Published: December 2008/January 2009
Don't Fence Him In
From prisoner of Panama to power broker: Why Rick Ridgeway traded a life on the edge for a chance to reinvent the wilderness
Text by Mark Sundeen

It was a proposition that no daring young American could refuse: First, they'd buy 50,000 rounds of ammo. The year was 1971, and Rick Ridgeway was 22 years old. After nearly two years sailing the Pacific as a deckhand, he'd landed in Panama and met a pair of sailors from Maine who'd concocted a foolproof scheme. After they bought the bullets, they'd sail down the isthmus to Colombia and smuggle the ammunition into the Cordillera Central. See, the sailors had learned of a remote tribe panning for emeralds in the jungle highlands, and these gem hunters were in desperate need of .22-caliber hunting cartridges for their rifles. The young mariners would barter with the group for a fortune in precious stones, sail their schooner to Fiji, sell the emeralds to Hindu gem merchants, turn around, and—that's right—buy an island.

"Why don't you join?" said the captain. "We'll give you part of the island."

Ridgeway had been earning $400 a month aboard ship—cash, tax free, with no place to spend it—and he'd amassed a thick roll of hundreds. The rate of return was too good to pass up.

The three men ordered crates of ammunition from a target range outside Panama City. Most of the shipment would arrive in three weeks. In the meantime, they moored off an island to prepare their 85-foot schooner for the journey, trading what ammunition they'd been able to buy up front for food and other necessities. And just when things couldn't get any better, they did. Five American women arrived on the island for vacation and on a whim joined the crew.

A week later the sailors and four of the women left for the Canal Zone to buy food and supplies. Ridgeway stayed behind to paint the schooner with a girl from California who called herself Candy. Guns and girls, gems and jibs: Ridgeway was living the dream. Then a Panamanian military PT boat approached. Without explanation, the soldiers brandished their machine guns, boarded, and tore the ship apart. "Christ," Ridgeway said later. "They tied me to the mast and stuck a gun in my neck. Screaming and swearing. And when they couldn't find anything, they got really mad." Contraband or no, they hauled Ridgeway and Candy to jail.

One Man’s Mission

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.

Ridgeway's reputation as one of America's best- known adventurers was built less on daring deeds (John Roskelley, Ed Viesturs, and Alex Lowe all have more ascents) than on his unique ability to pick compelling expeditions and to live to tell his story in print and on film. Over the years he has written six books and produced 30 documentaries, one that won an Emmy.

"He's very, very driven," says Gordon Wiltsie, an outdoor photographer who traveled to Queen Maud Land in Antarctica with Ridgeway in 1996. "He knows what he wants and what will get him there. None of the outdoor types like to be thought of as executives, but expedition leaders have that quality, and Rick certainly has it too."

Freedom to Roam is a new type of challenge for Ridgeway, an initiative based on the idea that in order to survive, big animals require hundreds of miles of interconnected, undisturbed habitat. The concept started with Michael Soulé, a professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Soulé's research, beginning in the '60s, indicated that the sprawling development severing these corridors posed a real threat to many species. But it was a hard sell: More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and when they visit Yellowstone—a Serengeti of moose and elk and bears—it's tough to convince them that a crisis is looming.

But in the bigger continental picture, Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres don't account for much. North America has three major wildlife corridors: the Atlantic from Maine to Georgia, the Continental Divide from the Yukon through the Rockies and into Mexico, and the Pacific, from the Cascades to the Sierras. If we preserve just pockets of habitat, Souléwarned, the historical routes linking species to the north and south will be severed, and migratory species will be unable to adapt. A study issued this October by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature warned that, due largely to habitat loss, one-quarter of all the planet's mammals are threatened with extinction in the near future. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted equally dire results if animals remain trapped in designated wildlands while their habitats change due to warming temperatures.

In 1991 Souléco-founded the Wildlands Project, a nonprofit in Florida, which began publicizing the idea of wildlife "linkages" through a campaign called Room to Roam. Similar programs sprang up, including American Wildlands in Montana, Yellowstone to Yukon in Alberta, and the Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project in Colorado. But they could only do so much. "We were a bunch of scientists," Soulésays. "We had trouble reaching an audience beyond other scientists and environmental groups."

Enter Patagonia and Ridgeway. "What we do in our business is create brands," says Ridgeway. "And we wanted to create a brand for the preservation of big, wild, and connected landscapes."

Freedom to Roam, is bold, quixotic, and maybe even naive, but that's exactly how Ridgeway does things. If saving the moose requires making nice with the suits, so be it. In a life of epic journeys, Ridgeway's path from dirtbag to power broker may prove the grandest of them all.

Growing Pains

Ridgeway hails from what may be the least adventurous place on the planet: Orange County, California. But in the 1950s Orange County was different. Ridgeway's father was a professional scuba diver, and weekends found them sailing to Catalina or the Channel Islands to test gear. Dana Point, now a prow of mansions, was then a wild coastline, and he remembers when Dad speared a cabezone and grilled it on a beach campfire.

