Modern exploration is a surprisingly small world. We all want to get out there, and can someone make a buck of arranging it - well, why not. Fact is, the industry is exploding. Commercial expeditions have overtaken Mount Everest and are spreading to other peaks. Everybody is a polar guide these days, and even ocean rowing (!) is becoming a profitable business. Image of bird in camp 1 on Everest, ExWeb files.


We'll take you there: About big dreams, high stakes, and ticket sales

Posted: Aug 30, 2005 12:20 pm EDT
Space Cowboy is the headline of a recent Forbes mag article, and interestingly enough - ExWeb wrote a similar piece on one of the persons in mention; "adventure cowboy" Mike McDowell. Well our label wasn't appreciated and soon a complaint arrived, rendering us to add: "Editors note: The term 'cowboy' is used here in its American meaning of 'wild pioneers of new territories' and nothing else."

The industry is exploding

Guess Forbes won't have any such problems but it goes to show you that modern exploration is a surprisingly small world. We all want to get out there, and can someone make a buck of arranging it - well, why not.

Fact is, the industry is exploding. Commercial expeditions have overtaken Mount Everest and are spreading to other peaks. On Everest, with around 40 commercial expeditions last spring the business is worth at least 20 million US dollar per season. Everybody is a polar guide these days, and even ocean rowing (!) is becoming a profitable business. Woodvale Events entry list for the Atlantic Rowing Race 2006 consisted of an impressive 51 team entries, representing eight countries including the UK, France, USA, Canada, Denmark New Zealand, South Africa and the Ukraine. Around one hundred boats are expected to attend the race in the end.

Cheap tickets to the death zone

The organizers are often explorers themselves - if not necessarily among the top of the line when it comes to some of them. Traveling with a pro makes for a well prepared trip - but lately business folks and other have turned to cheaper alternatives. A good idea perhaps when shopping at Staples - a bad idea when it comes to risking your life to strangers. Only this spring on Everest, a notable number of deaths occurred with low budget outfitters.

As for Space, we might see a similar trend. A NASA study has it that the private space travel market will hit up to 20 billion within a few decades. Leading the Space travel bunch is Space Adventures, headed by 30 year old Eric Anderson.

Russian logistics and Explorers Club's customers

Eric told Forbes mag that when he started out back in 1996, he was inspired by one of his first investors - Mike McDowell - who already ran Arctic cruises on Russian ice breakers and submarine adventures. The same McDowell and his team took over ANI a few years back, to provide logistics for explorers to Antarctica.

Both Eric and Mike use Russian Iljusins' - Mike to get people to the ice, Eric on zero gravity flights. Among customers are wealthy members from the Explorers Club, and large corporations using the trips as customer and employee promotions.

Customer complaints and staff trouble in the business of adventure

But it's not all roses. When former ANI announced their bailout from Antarctic logistics, three, possibly four movers and shakers emerged. All with basically the same plan of action: Iljusin to the ice, one or two Twin Otters on the ice, a basic BC in Patriot Hills. Yet ANI had trouble staying in business even as the only operators. The approximately $3 million operation was a high risk project. The politics involved in dealing with Russian Airlines, Chilean authorities and hostile polar scientists were not for the easily revved up.

The clients weren't always happy either. There were rough contracts and unexpected stormbound Christmas holidays on ice. The staff went claustrophobic, and chefs who were to provide red wine and duck pate as bang for the high end tourists bucks left in the middle of season. Wilderness pilots had lift off with scooters still attached to the plane, and polar skiers refused to leave the ice until they reached the pole.

100 million in thrill ride tickets

Antarctica Logistics & Expedition Ltd mantled the project, run by veteran adventurers Mike Sharp, David Rootes, Nick Lewis, Peter McDowell and Mike McDowell. Australian Mike McDowell is an Everest climber (although not a summiteer). He dog-sledded to the North Pole in 1992 with Sjur Mordre, Simen Mordre - and Martin Williams. Mike also dove 2.5 miles to Titanic and founded Deep Ocean expeditions.

Yet the biggest money perhaps seems to loom in the future of private space travel. Eric says that he made 150 million in revenues only last year and netted 10%. He told Forbes he has sold 100 million in thrill ride tickets (Migs and Iljusins) since 1998. 40 of those were paid by two tourists to the space station (Dennis Tito the first one).

Ticket sales and no merchandise

However, competition is mounting. At least 15 companies are fighting for the market, including Virgin. Burt Rutan's (reusable) rockets will cost around 25 mills each; the Russians can do build a Soyuz for 20, and NASA needs around 500 mills to build a shuttle. A dozen other are racing to beat Rutan's costs.

And whilst there have been plenty of ticket sales, there are still no private rockets. The deadlines range between end 2006 and late 2008, depending who you check with. Again, it's a small world. Burt Rutan is building for Branson, Andersons main competitor. Rutan won the Ansari X-Prize, founded by Peter Diamandis - who was one of Andersons early investors - together with Mike.

The man in black

Dreams, adventurers, ticket sales and no merchandise - it sure takes a cowboy spirit to handle. Another Anderson who learned this the hard way is of course Walt - one of the early private space pioneers. It's hard to say if he is a crook or a Robin Hood of space. The fact is that the man-in-black was busted last year in the largest tax fraud charges in US history. The agents found books with titles such as "Poof! How to Disappear and Create a New Identity, The ID Forger and Reborn Overseas, a guide to creating false identities in Europe, Australia and New Zealand."

Anderson loved Space almost as much as he hated the government. In an interview 5 years ago, he shared his ultimate dream: To build a Space Station where there would be no government, no taxes and where "... people would all be peaceful or I'd throw them out the air lock".

Gold & Appel Venture Capital founder Walt Anderson (51), was arrested at a Washington airport, in what federal prosecutors call the largest criminal case of individual tax evasion.

Anderson started Orbital Recovery (repositioning of telecomm satellites), after the AT&T breakup, and G&A in 1992, teaming up with the Russian builders of the Mir ("peace") space station in 2000. Investing 20 million, he formed MirCorp, a company designed to turn the Russian Space Station commercial. Dennis Tito and Reality TV producer Mark Burnett were some of the famous names in the project.

The Space Age is only a few years away, and the new Astronauts will give AdventureStats plenty to do. The Everest game will start all over - except in Space this time: There will be the youngest woman, the first blind person, the first from each country, the "Four Poles" - on and on.

We'll have the usual debates: What's Space, really? Which rocket went higher? Phew.




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