Somehow, you expected the rookie retail boss would be climbing walls, particularly one who has scaled five of the world’s highest mountains.
But Jamie Clarke, mountain climber, desert trekker, author, documentary maker and inspirational speaker, seems comfortable enough in the relatively passive retail world – and only climbs the wall of his Out There store in Calgary when asked to do so by a photographer. It was Clarke’s unbridled passion and steely-eyed determination that catapulted him to the summit of Mount Everest.
If the 35-year-old Calgary dynamo applies the same characteristics as president and majority owner of the Out There outdoor and adventure store, it would be foolish to wager against his retail adventure.
Asked about the risk associated with retail, Clarke cracks a lopsided grin that tells you it’s what the man is all about. 1. What sort of childhood spawns a mountain climber?
|Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|Jamie Clarke's Everest epiphany has opened him up to new challenges.|
“There were a couple things that made an impact. First, there was support from my parents (Denise Fournier and Ian Clarke), who were not mountain climbers but they were certainly interested in the outdoors. I also had a mother who thought hockey was too dangerous and suggested I climb mountains instead. I found the mountains near Calgary as a great place to explore and there were endless opportunities for discovery. That really initiated my thirst for exploration and discovering new things, not only on the map, but also in my mind and heart.”
2. What was your boyhood dream?
“When I was about 12, my boyhood dream was to climb Mount Everest. I read a book called Annapurna (the name of a Himalayan mountain). What struck me about the book was not only the words, but the pictures. It was not just the incredible landscape, but the looks on people’s faces during their progression. You saw them at the airport with big smiles and full, healthy faces. Then, you saw them over the term of the expedition – men growing beards, women aging before your eyes, getting gaunt, losing weight, getting tanned. You could see great sadness in the loss of a friend or an injury to a friend. You saw great triumph in their survival and having met their objective of reaching the summit. It was a life-changing experience. So, in the arrogance of my youth, I figured: ‘If I’m going to climb a mountain, it may as well be Everest.’ ”
3. You were once a national-class cross-country skier. How did you cope with the disappointment of not qualifying for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics?
“Not well. Because paralleling the dream to climb Everest was the dream to be an Olympian. Once the Olympics were awarded to Calgary, that tipped the scales a little more towards the Olympic dream. So I moved to Canmore, I trained, I worked and then I, uh, choked. I didn’t have what it took. Emotionally, I really struggled with that. I was 19, so arrogance and testosterone were in abundance. Physically, I was drained and got (mononucleosis) from over-training. I then went on a trip to Africa for six months. I was sort of running away from the sadness of that disappointment, but, at the same time, I was running toward a new life.”
4. How do you reflect on having your Olympian dream crushed?
“In retrospect, it was a real character builder. I had gone from passionate to obsessed, a lesson that served me well in climbing. The funny thing about passion and obsession is that there is no line between them. It’s a grey area and one bleeds into the other. Passion is something that you want in your life, but the dark side of it is obsession, and it can manifest itself, I think, in greed and all kinds of things. It became destructive in my life. I sacrificed relationships, my own health, my own life balance and I really suffered the hangover of that for a few years until I was able to focus on a new objective, where I could channel my physicality – climbing.”
5. Is winning everything to you?
“No. But it once was. I used to have a terrific ski race where I finished third and I was totally disappointed. Winning was all that mattered. Then, I had a strange experience on Everest in 1991 when I was base-camp and communications manager. We had this new satellite phone and we spread all this communications gear around the mountain, trying to hook it up. There was a lot of pressure and stress in making it work. The day we got the actual connection and filed the first live report from the mountain, which was historic in many ways, was perhaps one of the greatest days of my life at that point. And it was a day that I spent entirely alone. I remember sitting in the tent. There was no food. I just had a can of tuna. I banged into the can with a screwdriver and just sucked out the juice, too tired to work it around to get at the meat. I was just spent and absolutely euphoric and then I realized there were no crowds and there was no cheering. That’s when I discovered that winning had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
6. How did you deal with the failure you experienced in your crew’s first two attempts at the summit of Mount Everest?
“On my first expedition, I was only 21 and I wasn’t destined for the summit. Although I felt badly that the team didn’t make it, I felt like: ‘Wow, this is like the young boy making it to the Stanley Cup.’ Now, being swept four games straight, mostly by shutouts, is an embarrassment, but if you got to the championship, there was victory in that. On the second expedition, I took a lead role in orchestrating the effort and raising funds and it became much more personal, considering we came within 162 metres, heartbreakingly close. But we came home alive and there was some success in that. Not all friendships were intact, but we made it back.”
