Ned Gillette and several friends have headed out on a once-in-a-lifetime trip , but they won't be sending post cards.Skiing around Mt. Everest doesn't leave time to write, and pickup service at 20,000 feet isn't very good, anyway.
The son of a prominent Vermont businessman, Gillette spent one day in graduate business school before dropping out more than a decade ago. Uninterested in the good life of an MBA, he carved out a career as a professional mountain adventurer and now is tackling his most ambitious expedition to date.
The idea to encircle Everest by combining the skills of skiing and mountaineering is a novel one, and saner than skiing down it, a stunt tried rather unsuccessfully and documented in a movie several years ago.
The genesis of the Everest expedition goes back a year to when Gillette and Jan Reynolds were introducing modern cross-country skiing equipment and techniques in China. On leaving the country, they obtained a permit to enter Tibet, a mysterious and exotic Chinese region Gillette had dreamed of visiting.
Traveling to the Orient costs big money, so an adventure trip was devised to attract corporate sponsorship.
''People have been to all points of the compass on Everest, but as far as our research shows, no one has ever gone around it,'' Gillette said. ''You can't climb Everest for the first time and you can't explore blank spots on the map. So we're looking at Everest in a new way, which is the essence of mountaineering today - to do things in a new style.''
Because political differences between Nepal and Tibet do not allow crossing over their mutual border, the trip actually has been broken into two legs: a 70 -day, 250-mile southern swing through Nepal, then a similar trek through Tibet next spring and summer.
''The neat thing about the first section,'' said Gillette before the expedition began, ''is that Nepal just opened up a winter climbing season, and we'll be the first Americans to climb then.''
That's one distinction most people would gladly forgo. After all, Everest's normally severe weather conditions are even more treacherous this time of year. January and February produce enough snow for ski-trekking, but the jet stream lowers itself onto the highest peaks, sweeping them clear of snow with high-velocity winds, and leaving unforgiving bare rock and ice to grapple with. Compounding difficulties are temperatures that dip to -40 or -50 degrees F.
''It's going to be much colder than anything I've ever experienced before,'' Reynolds predicted. ''Mainly, though, the trip should be a real test of endurance, because instead of going up and coming down, we'll be at a high altitude for a prolonged period of time.''
From a base camp, the first scheduled destination is the top of Mt. Pumori, a neighboring peak of 23,400 feet. Later, during the trip's second leg, they will reach their highest elevation of about 25,000 feet (Everest's summit is 29,028 feet). This is just to add spice to the trip.
Whatever potential dangers exist en route will be approached with cool professionalism. ''An expedition like this is not a time of fear,'' explained the journey's Dartmouth-educated leader. ''You have your little anxious spots, but you work on maintaining mental control so the whole thing doesn't turn into a rescue operation instead of an expedition.
''It's a matter of familiarity - the more you do something, the more you know where the real danger lies and the more expertise you have. It's like driving a car. An aborigine would be terrified going 60 m.p.h. down the Southeast Expressway (in Boston), but you wouldn't be, and I wouldn't be.''
Outdoor adventures are certainly nothing new for the five expedition members. Gillette's background includes a stint on the 1968 Olympic Nordic ski team plus about 10 years skiing and climbing the big mountains of the world.
Steve McKinney is the certified daredevil of the group. Three years ago in Portillo, Chile, he set the world speed skiing record of 124.3 mph. He will defend his title before starting the second leg of the Everest trip.
Craig Calonica, another speed skier, is a noted rock and ice climber from California, as is Jim Bridwell.
Reynolds, a ski team member and 1978 graduate of the University of Vermont, has guided wilderness canoe expeditions in Canada and taught skiing at the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. She set the high-altitude skiing record for women last year on China's 24,757-foot Mt. Muztaghata.
In 1979 Reynolds took part in a Gillette-led traverse of New Zealand's Southern Alps. Her presence on these trips serves to ''soften and humanize'' what Gillette calls traditionally macho ventures.
For Reynolds, the reward in any mountain trip occurs after the fact. ''You're thinking so hard about what you're doing when you're doing it that the thrill, for me, comes at the end,'' she said. ''It's not elation at the moment, but smooth satisfaction when you're done.''
As the group leader, Gillette also enjoys this special sense of accomplishment, while viewing the completion of these ventures in a slightly different light, too. They are the meat and potatoes of his renaissance life style, the opportunities that generate income.
With a sponsor, he can break even paying for the expedition. It's afterward that he actually makes his living by writing articles about the trip, selling pictures, and giving multimedia presentations.
''I guess the thing I love most,'' Gillette said, ''are the small trips - climbing in Yosemite or skiing the Bugaboos in British Columbia. But if you want to make a living out of this, which is what I do, then you undertake the big expeditions.
''There's a certain joy to these, too. They entail tremendous organization. You've got to be a businessman to put them together, an artist to bring back the photos and do the writing, and physically capable to carry it all off.''