Exclusive Interview: Cory Richards

In 2010, Cory Richards put his name in the American alpine record books by becoming the first American climber to summit and 8,000-meter peak in winter. His climbing party’s summit celebration atop 8035-meter Gasherbrum II in Pakistan was subdued and short-lived, based on a healthy respect for the mountain and the season, and the fact that the summit is only the mid-point in a successful climb. Richards and climbing partners Simone Moro and Dennis Urubko saved the real celebration for after they miraculously survived an avalanche on the descent. This past May, the 30-year-old Boulder, Colo.-based climber and photographer had another scare when, as part of a National Geographic/North Face team attempting to summit Mount Everest via the West Shoulder, he began experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath and had to be helicoptered off the mountain at 23,000 feet.

Richards will be in Raleigh Oct. 10 speaking on “Both Sides of the Lens” at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He’ll talk about his life as a climber and as an award-winning photographer as part of the North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. We caught up with Richards on assignment in the Crimea — “shooting and climbing a North Face expedition … . Big limestone walls above the Black Sea…amazing” — where he discussed growing up, dropping out of high school and the ironic situation that caused his evacuation from Mount Everest.

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Great Outdoor Provision Co: You credit your parents with instilling an appreciation of the outdoors in you and your brother. Could you talk a little about your upbringing, about climbing with your dad, about where you grew up?
Cory Richards: We actually “grew up” in Salt Lake City. My brother and I were tremendously lucky to have parents that made us fit into their lifestyle vs. adjusting it to fit our needs. If they wanted to go backpacking, then we were expected to be a part of that…it was a theme that started before we could think and just carried on through. Dave [my brother] and I didn’t know any other way. In the summer, it was going climbing/backpacking in the WInd Rivers of Wyoming or the Unitas in Utah, in the winters it was school and skiing on the weekends. We didn’t really have a choice — and I am thankful for that. I started climbing when I was 5. We have some amazing family photos of me tied up in a makeshift swami-belt about as tall as my dad’s thigh. Those experiences slowly led to others. Some of them saw us benighted under boulders because my brother and I were too slow to get up and off a climb in a day, which of course would send my mom into random fits of panic when her three boys didn’t make it back to camp at night. It was those experiences, however, the standouts and the stories, that ended up taking root in me and steering me towards the path I’m on now. My parents believed that the best education could be found under and on top of rocks, in skinned knees, and cold fingers …and I’m very thankful for that.

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GOPC: There’s a current reexamination of the importance of higher education in this country; the Thiel Fellowships, for instance, are targeted to kids who don’t pursue higher ed but go directly into working on their passion. You dropped out of high school: Could you talk a little about that, about what was going on with you at the time and how that decision has helped shape you as a climber, a photographer and a person?
CR: I ended up in a high school setting two years early, meaning I was 12 going to school with 18 year olds. I think my personality naturally gravitated towards the social aspects vs. continuing to focus on the classroom. Over the following two years, I attended three different high schools and finally dropped out altogether at 14. Four years of mostly bad choices followed until my uncle finally persuaded me to try to go back to school. My SAT scores were pretty bad as I had spent the better part of my teenage years partying and making a mess of myself.

Thankfully, I can write reasonably well, and I used that skill set to put together an essay for a small school in Montana. For whatever reason, they took a chance. Bottom line, I have made a tremendous amount of poor choices in my life, some very hurtful to family, friends and acquaintances — and I am very lucky that anyone in my family still talks to me and I am thankful for every friend I have. Oddly enough, I think it was largely those poor choices that led me to the career I have now.

The combination of climbing and skiing as a child that eventually brought me back to the outdoors, and photography was a creative outlet for telling that story, the story of struggle both internal and external, which I need. There is some darkness in me that art helps channel. Adventure photography is just a way to go beat myself up while telling the story visually. I love mountains — they put you in your place.
But truthfully, I am more lucky than talented. Professionally, if I surround myself with talented capable people and make myself the weakest link, I know exactly how strong the chain is. It’s a way of gauging exactly how far I can push myself as both an athlete and photographer in the mountains. I rely heavily on the people I work with to bring out the best in me. Conversely, I am an open book and source for them: it’s a give and take. While the decision to drop out was made in foggy haste, and the darkness that followed was nothing if not a struggle, I wouldn’t change a single thing.

