
is I didn't know what I wanted.''
He tried marriage, got divorced. He sold encyclopedias
door-to-door in San Francisco and quit. He was all of 25 years old
and had begun working as a Burns detective when his parents asked,
''What are you doing out there? When are you going to settle down?''
He didn't know, but when his father told him he was drifting and it
was time to ''get some salable talents,'' he decided to enroll in the
business school at the University of Colorado. He quit after a single
day.''That's it,'' said Bob Gillette to his son, ''you're on your
own.'' To his wife he said, ''He'll never amount to anything.''
Reproached by his father, Gillette gravitated to Yosemite and a
job at the winter mountaineering school, teaching cross-country
skiing. It was a very different life. ''I met a lot of free-living
people who were doing things and thinking about things in ways that
I, an easterner, had never even considered,'' he says.
''He was so different from the rest of us,'' says Wayne Merry, in
charge of the school when Gillette first arrived. ''He had this
prep-school background and Ivy League-style wit. On the surface he
could play the laid-back Californian. But underneath there was drive
and ambition, and that marvelous athletic ability. As soon as we went
into the mountains, you could see him eat it right up.''
Merry and others taught Gillette how to climb on Half Dome and El
Capitan, Yosemite's two climbing meccas, but ski adventuring
interested him more than pure climbing. In 1972, on a 30-day ski
expedition across Alaska's Brooks Range with Merry and two others,
Gillette fell in love with the idea of traversing snowy wildernesses
on cross-country skis.
He wrote a magazine story about the trip in which he gave full,
though not fulsome, credit to the companies that had supplied him
with equipment. This taught him the value of going public with the
people who had helped him. He has capitalized on the discovery ever
since, organizing and often leading ski expeditions all over, from
the Arctic to Zaire. ''It's been a matter of putting ordinary
business practices to work,'' he says.
It is also a matter of finding what Gillette calls ''extraordinary
ventures.'' As he says, ''I decided I didn't want to do only
straight technical climbing or high-altitude climbing, where an awful
lot of people are competing. And, geographically, most everything's
been discovered and explored. So what's left if you're
adventure-minded? I felt it was using your imagination to do new
things in old places, like climbing and skiing around Everest.
Nobody's ever done that before. So it's taking a geographic
lodestone, and approaching it in a different way.''
One way was different enough to be nearly fatal. In April 1978,
Gillette and Galen Rowell, the acclaimed mountain photographer and
climber, roped themselves together to attempt a first-ever, one-day
ascent of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. They were speeding along
handsomely when suddenly Gillette's skis slid out from under him,
hurtling the two men toward a 4,000-foot drop. Gillette saved them by
grabbing an old piece of fixed rope, but Rowell's face was badly cut
on Gillette's skis. They were forced to retreat. Five weeks later,
with both climbers battling altitude sickness and Rowell suffering
from pulmonary edema, they tried again, this time making the summit
in 19 hours, and establishing a quick-ascent record that was not
broken until this year.
Gillette and Rowell parted company in 1980. Rowell, who refuses
to say why, insists, nevertheless, that they parted friends. Gillette
says, ''Galen and I had a falling-out simply because we're in the
same business, and we're both very strong-minded people.''
Alan Bard, a California ski guide who accompanied Gillette on
three of his expeditions, feels the problem is philosophical. ''It's
the old issue of Be Here Now versus Having Been,'' he says. ''Ned and
I had serious disagreements during his ski traverse in New Zealand's
Southern Alps (1979) because he seemed more intent on taking pictures
for one of his slide shows to satisfy the sponsors back home than in
actually experiencing the trip. I admire the guy, but there are
better ways of getting the job done.''
Says Gillette, ''People don't realize the burden you carry during
one of these things. I do have fun on them, but they're also a lot of
work. And you can't lose sight of who got you there.''
Thanks, in part, to his father's teachings, that is something
Gillette has never done. By 1978 Bob Gillette saw what his son was
accomplishing and began viewing him in a new light. ''All his mother
and I ever wanted,'' he said recently, ''was for Ned to make his
own living and contribute something to society. He's done that
through his writing and lecturing about his expeditions. Sure, we'd
be more comfortable if he had a more conventional job, but we're both
supportive and proud of him.''
For his latest extraordinary adventure, Gillette chose a boat
design based on a Swampscott dory. The boat, which resembles a
high-tech Chinese junk, has two rowing stations--one forward and one
aft--and a foam-padded center cabin, seven feet wide, capable of
holding four men. Nine watertight compartments will carry food and
gear, including survival suits and sea anchors. Recesses in the cabin
house satellite navigation equipment, a radio, camera equipment and a
''She's been built to be strong and self-righting,'' says
Gillette. ''After all, we're going to be rowing in some of the worst
water on earth.''
How bad is it? ''Pretty nasty,'' says meteorologist Bob Rice of
Weather Services Corp., which will relay weather reports to Gillette
from its offices in Bedford, Mass. ''Somewhere in the course of the
voyage they're going to see winds in the 60-knot range and seas
anywhere from 20 to 60 feet. Then there's the sleet, snow and
icebergs as they drop farther south. It's not going to be easy.''
That's all right with Gillette. ''My definition of adventure,'' he
says, ''is pushing the limits of your individual capabilities and
making yourself break into anything new. For me, the row to
Antarctica represents the chance to do something straightforward that
no one's ever done before. Some might say, 'Who cares?' but that's
like saying who cares about impressionist paintings. It's such a
limited point of view.''
''I want to be known as one of the best presenters of adventures.
For that we've built a boat that can do the job.'' END
Ned Gillette wants to row to Antarctica -- just why is another