One of the most successful adventurers of his era, Ned Gillette spent a lifetime courting the edge of risk and disas...

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, November 1998

A Murder in the Karakoram
One of the most successful adventurers of his era, Ned Gillette spent a lifetime courting the edge of risk and disaster. The thing he never expected, however, was to die in his sleeping bag.
Kevin Fedarko (with Jon Bowermaster)

I don't undertake these things to please my fellow skiers or my fellow climbers or my fellow rowers. I do them to please myself and, I like to think, to give something back to the man in the street, the guy who sits at a desk and maybe isn't doing what he wants with his life. If anything, I'd just like to think I remind people that it's possible to do what you want. If adventuring is about anything, that's what it's about.

Ned Gillette, Outside, December 1986

The Haramosh Valley is a narrow, 25-mile-long defile that doglegs across the Gilgit Region in northern Pakistan and, at its far end, crashes to an abrupt halt at the foot of a pass leading to the Chogo Lungma Glacier. At this dead end, the Haramosh can feel as remote as any forgotten cul-de-sac on the planet. It's a vaguely unsettling place too, not far from Pakistan's tangled juncture with China and Kashmir, where the border tectonics are ticklish, the politics are inscrutable, and the locals nurture a long and disconcerting tradition of occasionally addressing their problems with fists and knives and guns, not necessarily in that order.

In addition, however, it is also a place of hard and jagged beauty where an outsider cannot fail to be struck by the scrubbed, cut-glass intensity of the light, the clarion solitude, the freeze-dried, otherworldly texture of the landscape. These are what first lured Edward "Ned" Gillette and his wife Susie Patterson to the Haramosh in September of 1997. Veteran adventurers, they came in the hopes of completing an ambitious trek along the flanks of Nanga Parbat (at 25,660 feet, the world's 10th-highest mountain) and then making their way across a 16,000-foot pass at the edge of the Chogo Lungma. They arrived too late in the year, however, and found their routes firmly blocked by snow.

And so it was that last July, Gillette, 53, and Patterson, 42, returned to the area with the intention of finishing what they had started. After spending six days completing the Nanga Parbat circle, they hired a jeep to drive them to Skardu, a flyblown thorp where the cows seem to subsist on rubbish and the wind is laden with grit. From Skardu, they drove to the tiny village of Doko and there began a six-day tramp across the glacier and over the pass. "You know, Susie," Patterson recalls Gillette remarking, "a day hasn't gone by on this trip where one of us hasn't said how lucky we are."

August 4 was cool, the sky an adamantine blue seen only at that altitude. They started their descent off the pass in the afternoon and spent four hours picking through vast stretches of steep, slick scree. Early in the evening they reached the bottom of the pass, set up camp, and prepared a meal of ramen noodles and oatmeal. While they were washing up, the moon appeared — not quite full, but so lucent in the thin air that its craters seemed to mirror the lapidary starkness of the peaks around them. "It felt really close," recalls Patterson, "and kind of eerie." After staring at it, they entered the tent and went to sleep. "The next thing I heard," says Patterson, "was a gunshot."

Someone was firing a shotgun through the walls of their tent. Patterson awoke to find her husband wild-eyed. "It's my insides, my insides are whacked out," Gillette muttered. "I think I'm dying." Then he passed out. Patterson pulled him back to consciousness by shaking his arms and slapping his face. "When he came to," she recounts, "his eyes were glazed, but he was coherent enough to say, 'We've got to get out of the tent. It's dangerous.'"

Patterson was ramming her feet into her boots when another blast shredded through the wall of the tent, striking her in the back and side with the force of a sledgehammer. "Oh, God," Gillette exclaimed, "they got you too!" The wounded couple stumbled outside and crouched behind their packs, unable to see their attackers. After several minutes, Patterson found herself shivering uncontrollably and decided she had to get back in her sleeping bag. Just as she started into the tent, a figure loomed out of the shadows with a rock raised over his head — at which point Gillette seized a rock of his own and lunged at the attacker, forcing the man to retreat and almost certainly saving his wife's life.

For the rest of the night, the couple lay in their sleeping bags trying to comfort each other. Several hours after sunrise, some men from a village farther down the valley approached. "We got shot," Gillette said to one of them. "Go to a phone. Get a helicopter up here." A discussion ensued, and one of the villagers eventually headed down the valley. More than an hour later a boy appeared and announced that no one had phoned, at which point Gillette thrust forward a fistful of rupees and exclaimed, "Get somebody down there, and get a helicopter up here now!" After that, Gillette began to fade. "I think he knew it was only a matter of time," says Patterson. "His breathing started getting labored. I felt his stomach; I could feel the wounds. His heart was erratic. I propped him up, cut his T-shirt off him. And he just closed his eyes."

When his pulse had stilled, she lay beside his body for some time, then eventually asked the villagers to remove it. "The whole tent floor was full of blood," she says. "There were down feathers everywhere. That was the first time I really saw the blood, and the degree of the gunshot wounds, and just how brutal and horrible it was."

