Without oxygen or ropes, his fingers brick hard and black with severe frostbite, Ridgeway inched toward K2’s mighty summit near the Pakistan-China border.
This was before K2, at 28,251 feet the second highest rooftop after Mount Everest, got its reputation as the toughest mountain in the world to climb.
Ridgeway and climbing partner, John Roskelley, traversed a narrow gully later named the Bottleneck, directly beneath a towering wall, several hundred feet high, of overhanging ice — the same one that broke off this summer, killing 11 people.
Ridgeway and Roskelley escaped it only to find more trouble. Above the Bottleneck, they came to a series of steep and icy rocks that had to be traversed at an angle. It was crampons on edges; at one point, Ridgeway looked down and saw a glacier 12,000 feet below him. “The whole mountain seems to fall out under your feet there,” he said.
It took “absolute concentration” just to make one move after another, one foot and one handhold at a time. It was moving in increments; just as slowly, he was dying — at that altitude, the lack of oxygen wastes away muscle tissue and saps the brain.
Ahead lay K2’s summit and a bit of history; Ridgeway, Roskelley and colleagues Jim Whittaker, Jim Wickwire and Lou Reichardt would become the first American team ever to conquer K2.
He tried to focus on such things, but other thoughts competed. He openly wondered, “Am I gonna live through this?”
Ridgeway still takes grains of wisdom from the epic adventure. The 30th anniversary of the K2 climb gave him pause to reflect this fall and led to an overarching thought: The challenges he had with that mountain are not unlike those he faced when he got married and started a family — he and wife Jennifer live in Ojai and have three kids — and those he faces now in the real world as head of environmental initiatives at Patagonia, the Ventura-based outdoor apparel and gear company.
As he nears 60, Ridgeway still heeds the calls of many wilds — and his newest endeavor in the real world’s jungle is a daunting one. Around the time of the K2 anniversary, Ridgeway started the “Freedom to Roam” initiative, an effort to create wildlife corridors so many of the planet’s majestic animals can move around in their ancient rhythms to homelands now traversed or cut off by development.
“If they can’t do that,” Ridgeway said, “many of them aren’t going to make it through to the next century.”
He aims to start on the initiative in North America. Click for more K-2