And so began one of the first adventures of the man whom, more than a decade later, Rolling Stone would call "the real Indiana Jones." The list would grow quickly. One of the United States' most accomplished mountaineers and explorers, Ridgeway in 1976 was on the second American team to climb Mount Everest. Two years later he and three others were the first Americans to summit K2 and the first from any nation to do it without supplemental oxygen. He has survived a Himalayan avalanche in which a friend died in his arms, walked from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean, and hauled a 250-pound rickshaw some 275 miles across the Chang Tang, a 16,000-foot plateau in Tibet, one of the world's remotest places—just to prove a point to the Chinese government.
But none of that explains why Ridgeway, when I met him last summer, was neither climbing nor swashbuckling, but instead preparing a glorified PowerPoint presentation for a decidedly business-casual gathering of western governors at an auditorium in Jackson, Wyoming. The man who once spent 68 consecutive days above 18,000 feet and more than three months without a bath—has not only cleaned up, but somehow inched his way to the levers of actual power.
Ridgeway, now 59, has embarked on a quest along with the Patagonia clothing company to save North America's iconic wild animals—grizzlies, caribou, wolverines, and others—from extinction. His admittedly ambitious goal is to turn "migratory corridors" into a household expression and in the process fundamentally change the way Americans think about wilderness. "Freedom to Roam is the biggest campaign we've ever tried to pull off," says Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.
In Jackson, Ridgeway's strategic base camp was the porch of a log cabin in a green meadow at the foot of the Tetons. With shaggy gray hair and a gap-toothed grin, he looks more like the "friendly puppy dog" friends describe than a man hell-bent on changing the way politicians handle western lands. A sturdy five-foot-five, he eased back in a rocking chair, barefoot, finalizing edits on his laptop to the speech he planned to deliver. When someone suggested he take a break and go float a flooding creek, his face lit up and he started to rise from his chair. Then he reconsidered, staring glumly at the screen. "Actually, I better rehearse this once before I get up in front of all those governors."
In 2003, Chouinard, Ridgeway's old climbing buddy, offered him his first ever corporate job. Once a garage outfit stitching together fuzzy coats, Patagonia now grosses $300 million in annual sales and is a world leader in environmentally sustainable business practices (one percent of all revenue goes to environmental causes) and products (recycled underwear). When Chouinard wanted someone to express his widely imitated business ethic to a wide audience, media-savvy Ridgeway was the perfect fit.