Before his murder, Gillette had been one of the most successful "career adventurers" of his time, an amiable and savvy operator with an enviable knack for conjuring trips in his mind and brewing up an elusive alchemy of sponsorship, grants, and publicity to make it all happen. It's a game everyone in this increasingly rarefied field plays, but Gillette, by consensus, played it with uncommon grace and integrity. True, some of his challenges may have been unabashedly contrived. But the artifice reflected a basic truth of modern adventuring: Expeditions can no longer be justified solely in terms of willingness to put one's life at risk or by invoking dicta like "Because it's there." What Gillette cannily grasped and freely accepted is that, for better or worse, we live in an age when salesmanship, imagination, and ‰lan count as much, and sometimes more, than mere courage.

An NCAA cross-country champion for Dartmouth in 1967, Gillette served as an alternate member of the U.S. Nordic ski team at the Grenoble Olympics in 1968; afterward he ran skinny-ski schools at Yosemite and at the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. Along the way, he also made an attempt to settle into normal life by enrolling in an MBA program at the University of Colorado. He lasted exactly one day.

Gillette's extraordinary string of adventures included the first one-day ascent of Mount McKinley (in 1978, with Galen Rowell), the first American ascent of China's 24,757-foot Muztagata (1980), and the first telemark ski descent of Argentina's Aconcagua (1982, with his future brother-in-law). He climbed, explored, and gamboled on all seven continents, while sampling liberally from a colorful smorgasbord of long-distance ski trips to places such as Alaska's Brooks Range (1972), New Zealand's Southern Alps (1979), and the Karakoram Range (1980).

To pull off such ventures, Gillette was not above making some dubious arrangements. Between 1981 and 1982, he and five friends undertook a 300-mile circumnavigation of Everest at altitudes averaging 20,000 feet. It was an impressive — if somewhat bizarre — feat that included the first winter ascent of 23,442-foot Pumori. Colleagues who lacked his flair for corporate schmoozing, however, didn't know whether to admire or condemn the fact that the expedition was underwritten by Camel Cigarettes and that between the trip's two distinct segments, Gillette flew to Las Vegas to shill for a sponsor at a trade show.

Perhaps his most audacious undertaking occurred in 1988, when Gillette and three partners spent 13 days crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica, some of the roughest seas on earth, in a bright red rowboat called the Sea Tomato. "We capsized three different times," he later recalled, "and one of us went overboard each time." It was after that trip that he first met Patterson, then 33. A "ski queen" for the first 25 years of her life, she had distinguished herself as the U.S. women's champion in the slalom in 1974 and in the downhill in 1976. She had also, by her own admission, spent a total of one night of her life in a tent before they were married in 1990.

For their honeymoon, Gillette came up with a madcap scheme to sneak across the Chinese border and illegally climb Gurla Mandhata, Tibet's "Mountain of Black Herbal Medicine." The pair then barnstormed their way through a litany of exotically conceived journeys that included skiing in Iran in 1992 and tracing 5,000 miles of the Silk Road by camel caravan in 1993. The Silk Road journey, however, produced something of a sea change in Gillette: Afterward, he turned to smaller adventures that demanded far less emphasis on publicity and financing. "Some people were disappointed that he didn't write more and pursue the sponsorships," says Patterson. "But he made an evolution back to why he started doing this stuff in the first place: the purity, the simplicity, the honesty. The lifestyle made him happy."

On the morning of August 6, almost 36 hours after the shooting and with no sign of a helicopter rescue, Patterson agreed to let the villagers carry her down the valley on a stretcher. Four hours later, she was packed into a jeep and driven to a hospital in Gilgit, where she spent the next five days answering questions from police while doctors monitored one of her lungs, which had filled with blood from some of the 80 buckshot wounds in her back and side. Five days later, she flew to Islamabad, where one of her brothers was waiting. "When Pete wrapped me in his arms," she says, "it was the first time I felt like living."

As news of the crime reverberated through the adventure community, questions arose as to whether Gillette might finally have gotten in over his head. "I would never go there myself without a local porter or guard," says Greg Mortenson, director of the Central Asia Institute, a private agency that provides schooling and aid to the region. "The area is totally wild." Patterson, however, vehemently disputes this view, arguing that she probably owes her life to the locals who cared for her. Her point is corroborated by several guides and climbers familiar with the place who say the Haramosh is actually a relatively peaceful oasis in an otherwise turbulent region.

On August 8, two suspects in their early 20s, Abid Hussain and Naun Heshel, were turned in by villagers after "prompting" from the police, according to Bernie Alter, the American consul general in Islamabad, who says the motive was probably robbery. A shotgun was recovered, and the two men have confessed to murder and have reportedly submitted to a videotape reenactment of the crime. If found guilty they will probably be hung within the next several months.

Gillette's body, meanwhile, was cremated in Pakistan. On August 17, Patterson brought his ashes back to Sun Valley and set about the business of recuperating while sifting through the memories of an extraordinary life lived together — a life whose roster of trips and adventures is still unfinished. It was a hallmark of Gillette's meticulous planning that even as he executed one trip, he was laying out another. His last was no exception. His and Patterson's next expedition was to have been to Nepal's Dolpo region. The plane tickets are still lying in a drawer in Gillette's desk.

E A R   T O   T H E   G R O U N D
"I don't think he quite expected it to be this difficult."

— Coleen Turner, spokesperson for Ben Lecomte, explaining why her client needed to take a temporary break from his attempt to swim across the Atlantic. Lecomte, who prepared for his quest by completing a single 24-hour session in a Texas pool, spent more than four weeks paddling in the wake of a chase boat before taking his nine-day hiatus in the Azores. At press time, he was expected to make landfall in France on September 25.

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