A Life Lived Wild: Conversations in Deep Time with Rick Ridgeway

By Bennett Barthelemy

I was a dirtbag climber in the ‘90s, saving pennies for my next trip to Yosemite, the Trinity Alps, Red Rock, Joshua Tree — anywhere I could live in the dirt cheaply, throw myself at impossible cliffs, and lose myself deep in the wild. Around that time, I started taking pictures and writing about my climbing exploits and wilderness forays. I simply wanted to share. I also thought I might be able to fund my hunger for climbing and continued exploration.

Scaling that rock wall in Antarctica was as close to being on another planet as you could be on our own Earth. Credit: Gordon Wiltsie

A few heroes emerged for me, demi-gods in the realms of climbing, photography, and writing. Warren Harding and his seminal work Downward Bound helped steer my course in appreciating the ridiculosity of it all — a true conquistador of the useless. Tom Frost was another (with partner Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia Inc., whom I greatly admired for his visionary first ascents). Tom was the first to bring a camera up El Capitan, and launched what we now know as adventure photography. Galen Rowell was omnipresent in my purview for his coffee table books of classic imagery from mountains and big walls and distant cultures, and because of his legacy as a Yosemite climber where I was now a migratory resident. Then, after randomly going to a slideshow in my hometown, put on by the first American to summit K2, Rick Ridgeway. Rick is another explorer, climber, storyteller/author that entered my pantheon.

Crazy thing was, Rick lived in my hometown of Ojai. In 2003 I jumped at the chance to interview him. He was everything I imagined that a world-class mountaineer/explorer, documentary filmmaker, successful entrepreneur, and conservationist would be. He was passionate, focused, driven, well-spoken, scientific, and erudite, with an impressive vocabulary (I had to look up several words). He was even a little edgy with some of his assertions about humanity and culture. So now, nearly two decades later, I was offered a chance to interview him again with my partner Rita Maes. We quickly realized that Rick had done everything but slow down. It was great to catch up with him as he shared the twists and turns that brought him to where he is with his latest book, A Life Lived Wild.

Rita and I were graciously ushered into Rick’s home at the Turtle Conservancy in Ojai’s East End, where he’d lived for four months under the sweeping live oaks and palms. As we entered, we immediately saw above the entryway a carapace of a Burmese Mountain Tortoise, and colorfully drawn antique prints of pheasants on the back wall of a walk-around fireplace in his otherwise spartan but cozy home. Rick put on some tea for us as I took the liberty to peruse the titles of his wonderful book collection that stretched from floor to double-head height on opposing walls. On the hearth were his two dozen or so express favorites. I found several titles that were my favorites, as well, on exploration and travel.

Rita and I sat at the large picture window facing the palms that led to the enclosure with Bolson Tortoises — his nearest neighbors. Rick brought the tea and sat across from us at the edge of the fireplace. As we sipped, I noticed he had an intensely burning light in his eyes and a slight smile on his face throughout — ever-calm and patient with our questions, yet on-point and genuine. He was patiently engaged for more than three hours of conversation. We were transfixed, and in good company. What follows are some snippets of our conversation.

Explorer Rick was honored by the National Geographic Society with its “Lifetime Achievement in Adventure” award. As a mountaineer and explorer, Rick has been on every continent. He made first ascents on the world’s highest and most dangerous peaks, and makes documentaries and publishes books about his experiences.

On the summit of K2, September 1978, the first American ascent and first ascent without oxygen. Credit: John Roskelley

From Rick’s latest book, A Life Lived Wild, when he was in dialogue with Yvon Chouinard: The expedition was over, and despite not being able to find our mountain, things had worked out. As we packed our gear, Yvon said there was one thing that was bothering him.

“The maps,” he said. “The maps?” “I don’t think we should publish them.” “Why not?” “The same reason I stopped reporting the new climbs I do in the Tetons. So the next guys who come along have to figure it out. So they’ll have the same sense of discovery.”

“That makes sense. But what should we do with the maps?” “Burn ’em.”

As we talked, I asked Rick if he had ever eaten turtle meat, because he was now living in close proximity to some 700 of them (many of whom are clearly his friends).
“I sailed all over the place when I was studying in Hawaii,” he said. “I loved sailing. One day in 1967 I went on shore and met a Hawaiian family, and they invited me to a barbecue. They had shot a turtle and we ate it on the beach. Eating turtles was something they had done for 1,000 years. This was just as turtles were beginning to come under threat. It was a very valuable and cherished experience — not for the turtle meat, but for getting to spend that time with them in their traditional way.”

