Early in the morning on August 5, 1998, Ned Gillette was shot to death in his tent in the Karakoram.
He was 53. Middle aged, at least by old standards. But Gillette was one of those people whose personality was so outsized he seemed immortal. “Icon” doesn’t begin to cover it, and for some people the mere list of exploits doesn’t do them justice, either. Gillette was a personality so gargantuan the expectation was always of continuance — surely there’d be more to come. When Ned died, the skiing and climbing communities were struck by the sheer impossibility of it. At the very least Ned Gillette was robbed of the chance to die in sport. Bullets? What a prosaic way to take a life too extraordinarily lived.
Edward “Ned” Gillette in some ways followed a classic adventurers’ path — rebellion. He came from hidebound New England stock, went to Dartmouth, became one of the better nordic skiers in the U.S., attended the University of Colorado to get an MBA…and then couldn’t toe the line for another second.
He fled for Yosemite, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard and began to learn about the outdoors in a way that competition on skis had never afforded him. Expeditions, for their own sake, became a calling — but Gillette was no hippie. He still had the drive of his upbringing which meant bulling forward. According to an extensive, heartbreaking account of Gillette’s life by Todd Balf in Men’s Journal, even early Gillette adventures, like a 300-mile ski traverse of the Brooks Range, saw him pushing compatriots harder than they would’ve liked. This would prove to be a signature, but hardly the whole of the man.
Still, his appetite for feats of huge endurance quickly became legendary. A circumnavigation of Denali in 1978 was the first achieved in more than 70 years, followed a fortnight later by a brass-balls, single-day climb of the peak, joined by legendary photographer Galen Rowell. Nobody had ever dreamed you could ascend Denali in one day, and yet Gillette was only getting warm. He followed up with the first climb and ski descent of 24,757-foot Muztagata in China, notable in part because he and his team were the first Americans allowed to climb in China since before WWII; a 1980 trip, again with Rowell and two other members traversed the Karakorams in winter; and a 1981, 300-mile Everest Grand Circle trek, in which he and his team, including then-girlfriend Jan Reynolds, took 120 days skiing, climbing, and hiking. In Balf’s Men’s Journal story Reynolds explained that this was Gillette finally coming into his own.
“It was Ned’s signature trip,” says Reynolds. By that, she means it featured all of the elements that would turn Gillette into an adventuring legend: It was a first; it was a creative new take on an old story; it drew press attention; and sponsors lined up for it. More than a trip, actually, it was an Event. “There were always two sides to Ned,” says Reynolds. “There was the part of him that loved to disappear into the backcountry and ski with best friends. But there was another part that loved the rush of putting together what I called the ‘wow!’ trip, You know, the whole ride.”
Thus began the Gillette era, where the man conquered peaks and jungles — and chronicled his exploits for the likes of National Geographic and Esquire, all while being sponsored by brands that now sign athletes on the Gillette blueprint. The North Face didn’t invent the idea of the quotable, amicable, eloquent jock who also happened to be in the one-tenth-of-one-percent who could climb, ski, and suffer like nobody else: Ned Gillette showed the outdoor industry how to market itself. He was self-branding well before Instagram and Twitter. And even as purists scoffed, legions followed. The norm wouldn’t be the hairball; people who wanted sponsor dollars would be like Ned Gillette.
But Ned wasn’t just marketing his “brand.” He was still pushing boundaries, like the first telemark ski descent of Aconcagua, a solo climbing/skiing journey through Uganda while the nation was wracked by war, and in 1988, a brutal, two-week, 600-mile row across the Drake Passage from Chile to Antarctica in an open dory. The crew made it, but the self-righting craft was constantly capsizing, and it was an expedition short on glory and long only on Gillette’s mighty will. And building that trip and making it happen drove Gillette and Reynolds to split up.
It was a turn that led Gillette to former skiing Olympian Suzy Patterson, kid sister of Pete Patterson, Gillette’s climbing partner on Aconcagua. Everyone thought it was an oil-and-oil combo, two fiercely athletic, vivacious people, each one the star. Somehow, though, it worked. Really, they were soul mates and well suited to adventures, too.
Together they climbed Mt. Rainier, snuck into Tibet to climb 25,355-foot Gurla Mandhata, and retraced 6,000 miles of the old Silk Road from China all the way to Europe.
It was a genuine romance with the world and with each other, the pair climbing and exploring together with as little support as feasible. In 1998 they climbed Chimborazo, and in Ecuador crossed the entirety of its most rugged glaciers. They each seemed at home with this rugged life of exploration of going big but not just for a number or a record. Gillette said of this style:
We live in a time where you can no longer climb the highest peak, or no longer explore blank spots on a map. Adventure is looking at old subjects in a new way. There’s still plenty left to do if you use your imagination. You have to create a double adventure rather than answer to one already waiting for you.
Which is a very romantic but also potentially dangerous way to see the world.
The mujahideen had flooded into the Karakoram a year before Ned Gillette and Suzy Patterson would head there to attempt another grand traverse, this one around Nanga Parbat. And as was their typical style, they didn’t use guides or porters, wanting to go fast and light, and in this part of the world, avoid contact with people who could be hostile. But that plan was a gamble, too; you could upset locals who make money from guiding, and there was a reason few westerners had ever attempted the circumnavigation of the tenth highest mountain on earth. It wasn’t just a challenge, it was in a region fraught with political rancor, just as it is today.
What transpired on the night of August 5th, 1998, will always be a bit murky.
Gillette and Patterson were shotgunned in their tent, Gillette mortally wounded, dying 36 hours later from internal bleeding and Patterson barely survived herself, with a collapsed lung filling with blood. Eventually a pair of men were captured for robbery, a charge that always seemed implausible; shooting people when you just want their money doesn’t make sense, and considering that Patterson received incredibly gracious help from the locals who eventually saved her life, it’s also hard to say they were unwelcome.
Whatever the cause, Gillette’s magnificent 53 years and tortured last hours are today part of the troubled truth of a larger-than-life character.
Gillette was a badass, cut down too early in an act of caprice and malice. But probably his death was no more random a way to leave this world than if he’d had his druthers: going out while climbing up a peak or skiing down one just because, in his own pure, grand style.
Photos: Galen Rowell (top), Ned Gillette