7. When the dream was realized, what did it feel like to stand on the summit of Mount Everest?
“Standing on the summit was, for me, one of the days for which I believe I was born. There was not a feeling of being a conqueror. I didn’t feel that a fist needed to be pumped into the air or an ice axe slammed into the summit. It was a strange experience up there. Obviously, you’re cold, you’re tired, there’s not a lot of oxygen and you’re having a conversation with your backpack and it’s talking back. What I felt was the absence of a couple of companions that I had never known times without – struggle and the sense that there is always more to be climbed. When I finally stood atop the summit at 7:10 a.m., those two companions parted. When they did, I had occasion to enjoy a sense of peace that I hadn’t fathomed even existed. In retrospect, it was a peace that I had always carried with me, but couldn’t see it because of the struggle, drive and discontent. There was euphoria, tears, a great sense of relief and a great sense of gratitude. And then I called my wife (Barbara) on the radio and proposed to her. She didn’t say anything at first and I thought: ‘Damn, maybe she doesn’t want to marry me.’ But then after I threatened to jump, she said yes.”
8. What was the most important life lesson your adventures taught you?
“I realized early on that these adventures of terrain were also an exploration of internal landscapes that were unknown and dark and hidden. There are a lot of great tracts and space in my heart and mind that I hadn’t had the courage or skill to navigate. So as you cross this desert or climb this mountain, you’re also tracking land within yourself. So, in a sort of egomaniacal, navel-gazing way, there’s a wonderful amount of self-discovery that occurs whether you plan it or not.
“The sense of satisfaction that comes from a totality of effort is freeing, because so often we are content to tie happiness to the outcome. I discovered in these things that the happiness is in the investment en route. These adventures have taught me that the one thing you can control is the totality and passionate nature of your effort. When you are able to do that, regardless of the outcome, the effort of the journey is worthwhile.”
9. Is that a philosophy that fits your latest journey – in business as president of Out There?
“I look at this undertaking as a new adventure. It’s not cold and windy in here. There are no exotic photographs to be taken, no strange foods to eat and no new language to speak, other than business plans and pro forma and accounting. It still is a grand adventure because of the risks and the totality of my effort and my passion and commitment to get it done.”
10. What did your adventures teach you about life?
“I learned the value of consistency. I discovered early on that those who get the magical outcomes such as the crossing of the Sahara desert or Everest are the ones who are willing to take those steps consistently. A lot of the time, we’re looking for fantastical, magical solutions to our problems. The infomercials offer fancy ways to get your butt tight and new hair on your head. But we’re putting our focus in the wrong place, looking for shortcuts and elevators to get us up. I think we’re confused because simple, elegant solutions consistently executed yield the magical outcome we want.”
11. What inspired you to open the store?
“This idea has been percolating for some time. In my experience in Calgary, I’ve never been able to find in one place enough of the stuff that I wanted for the outdoors, not just for some hardened expedition but to go for a jog in Fish Creek Park or walk the dog in Nose Hill. For 20 years, I’ve been wondering where that store is. I like the business segment of this, I love good gear and I wanted to create a place where we could equip, enable and inspire other people to have their own adventures.”
12. Is your approach similar to one of your adventures?
“Oh, definitely. I wanted to make sure we were properly capitalized so we could run it properly right from the takeoff. The last thing you want to do is get three-quarters of the way to the summit and run out of food, supplies and rope. I don’t want to talk specific details of cash, but if this doesn’t go well, it’s going to hurt me personally very much financially. I’m not into this to make millions of dollars. I want this to be modestly profitable so I can return money to investors, so I can pay my employees and so we can continue doing what we’re doing in the community. This place doesn’t exist solely to be profitable, although it has to be profitable to exist.”
13. Have you been indulging in the adventuresome stock market?
“I’ve dabbled a little bit and been beaten appropriately. I took a bit of a pounding in the past few years because I’m a bit of a risk taker. I really believe in investing in Canadian companies and investing in companies in which I have some belief in. If I could make a huge return on online porn, I wouldn’t do it. I’ve had cigarette companies that approached me for expedition sponsorship. Good Lord, I wanted their money, but I couldn’t do it. The problem with the risk (of the stock market) is that I can’t control it.
“I have always found the best investment that I can make is in me, which may sound terrible, but that’s why I’ve invested in this store.”
14. If I pay you $20,000 to come to my house tonight as a keynote speaker, will I be a better writer tomorrow?
“I would do a lot of research about where you are in your writing career and what you’re trying to achieve. I’m no guru or expert. At the very least, hopefully it’s entertaining. Before I speak, I think about what stories I should tell that would be meaningful to you and maybe we’ll speak to certain challenges you’re facing or circumstances you’re trying to navigate through. Hopefully, you’ll walk away with a rekindled sense of passion toward the job.”
