Jim Clash – Business and Adventure Journalist, Author
James M. (Jim) Clash is the closest thing to a modern-day Superman as you will ever meet. By day, he is a mild-mannered journalist who began his career as a business writer for Forbes magazine, reporting on cerebral topics like hedge funds and 401(k)s. But, like Clark Kent, Clash has an alter ego as surprising – and fearless – as the Man of Steel himself.
As an adventure journalist, author, Explorers Club fellow and director, Clash has engaged in some of the world’s most daring exploits and lived to write about them. A partial list of his quests includes being shot at point-blank range with a .38 caliber handgun, driving a Bugatti Veyron at 253 miles per hour, flying to 84,000 feet at Mach 2.6 in a MiG Russian fighter jet, and bobsledding at Lake Placid with the U.S. Olympic team. He has ticket number 610 to fly in space with Virgin Galactic.
Along with his work as a business and adventure journalist, Clash has interviewed a number of legendary figures in a variety of fields, including astronaut Neil Armstrong (an opportunity he worked 12 years to secure), world boxing champion Joe Frazier, Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti, Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary, and many more.
“Inspiring Figures is pleased to present this interview with Jim Clash, the first in our new series featuring subjects from the upcoming book, Empirical World: Faces and Friends of Science, by author and photographer Geoff Notkin.”
It’s fascinating to me that someone so astute about the business world would also be a world-class adventurer. How did you end up pursuing both endeavors, which some might see as being on opposite ends of the spectrum?
I have an MBA from Columbia University, so there’s the business side. I am also a long-time adventurer. I started out as an amateur climber on the Matterhorn, Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro. When I went to work at Forbes, they said, “Okay, you have an MBA and we can use your business skills to write about finance and mutual funds.” But then, I had that other side, too. We had a back-of-the-book section called “Lifestyle” and I started writing stories about my mountain climbing there.
It caught on and the magazine decided they would let me write about other adventures, too, so I went into race cars, bobsledded with the Olympic team, flew supersonic in MiG jets, went bullfighting – everything you can imagine, and wrote columns about it. I really had two jobs: one was to write about mutual funds and finance in the front of the book telling people how to make money, and then, in the back of the book, I told them how to spend it.
That’s a great way to explain it, especially since some of those adventures are not necessarily budget-friendly.
Correct. When I skied the last degree to the South Pole, it was around $60,000, I believe. It was a tough expedition, but I’d wanted to go to the South Pole since I was a kid. I went to the North Pole on a nuclear icebreaker, and I believe that trip was around $30,000. I got to swim at the Pole without a wetsuit, so that was a bit of an adventure. The water was pretty cold.
You said you were interested in adventure since childhood. Tell me about your upbringing and whether there was something specific that sparked this spirit of adventure in you at a young age.
I’ve thought about that. Looking back, I was always interested in science. When I was a kid, I built a laser and won the science fair. I was a ham radio operator with an FCC license, so I talked to people all over the world. I think that instilled in me this desire to visit those places, and one of the places was the South Pole; another was the Seychelles, and yet another was Siberia. I think that partly had to do with my quest for adventure – living out the childhood curiosity that came with talking to people in these weird places.
I was athletic, too – I was a football player and a track guy – and adventure has a lot to do with physicality, as well as the mental aspects. All of it came to a head when I first started working at Forbes and had enough money to at least develop my mountain climbing career. I was able to get the magazine to pay for my trips.
I was like a modern-day George Plimpton. He was a famous experiential journalist and, when I saw what he did, I thought, that’s what I want to do. I would actually pay to do what he does. Forbes had hired me for my business acumen, but I also was making adventure part of my career. Eventually, the advertisers started getting interested in the adventure stories because wealthy people were spending a lot of money to do it.
A big part of that trend came from a book in 1985 called Seven Summits, written by Dick Bass and Frank Wells. They were two rich 50-something executives who had gone out and become the first to climb the highest mountain on each continent. I read that book and it got me very, very interested in pursuing mountain climbing. If you had to pick one thing that changed adventure and made it more commercial, I believe it was that book.
You mentioned being interested in science as a kid, and I notice you’ve interviewed a lot of astronauts from the golden age of manned space exploration. Were you influenced by that as well?
Absolutely. As I said, part of what I do is to write about experiential adventure. I get in the bobsled and write about it. If I do a good job, you feel like you’re in the sled with me. I can inspire and influence you to do it, because I’m just a regular guy. If I can do this sort of stuff, anybody can do it.
But another part of what I do is interview people. Growing up, of course, I was very, very interested in the space program. I followed Senator John Glenn as he became the first American to orbit the Earth and, obviously, the Apollo program where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would get to meet those people, let alone interview them. I have interviewed, I believe, 7 of the 12 moon walkers now. I’ve interviewed John Glenn. I’ve interviewed probably 50 different astronauts.
So yes, I was very inspired and am still inspired by the space program. It’s something that pushed me because of the adventure and science aspects – it has both. My ultimate dream is to fly in space and I have a ticket to do so with Virgin Galactic. I’ve done most everything you can do on the land - I once even drove a Bugatti Veyron at 253 miles per hour! In the air, I’ve flown up to 84,000 feet at Mach 2.6 in a MiG. I’ve experienced weightlessness on a parabolic flight over Russia. I’ve also trained in a centrifuge and actually simulated the whole Virgin spaceflight. I’m ready!
I hope you’re able to achieve that dream and get into space in the not-too-distant future. You touched on some of the incredible adventures you’ve had, and I wanted to ask you about the one where you were shot with a gun at close range. Even though you were wearing a bulletproof jacket, it must have taken a lot of courage.