Photo by Jimmy Chin

Rick was on an expedition in 2002 to a fabled Tibetan plateau where the endangered chiru, an antelope, was rumored to breed. He was with Galen Rowell and climber Conrad Anker, and an up-and-coming explorer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin (famous now for the Free Solo movie starring Alex Honnold), whom he mentored. Jimmy had been pulling a nearly 300-pound cart 
for scores of miles at high altitude and fell into a rocky riverbed, he jumped up bloody but laughing. Jimmy said, “You didn’t 
tell me carting was a dangerous sport!” It was at this point, Rick admitted, that he knew Jimmy would be the next generation of explorers.

The northeast ridge of K2, the knife-edge. I’m in the foreground with Lou Reichardt behind me as we approach Camp IV at about 23,000 feet. You can just see the tents at Camp III at the far end of the knife-edge. Credit: John Roskelley

Conservation As we talked, Rick shared the necessity of being a good observer — something he doesn’t think he really appreciated until his 20s. As he says in another excerpt of his new book:

But now nature was no longer self-willed but willed by us. We were in the driver’s seat, steering a planet of marvelous and unfathomable complexity, and I realized it would require an act of hubris beyond my understanding to believe we could really know where we were going, much less how we might get there.

Rick admitted that he was still “earning my turtle stripes” despite serving six years on the board at the Turtle Conservancy. He would give his first tour at the conservancy in a couple weeks. He also shared that he meets with the staff of scientists that work there for lunch a few times a week, and that they “still call me the bird guy.”

Rick is part of an emerging conservation group focused on bringing the grizzly back to California. “It’s ironic that that is the image on the state flag,” he said. “We need to reverse the irony and redefine its relationship to us.”  Added Rick: “A Life Lived Wild shares stories from other books I have written. When I walked from Kilimanjaro to the sea, we spent a month walking on the ground, eye-to-eye with the animals — lions, elephants, hippos … When the national park in Kenya was created, it displaced the natives that were there and that had hunted elephants historically with bow and arrow for the ivory trade, and it was essentially sustainable. It wasn’t long after the Park’s creation that poaching happened with guns, and way more elephants were taken out than were historically. There is a balance between humans and wildlife that has defined our basal relationship. We take other animals out; that’s who we are as a species. If biodiversity dies out, it affects us. Can we overcome our natures? Often the indigenous do a great job of being stewards in their backyards, but not always. There are examples of both sides. We need to be clear-eyed – very objective of who are good stewards, and why, if we are to save species.”

Along with a couple of birding friends (Jesse Grantham, Bill Shanbrom), Rick has uploaded hundreds of lists into the Cornell birding database in Matilija Canyon, a riparian area above Ojai. “We developed the area ourselves and now it’s popular with Ventura County birders who have added to our lists,” he said. “There have now been 200 species identified there. This will be really valuable when the (Matilija) Dam comes out!”

Rick remembers driving Highway 150 between Ojai and Carpinteria in the 1970s. Back then, he said, he would “get a windshield full of bugs, now I get maybe one. This means less food for birds. These are changes just in my lifetime. Horned toads and tarantulas are rarely seen locally now, as well as the native ants that were very common a few decades ago. Exotic species coming in are part of the problem, as are the more intense fires and smoke patterns that have effects.”

We talked about converting industrial food production to regenerative protocols. “In the Ojai Valley there is a big presence here of young people stepping up to be farmers and using these protocols of soil health, no artificial fertilizers, organic farming, composting,” Rick noted. “This is inspiring.”

Jib Ellison takes a self-portrait of the Do Boys crossing Lago General Carrera. Credit: Jib Ellison

Along with being active at the Turtle Conservancy, Rick is one of the directors for the John S. Kiewit Memorial Foundation, which protects the land and resources of the California Central Coast. Rick is also on the board of One Earth, a philanthropic organization working to limit global average temperature rise to 1.5°C. According to their website, they are advocating for “a shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050, protection and restoration of half of the world’s lands and oceans, and a transition to regenerative, climate-friendly agriculture. To achieve these goals, we must rapidly scale philanthropic capital to meet critical funding gaps over the coming decade.”

