American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Ned Gillette, 1945-1998

  • In Memoriam
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

NED GILLETTE 1945-1998

“Ned left me and a lot of us with the courage, passion and imagination to push on, to go and live our dreams.”—Susie Patterson Gillette

Ned Gillette, 53, was killed by two bandits on August 5, 1998, in the Haramosh Valley of northern Pakistan in an apparent failed robbery attempt. He was at the end of a Himalayan trek with his wife, Susie Patterson, when two assailants blindly shot into their tent during the middle of the night, fatally wounding Ned. Susie, in serious condition, survived and was evacuated to Gilgit with the help of shepherds and police.

Ned lived an extraordinary and energetic life, remarkable for the variety of adventures he created, the skills he mastered to complete them and the colorful way he engaged a wide audience with accounts of his experiences. He defined his outlook in a piece called “The Meaning of Life,” in which he said, “If life is to have any meaning, it’s essential to carve out your own niche, to become special. Special things happen to special people. Climbing, skiing, and ocean voyages to remote comers of the world are often so gnarly and so scary that you wish you’d never left home. But eventually the sun shines again. You must be an optimist.”

Ned grew up in Barre, Vermont. He began skiing at age five, and spent summers sailing New England's coastal waters. From Holderness School in New Hampshire, he went on to Dartmouth, where he was captain of the ski team. He was NCAA cross-country ski champion in 1967, the year he graduated, and became a member of the 1968 Olympic team. In 1970, he helped establish the cross country ski program at the Yosemite Mountaineering School under director Wayne Merry, which he ran for several winters. He then returned to Vermont to head the Trapp Family Lodge’s Ski Touring Center in Stowe.

His first expedition was a 1972 ski traverse of the Brooks Range in Alaska. Along with three teammates, he covered 300 miles of the proposed oil pipeline. He then began dreaming up his own adventures, usually carried out with three companions.

In 1977, Ned led an expedition that skied over 500 miles up Canada’s Robson Channel and around Ellesmere Island, pioneering the use of specialized sleds that enabled self-supported expeditionary travel. In 1978, Ned and Galen Rowell circumnavigated Mt. McKinley; the two later completed the first one-day ascent of the peak, climbing and descending over 10,000 vertical feet in 19 hours. In 1979, he completed a ski traverse of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

In 1980, Ned led a 285-mile winter ski crossing of the Karakoram Mountains, a venture that he often cited as the most physically demanding of his expeditions. Also in 1980, Ned completed the first ski descent of the 24,757-foot Muztagata in China. In 1981-’82, Ned organized the Everest Grand Circle Expedition, which circumnavigated Mt. Everest, and completed the first American winter ascent of Mt. Pumori (23,422').

In 1988, after designing and supervising the construction of a 28- foot rowboat, Ned rowed with three companions over 600 miles in 13 days across the Drake Passage from Cape Horn to Antarctica through some of the world’s “most mad seas,” an adventure that Ned documented in a feature article for National Geographic.

These accomplishments required not only extraordinary athletic ability, endurance, discipline and mental toughness, but also vision and optimism. His deep-set hazel eyes sparkled with intense delight and energy with each fresh idea for traveling the world’s wild places. Ned’s brilliance was to approach the world in creative ways, bringing the excitement of discovery to familiar arenas. Resourceful and self-reliant, he meticulously prepared for each foray, anticipating known hazards and minimizing the risks of capricious nature.

Following their marriage in 1990, Ned and Susie Patterson, a U.S. slalom and downhill champion, and also a former Olympic skier, took up residence near Sun Valley, Idaho. Two years later, they walked 5,000 miles of the historic Silk Route across China and other Central Asian countries in authentic “caravan style,” with six camels.

Ned chronicled these experiences in his captivating writing and photography, focusing on skiing, mountaineering, sailing, and outdoor photography. He contributed adventure travel articles and photographs to numerous publications, including National Geographic, Outside, and Outdoor Photographer. He authored two books: Everest Grand Circle, with Jan Reynolds, and Cross Country Skiing, with John Dostal.

Ned was a generously warm and insightful person who used humor to keep life in perspective. Certainly, he will be remembered for his imaginative exploration of wild and remote regions. But more satisfying to him, and more enduring, was his ability to energize and inspire each of us to push beyond our self-imposed limits, and to live life with vitality and commitment, determined to excel in whatever venture we’ve chosen. His family and his friends will always love, remember, and miss him.

Deborah Gillette Law and members of Ned’s family

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