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Into the High Peaks

Throughout the early 1970s Ridgeway spent his winters in the Andes, where he learned high-altitude glacial mountaineering, and his summers in California, where he painted houses, rock climbed, and surfed. But even with his vagabond existence, he was showing hints of his future ambition. He'd begun writing freelance climbing stories for magazines. In 1975 he was accepted, with full funding, to a five-year Ph.D. program in cultural geography at the University of California, Berkeley. But after Ridgeway had signed the admittance paperwork, his climbing partner, Chris Chandler, called to offer him a shot at his childhood dream: a spot on the second ever American ascent of Mount Everest. He walked away from academia for good and boarded a plane for Nepal.

The expedition was only partly satisfying. Two climbers, including Chandler, reached the top, and the team arrived home as heroes. But Ridgeway had not been selected for the summit team. What's more, he'd taken note of the film crew that had been hired to chronicle the climb. "We were way up near the South Col and one of the guys was filming. I was helping him when it dawned on me—the obviousness of it still startles me—that we were doing the exact same thing. Climbing. The camera guy was having every bit of the adventure I was, except he was getting paid for it. I thought, a guy might actually be able to make a living out of this."

After Everest, Ridgeway settled down to write a book on the climb. The Boldest Dream sold well. He also taught himself to use cameras, both for still photography and documentary films, and his media career was launched.

In 1978 Ridgeway and Chandler were invited to climb K2 on a team organized by Ridgeway's idol, Whittaker. "There was no money in it," he said. "But I was disappointed about not making the [Everest] summit, and I couldn't pass up the chance." Sensing that Chandler had lost some of his intense drive since Everest, Ridgeway partnered with John Roskelley, the strongest climber on the trip. Chandler accused Ridgeway of selfishness, fell into a funk, and ultimately quit the expedition. The remaining four climbers were bogged down by storms, and finally, after 68 days on the mountain, trudged to the summit. (Ridgeway cast aside his oxygen tank—not to maintain an alpinist's purity, but because in his exhaustion he couldn't get the thing to work.) His dream had come true: Like Whittaker, he'd carved a place in mountaineering history, even landed on the cover of National Geographic. But his friendship with Chandler was dead, and he would always regret what the peak had cost him.

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