But Ridgeway's pastoral childhood was fleeting. "I was about 11 when my dad split," he says. "I didn't see him for years, but I did get postcards. They were from some South Seas island: pictures of bare-breasted women with orchids in their hair." Ridgeway sought solace in the San Jacinto Mountains around Los Angeles, learning to climb in the Tahquitz Valley. "Those mountains were my salvation," he says. Ridgeway pored over the 1963 National Geographic account of the first American ascent of Everest, with a cover shot of Jim Whittaker taking the final steps toward the summit. "I wanted to be that guy."

In 1968 Ridgeway enrolled at the University of Hawaii, cutting costs by moving in with his ne'er-do-well father. That didn't work out. "Every night there were parties, hussies all over the place. I was no prude, but I was a serious student. I couldn't handle it. I met a guy who had an old wooden sailboat, and I told him I'd take care of it if I could live on it. That's what really launched my life as a sailor."

By then Rick had discovered another passion: writing. He had been captivated by the seafaring novels of Herman Melville and encouraged by a professor who recognized his talent. Three weeks shy of graduating, the fault line between wanderlust and intellect finally broke open: He was offered a job as a deckhand on a yacht. Torn between reading about South Pacific adventures and actually living them, he quit school and set sail.

Nearly two years later he arrived in Panama, setting in motion the scheme that landed him in Cárcel Modelo. Ridgeway and Candy were hauled to the prison's processing room in Panama City. Presiding over the cowering crowd was a fat police commander with a thick mustache and pocked face. Ridgeway knew he needed to win this ogre over. With his compact gymnast's build, Ridgeway was not then—or now—a particularly imposing fellow. No matter: He jumped off the bench, rushed to the comandante's desk, and slammed down his fist. "I need a room for two!" he demanded in Spanish.

The comandante took a long look, and cracked up. The whole room burst into laughter. The theatrics worked well enough to let Ridgeway and Candy skip to the front of the line, but it didn't win their freedom. Candy was taken to the women's prison, and Ridgeway was led to a holding tank with 60 other men, about half of them drunk. It was early in the evening, and already one of the drunks was moaning and wailing and cursing the guards. At two in the morning the guards stormed into the cell and hauled him out. Finally, Ridgeway thought. Now he could at least sleep. But he was awakened when the guards heaved the man back into the cell, beaten senseless with a rubber hose. The men tried to rouse him. They called for the guards, but no one came. Within the hour he was dead.

It was going to be a rough stay.

Hard-won Wisdom

The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, where the governors would convene, sits a stone's throw from one of the most threatened migratory corridors in America. Every year for 600 centuries, a herd of 1,500 pronghorn has shuttled between its summer feeding grounds at the base of the Tetons and the winter high desert of the Upper Green River Valley, a path that leads up the Gros Ventre River and into the sagebrush country around Pinedale. But in the eight years since the Bush Administration relaxed the permitting process for natural gas drilling, Pinedale has been transformed by a gas bonanza. Nine hundred new wells now support an overnight boomtown, with some 3,500 more on the way, and generations-old ranches have been parceled into ranchettes—all blocking the path of the pronghorn.

The situation has united some unusual allies. Hunting groups, noting that the once excellent pronghorn and mule deer hunting around Pinedale and the Upper Green River Valley has been decimated, have joined with environmentalists in opposing the unchecked development. In June the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management to slow the expansion of drilling.

Ridgeway's proposals at the convention—replacing miles of fence with pronghorn-friendly, crawl-under barriers, constructing wildlife overpasses and underpasses on highways, and clustering housing to preserve more wild space—were comprehensive. But he feared they'd get buried under such soporific fare as "Transmission Expansion: When, Where, and How?" and "Jobs of the Future: Preparing the Western Workforce." So he hired the team behind Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth to produce his slide presentation, and, to deliver the keynote address, he recruited a close friend: Tom Brokaw.

With one of America's most recognizable citizens aboard, Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal, the conference host, a centrist and a friend to the natural gas industry, reshuffled the itinerary to make wildlife corridors the headline topic. Once again Ridgeway had maneuvered someone standing in his way over to his side.

Surviving Panamanian Prison

Back in Cárcel Modelo, Ridgeway was assigned to a cell with eight other men, all of them Panamanian, none of them friendly. He supposed it was better than the cell across the aisle, which housed the real bad guys—murderers and rapists and lifers, the men who ran the prison, led by a felon named Magellón.

"It was horrible," he later told Rolling Stone. "I saw five people get killed. . . . And the whole time I was there, I was facing the specter of Isla de Coiba, the prison island. Guys who'd been there told horror stories about it: guys with no hands telling you about how they made you work in the swamp with alligators. Every week guards would read a list of names, and everybody on the list had to go to Coiba. Men would break down and cry when they heard their names read. It was a nightmare."

Shortly after his arrival, Ridgeway's stuff sack was stolen. Locked in a cell all day, he was pretty sure that his cellmates were to blame. But there were seven of them and only one of him. He had to stand up for himself. He zeroed in on the cell's ringleader and decided to strike.

Leaping from his bunk, he rushed the ringleader. The other six piled on. After the guards finally peeled back the brawlers, the ringleader hissed, "Once you go to sleep, you're dead."

