Ned Gillette sits astride a camel, which suddenly lies down with a grunt. Gillette didn't intend for the camel to do this, but then Gillette is a novice at camel riding. This is only the second time he has been on one. No matter, Gillette will lead a caravan across the Sahara beginning in 1991.
Riding camels all the way from Morocco, on Africa's Atlantic coast, to the Red Sea is a formidable challenge, if not an altogether wacky idea. Which is why Gillette wants to do it. He traffics in formidable challenges and wacky ideas.
Gillette is a professional adventurer. This is how he sees himself. More telling perhaps, it's also how the Internal Revenue Service sees him. In adventuring, to an extent, a pro is a con, a man who deals in illusions. In order to do what he wants to, Gillette must establish an image so romantic, so seemingly tangible, that people will pay to embrace it. Specifically, sponsors will pay to align themselves with the image, and the public will pay to read about it and to attend lectures about it. If the pro adventurer is successful—and Gillette is—he can forestall growing up. He can proceed from mountain peak to jungle floor, piling up one enviable experience after another, while accumulating income enough for the IRS to view him as a substantial citizen.
"I don't consider myself a very mature person," says Gillette, 45, as he sits atop his balky camel. "Considering the kind of person I am, this is a good job for me."
December 10, 1990
Gillette and the camel are in Marrakech, Morocco, a city of 440,000 that lies 80 miles inland from the Atlantic. If this is not actually the desert, it appears to be through the lens of a carefully positioned camera. Video producer Gae Morris, who is putting together a tape that is intended to be for promotional purposes and to be shown to potential sponsors of the camel trek in the hope of raising cash, has found this location. It is adjacent to a theme park named The Oasis, but if the cameraman is careful to shoot around the power lines, the images will be as effective as anything shot in the open Sahara.
Gillette is bothered by the situation. Though he deals in illusions, this is perilously close to deception. But his schedule is in shambles. There is no time to travel 250 miles southeast to shoot the tape in the Sahara, so Gillette is on this camel, which has finally risen to its feet again. "I'm selling a product, really," he says as he waits for the cameraman to change cassettes. "There's the adventure itself, which is why I'm in it. But it's at least half promotion. It's a funny business I'm in."
Gillette may be a lousy camel rider, but what sets him apart from the bitter dreamers and the mall clerks in rock-climbing shoes is that he has been, for 13 years, a phenomenal adventurer. He differs in that he does what he dreams.
"A lot of this extreme stuff has driven my dad nuts," says Gillette. "Yet in a way, he started it. He had me on skis when I was three. I wasn't great, but I loved being out in the air."
In summers, Gillette's father, Bob, who was chairman of the National Life Insurance Company of Vermont, and his mother, Janet, took Ned and his sister, Debbie, to Quissett Harbor on Cape Cod, where Ned learned to sail. Ned attended the Holderness School near Manchester, N.H., from 1959 to '63. All in all, he seemed on the path of any normal rugby-shirted preppie.
"That's when I started to change," Gillette recalls. "Before Holderness, I didn't have a lot of confidence, and I didn't really excel at any one sport. Then, my sophomore year, I actually used my head. To make the varsity ski team I took up cross-country, because all the best skiers were racing downhill. The team's January time trial remains my proudest moment in skiing—it was a boyhood dream come true when I won. It was just great!"
Gillette admits that he has never been the strongest, fittest or most talented outdoorsman on his expeditions. "My whole life has been getting things done, but just barely getting things done," he says. "I barely won that time trial, barely made the Olympic team, succeeded on a one-day ascent of Mount McKinley after failing once. The thing is, though, ever since that afternoon at Holder-ness, I have gotten things done."
