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.
This is an article from the Dec. 15, 1986 issue
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 sponsors.
"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 Holder-ness'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 from competition.
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 them-selves 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  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 cookstove.
"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."
William Jaspersohn of Johnson, Vt., recently sold his first novel to Bantam Books.