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 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.