Close Calls: 4 Outdoor Company Founders and CEOs Recount their Scariest Adventures

The Founders and CEOs of Cotopaxi, Simms Fishing, Nemo Equipment, and Ritchey Design share a time they had to face down impending doom in the outdoors.

Photo by Curated expert Kael Van Buskirk
Published on

For many of us, getting outdoors is about pushing our limits, and that means we sometimes push them too far. I’ve certainly had my share of close calls, and can recall them all with sharp clarity. These include losing my kiteboard in the Atlantic Ocean while crossing the massive Parnaiba River Delta at dusk; clinging to a handhold in the Flatirons above Boulder, Colorado while being attacked by wasps; and fighting for air in the swirling Potomac after being yanked from my kayak in a rapid. I was curious about other people’s experiences in this realm, so I asked four outdoor brand leaders to recount times when they faced down impending doom on an adventure.

High Tide at Midnight

Cotopaxi Founder Davis Smith
Cotopaxi Founder Davis Smith. Photo courtesy of Cotopaxi

Davis Smith, founder of Cotopaxi, does a lot of what he calls “survival trips” with his cousin Kimball Thomas--excursions where they intentionally court danger or discomfort, for example by traveling to harsh environments with minimal supplies. One of those excursions, a few years ago, found them in Belize.

“We had these origami kayaks, the kind that fold up, and we paid a guy with a little skiff to take us way offshore to an atoll and drop us off,” Smith says. The two men set up a mini camp, snorkeled, speared a fish and cooked it, then unfolded the kayaks so they could sleep on them. In that configuration, Smith explains, the boats wouldn’t float.

“We’re laying there, trying to drift off to sleep but we’re hearing the waves get louder and louder, which meant they were getting closer. We got up to check and, sure enough, the tide was advancing and it occurred to us we never bothered to ask when high tide was.” Around midnight, with the water within a foot of their camp on all sides, Smith and his cousin used their satellite emergency phone to call the harbormaster on the mainland. “He told us high tide was in four minutes. So we stayed on the phone with him while we waited it out and, sure enough, the water started receding in the nick of time. In retrospect, that was a pretty cool adventure.”

Down – and Out of Daylight

Founder Tom Ritchey mountain biking on Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah
Founder Tom Ritchey on Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah. Photo courtesy of Ritchey Design

Almost everyone who’s spent a lot of time cycling in the backcountry has had some close calls. And Tom Ritchey, founder of the bicycle maker Ritchey USA, has spent a LOT of time in those environs.

About nine years ago, Ritchey and his wife had just finished riding the entire 10.5-mile Slickrock Trail in Moab, Utah, on a tandem bike, a huge undertaking. “Then I dropped her and went right back out to the same trail on my single speed bike,” Ritchey says. “About halfway through, it’s twilight, with the sun going down and nobody out there, and I’m having this incredible experience. Most of the times I end up getting in trouble I’m in a state like that—dreamlike. Anyway, I was dancing along these plateaus of rocks, and I was off the ground and this bizarre wind came and lifted my wheels sideways and threw me down.”

Ritchey knew he was hurt but couldn’t pinpoint the injury. “I had deep deep pain in my groin, and when I tried to ride again I couldn’t even pedal.” The best he could do was sit in the saddle and push with his toes, and resort to walking his bike on the uphills. “It was well past dark when I got back, and I didn’t see anyone along the way. I went straight to get an X-ray and learned I had broken my pelvis.”

A Cold Awakening

Nemo Equipment Founder Cam Bresinger ice climbing
Founder Cam Bresinger. Photo courtesy of Nemo Equipment

For many people, just leaving the house in sub-zero temperatures qualifies as adventure. For stout New Englanders like Cam Bresinger, the founder of Nemo Outdoors, the frigid air opens up a whole realm of outdoor recreation.

When Bresinger was a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, he and a group of friends would secure a permit every winter to camp in Katahdin State Park in Maine. The campsite required a 15-mile trek in, which the group would do on cross-country skis while hauling their gear on sleds.

“We’d get in there, build an igloo, ice climb, and do ski excursions from camp. It was all very cool,” Bresinger says. “One year though we had a ‘red flag’ day–with wind chills of minus 60 Fahrenheit–and the ranger comes around to make sure everyone’s staying in camp. You really have to be self-sufficient in that setting because it might be quite a while before you’re able to get to a hospital.”

Nemo Equipment Founder Cam Bresinger with a backpack and a sled of gear in a desolate winter landscape
Cam Bresinger. Photo courtesy of Nemo Equipment

“I made a promise to not avoid risk in life but to make sure I made thoughtful decisions.”

But being of a certain demographic and temperament, Bresinger decided the rules had some wiggle room. “I said, ‘Why don’t we grab our ice tools and go screw around?’ I ended up free-soloing the Chimney Pond main wall [a challenging climb] and due to a series of stupid decisions ended up in a precarious spot,” he recounts. “It was a one-thing-led-to-another situation. To finish out that route is a free-standing series of vertical columns. I was standing on a thin piece of rock and had to traverse to the next thin thread of ice, and I had this life-changing realization that I got myself into a situation and had to get out of it.” Back at camp and thawing out in the igloo, Bresinger says, “I made a promise to not avoid risk in life but to make sure I made thoughtful decisions.”

Plane Crash and Salmon and Bears, Oh My!

Simms Fishing CEO Casey Sheahan and his dog in a row boat
CEO Casey Sheahan. Photo courtesy of Simms Fishing

Casey Sheahan, Simms Fishing CEO and a veteran of the outdoor gear industry, has had the good fortune of traveling the world with luminaries, such as Yvon Chouinard, Co-Founder of Patagonia, in search of unexploited trout and salmon fishing areas. As such, he tells us, “Most of my close calls involve the use of airplanes to access remote wilderness.”

About 30 years ago, Sheahan was on one such trip in Alaska. “I was with my dad, and a good friend and his dad, in a Cessna 180 with big wheels, and we’re trying to land on a remote beach to fish for silver salmon. The pilot is bringing the plane down, but it stalls, out of nowhere, and pitches onto its nose. We lawn dart into the sand at 60 miles per hour.”

A photo of the downed plane
Photo courtesy of Simms Fishing

Miraculously, Sheahan says, nobody was hurt. “We’re all in this banged up plane, dangling from our harnesses, shaken but relieved. But we’re also 150 miles from the nearest town, out on a beach with 20-foot tides, and wondering ‘what do we do now?’” he says. The five anglers pushed the plane above the high tide line, made a big fire, caught and barbequed some salmon. “Then we spent the night out there with 800-pound grizzlies wandering around. We made a bunch of noise to scare off the bears, saw foxes patrolling the perimeter, and ended up having a great time. But no, I wouldn’t want to go through that ordeal again.”

Simms Fishing CEO Casey Sheahan in the river with the fish he caught
Casey Sheahan. Photo courtesy of Simms Fishing

Hearing these tales brought me back to my own harrowing ordeals, and even triggered a spike in my heart rate and a tinge of contact panic. But my overarching feeling was a renewed appreciation of how much high adventure remains in our world and--yes--a recognition of the need to layer in at least some basic safety planning next time I head out into the wild.

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