After Summiting Mt. Everest, He Returned Home to Face His Demons

Adventure photographer Cory Richards shares his intimate struggles—with PTSD, alcoholism, infidelity—and how he found his way forward.

On April 8, explorer and photographer Cory Richards—National Geographic’s 2012 Adventurer of the Year—begins his third expedition to climb Mt. Everest.

As Richards tells it, he began pursuing high-risk adventures when he was a troubled teen, to fend off personal demons. But they haunted him, and over the years they multiplied to include alcoholism, infidelity, and trauma from a brush with death.

Now 35, Richards says he’s ready for Everest—and has made peace with his past through “a singular solution: honesty.” He has told his life story, illustrated with some of his most famous photos, to audiences around the world. Here are excerpts.

This photograph of me at about age three was taken in a campground, and that says something about my parents. My parents believed that getting my brother and me outside and instilling within us a curiosity about the natural world was pivotal to our development, so they began that process very early. That curiosity has been helpful for me throughout my life.

That said, in my adolescence I felt very much like a social misfit. The truth is, I'm a very uncomfortable person, a very insecure person. I’ve always felt like a shape-shifter, like I couldn’t fit in anywhere. So I found identity in the mountains because the mountains didn’t require me to be anything else; I could just be myself. And in the mountains I also discovered very early on that rules, for the most part, are arbitrary. That the things that might look impossible, if taken in small steps, usually aren’t. That if we break things down, we can usually accomplish almost anything.

I went to high school two years early, which worked to both my benefit and my detriment. When you’re 12 years old and hanging out with 18-year-olds, that’s a pretty seductive realm that can draw you off course. By the time I was 13, I had basically stopped going to class and I was doing drugs. My parents were mortified and they saw my life derailing, so they put me in a behavioral treatment center, somewhere that they could feel I was safe.

The place was horrible. I was there for eight months, and ultimately what I learned was not that I was a valuable young member of society but that I was inherently broken and I needed to be fixed. It’s because of that lesson that I ran away from rehab three times. And it was because of that toxic lesson that I learned, and still carry with me, that I’m somehow screwed up, always. I continue to fight that.

You can imagine how my actions affected my family. Ultimately, my parents had to make the decision to let me go—it was either enable me or let me go, and enabling would have destroyed the entire family. So they made the best decision for them and I do not blame them for that, but it landed me in a homeless state for a while.

The time I spent on the street was pivotal for my development because it really gave me a look into what humanity boils down to. It gave me empathy for people who are less fortunate. It also gave me a look at the reality of the human condition—what we’re capable of in acts of both aggression and kindness and, more importantly, what we can overcome. That idea carried over into everything I do.

It took many years—and it took my parents coming back into my life, along with friends and family—but with time, I gravitated back toward the mountains, which were the only place that I felt secure and had identity. Climbing is a wonderful allegory for human struggle. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it was ultimately climbing and exploration and adventure that brought me out of that very trying time.

As I started to climb more, and have more success in this arena—as I started to become a professional climber, and make money from this—I was able to travel more. As I traveled more, I started to become somewhat disenchanted with what I was doing. Not that I didn’t love climbing, but it seemed like there were bigger stories around me that needed to be told. The climbing started to feel myopic; it started to feel selfish. How could I, coming from a privileged background, use that privilege to simply climb a mountain and celebrate myself, and not celebrate everything that was around me? The human stories around me were incredible, and stories that I wanted to tell.

In the winter of 2010-11, I was asked to go to northwest Pakistan to climb Gasherbrum II, an 8,000-meter peak on the border of India. The invitation came from two veteran climbers: Simone Moro, an Italian, and Dennis Urubko from Kazakhstan. I remember that when we reached about 25,000 feet (7,620 meters), I knew we were going to summit that day and that it was going to change my life. What I didn’t know was what was going to happen after.

When we came up on top as a team, I became the first American to summit any of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in winter. Then we headed down and on the descent the weather started to really deteriorate. As it started to snow more and more, I heard a crack above me, and then what sounded like a freight train. I yelled “Avalanche!” but you can imagine what it was like trying to run in snow halfway up our thighs.