Business legacy An excerpt from A Life Lived Wild: Still, the heart of it all was the sports, because without the sports we wouldn’t have been in the wild, and without the wild we wouldn’t have fallen in love with the beauty of nature, and without the love of nature we wouldn’t have made the commitment to save nature.

How can you not be smitten with someone who said, “We need to learn to want what we have, not to have what we want.”? Credit: Rebecca Hale/National Geographic

In Rick’s nearly 15 years as Patagonia VP of environmental affairs, he mentioned, “I felt good about what I added, but I learned so much from my colleagues, things that have stayed with me, like environmental protection and wildlife conservation. Between my wife Jennifer and I, we have had a 35-year run at Patagonia. I showed up three or four years after her tenure there. Jennifer really brought transparency and authenticity to Patagonia.” Still, he would go on to create Patagonia’s famous Worn Wear program, which helped repair Patagonia clothing — thereby reducing consumption and waste. Ultimately, he said, “this became what is known as sustainable practices.”

Jennifer and I in 1982 shortly after we married, in front of my surfer’s shack “just south of Montecito.” Credit: Lear Levin

“One of the things I am most proud of is co-founding the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and 40% of the industry now using the metrics we developed to measure their enviro footprint and improve it,” Rick added. “It uses social justice markers and other tools to help manage impacts and show reductions in impacts.”

At the Turtle Conservancy, his background in marketing, the environment, and with strategic planning makes Rick a useful guy to have around. “My goal here is how to tell the story of what we do and maximize the appeal to philanthropists as we tackle projects globally. Our goal is to provide habitats in the original locations of these animals so that they can thrive. It’s extremely difficult to re-wild them once they are here in captivity, so ultimately, we need to create areas of protection in areas they are native to, like the Bolson Tortoise in Durango, Mexico and Southern New Mexico.”

You know you’re off the edge of the map if you burn the map. Credit: Rick Ridgeway

Rick aspires to simplify his life. “Stop using so much stuff … How many jackets are in your closet?” Rick asked us. “Don’t buy this jacket” was a paradoxically engineered ad campaign that was originally inspired by his friend and visionary, Doug Tompkins, who started The North Face and protected huge swaths of Chilean Patagonia with his wife Kris. This ad had a huge impact on the apparel industry when Doug introduced the concept and especially when Rick re-introduced it with his spin.

Deep time / Birding As a boy, Rick got ahold of a pheasant with a simple live trap he made. Before too long there were 200 in his backyard and he and his grandfather were selling pheasants to local gun clubs for hunting. This started his interest in birds and being an observer – a trait he views as a key necessity for all humans. On his 25th birthday Rick’s mother gave him a Sibley bird guide. He always had binoculars when mountaineering and it seems clear it didn’t take long for him to use them for looking at birds. Six or seven years ago, Rick decided he needed to get more serious with birding, so he found some people that were better than him to go birding with. He even created a focus group to create clothes for birders at Patagonia. For the Lake Casitas yearly bird count, they now give he and his birding buddies an entire corner of the lake as their own for counting during the bird migration count — but Rick is quick to give his more experienced birder buddies the credit for this honor.

Nearing the end of the interview, a red shouldered hawk called. Rita heard and saw it fly out past the large picture window at our backs. Rick knew this particular bird. He knew the natal tree, a majestic palm just outside. Rick shared that the mother had sat in a nearby eucalyptus as the clumsy juvenile fledged out of the nest.

As our interview concluded Rick invited us to view inside a small box of treasures at the side of the fireplace. They were sacred artifacts from his late wife. A colorful macaw feather, among other items that we viewed with reverence. He closed the box.

We followed Rick outside. He had a handful of celery to feed the Galapagos tortoises just west of his home. These tortoises seemed to know him well and the 10 or so individuals wandered the passages between the leafy avocado trees and flowering bougainvillea to find Rick and the celery. As Rick fed them, he smiled gently scratching their leathery and scaly necks. There was a deep affinity and respect they shared that was undeniable. We all stared deeply into their dark and knowing eyes, staring into “deep time.”

Find A Life Lived Wild, by Rick Ridgeway, starting October 26, wherever books are sold.