CORY RICHARDS CONQUERS THE HIGHEST PEAKS, WHILE WRESTLING WITH HIS DEMONS
What is it that keeps us moving forward? Is it an inexplicable urge to constantly show progress? What is the motivation behind the greatest feats? Is it just the need for success, or does it go beyond that? In the case of noted photographer, mountaineer, and explorer, Cory Richards, it might just be something else entirely. Not only is he a man of many extraordinary accomplishments that are known to most, from climbing Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen to becoming the first American to summit Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II during the winter season, recording countless treks along the notable 8,000-meter peaks, and completing an excursion to Burma (Myanmar today) amidst the civil war, but he also is a highly accomplished National Geographic photographer, whose singular images are as riveting as they are haunting.
“I AM BEST ENGAGED IN THE CREATION OF IMAGES WHEN STAKES ARE HIGH.”
Frankly, while his CV is nothing short of impressive, the fascination stems from finding out what lies behind the man. Richards has been unequivocally frank – and very public – about his personal struggles. And while it certainly paints a picture of who he is in part, further exploration reveals a deeply passionate, talented,principled, yet flawed human being, whose voice is powerful and whose actions are a continuous source of reinvention. I spoke with the explorer about the seeming contradictions in his life, the need to push the limit, and his take on what makes a nobleman.
Richards has been known to say that he is willing to put his body in places that most people don’t or won’t want to, a trait of his that has been both a blessing and a curse. He is famously self-deprecating, with what is probably the best quality for a world-class explorer: a short-term memory. By his own admission not the greatest athlete or even the best photographer (many would disagree with that latter), he has found a way to marry his passions while finding the richness in his various endeavors. He is the most unusual of contradiction: an optimist with a pragmatic take on life, who embraces that, while something catastrophic may happen, his willingness to see what is ahead gives him the gumption to continue on his path.
“THE QUESTION BECOMES: WHAT IS YOUR MOTIVATION? ARE YOU DOING IT FOR THE SPORT OR TO GET RECOGNIZED?”
It seems that there is a certain “glamorization” around the idea of exploring. Is it difficult to remain purposeful in the times we are living in? “Glamour” is somewhat new to climbing. There is romanticism, which is probably related to our search for the divine (if we are to compare mountains to cathedrals), but it isn’t what this is about. Mountain exploring has always been a populist sport if you think of the early-day pioneers living in their vans in search of the next place to climb. I know that, for me, it came from my mom and dad who took us outside when we were young. It propelled me to the life I have now. I think that everyone has their own idea about why they are doing certain things. There undoubtedly is a commercial aspect of climbing the top peaks in the world. An expedition to Everest can cost upward of $100,000, so everyone is aware of the economics of the sport. The question becomes: what is your motivation? Are you doing it for the sport or to get recognized? Are you seeking to boost your social media profile? I think that everyone has his or her reason to do so, as long as they are honest with people, and frankly, with themselves. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s very easy to get caught up in the fanfare that accompanies such endeavors, and I think that, ultimately, we all have to live with what our reality truly is.
“I HAVE A COMMITMENT TO BE ABSOLUTELY HONEST ABOUT WHAT I DO… I HAVE A MORAL OBLIGATION TO DO IT RIGHT.”
What comes first, exploring or photography? That is a very interesting question. I believe that there is a process between the two endeavors, which enables them to co-exist. My images are the direct result as well as the diary of my explorations; one couldn’t exist without the other. I am best engaged in the creation of images when stakes are high, as the immediacy of the moment always makes for the most compelling photographs. My most recognized photo is the one that was taken immediately after surviving an avalanche. It is a compelling image that is as real as it gets. You can see in my face what I’d just gone through. It wasn’t a very technical shot, there was no thought about what kind of camera I was going to use, I just used what I had and produced the image that would catapult my career. I have a commitment to be absolutely honest about what I do. I have been very fortunate to have a platform that allows me to speak (with and without images) truthfully and produce a record of my life. I have a moral obligation to do it right.
You famously turned back on Everest with the summit in your grasp. How difficult was that decision? Not that difficult actually. I don’t have a death wish. I think when we are faced with a difficult decision on the mountain, it’s a fairly easy decision. You have to be able to live to fight (or climb) another day. However, when you come back and are removed from that moment is when the issues of regret can occur. Did I make the right call? Did I cheat my partner(s) in achieving their goals? Is there something I could have done that would have made it possible? Will I have another chance to do it again? All this comes flashing back quickly. The key is to be able to make a decision and live with it. We have to understand that the consequences of what we decide, while in the midst of very trying circumstances, will shift optics. And that execution, not adrenaline, is the primary factor for success, whether you are on the mountain, in the middle of the jungle, or even while navigating everyday life.
You’ve been very honest, some would say to your detriment, about your personal struggles. Do you ever regret making this for public consumption? I don’t think that the focus ever is to expose all my challenges, especially not at the expense of the people I care about. I just chose to be very honest about what I was facing, and since I am, for better or for worse, a bit of a public figure, it is something that happened rather organically. I also think that this goes quite a bit deeper than what happened in the recent past. It is about a culmination of seminal events that took place in my life, and they all added up to what transpired. Lots of it can be traced back to surviving the avalanche [Richards famously survived an avalanche after completing the first winter ascent of Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II. One of his most famous photographs is a self-portrait right after the fact, which became a National Geographic cover]. I think we can safely assume that I suffered from PTSD and my life changed afterward, both for the better and worse. It is rather ironic that, in the midst of my greatest professional success, my personal life was sinking into depths I couldn’t quite imagine. As I’ve mentioned, these are all causes and effects that took place quite earlier as a teenager. Climbing, in lots of ways, saved my life. I was on a rather destructive path littered with drugs and alcohol, and climbing gave me focus and purpose. The events that followed the avalanche had a profound effect on who I was to become. It was obvious to those around me, but it had a lingering negative effect on me. I became prone to panic attacks, tried to drown my sorrows in alcohol, promiscuous behavior [Richards’ marriage became a casualty of the aftermath] and just, let’s be honest, pretty stupid behavior. In short order, I lost my marriage, most of my sponsors [he wasn’t the ideal candidate to be a brand spokesman during that time], and most importantly, lost my love of climbing, which had been my muse for so long.
It would have been quite a sad story if the Cory Richards saga had ended there. As they say, it is hard to keep a good man down, and once again, his muse kept calling him back to where he felt the most at home: outside, on the mountain, or in an unexplored part of the world. This, along with tremendous help from friends and family, keeps him looking toward the future with optimism.
Talk to us about your partnership with Vacheron Constantin. They are such an essential partner to help me celebrate what I love to do. We share similar values: a commitment to explore the world, while having a taste for innovation. I am very proud to be a part of their ongoing campaign, “One of Not Many,” where our mutual desire to embark on a path to discovery and achievement, enables me to continue to push the envelope with audacity and passion. The watch they built specifically for me is a spectacular timepiece, full of features that are very unique. It was important to me to have a watch that would help to keep track of the time in Nepal, as well as back home in the United States. This Overseas Dual Time prototype was created with me and my needs in mind. The 41mm case is forged from sturdy and light titanium, while a reinforcement made of tantalum—a particularly hard metal—has been integrated beneath the bezel, and the crown protection is reinforced by two titanium guards. As a nice finishing touch, the oscillating weight in the back is engraved with a design based on one of my Everest photos.
I thought it would be very appropriate to ask you, what makes a NOBLEMAN? A nobleman is someone who values craftsmanship over showmanship. It is someone with unflinching honesty, who is willing to put himself out there while remaining true to who he is.
WORDS BY YVES LE SIEUR