But later that night Ridgeway heard a voice calling from outside his cell.

"Gringo."

It was Magellón.

"He said what I did took balls," recalls Ridgeway. Magellón whistled to the guards. "I want the gringo in my cell." Ridgeway was transferred, and never harassed again.

He and Candy were released about a month later, only after the schooner's owner turned himself in to the Panamanian authorities. Ridgeway, deeply shaken by the ordeal, decided to alter his life's trajectory. So while Candy thumbed her way south, he enrolled at the University of Lima to study writing, and within a semester, his diploma arrived from Hawaii.

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.

The Price of Adventure
After K2, Tom Brokaw, who was then host of The Today Show, invited the climbers on the program. Ridgeway's face and toes were blistered and blackened from frostbite after five months in the Himalaya, and he wore the only garments he'd carried home: flip-flops, an aloha shirt, and a pair of linen pajama pants from a Pakistan bazaar. As he shuffled onto the stage looking like a cross between a hobo and a clown, Brokaw stared at him slack-jawed and, as Ridgeway remembers, said, "In all my years of television, I've never had anyone on the show who looked anything like you." The two have been friends ever since.

Ridgeway's next book, The Last Step, came out a year later. Unlike many previous mountaineering tomes filled with platitudes about camaraderie and grand vistas, Ridgeway's account of the K2 climb was startlingly frank. He depicted the pettiness, envy, bickering, and betrayals that had dominated and almost derailed the expedition. He judged himself and Chandler harshly for their inability to make amends.

"He was one of the first mountaineering writers to adapt a tell-all style for expedition narratives—the style that's so in vogue today," says Adventure contributing editor David Roberts. Ridgeway was learning that the telling was in some ways as important as the doing.

But there was a rub: His cottage industry of adventure tales required a continuous inflow of dangerous adventures. And the risks were catching up. In 1980 he, Chouinard, and a photographer named Jonathan Wright were attempting an ascent of China's 24,790-foot Minya Konka, now called Gongga Shan, when they kicked loose an avalanche. "We tried to self-arrest out of it, but the wet, heavy snow was too much," Ridgeway said later. "The avalanche sucked us down into it. In just a couple of seconds we were in the middle of an exploding sea of ice. All I remember is looking around and seeing the guys with me: arms, legs, and then only ice boiling all around."

The snow swept them gasping for air for 1,500 vertical feet, during which Ridgeway had time to realize that this was it—he was going to die at the age of 31. But after they tumbled to a stop, the climbers were still alive, though Wright was barely conscious. Ridgeway started rescue breathing, feeling a pulse. Then his friend's heart stopped. Jonathan Wright died in Ridgeway's arms, leaving behind a wife and a baby girl.

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."

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.

"What he's doing has far greater impact beyond what the average adventurer or mountain climber does," says George Schaller, the eminent biologist whose research first brought attention to the chiru. "Climbing to the top of a mountain, that's self-satisfaction. But if there's a large cause, it's a deeper satisfaction because you leave something for the future."

That weekend in Jackson, Ridgeway's presentation elicited a standing ovation. Brokaw's own soaring and passionate love poem to the West was a rousing success. The governors approved a 118-page policy paper called "Wildlife Corridors Initiative," a report 18 months in the making that outlines strategies for identifying critical habitat areas. The report also makes the important point that abundant wildlife is actually good for the economy, as it drives the tourism industry, a fact often ignored by an extractive industry that equates conservation with lost jobs.

But policy papers are not laws, and whether any of the governors can actually push these recommendations through their legislatures remains to be seen. In any case, it's a promising first step—and one that Ridgeway, who hauled a rickshaw across Tibet for a month in support of his last cause, will see through.

"I would say his overarching quality is pure pigheaded tenacity," says Michael Graber, a longtime friend. "If he sees something he wants to do, he just doesn't back off of it."

This winter, the Freedom to Roam staff is racing with programmers to build an interactive platform by the summer of 2009 for people to record their adventures in migratory corridors. After a hiking, fishing, biking, floating, or hunting trip, participants will be able to upload photos, observations, and reports of any wildlife. So if you were to go online and find the Gros Ventre River outside of Grand Teton National Park, I might click on a Freedom to Roam icon planted by a group of hikers, who have posted photos of a herd of antelope that they saw.

The morning of the conference, reporters flew the pronghorn route in small planes to see for themselves. I ended up in a five-seat Cessna with just four sets of headphones. Ridgeway volunteered to sit in the back, where he wouldn't be able to talk or listen to anyone else. We soared up and veered away from the dazzling Tetons and followed the Gros Ventre into the mountains. Half an hour later we came upon pronghorn grazing amid ranchettes and oil rigs. The pilot explained how the one-two punch of drilling and fencing was blocking the migratory corridor. The window was open for the photographer, and we were blasted by a cold wind. I took off my headset and the wind rushed through my ears and the engine roared. Behind me, Ridgeway was wrapped in a parka. For the first time all weekend he was not networking or proselytizing or looking for an angle. He peered out the glass as the plane buzzed low. The pronghorn scattered and sprinted, and Ridgeway watched them bound across the sagebrush toward the mountains.