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It wasn't Ridgeway's first loss. His mentor Ron Fear had drowned on a river in Peru in 1973. His climbing partner Mike Beach had fallen to his death from El Capitan only weeks earlier.

In a Kathmandu hotel, just weeks after the avalanche, Ridgeway met Jennifer Fleming, a young widow who had survived a tidal wave that had smashed her sailboat and killed her husband. Finding a bond in their respective grief, the two were married and expecting a baby within the year. Over the next decade, Ridgeway found himself backing away from the summit of Antarctica's Vinson Massif because he didn't trust his footing. Filming a documentary on Everest, he didn't climb above 8,000 meters. Afraid that it was his ego that had led him to the tops of mountains, he retreated from the spotlight and spent the next decade behind the camera, starting a photo business and raising his three children.

In nearly all his books, Ridgeway struggles with survivor's guilt. He has written that a mountaineer, like a combat soldier, goes through three stages: thinking death won't happen to him, thinking it could happen, and knowing it's only a matter of time before it will happen.

In 1985 his estranged friend Chris Chandler died of altitude sickness on Kangchenjunga. In 1994 Disney president Frank Wells, whom Ridgeway had led up several of the Seven Summits, died in a helicopter crash on a skiing expedition. Then in 1999, Alex Lowe, with whom Ridgeway had made first ascents in Antarctica, was killed in an avalanche.

"After the avalanche [on Minya Konka], I couldn't come to grips with the idea of further adventures because now I knew just what it was to die," he later told Rolling Stone. "I was shoved out over the edge, given a chance to stare into the abyss, then yanked back. That's what it was: a blank abyss. I knew that in my gut. Things just stop and you rot away."

"Then I began to realize that the whole trick is to keep the rotting from happening as long as you can. . . . My life had been reduced to a handful of seconds, and now I had millions. I realized that everything I was doing had a freshness to it. A magic."

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