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.
Was there one particular adventure that really fulfilled a long-held dream?
When I was a kid, I remember watching on TV Tom Sneva become the first person to average a lap at 200 miles an hour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I thought at the time, “What does it feel like with your butt a few inches off the ground in an open-cockpit car going the speed of a football field per second?” Twenty-five years later, after attending many racing schools, I talked Sam Schmidt, one of the IndyCar owners, into letting me take his car out at Texas Motor Speedway. I averaged a lap of 201.2 miles per hour and lived out the 25-year-old dream!
Hearing about all your adventures and some of the injuries you’ve sustained makes me think you must have some interesting conversations with your insurance underwriter.
Yes, especially with the auto stuff, because I’ve driven 13 separate cars above 200 miles an hour now. Most were foreign: McLaren, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley, Porsche, and Bugatti. The only American car was a Chevrolet Corvette, a souped-up Z06 with twin turbos. I hit 206 miles per hour in Sun Valley, Idaho, for a charity event, and was proud to do it in an American car [laughs]. But yes, good insurance is a must. If you know anything about cars, you know that if something happens at those speeds, it won’t be pretty.
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Video credit: Vanessa O'Brien (via YouTube).
Other than the car experiences, what have been a few of your favorite adventures and what is left on your bucket list?
One that I underappreciated at the time was my flight in an old MiG-25 Foxbat over Russia to 84,000 feet. That is high enough where I saw the blackness of space, the curvature of the Earth, and the atmosphere hanging over the Earth. We went Mach 2.6, a little over two and a half times the speed of sound. I did that trip in 1999 when the Russians had just started offering the flights. Because of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, soldiers weren’t getting paid and the military didn’t have any real budget, so the government began leasing out its military equipment to American firms. You can’t do that thrill ride anymore, but it was great training for my upcoming Virgin Galactic spaceflight.
I had always wanted to go to the South Pole, so skiing the last degree was a great adventure. It required a lot of physical effort because we pulled 125-pound sleds behind us. The temperature was as low as 30 below zero and it took 10 days to get to the pole, so we had to camp out on the ice every night. And it wasn’t really night; it was daytime, because it’s 24 hours of daylight down there in summer. That was a great experience, as was climbing the Matterhorn, of course – one of the world’s most coveted mountains.
Last summer I visited a below-ground nuclear missile silo with the U.S. Air Force. It was sobering to interview the two guys down there who had access to the nuclear launch codes and keys.
As for bucket list items, there’s the Virgin Galactic flight. I can’t tell you how excited I am about that. It is expensive, though. I bought my ticket for $200,000 and now it’s up to $250,000. I’m spending about $40,000 per minute, because we’ll only be in space for all of five minutes [laughs]. They are now doing glide tests with the new spacecraft. Virgin had a terrible accident in 2014, which killed the copilot, and they had to rebuild the entire vehicle.
I really want to go to Pitcairn Island, where the Mutiny on the Bounty people settled. It’s considered one of the most remote places in the world. There are no hotels and no airstrips. The only way to get there is on supply ships that go in a few times a year. I also want to visit Chernobyl and see what that’s like now, so many years later.
As a sideline, I’m working with Geoff Notkin on a book about rock and roll of the 1960s. I want to interview Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney someday – those are wish-list people. One of the ‘60s guys I kick myself about that I didn’t interview before he died was Patrick McGoohan from the TV shows The Prisoner and Secret Agent.
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Let’s talk a little more about the rock and roll book. Who are some of the rock stars you’ve interviewed that will be included?
At this point, I’ve got about 25 and they’re mostly ‘60s and early ‘70s rockers. Some of the more well-known are Art Garfunkel from Simon and Garfunkel; Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull; Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend from The Who; Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane; Butch Trucks, the late drummer for Allman Brothers; Stu Cook from Creedence Clearwater Revival; and John Densmore from The Doors. I also interviewed a couple of guys from The Yardbirds, which is a seminal ‘60s blues-rock group, and Johnny Rivers.
But two of my most prized interviews were with the late Jack Bruce, bass player for Cream, and Ginger Baker, drummer for Cream. Eric Clapton was the third member of that band, who I never got to interview, and, as I said, is on my wish list.
I imagine the book will feature a lot of stories that fans haven’t heard.
