Climber Cory Richards on How to Fix the Mess on Everest

Cory Richards
Cory Richards (right) and Esteban “Topo” Mena make their way up unstable snow fields on the lower Northeast Face of Everest during their 2019 attempt.Photograph by Keith Landzinski

Photographer and climber Cory Richards has gained some perspective since he became the first American to make a winter summit of an 8,000-meter peak, Gasherbrum II, in 2011. His work for National Geographic magazine has taken him all over the globe, from floating in a dugout canoe among hippos and crocodiles in Botswana’s Okavango Delta to tracking down the world’s happiest people.

Still, he is perhaps most widely known as one of the messy-haired dudes in the Snapchat series #Everestnofilter, where he and partner Adrian Ballinger documented their experience climbing the world’s tallest mountain over two years. In the second season, Richards revealed his struggles with depression, PTSD, alcoholism, and bipolar disorder. 

He has since been sober and is now focused on a grueling training plan from his home in Boulder, Colorado, to tackle his current goal: climbing a new route on Everest’s Northeast Face without supplemental oxygen. This year, after spending a night at 7,300 meters, Richards and his partner Esteban “Topo” Mena were too cold and exhausted to continue. They plan to try again next year.

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We caught up with Richards 10 days after he returned home to get his perspective on the 2019 climbing season and more.

Cory Richards
Richards takes a moment to enjoy the view while crossing the Tibetan Plateau. Photograph by Keith Landzinski

Your body of work goes far beyond outdoor adventure stories. This was your fourth expedition on Everest. Why do you keep going back?

Going to Everest as a climber was always inspiring to me, even from childhood. But I did view it as a stepping stone to try something bigger, whether on that mountain or on another 8,000-meter peak. Specifically I wanted to do something new in alpine style, without oxygen, on one of the 8,000-meter peaks. How often do we ask an Olympian why they go back to the Olympics? We never ask that question because we know that it’s about refining the craft, being better, continuing on. It’s about being the best version of your athletic self that you possibly can be. And at some point, you retire, because you’ve passed that prime. But at this point, I don’t see that I’ve passed the prime. In fact, I think I’m still on that trajectory, and I’m on the rise. I honestly can’t think of a better, more exciting venue for me than trying to do a new route on Everest without oxygen.

You have been on a really aggressive training plan for the past year. Now that you are back, do you immediately start training for next year?

I’ve been home for 10 days, and I’ve worked out twice. In my head and in my heart, I want to hit the ground running. But I haven’t regained the motivation.

I was talking with Alex Honnold about this the other day. He was talking about right after the Oscars, he just hit this wall, he couldn’t train. He wanted to train, but it was right after this huge life event, and there’s a natural unwinding that has to happen. So as much as I want to get right back on the horse, the reality is I fail at that pretty hard.

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By now you have caught up on the media coverage of the Everest season. The South Side in Nepal was a shit show. You were on the North Side in Tibet/China. Is the North Side less of a shit show than the South Side?

The North Side is considerably less of a shit show than the South Side. It’s driven by the financial backdrop of the respective industries. On the South Side, you have a country that needs the revenue and is desperate for it. And as such, their limitation to permitting is nonexistent. On the North Side, you have a limited amount of permits issued. You also have a route that tends to spread people out more effectively due to the topography. There are three potential points for traffic on the North Side. But honestly, the ridge is so long that it just allows people to thin out.

In China, the attitude is, “Let’s keep the mountain safe. Let’s keep it healthy, and let’s limit the number of permits. Let’s use this to our benefit, but we don’t need it.” The money that’s coming in to China from Everest is not even a thing. Look at their GDP.

Does the North Side also have the crowding and dead bodies we hear about in the news?

The North Side has dead bodies and all that shit. It’s my belief that those bodies should stay in place, unless the family really feels strongly about having them moved down. The nature of the sport is such that people can die. They do die. They will die. Not that I want people to die, but some people should die doing this. If we erase risk, then a piece of the spirit or the soul of the sport has been erased. We don’t want climbing Everest to be totally safe. That’s not the point. So I think those bodies are solemn reminders of the severity and the gravity of the activity itself.

Is there a garbage issue? Absolutely. There’s 100 percent a problem with garbage on the mountain—on both sides. It’s a matter of finding the right system to clean it up, and it will happen. Denali, Aconcagua, these mountains were trash heaps at one point. And they’ve become far cleaner and are really beautifully managed. I think what we’re going to see—especially on the Chinese side—is rangers, like there are on other mountains. Every camp will have rangers present during the season, and they’ll get cycled in and out, so people aren’t staying above 8,000 meters for too long. They’ll monitor how the trash is taken down.

I also think the rangers will help with safety issues, just like they do on Denali. When somebody gets into trouble, it’s the rangers who pick up the slack. If they need to engage others, then they do it. That seems to be the system that works the best. Setting it up would take time.

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Is that being considered, or are you planting a seed of a solution that hopefully might take off?

Both. Adrian Ballinger and I have talked about it. His guides are advocates for it. I think it’s the model that’s been proven to be most effective in waste and rescue management. At least on the Tibetan side, where they seem to have their shit more together, I think that’s probably quickly on its way.

Cory Richards
Richards (right) and Mena decided to abort their climb after a freezing night spent at 7,300 meters. They will return to Everest in 2020 to attempt the route again. Photograph by Keith Landzinski

What prevented you from completing your objective this year?

It was a number of things. There were the obvious restrictions of a tight weather window that was not great. There’s no denying that. That’s what caused the lines of people going up and down the mountain. There was a three-day weather window, one good summiting day. And that’s a reasonable summit day—for people wearing oxygen.