Gillette had recently graduated from Dartmouth College when he was one of the last two persons chosen for the 1968 U.S. Olympic Nordic ski team that would compete in Grenoble. "The Games taught me something else about myself: that I had wanderlust—bad. I had been doing well with my skiing, but just before the Games I had an opportunity to go off and ski in Norway. I knew I should stay and train, but I just couldn't pass up Norway. Then, when I was there, I had to see Norway, really see it. And because of that, I absolutely screwed up my chances at the Olympics." Gillette was skiing so poorly that the U.S. coaches did not enter him in any events.
Following the Olympics, Gillette underwent, in his own words, "a brief flirtation with being a serious person." International Paper hired him, and for nearly a year and a half he was in a management training program. Then, in 1972, he entered business school at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He exited 24 hours later.
Maybe it was the proximity of the Rockies, but during that day in Boulder, Gillette's head was aswim with images from Alaska's Brooks Range, where he had participated in a 30-day ski expedition the previous April. That's where he should be, he decided, not at a desk interpreting flow charts. He wanted to be on the summit of McKinley, or skiing around Everest, or skiing down the Mountains of the Moon on the border between Uganda and Zaire, or making the first Telemark descent of 22,834-foot Aconcagua in Argentina, or ski-traversing the Karakoram Range, or being among the first Americans in 48 years to climb in China by summiting—and skiing off—24,757-foot Muztagata in the Xinjiang Uygur region.
So he left Boulder and did all of those things.
He used Yosemite National Park as a base. "I was an eastern preppie Ivy Leaguer, but at Yosemite I ricocheted off in another direction," says Gillette. "I started doing things, saying things, smoking things, thinking things that were totally new to me. I opened my eyes to life as an adventure. I've always thought, if you have a solid upbringing, it allows you to be crazy by election thereafter."
Gillette's parents felt that their son's life had taken a decidedly weird turn, and they questioned the "solid upbringing" they had provided. "Then the first article [about Gillette] came out in National Geographic," says Gillette. "Suddenly they realized I wasn't just screwing around. They saw the plan."
The plan, as Gillette describes it, was to "adventure through life by living within my means, keeping my emotional and economic overhead low. I wanted to go my own way and to find a formula that would make these adventures possible."
Over the years, Gillette adhered to the personal aspects of his plan, bouncing from relationship to relationship, as well as from continent to continent. Then, this past summer, there occurred a serious divergence. In a ceremony at the Roundhouse restaurant on Sun Valley, Idaho's Bald Mountain, on Aug. 18, Gillette and former U.S. Olympic Alpine skier Susie Patterson were married. "I wouldn't call it settling down," says Gillette. "Since Susie is new to this adventuring stuff, she's even more gung-ho than I am. We've already been skiing together above 20,000 feet in Tibet, and she's quite psyched about the camel trip. I look at it this way: Now I can bring my home life with me."
As for the business side of the plan, it turned out to be "very simple," says Gillette. "I found that there were two main things: You've got to differentiate yourself from others in the field, and you've got to always remember to say thank you to the guys who sent you."
"Ned's the very best of them, from a corporate-promotion standpoint," says Jeff Blumenfeld, head of Blumenfeld and Associates, a New York public relations firm that specializes in the outdoors industry. "Others will just talk about themselves, but Ned will mention the company a half dozen times and make it painless for the listener."
In their search for sponsors, most other pro adventurers pitch the danger or majesty of their expeditions. Gillette pitches the novelty of his. "Ned has no cosmic pretensions about being an adventurer," says Laurence Shames, who wrote about Gillette's Drake Passage trip in an Outside magazine cover story. "He's not pursuing any Holy Grails. He does this just because it's the best, most fun way to distinguish himself."
Which is not to imply that Gillette's endeavors are mere stunts. There's a good reason why they've never been done before: They're extraordinarily difficult. For example, take the one-day ascent of Mount McKinley that Gillette made with author/photographer Galen Rowell in April 1978. "We were roped together, and we rode our skis out onto some very steep ice at one point," Gillette says. "As soon as we were out there, I knew we shouldn't be. Galen got stuck and couldn't go forward or backward. Then I fell and pulled him down. Now we were both falling headfirst. Just at that instant, I grabbed a rope that was sticking out of the snow, and it held.
