"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).