Those years taught me to endure and to thrive when things are, well, hard. That has carried over into my athleticism as well as my art. I could never tell a student what they should do. But what I can say is that the idea that you can do anything IS true. That said, if you choose the road less traveled, you’ll have to work harder than anyone else around you.

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GOPC: You’ve been climbing since you were a kid; when and how did you get into photography? Are you entirely self-trained?
CR: After going to school in Montana for a year and a half, I moved to Salzburg, Austria, through the study abroad program. It was there, at Salzburg College, that I met and began studying under Andrew Phelps. Andrew was the one who ultimately pushed me in the direction of photography. It was interesting, though, the last thing he said to me after a year of studying with him was, “Remember that photography is only what you do, not who you are.” I’ve tried to carry that into all things that I do, including climbing. I’m not self trained, but my formal schooling was limited.

After Salzburg, I moved to Seattle where I went to school for another year until one of my instructors actually urged me to drop out and just start working as an assistant. I did, and subsequently spent seven years assisting fashion, saving the money I earned to go on climbing trips and other random adventures. I worked for a guy named Bill Cannon for most of that time. He was very hard on me, but he gave me a work ethic and he eventually ended up as groomsman in my wedding — my 65-year-old groomsman.

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GOPC: Whenever we see a close-up photo of a climber glued to sketchy wall, our first thought is, “There’s another guy there doing essentially the same thing — with a camera.” How does that work, and what are the biggest challenges you face climbing and shooting?
CR: The greatest challenge is not the athletic part…it’s the balance of knowing when to be an athlete and when to be a photographer. And furthermore, when to be a child, brother, friend, and husband. Sure it’s hard to get in position at times, and it’s hard to anticipate and be ahead of the game as it unfolds. But honestly, it’s the life balance that is hardest. That is what the Speaker Series presentation is all about…being on both sides of the lens. On the one hand, knowing both sides allows you to understand them more intimately, but on the other, it demands a constant immersion. Finding the balance is the key. It’s a vital part of the journey and the balance is constantly redefining itself.

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GOPC: Have you figured out what happened to you on Everest in April? How long did it take you to recover? Was that the worst physical problem you’ve had in the mountains?
CR: Everest was a massive ego check, and one that I needed. Oddly enough, I over-heated. I had a heat stroke on the highest mountain in the world — isn’t that the best cosmic joke of them all? But more importantly, that heat stroke triggered something more acute. Basically, I had taken on too much, said yes to too many people, and was trying to climb the hardest route of my life, and the bottom just fell out. I couldn’t sustain the pace or the pressure and the heat-stroke triggered a full-on release of that stress. There seems to be an expectation — a myth — that alpine climbers are impervious to fear and stress. It’s just not true. Everyone experiences both of those things on a somewhat constant basis while in the mountains, and for me, they boiled over. But I don’t want to give away too much. Otherwise, the event won’t be as fun!

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GOPC: In 2011 you became the first American to summit an 8,000 meter peak in winter, which resulted in your documentary, “Cold.” Grayson Schaffer’s piece in Outside did a great job of depicting your harrowing descent from the summit and the sense of foreboding that tempered your celebration at the top. I think most people, especially non-climbers, think you pop open champaign at the summit, party for a few minutes, then open a backdoor and are magically back at base camp. Can you explain what a summit is really like, how you really feel and what’s going through your mind at the time?
CR: Most of the time, when you are that extended, your mind is fairly vacuous. Alpine climbing is hard work. Alpine climbing at 8,000 meters is really hard work. Your actions are a reduction of necessity and she you get to the top, you may cry a bit, you may collapse and lay still for a moment, but in general, you are numb. The summit is a halfway point and not a place for celebration — after all, it doesn’t matter if you make it to the top if you don’t make it down. There is an awesome quote from Alex Lowe, the father of The North Face team, that says “Going up is optional, but coming down is mandatory.” There is a muted sense of joy that exists but can only be experienced to it’s fullest when we are down safely. Often times, getting down is the hardest part.

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GOPC: What’s your next big expedition?
CR: Antarctica. It’ll be my seventh continent, and I’m very very excited.

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“Both Sides of the Lens,” Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series
Who: Cory Richards, climber and photographer
When: Oct. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Main Auditorium, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, 11 W. Jones Street, Raleigh
Cost: $20, including exclusive VIP reception at 6 p.m., $8 for reserved seat, free for general attendance (based on availability). Proceeds benefit the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
For tickets, go here

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