It may be the most arresting selfie ever taken. In February 2011, Cory Richards summited Pakistan's Gasherbrum II with Simone Moro and Dennis Urubko, becoming the first American to climb a 26,000-foot peak in winter. But during his descent, while utterly depleted and coughing up blood, 10,000 tons of snow swept off the mountain's upper slopes and buried the three climbers. Somehow they all survived. Ever the photographer, Richards hit the shutter button on his camera once he emerged from the debris. "It was pure instinct," says the 35-year-old. A photo he shot of that moment, his face tear-streaked and iced over, has since become one of mountaineering's most iconic images.
Mountains, pain, and cameras have always been Richards' salve for restlessness. The son of an Alta, Utah, ski patroller, he started climbing simply because "my dad tied me into a rope." But by the time he was 14, Richards had fled home and started doing any drug he could find, drifting between Salt Lake City's cold streets and its rehab clinics before realizing, "I was never any good at being homeless."
At 18 he found "some semblance of stasis" photographing an expedition in Alaska's notoriously difficult Ruth Gorge. Since then he's climbed and photographed on seven continents, including a trip to summit Southeast Asia's highest peak, Myanmar's Hkakabo Razi, that nearly ended in starvation for the group while hiking out through the jungle. For Richards, storytelling has always been the reason to risk it all in the mountains. "Suffering strips away all ability to be full of shit," he says. "People often ask me if I'm a climber or a storyteller. To me, the two are inseparable." –Kyle Dickman