15. What’s your best advice for young people for achieving goals?
“If you tell a story artfully with some poetic ability, it can really have an impact. I may fail miserably, but I strive for that. But if you take away all the artful stuff and say: ‘Throw me some of the guts, Jamie, without giving us an hour of your stupid stories,’ what would I say? I’d probably try to inspire them again through a story, but I would mention that my suggestion is to do everything in your life with a sense of passion, because the skill you want to foster is the ability to be passionate – authentically, not forced. Be passionate about all the things that you’re doing. When people tell me that they don’t know what to be passionate about, I tell them to be passionate about even the gruntest of all jobs. If you live your life that way, you will stumble upon, by the very nature of your living that way, things that you are more easily passionate and inspired about. And you will grab on to things that you can really run with and then you’re on to it. But don’t wait to find that thing. Live passionately now.”
16. Will you let your son grow up to be a mountain climber?
“Oh, no! I’m going to duct-tape my kid to the basement! (Laughing) Definitely, absolutely, I would let him do it. I would be terrified – I don’t know how my parents did it all these years. But I would do everything that I could to make sure that he learned as much as he could, that he had a good head on his shoulders and that he tried to set for himself goals that were just beyond his grasp, but wouldn’t crush him. Hopefully, he won’t read this – he’s only 2 1/2 – but part of me would love it if he were passionate about something entirely different, because then I could go on that journey with him, follow him and we could share that discovery of it.”
17. What’s your life’s greatest fear?
“Regret. I have to this point, at 35, been able to look back on my life and realize that for every period of my life I’ve lived it passionately. That’s not to say that I haven’t done stupid things. I just don’t want ever to regret not living fully and passionately. I don’t want to slip, with comfort, with time, into a sense of mediocrity and an unwillingness to explore and risk. Now, being a dad, I fear tremendously outliving my children. I don’t know if I would have what it would take if something were to happen to my kids.”
18. Are you afraid of dying?
“Yes and no. I used to be pretty cool about it. But then I came close to dying once in Tibet (en route to Everest in 1994) as a result of a reaction to an antibiotic. I’ve had rocks zing by my head, those kinds of moments, but this was a legitimate close-to-death experience. The heart shut down. It was about 12 seconds but it seemed like forever. There was total internal silence. It was as though we were all in a deep pool of water. There was no heart, no breath and I was quite cold, but there were warm tears just firing down my eyes as I was sinking into the floor. It wasn’t that I was fearing death. I just couldn’t fathom losing life. Life is so wonderful and precious and such a great gift. I fear losing that. I don’t fear death in terms of what happens after you die, if I’m going to hell or if there is really a God . . . Boy, life is so great!”
19. What’s the ultimate adventure?
“Life itself, obviously. I’m on a really fantastic adventure right now with my kids (he and Barbara are expecting a second child soon). It’s so enriching. If you’re talking a tangible adventure, the romantic in me wishes I was born 200 years ago when there were so many adventures to be had. I’d be pushing West. I’d roll out a map and find the biggest patch of nothing and say: ‘We’ll go there and see what the hell happens.’ Now, it’s so hard to get remote. When I stop dwelling on the past, I look up. Boy, the possibility of discovery there! Or just discovering nothing. Just the opportunity to know, rather than the mystery. Which is nice, but it’s haunting. It’s taunting you every night as you look up at the stars . . .”
20. You’re 50 years old. Where are you and what are you doing?
(Laughter) “Hopefully, I’m out with my son and daughter and sitting on some Rocky Mountain and shouting up at them to stop throwing rocks down on me. Hopefully, I’ll have a few stores operating well, so I wouldn’t have to be there every day. Hopefully, I’ve gotten off my next adventure to the Antarctic and a handful of other trips, done a few more documentaries, written some books and maybe be out at some pitch with my kids, climbing something.”
IN PROFILE: Jamie Clarke
* Born/raised/age: Calgary, 35.
* Title: President, Out There; entrepreneur.
* Education: Mount Royal College (journalism).
* Family: Wife Barbara, son Khobe, 2.
* Adventure: Clarke recently made his initial foray into the retail business, opening the Out There outdoor/
adventure store in downtown Calgary. He has scaled five of the world’s highest mountains, including Mount Everest, and in 1999 led the first expedition in half a century to cross the Arabian Desert’s forbidding Empty Quarter. Clarke’s adventures are featured in documentaries and two books – The Power of Passion and Everest to Arabia. He is also a world-renowned inspirational speaker.
* Memories: Clarke was the 1984 Canadian junior cross-country skichampion.
* Web watch: www.jamieclarke.com
THE COMPANY: Out There
* President/Majority Owner: Jamie Clarke.
* Profile: Out There is an outdoor adventure centre featuring retail and specialty services for outdoor lifestyle participants. The store provides retail merchandise, a book nook, information sessions in an expedition room, safety training and travel advice through Escape Calgary Travel.
* Charity: Out There will donate a percentage of its revenue to non-profit organizations.
* Location: 151 8th Ave. S.W., Calgary, T2P 1B4.
* Phone/Fax: 403-263-9651, 403-263-9658.