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The Robb Reader: René Gross Kaerskov

  • Lisa Sweetingham

As a co-CEO of HBA/Hirsch Bedner Associates—the design firm behind the Four Seasons Resort Seychelles, the Mandarin Oriental New York, and dozens of other elite hotels worldwide—René Gross Kaerskov knows what it means to travel well. But for anyone whose vision of an escape involves sunbathing or spa hopping, the 47-year-old Dane would make a terrible travel companion. Kaerskov’s concept of unwinding has spanned such feats as parachuting over the North Pole, running a marathon on each of the seven continents, and breaking the sound barrier in a MiG-29. His current and future pursuits include climbing the highest volcano on each continent (Mount Kilimanjaro down, six to go) and, as one of the first people to reserve a seat on Virgin Galactic, exploring outer space. —Lisa Sweetingham

Were you a daredevil as a youth?
I was very shy. But I wrestled for many years, and maybe that’s when I became competitive. I like competition in business and in fun, but it’s mostly about competing with myself: Can I do this?

It sounds like you were competing against the elements in Antarctica.
I was in Antarctica to do two things: run the marathon and get to the South Pole. The weather in Antarctica dictates what you can do, and on the day that I was going to run this marathon with 20 other guys, we were told that it was probably the only opening that we could fly over the South Pole. So we went to the South Pole, and when we got back, the snowstorm had gotten worse. The next morning, we were told that a Russian cargo plane was picking us up in eight hours because it was the last chance to get out before Christmas. With two kids and a wife at home, Christmas is rather important, so I said to the guy who was running the camp, “I need to run this marathon because it’s not easy to come back here.” He said, “No, you’re crazy. You go out, and we’ll never find you,” because it was completely white out there. I told him, “I’m going to run out one mile and back 13 times. If it takes too long, you can come and look for me.” So I went out, and the first time I came back, one Norwegian skier came out of the tent and took a picture of this silly guy going back and forth. More and more people came out every time I came back. I did manage to run it, with about half an hour left before the plane arrived.

Have you done any training in advance of your trip to space?
I fly whatever I can get my hands on. I’m not a pilot, but I like copiloting with somebody who is much better than me. I like acrobatic flying, flying in jets. I love the weightless training where you go up in a Boeing plane where all the seats have been taken out. It’s with a company called Zero G, and they fly you up to 34,000 feet, then drop to 24,000, pull it back up to 34,000—and again. In between, you achieve weightlessness for 30 seconds. It’s the greatest feeling ever.

Do you have any rituals when you land in a city?
I travel a lot for work, but people don’t like going with me because I travel fast—I run through the airport. And if I have extra time, I don’t waste it having room service and watching CNN. I was in Seoul one weekend, and I managed to find a tour operator that made day trips to North Korea. I didn’t know if it was real or not, but I took the chance, sent them $200, and the bus showed up at the designated street corner at 4 in the morning. It was me, two Italians, and a bunch of South Koreans. We had a military truck behind us and another one in the front. They showed us only the best of North Korea, of course. Whole neighborhoods were fenced off every time we got out, and we were not allowed to talk to anybody.

Where do you go to relax with your family?
We really liked Necker Island. But relax? I can’t lie down on a beach, if that’s what you’re asking. When we went to Como Shambhala Estate in Bali, I got a bike and went through the worst mud. My wife went to the spa.