It hit us full on and I felt myself going into a much darker world than I could ever imagine, being rolled and feeling my body weight carry me down. When I came to a stop, mercifully my face was out of the snow—and immediately I thought, Well, Simone and Denis are dead and I’m going to have to get down the mountain alone. Then I heard Simone’s squeaky little Italian voice: “Cory, everything okay?” And I’m like, “Dude, everything is not okay, first of all.” I felt his hands starting to dig me out and as soon as I got out of the snow enough to move, I got my camera. I turned it on myself and took what has become perhaps my best-known photograph: My grimacing face, wreathed in ice.

I look 90 years old in that moment. It’s gross. My mom didn’t even recognize me in that picture! But to get to something very serious here: What I see in that face now is a severe trauma unfolding. I see a life that is about to be splintered.

All three of us nearly died. When the brain prepares for death as mine had done, it does a very funny thing: It gets trapped in the experience. And if you don’t have resolution, what that conflict is called clinically is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I walked away from Gash II that day unaware of a serious and profound affliction that I would have, really, for life.

I went home and got married. We had incredible friends. But immediately upon returning from this trip I started to feel a disassociation, this sense that I was somehow standing on the outside of my life looking in. I felt this incredible weight pushing down on me. I couldn’t remember things. It was like this very loud silence, this dullness with sharp edges.

And what’s worse is that this became my life: to stand on stage like I’m doing now and tell the story, show that picture, and play the film of me crying after the avalanche, over and over and over again. It re-traumatizes you—and yet I still didn’t realize what was going on.

Gash II didn’t just give me a disorder, though. It also gave me my “in” to National Geographic. Coincidentally, where we were climbing, there was a Pakistani military encampment right next to our base camp. I started going over and taking photos of these young military guys. We had internet, and these guys wanted to watch movies; they would come over and we would have tea. They asked if they could use my Facebook. I said yes. I now have hundreds of friends named Mohammed, Farouk, and Ahmed, and I’m on the TSA watch list…but it’s okay, it happens.

The real beauty of it was the access I was given to their lives. It was an exercise in intimacy; it taught me about getting close to people. And those were the photos that opened the door with National Geographic’s photo editors—pictures that have impact, pictures that tell broader stories that need attention. Making those kinds of pictures was becoming my driving force.

My first magazine assignment was to the border of Nepal and Tibet, to an area called Mustang. We were climbing to reach complexes of caves, thousands of them dug into cliffs about 150 feet above the valley floor. They could be treacherous to access: Once as I was trying to climb into one, a foothold broke and I fell maybe 20 feet, injuring my back.

We were going into those cave systems to peel back the layers, to look into the mystery. We were looking for burial crypts because that’s where you find human remains, which is where you find teeth. And teeth have strontium, an element found in tooth enamel that shows where you were born on the planet, based on what you and your ancestors were eating and drinking. So if you find somebody’s tooth in one part of the world but the strontium indicates that they were born in another part of the world, you start to have this beautiful picture of human migration and trade.

Why is that important? Why do we need to look into our past? So we can start to understand where we thrive, and where we screw up. We are an exploitative species and if we exploit our resources too much, things tend to fall apart. When humans make mistakes, our mistakes are not just ours; they impact everything around us.

One of my next assignments was to a place called Franz Josef Land which is an archipelago in the Russian arctic. It’s important for us to understand a place like Franz Josef Land because it’s an almost 99 percent intact ecosystem—and that gives us a beautiful, pure baseline from which to study human-caused climate change. It shows us the kinds of effects we’re having: If we could have visited 100 years ago, the view would have been endless white. Instead, we found a polar bear standing on one of the last patches of snow. That photograph is one of the most heart-wrenching I’ve ever made. If our home is disintegrating around us, fairly soon we will be homeless—and it’s those issues that we have to start paying attention to.