I think one of the things that’s allowed me to do all of this without getting seriously hurt or killed is the fact that I’m a calculated risk taker. Believe it or not, getting shot was relatively safe. You have to be a calculated risk taker in business as well. My first book, Forbes To The Limits, was about how adventure and business – the risk-taking and the skill sets in the two - are very similar.
I was watching the Military Channel one night and saw this guy named Miguel Caballero occasionally shoot his employees to prove that his bulletproof jackets work. The employees were the ones making the jackets, so it was kind of like, “you’d better make them correctly.” I called him up and said, “Hey, if I come to Bogota, would you shoot me?” and he said, “Absolutely, come on down.”
So I went down, toured the factory and watched the women making these things. Then, it was time to be shot. They outfitted me with a beautiful leather jacket that retailed at the time for $7,000 at Harrods. It’s heavy, but you can’t really tell it’s bulletproof.
Normally, when Caballero shoots somebody, he puts an extra layer of Kevlar in where he aims the gun – he shoots between the hip and ribs so that you don’t break anything. I told him, “I don’t really want that extra layer. I want to be shot as the jacket would be in the field.” He hemmed and hawed, and said he only shot one other guy that way and broke his hip. But I insisted that I wanted to be shot without the Kevlar. He said, “Well, it’s going to hurt and you’re going to have a giant bruise, but I’ll do it.”
We went onto the factory floor and all of the people making the garments stopped what they were doing. Some made the sign of the cross, some put earplugs in, and some put their hands over their ears. We had this procedure where I would put my hands behind my back and he would say, “ready.” I would tense up and hold my breath, and then he would go, “one, two …” and shoot me on “three.” But, when we actually did it, he shot me on “one.” I thought he had made a mistake and the gun went off accidentally, so I just stood there and didn’t move. He pulled the gun down and started laughing. He told me the reason he shot me on “one” was so I wouldn’t have time to get scared and think about moving, because if I did, say, bring my hand into the area where the bullet was going, I’d be shot in the hand; or, if I moved, he would shoot me in a different place and maybe break rib, hip or worse.
A lot of my friends did single that adventure out and say, “Are you starting to lose it, Jim? This is getting a little extreme.” It hurt. If I had to describe it, the feeling was like somebody taking a bullwhip from 10 feet away and hitting you with the tip of it – that burning sensation – and then there was a really heavy hit like Mike Tyson punching you in the gut. I had a big bruise that was probably three inches in diameter and lasted for a few weeks, but nothing permanent. I have done other things where I have really been injured.
That was going to be my next question. You talked about taking calculated risks, but there still is a lot of risk involved in some of these pursuits. What types of injuries have you sustained?
I once went into a skating rink with the Olympic silver medal figure skater Sasha Cohen. I had this idea of doing a story where I would teach her how to do something I was good at, and she would teach me something she was good at. But, stupidly, I had never taken any skating lessons - I’d never even been on skates in my life!
For the first part of our adventure, I took her out on a public road in a Lamborghini, and she drove it at about 130 miles an hour. That was supposed to be the dangerous part of the adventure. Then, we went to the Aliso Viejo Ice Palace in California, and she got me out on the ice.
I was fine while she was holding on and we were doing twizzles and little things. At one point, though, I wanted to try a spin. She told me to make like I was going to punch somebody and then just swing. The next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance with a concussion, not remembering anything that had happened. It was pretty serious. There was a Forbes crew there, so they got it all on video. I was unconscious for maybe a minute on the ice and poor Sasha thought she’d killed me. I had to spend the night in the hospital.
That is an example of something where I didn’t prepare. I underestimated what it would take to do what she does – you know, “adventurer goes figure skating.” Those kids out there are going 30 miles an hour, those blades are sharp like knives, and that ice is as hard as concrete.
Another time that was really stupid was when the Professional Bull Riders association asked me if I would like to get into the ring as a “bullfighter.” They call it bullfighting, but, if you know anything about rodeo, I was really a rodeo clown dressed like a bullfighter. What we’re supposed to do is distract the bull once he throws the rider. The rider is vulnerable on the ground.
I went to Texas and got in the ring with a couple of bulls, and the other two professional bullfighters were with me. I remember the first bull was a rather large monster, probably 2,500 pounds, but a little older and slower. He threw his rider and I performed the techniques I had learned in the morning about how to get the bull to circle without getting me with his horns, and that worked fine. I went to the photographer and asked, “Do you have that?” and he said yes, so I thought maybe we should stop there. But the two bullfighters said, “No, no, you’ve come all the way down here – you’ve got to get some dirt on your face.”
The second bull they sent out was younger, probably weighing 2,000 pounds, named Horny Toad. He threw his rider and then Frank and Shorty – those were the other two bullfighters – distracted him away. The bull was still running around in the ring and the idea was to get him back into the chute. But the bull locked eyes with me, and I knew I was in trouble.
He came at me and I tried to do the circle and get around his horns, but he was too quick. He took one horn and shoved it into my back, cracking three of my ribs. He threw me up against the fence and tore up the right side of my body with cuts, but the serious damage was the ribs. Frank and Shorty eventually got him away from me and I was just sitting there, dazed. They said, “Get the hell up!” I’m proud to say that I picked up my hat [laughs]. You don’t know what’s going to happen with a wild animal. That was not a very calculated risk and, when I look back on that one, it was reckless.
The most violent adventure I ever did was riding in the two-man bobsled with the Olympic team from the top of the hill at Lake Placid. You’re pulling 6 G’s in some of the corners. I was the brakeman and couldn’t see which corner we were about to go through and whether it would throw us to the right or the left. In less than a minute, we went through 20 different turns at 70-some miles an hour. A bobsled is nothing but a fiberglass shell with two handles to hold onto. There are no seatbelts. I didn’t get hurt, but after the second time we went down the hill, I didn’t have full equilibrium for a week. It’s a lot rougher than it looks on TV.
(End, Part 1)