That’s true. I could go on and on [laughs]. But if you hit the right niche with this – the baby boomers – they appreciate that the ‘60s was a bit like the ‘20s in American literature with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the ‘60s, you had this amazing creative surge in music that’s not been duplicated since. You had the political assassinations, the riots, flower power, Woodstock, Altamont, the Monterey Pop Festival – it was just a very interesting time. Unfortunately, I was a little too young for it, but anytime I had a chance to listen to the music that chronicled it, I did. To actually meet these people and interview them is way beyond anything I ever expected.
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In part one of this interview, you discussed writing about your adventures in such a way that the person reading the article feels like they were there and taking part in the same activity. More broadly speaking, do you hope that your experiences might inspire others to pursue their dreams or try something new or daring?
Given the sort of experiential journalism that I do, I think I can inspire people by the very fact that I’m a regular person. As such, they can do this stuff, too. A lot of it is self-affirming. If you can go out and climb a big mountain, ski to the South Pole, or drive a car at 200 miles an hour, it gives you this sense of accomplishment that maybe you don’t get in the corporate boardroom or everyday life.
Not all of the adventures are risky, by the way. Some are more cerebral with a back-story, like the one I did with Notkin and Steve Arnold when we went meteorite hunting in Texas. When I found my first meteorite, I was just as excited as I was skiing to the South Pole, but it was more of a mental adventure. I want to inspire readers to push their limits, whatever form that takes.
But when you get down to it, when I’m gone, my interviews are what will really stand up, because they’re about history and the people who lived it. I’ve been lucky enough to interview the likes of Elon Musk, Neil Armstrong – people who are very inspirational – and the fact that I can chronicle and quote them is inspirational for everybody and for generations to come. In the case of this new book, it’s the rock stars. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, but there will be a record of these inspirational characters in their own words.
Part of what you do is tell people how to participate in some of these adventures themselves, but many of them are cost-prohibitive for at least some of your readers. Do you have any tips on something budget-friendly the average person might be able to do that would still be considered an adventure?
One of the best bangs for the buck is a parachute jump. For less than a thousand dollars, you can do a tandem jump where you’re hooked onto a pro. It’s a pretty good rush. I did mine many years ago with the guy who held the world record for the highest parachute jump at the time, Joe Kittinger. He jumped from 102,800 feet above the Earth in 1960 from a helium balloon. He even let me wear his shoes when I did the jump. As a writer, I had fun with it, saying, “I had big shoes to fill” [laughs].
Some of the climbing experiences are cost-effective, too – the Grand Teton and Mt. Rainier. You’ve got to be in good shape, but for a few thousand dollars you can take the lessons you need, rent the equipment, and climb safely with good guides.
There are also driving schools like the Mario Andretti Racing Experience, where you can go out for less than $1,000 and do laps on a track like Atlanta Motor Speedway or Charlotte Motor Speedway. You can also take some hot laps for less than $200 with a pro driving you at some ridiculous speed to get a feel for the G-forces real racers go through.
I do want to emphasize that, if you’ve had dreams, either as a kid or as an adult, it’s never too late to live them out. There are ways to do it by sticking your leg – not just your toe – into an adventure and feeling like you really did something.
A lot of the corporate types don’t feel satisfaction from pushing papers around all day or manipulating numbers. But, when they go out and climb a mountain or drive a race car or do something like ski to the South Pole, they feel empowered. And that’s important in life.
Video credit: Vanessa O'Brien (via YouTube).
About James M. (Jim) Clash: A New York-based journalist and Fellow at The Explorers Club. He writes about extreme adventure and those who do it. Read his interviews on the Forbes website. His books include: Forbes To The Limits; The Right Stuff: Interviews With Icons Of The 1960s; and The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1970s and 1980s. He owns a ticket to fly in space with Virgin Galactic.
EDITOR'S NOTE: 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. In a series of original and intimate portraits, Empirical World examines the passion, focus, and commitment that people like Clash and many others bring to their work in science and STEM fields. The book is due to be published by Stanegate Press, Inc. in Summer 2018. The lead photo of Jim Clash used in this article was taken by Geoff Notkin during their shoot for the book.
Clash and Notkin share a common bond as members of The Explorers Club, an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore. Notkin wrote the foreword to Clash's book, The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1970s and 1980s, and Clash was the only journalist permitted in the field during filming of Notkin's television series Meteorite Men. The duo will be collaborating once again on Clash's forthcoming book, a collection of his interviews with many of the legends of rock and roll including Roger Daltrey, Art Garfunkel and Pete Townshend.