"It's 5 a.m., 20 below and the wind's blowing, and we're hanging there on the ice just above a 50-foot drop, which is just above a 4,000-foot drop to the glacier below. Galen had sliced his face open on my ski, and blood's everywhere, and he looks ghastly, and he goes into shock. I'm holding on. Well, I had to convince him to get off me and tie us in. After he did that, I could build a little platform with my ice ax, and we eventually climbed down."
Five weeks later, Rowell's face had healed, and they returned for another try at climbing McKinley in a day. Both climbers experienced altitude sickness at 17,000 feet, but they trudged on. By 19,000 feet, they were collapsing in the snow every few feet. Each man dozed off briefly during this rise-and-fall scramble to the summit and had to be awakened by the other. The top, Gillette says, "felt wonderful, and weird." The ascent took 19 hours, and they all but ran back down to complete the round-trip in a single day.
Gillette's best-known adventure, and perhaps his most bizarre, was his 1988 row in a 28-foot aluminum boat across Drake Passage. The passage, which connects the Atlantic and the Pacific off the tip of South America, has some of the worst sea-level weather on earth.
"First of all, there was a real chance that a wind would paste the boat right back into Chile during launch," says Bob Rice of Weather Services Inc., a forecasting firm that often works with adventurers. It was Rice who gauged the gusts in the passage for Gillette and told him when to put the boat in the water. "Rice purposely sent us off in a Force 9 gale," says Gillette. "We were shot out of there like a rocket."
Gillette's 1,500-pound Sea Tomato, so named because of its round shape and red color, capsized three times, and Gillette and two of his three crew mates went overboard at one point or another during the 720-mile journey. But after 13 hellish days they reached land on Nelson Island just off the Antarctic Peninsula.
Rice says, "I've worked with Maxie Anderson in his balloons, and with the people who flew that Daedalus airplane, and I'll tell you, Ned's as sober-minded as any of them when it comes to doing the thing right. He's a pro. He convinced me the Tomato could work, and then he listened to what I had to say—about weather, even about design. He trained hard for it. He has the right approach."
The Sea Tomato expedition, which ended up on page 1 of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, elevated Gillette to a new level of fame outside the adventuring community. Professional that he is, Gillette hit the lecture circuit with his slides and tales and with a pay scale of $500 to $1,000 per performance (he also commands $5,000 fees from corporations for motivational talks).
Even while he was on the Tomato tour, Gillette's mind started flying off again to faraway places. What better place for an adventurer than Africa? And what does one think of for transportation in Africa? Bingo. Gillette began to plan for a camel caravan across the desert.
"What Susie and I had hoped to do was cross Saudi Arabia this December as a warmup," Gillette says. "I'm not sure that will work, though. With the current situation in the Middle East, it might look frivolous to be riding camels while U.S. soldiers are deployed in tanks. But even if we can't do Saudi Arabia, we're planning to start the trans-Sahara trip sometime in '91, probably in the fall."
An important aspect of international adventure is the cooperation of governments. Gillette is in regular contact with members of the Saudi royal family, which should help him in securing permits and perhaps even some aid. And he has shaken hands with all manner of people who count in Morocco.
It is schmoozing in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, that has made schedules tight for Gillette and Patterson in Marrakech. And they still don't have the intrepid-adventurer-on-camel shot that everyone agrees must be on the tape.
In their collective mind's eye, Gillette & Co. see the dusty area behind The Oasis theme park as their last best chance. The cameraman shoots for four hours. When the desert sun finally sets, Gillette, stiff and sore, can at last dismount. He unwraps his turban. He takes off his bur-noose, and the real Ned Gillette is revealed. A guy in his 40's who is having a great time and gets to wear jeans and T-shirts at work. "It's a truly funny business," he says.