Being up there without oxygen changes the whole game. You can have like a nice, breezy, cool but clear day with supplemental oxygen and be fine. But if you’ve got a breezy, cool day without supplemental oxygen, that’s frostbite. So, for us, part of it was that.

The conditions on our route were not ideal. They were more strenuous than we anticipated, and we used a lot of energy on the first day. We thought we were going to be able to find a place that was reasonable for a bivvy and get an actual good night’s sleep. Had we gotten a good night’s sleep on the first night, we would have kept going. But we didn’t.

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We didn’t anticipate what we were going to find quite correctly. We ended up doing an open bivvy at 7,300 meters. If we had known we were going to do an open bivvy at 7,300 meters, we would have packed differently, and we would have been fine. But we didn’t, so we just ended up cold and tired. And that really zapped us.

We woke up and started climbing into the night, and we just got into terrain that was a little bit unnerving.

How so?

It was thin snow over slabby rock. During the day, you can see. But at night, it just felt like, “Fuck, we’re climbing into something that might not be super smart here.” Also, because you’re in a rock fall funnel there.

Did you see any rock fall?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, for sure. I advocated we should take a rest, try and sleep through the night. It was really all my fault. But yeah, when we woke up, we actually were planning on going down. We were like, “No, we can’t give up.” So we started up again and got up another 1,000 feet and realized we were too tired. We wondered, “Do we have enough energy to go into a marginal weather window that’s going to be cold, and do it safely?” The answer was no.

Then, when you came down, were you done for the season? Or were you going to watch and wait to try again?

Oh, we fully anticipated going back up, but the weather window never came. But hopefully, next year we’ll go back stronger. Now we know the size of the face. We’re really confident with it. Everything about it was actually a positive experience. It’s just really hard to wrap your head around training for another 11 months.

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You wondered if there would be haters out there who would give you a hard time about claiming this route as a new line. What happened in the end?

I think they probably would have called us out, had we completed it. Because then, there would have been something to pick apart. Right now, people are just like, “Well, they didn’t do it, so it doesn’t matter.” I don’t think there’s much argument that it wouldn’t be a new line. Whenever I hear stuff like that, I kind of point toward that Teddy Roosevelt quote, “It’s not the critic who counts.”

People who are saying that it’s not a new line obviously are not very versed in Himalayan climbing or in climbing at all. Because, let’s just look at the North Side of Everest. Messner climbed 1,400 meters of established terrain on the standard route before deviating to finish on 800 meters of his own terrain. So, is that a new route? I mean, it was called one. It was graded as Messner’s line. Right?

The Northeast Ridge itself was climbed by the Japanese in the ’90s. The full Northeast Ridge. And that was called a new route. What’s hysterical is all of that terrain had been previously climbed. It just hadn’t been connected.

Another great example of that is the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat. Steve Swenson climbed the Mazeno in 2004. And then it was only when the route was actually climbed to completion that it was awarded with the Piolet d’Or. So to say that it’s not a new route if we’ve climbed, say 6,000 or 6,300 vertical feet of terrain, and then finished on 900 feet of established terrain, is an asinine argument. But beyond that, who cares? It’s not the critic who counts. Very rarely do I feel criticized by people who are doing more than me.

You’ve been very public about your mental health issues. Did they flare up on this expedition? Or does climbing help balance you out?

They definitely came to the surface. The anxiety that I feel on these trips is tremendous. But it’s just something that I’ve learned to deal with. I’m so outspoken and open about taking medication for depression and whatnot. Oddly enough, I actually didn’t bring enough on this trip, which was not a great scene. I mean, we worked our way through it, but it’s just a funny kind of—I tend to be extremely vigilant about that stuff. And then, all of a sudden, I don’t have any drugs.

Does that make your anxiety go through the roof?

Yeah. But again, it’s just a natural sort of “Okay, I’ve done this. I know what’s happening. I know where I’m at. I know.” It’s identifying that this is okay, you’re safe, and just kind of going through the motions in a pragmatic, measured way. But of course, the anxiety is there. It’s just learning to see anxiety for what it is, which is essentially not real. I mean, it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. But anxiety is a manifestation of the brain. Right? If you see it for what it is. It can still be crippling, but it can’t hurt you. Once you diffuse it, once you sort of disarm it in that way, it becomes far more manageable.

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The standard routes on Everest are mostly non-technical climbing. The route you are trying to climb would involve rock climbing, mountaineering, and ice climbing?

Yeah. There’s an area up high that we call the “Event Horizon.” An event horizon is the edge of a black hole. It’s where the gravity is the strongest, and you can’t see in. You don’t know what’s on the other side. So in the Event Horizon on the route, it’s full rock climbing, unless there’s lots of snow. We don’t know. It’s up by the pinnacles, and the truth is we just don’t know how to get through it yet, because we can’t see into it from any perspective. So basically, there’s rock climbing there. There’s substantially hard mixed climbing down low, on the lower rock bands. And that’s what we avoided this trip, and went around. But we decided that, having seen it, that the way to go is through it. Next time, we’ll do that.

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Do you think you’ll do any big mountaineering objectives before going back to Everest?

Honestly, we’re talking about doing the South Face of Shishapangma this fall, which would be really cool. That’s the face that Alex Lowe died on. But I’m not worried about it from that perspective. I’m excited to do it. I really want to figure out: Do I have the motivation to do that one? Then, Topo and I decided that we’d like to try and do the South Face of Aconcagua. And that would get us kind of primed on some pretty serious alpine terrain. I really went hard into the fitness this year. Training this year, I think I would focus an equal amount on the fitness. But then, I would add much more climbing. I don’t believe that the best training for climbing is climbing. I just believe that a little bit more mixed climbing would be helpful.

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