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Charting a New Course

In 1985 Ridgeway set out with Chouinard and a small team of climbers on a National Geographic expedition to summit Gangkar Puensum, the highest peak in Bhutan. The Himalayan nation was almost completely unknown to Westerners. There were no published maps, and not only would Ridgeway's crew attempt the first ascent, they would be the first American climbers of any kind in Bhutan. But after weeks of crisscrossing the storm-draped mountain range, they couldn't even find the 29,741-foot Gangkar Puensum, much less climb it. When they did finally locate the peak, they'd run out of time and supplies and had to turn back.

Ridgeway had been commissioned by National Geographic to write about the expedition. Another team member was drawing maps to accompany the magazine feature. But on the last night of the trip, around a campfire, Chouinard made a passionate plea, arguing that these maps would deprive whomever came next of true wilderness and adventure. Shouldn't they leave Bhutan in its wild and uncharted splendor? Leave it like those blank spots on ancient maps that warned THERE BE DRAGONS. The rest of the crew conceded Chouinard's point, and the maps were flung into the fire, ensuring that Bhutan's shroud would remain intact for at least a few more years.

Ridgeway liked this decision so much that he employed it as the finale of his story, which he sent off to the magazine upon his return. After an anxious wait, he received the marked-up manuscript in the mail. Etched across the top in the angry red hash marks of the editor was this single sentence: "The mission of the National Geographic Society is to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge—not to burn it." The story was never published.

By 2000 Ridgeway had vowed never again to go above 20,000 feet. "My interest in adventuring was shifting from climbing to long walks across wild places," he says. In 1997 he walked 300 miles across East Africa, through the habitat of lions, hippos, elephants, and rhinos. "It allowed me to viscerally feel what this planet was like before our species populated it," he told me. "Not just see, but feel with all my senses. Then—and only then—can someone understand in a deep way the impact we've had on the Earth."

In 2002 he planned an expedition that he now calls the "gold standard for combining real adventure and real conservation." In his travels to Tibet, he'd become enthralled by a high, uninhabited plateau called the Chang Tang. It was home to the chiru, the Tibetan antelope, whose luxurious fur was made into fine Pashmina-like shawls. Ridgeway and three others set off into the Chang Tang to discover the chiru's fawning grounds, a place so remote that no Westerners—and perhaps no local nomads—had ever found it. They designed and built 50-pound, off-road aluminum rickshaws and, lugging 200 pounds of supplies each, plunged into the wild. After two weeks, they found the calving grounds. Their research helped convince the Chinese government to create a protected area.

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