THE DEATH-DEFYING CLIMBS OF PHOTOGRAPHER CORY RICHARDS
When extreme climber and adventure photographer Cory Richards boarded his flight to New York on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he brought with him two watches. The Rolex Milgauss on his wrist helped him keep time. That is, before he removed it, placed it in the seat pocket in front of him, and left it for dead.
“It was my first Rolex,” he says. “I loved it so much. It’s gone. I’ll get another one someday, hopefully. Life goes on.” The second watch, a ravaged Fossil stashed in his luggage, tells a story. Now thirty-four, Richards got the Fossil in his early twenties, then wore it everywhere. One day he was climbing with it and the crystal cracked, but it still kept time. Then he took it to Australia, on his first sea-kayaking trip from Cairns to the tip of the continent and out into the Torres Strait to a place called Thursday Island — one thousand miles in forty-one days. The watch filled with saltwater and rusted over.
“It doesn’t work anymore, but it worked for years afterward,” he says. “It was kind of cool because it stopped telling me all the things I had to do, where I had to be, and it started being a reminder of some of the things that I had done.” The Fossil also reminds Richards of the five hundred rolls of film he’d brought to Thursday Island, returning only with several corroded cameras and not a single image worthy of print.
“It was just a massive failure photographically, a complete waste of time,” he says. “But failures are foundations for success. In some ways it was the best thing that ever could have happened, because you’re like, ‘Shit, what am I doing wrong, how can I make it better?’” Indeed, failures both personal and professional have provided a foundation upon which, in recent years, Richards has built much of his success.
Half-buried in snow and fearing for his life, Richards turned his camera on himself and wept like a baby.
On February 2, 2011, Cory Richards, Simone Moro, and Denis Urubko climbed Gasherbrum II (also known as K4), one of Pakistan’s eight- thousand-plus-meter peaks, making Richards the first American to summit any peak eight thousand meters above sea level in winter. He filmed it all the while. On the way down, a class-four avalanche nearly killed them. Half-buried in snow and fearing for his life, Richards turned his Canon 5D Mark II on himself and wept like a baby. A star was born.
Cold, the twenty-minute film that resulted, won numerous accolades including the vaunted Charlie Fowler “Spirit of Adventure” Award at the Telluride Mountain film festival in 2011. He was named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2012.
Richards’s career arc as an alpinist and a photographer has been a long and arduous one. He began skiing when he was two years old, climbing at age five. His parents, both educators and climbers, raised Cory and his brother in Salt Lake City, and, as much as possible, outdoors. A smart kid, Cory started high school at age twelve, and dropped out at fourteen. His parents weren’t having it. They locked him out.
“I was never truly homeless, but I was on the streets because people would take me in and let me stay there for a little while. And then they’d be like, ‘OK, you got to get the fuck out of here,’ ” he says. “When I kind of came out of that time period some of my friends had already become photographers. They were already working on it, specifically documenting skiing, and I was able to say, ‘How does this all work?’ And they gave me a couple contacts.”
A lady from Patagonia passed along a helpful tip: “Keep trying, and turn the date and time stamp off on your camera.”
The first big break came when he went to the Himalayas for the first time in 2008. He did a “fairly significant” ascent, his photographs got noticed, and a certain sponsor (The North Face) came calling. Then, on a 2010 summit of K4, National Geographic began making inquiries about his images from the climb. He checked his film — not a single storytelling photo in the bunch, only slick, advertising-type shots. So he started paying visits to a nearby Pakistani military camp. Another failure-turned-success: the National Geographic editor loved the images of the “young soldier dudes” from the highest battleground in the world on the border between India and Pakistan.
A truly eye-opening (and heart-pounding) event came in 2012, while attempting to summit Mount Everest via the West Shoulder. At 23,000 feet, he began to experience shortness of breath and couldn’t maintain a normal respiratory rate. It was later diagnosed as initial pulmonary embolism. Despite unfavorable weather conditions, he was helicoptered off the mountain at 17,600 feet.
The experience gave Richards new perspective on what he was doing and why he was doing it. In January, after thirty-six expeditions on all seven continents — including fifteen trips to Nepal and one to the Wohlthat Mountains of Antarctica — Richards decided to drop The North Face as his main sponsor. He was no longer interested in living life one crazy summit to the next, especially when his health care wasn’t covered.
These days, Richards is a regular contributor to National Geographic as well as a brand ambassador for Eddie Bauer and, hilariously, for the health-care company Stride. He’s still on the road nine months out of the year and is just back from a 2,400-kilometer, 119-day “human powered mega- transit” of the Quito River, which runs from Angola through Namibia and Botswana. But when he is home in Boulder, Colorado, he does his best to stay fit and live by a strict routine, always ready for the next summit should the opportunity arise.
“We’re thinking about Everest in the spring,” he says. “I mean, really it’s a personal thing for me, it’s something I want to see if my body can handle, so I will try it without oxygen."