It is blowing and cold at 9 p.m. on the top of China’s 24,757-foot Muztagh Ata mountain, and the sun is setting over the Soviet border to the north. Exhausted after a 10-hour climb on skis, Ned Gillette and two companions pause on the dizzying height to savor a dramatic vista: a desert floor below, ringed by the distant white peaks of Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush and the Russian Pamirs. The Muztagh Ata summit is bathed in amber, and shadows creep up the mountain as the trio begin the descent. In graceful arcs the men whoosh through fresh powder to their camp in darkness 5,000 feet below. “It was like skiing into the bowels of the earth,” says Gillette. “It was the greatest ski run I’ve ever had in my life.”
This is a lofty statement from a high mogul of mountaineering. The Muztagh Ata climb in the summer of 1980 is just one of more than a dozen feats on Gillette’s résumé. He has skied down Aconcagua, the Andes’ highest peak; climbed Mount McKinley in a single day; and hiked in high altitudes around Mount Everest. Sometime this month, depending on the weather, he will attempt his riskiest adventure ever: rowing a 28-foot aluminum dory 600 miles to Antarctica from the tip of South America. The journey will require Gillette and three co-adventurers, Charlie Porter, 36, Jon Turk, 41, and Bud Keene, 27, to negotiate the Drake Passage, playground of icebergs, as well as the storm-chopped southern seas of the “furious fifties” where winds average 25 mph. “We’ll be scared out of our wits in those waters,” says Gillette, 41, who is both “apprehensive and giddy” at the prospect. “But our chances are a lot better than someone else’s. You get good at something you do a lot. We do expeditions.”
Gillette is a rarity in the low-budget world of adventure in that his expeditions are well financed. Sponsors, mostly corporations, have contributed $110,000 in cash and $60,000 worth of navigation equipment and foul-weather gear. He has also received promises of help from the Chilean Navy, Air Force and Hydrographic Office. Says a friend: “Ned sells himself better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Corporations appreciate Gillette’s promotional savvy. In 1975 the North Face, a producer of mountaineering gear, supplied a Gillette-led excursion into Alaska’s Brooks Range. “He gave us a superb amount of feedback in products and ideas,” says President Hap Klopp, “and because of that we’ve backed other expeditions as well, one every other year.”
Gillette makes a living in the adventure business by going to his sponsors’ sales meetings and showing slides of his trips. Being successful, he says, depends on offering “corporate America something different. There aren’t any blanks on the map and Mount Everest has been done. So you take a known geological lodestone and put a twist on it like doing a horizontal, not vertical, assault on Everest.” This attitude has not endeared him to some of his fellow climbers, purists offended by the way he markets himself. Gillette’s 1981 ski-and-climb circumnavigation of Everest came in for particularly heavy fire. Those who know the terrain claim he did not make a complete circle and walked some of the route. Aw, nuts, says Gillette, in effect: “The expedition produced the first ascent in winter by Americans of a major Himalayan peak and was a pioneering effort.” He adds, “I’m not the best climber or skier or ocean rower by far, but I’m the best at pulling an expedition together and making it work. I’m real dependable. Criticism doesn’t bother me. I’m doing exactly what I want.”
To date this idyllic life has included, in addition to the treks listed above, a 500-mile, 52-day ski tour through the Arctic wastes of Canada’s Ellesmere Island; a 300-mile ski climb in the Kara-koram Himalayas, Gillette’s roughest journey; teaching youngsters in Siberia to ski; hiking alone to the snow-covered tips of Africa’s equatorial Ruwenzori range; and traversing sections of the New Zealand Alps. Remarkably, Gillette’s 6′, 175-lb. body has suffered no serious injury. He recalls only one brush with death. In 1978, while trying to be the first to climb Mount McKinley in one day, Gillette and photographer Galen Rowell slipped on an icy slope. Roped together, they tumbled toward a ledge that dropped off into a 4,000-foot chasm. The pair was saved when Gillette managed to grab a strand of polypropylene rope left by an earlier expedition.
Growing up in Vermont and Cape Cod, Gillette was taught by his father, a retired insurance company president, to ski and sail. At age 5 he was barreling down nearby Mount Mansfield. After Dartmouth he earned a place on the 1968 Olympic cross-country team, then worked for a paper company for a year. He lasted one day at business school in Colorado (a fact he lists in his résumé), then split for the mountains. By 1972 he was directing the winter courses at Yosemite Mountaineering School where, he says, “I got my head changed around.” That year he joined some buddies making a 30-day ski trek across the Brooks Range. A report he wrote for companies that had donated equipment marked the beginning of his career as a professional adventurer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic and the American Alpine Journal.
Gillette prepared for the Antarctic adventure by rowing a light shell across lakes near his home in Stowe, Vt., where he lives alone. Three years of organizing the row, which he estimates might take three weeks, have left him restless for the payoff. “It turned into a far larger deal than I ever thought,” says Gillette, who left for Chile on November 28. “But we’re going to go down there and pull this baby off.