I have seen his name on the spines of a handful of books and his picture in Patagonia catalogues but haven’t really understood why that was. His mountaineering exploits never stood out front and center and he seemed more of a travel writer. I didn’t actually understand why he kept coming up. Now I know.
Ridgeway has written his autobiography, A Life Lived Wild: Adventures at the Edge of the Map, published by Patagonia Books in 2021, and it’s beautiful, both for the cover, the photographs, and his life’s story. It could almost be mistaken for a coffee table book, like many of new volumes from Patagonia Books today. It could easily have been a paperback without all of the coffee table elements and have become a dogged-eared copy in a young person’s backpack guiding them on an unconventional path to success.
Despite climbing Everest and being among the first Americans to summit K2 in 1978, Ridgeway was never the most important person in the events he was part of and witnessed. He was a team player. He grew into the role of mentor and coach, doling opportunity freely, including to Jimmy Chin, and he guided characters like Dick Bass and Frank Wells to climb the Seven Summits (the Kosciuszko version) for the first time, regardless of which Pacific-Australia peak they climbed. From there, he filmed for television and documentaries, including Patagonia’s 180° South, and fostered his love for birds into wildlife in general and took to advocacy. But the lasting impact on me, has been his lasting relationships, often expressing gratitude to people, like Chris Chandler, who invited him to climb Everest.
Chandler’s invitation changed Ridgeway’s life course. Ridgeway’s life was off to a difficult start: During his high school years, his father burned down the house his family called home, committing insurance fraud for his mother’s and his sake and vanished into the South Seas. Ridgeway moved into his best friends parent’s Airstream trailer while he finished school. Ridgeway’s mother saw her son’s interest in mountain climbing (through applying his book learning from Freedom of the Hills on Mount Baldy,) and needing somewhere to send him during the summer, enrolled him in Outward Bound.
Everest started a great journey of friendship for Ridgeway, during his expeditions to Everest, K2, and into once-forbidden China to attempt Minya Konka. On Everest expedition, Ridgeway met Jonathan Wright. Wright took Ridgeway on a significant detour prior to the ascent to visit a monastery. Ridgeway learned meditation and found inner peace, or at least the seeds of it, within himself. Wright would also speak up for the less experienced Ridgeway during the climb and gave him advice, as if he were sharing tips for being a good factory worker together: Be patient and don’t slack when it’s your turn. It later got Ridgeway to the summit of K2.
Ridgeway also became a documentary filmmaker on K2 by happenstance. He filled in for an absent teammate on the factory-work-like slope of the seige-style expedition, learned a new skill, and grew a new branch in his career. He would go on to film for CBS, Patagonia, and other nature documentations.
When Ridgeway met his wife Jennifer, she was a jet-setter of the 1970s and early 1980s like he was, both traveled widely to exotic places but for contrasting lifestyles. Jennifer was a purchaser for Calvin Klein. Ridgeway and a friend tried coaxing her to join them on a trek for a National Geographic assignment. They even offered that they could get her good boots in a nearby neighborhood of Kathmandu; but she declined gracefully, explaining that the farthest she walks is from a New York City taxi to the doors of Bergdorf Goodman. They made it to dinner instead and rendezvoused on other occasions. They both learned that had lost important people in their lives and supported each other in healing. They later married at his beach shack near Montecito, California.
Rodgeway knew Doug Tompkins and Kris McDivitt Tompkins before they were married, and before establishing Esprit. Kris and Doug would sell Esprit, with its brand The North Face, to save millions of acres in Patagonia for conservation. Doug was a friend and adventure buddy with Yvon Chouinard, and Ridgeway was with them on the fateful kayaking trip in 2016 when Doug’s boat flipped and he died of hypothermia.
The story that touches me the most about Ridgeway was the extended story of Jonathan Wright. Shortly after the Everest expedition, and Ridgeway’s historic K2 summit, Ridgeway and Wright joined Yvon Chouinard and others to climb in China for the first time since the People’s Republic of China closed Its borders from Western travelers. They’re destination was Minya Konka, the Tibetan name for Gongga Shan, which its summit was 7,556 m./24,700 ft. above sea level. It had only been climbed twice before, once by Americans in 1932 and the Chinese in 1957. This time, they were going to put up a new route.
There is some dispute about the avalanche risk assessment or whether there was one, but above Camp II Ridgeway and others glissaded down the slope to show off and return, hallering yahoo as they went. The subtle yet unmistakable and dreadful whump sound from the snow released the snow sheet on the slope and threatened everyone. Jonathan Wright, Ridgeway’s best friend, was killed. They buried him on the mountain.
The team retreated home and Chouinard shouted and cursed the mountains for what happened. He even complained that, “These mountains are too high,” which made me consider whether they were (still am, actually.) A guide from the Tetons blamed Ridgeway for triggering the avalanche because he was too preoccupied making the documentary of the climb to assess the risk.
Jonathan Wright was survived by his wife and infant daughter Asia Wright. Ridgeway wrote about Asia’s request to him that he take her to the slopes of Minya Konka to visit her father’s resting place in his book, Below Another Sky: A Mountain Adventure in Search of a Lost Father (1998.) I saw this book in paperback in 2000 when I started reading climbing books but quickly dismissed it; it appeared too sentimental and not adventurous enough. After reading A Life Lived Wild I now think that I was too young to understand. Now that I am 43 and a father, I am planning on reading it.
So Rick Ridgeway is more than I expected. My friends, Alex and Caleb in Alexandria, have been involved with Patagonia stores in Washington, DC and the newer shop across the Potomac in Alexandria, VA for the last 20 years. One of them is an assistant manager. They have met many of the filmmakers, authors, and subjects of the company’s communications when they have come through for employee and public events. They were first introduced to Ridgeway just after 2000 and speak fondly of him and hold him in high regard. He seems to hold a different place compared to the other athletes that tour their shops. As they mention to me that when they first met him that he wasn’t as tall as they expected, they brush past that facet and talk about 180° South or the initiatives at the company he lead since 2005. They talk about his life’s work, the work on his book, that I recommend, A Life Lived Wild.
Rating: Three-and-a-half burritos out of five.
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