Another assignment started in the highlands of Angola. The country had been embroiled in a 30-year, very bloody civil war which actually had preserved the ecosystem by keeping people and wildlife out of some areas. Our charge was to descend 1,200 miles of an unexplored river catchment; it started as a six-week trip and ended up being four months. The conflict had kept this environment safe but as soon as the landmines are taken out of the ground, people move in and they start exploiting it, extracting resources. It’s really important to understand who’s using the water, where and how, because it’s all interconnected. Why is a river catchment in Angola so important? Because in southern Africa there’s a big floodplain called the Okavango Delta. Every year it floods and it’s like the area’s beating heart: As it floods, the animal migrations come in and as it dries up, they go out.

Almost every single ounce of water that comes into the delta is fed from the Angolan highlands. As Angola looks for ways to make money, they’re looking for all the sources they can find. So this isn’t just a story about a river catchment; it’s a story about countries coming together to find a commonality, and it’s allegorical to us all. We are not independent of one another, so we have to make better collective decisions as a human family.

In the field, I felt so connected to everything. But then I’d come home and I felt so disconnected. I’d sit in the quietness and feel this overriding pain and I didn’t know what the source was. I didn’t know that it was coming from the trauma of my adolescence, the trauma of the avalanche. I felt myself withdrawing further and further into this very deep sense of loneliness, and I felt like the darkness inside of me at one point had somehow erupted and now was the darkness all around me. I tried to climb Everest in 2012 and I failed because I had a massive panic attack down low on the mountain. It was that very trip that led to the diagnosis that I had PTSD.

Like so many people do in these situations, I started to drink really heavily. I’d wake up in the morning and promise myself that I could make it to happy hour; then by 3 p.m. I’d have a drink. The time of day kept moving down. It wasn’t any big deal, right, because I wasn’t getting publicly drunk so nobody would know. But I kept drinking to get away from everything I was feeling. I didn’t want to name it, but I was falling into a very serious problem with alcohol.

In the field I wouldn’t do this as much because I felt completely satiated—I was ignited, I was passionate, I was creative, all the healthy things. But eventually, even going into the field was insufficient escape.

In 2014 I joined a team bound for northern Burma and Hkakabo Razi, a peak said to be the highest in Southeast Asia. Climbing the granite and glaciers was the second obstacle; the first was getting to the peak, by crossing 150 miles of dense jungle. On that walk, I had countless sweaty hours to ruminate on what I was using alcohol, and other addictions, to avoid. My life started to come into sharp relief.

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I was scared to be back in the mountains, scared to be climbing, scared that I would let everybody down. All the insecurities that I had gone to the mountain to get away from came flooding back. My partners didn’t know it but I literally could barely move at times, looking at the slopes we had to walk up. After 40 days through jungle and 10 days of climbing, we finally saw the summit for the very first time. But less than 24 hours later, we bowed to the brutal terrain and weather, and turned around. We failed. I failed. I don’t think the success or the failure of the trip relied on me—but I do know that the weight of the pain that I was carrying inside was pulling me down.

When I looked long and hard at my life, I saw a whole bunch of big failures that ended up in little successes. Other people didn’t see that because I wasn’t living honestly. Behind the appearance of a thriving career, I was falling apart. People saw my exploits on social media, Snapchat, Instagram—but they never saw me drunk in a hotel room alone after giving a talk. I was being dishonest with everybody around me, and the space between façade and reality kept getting bigger and bigger.

I knew I had to return home to a marriage that I had neglected, and that was failing because I was a bad husband. I had cheated, a lot. I was deeply unfaithful, and then I lied about it. I tried to drown my shame about that in alcohol, and I tried to drown the shame of alcoholism in the affection of others. It just kept getting worse and worse.

In the space of one month, I detonated my marriage, I destroyed a relationship with my primary climbing sponsor, and I left my production company that I started with my two friends. I burned my life down. And I felt very much like the kid I once was, the kid who bucked the system and was homeless at 13 years old. I was alone and it was dark and I was just searching for answers.

And then, providentially, the same lifeline that I grasped in childhood was extended to me in the present. I was asked to go back to Everest.

It all started to connect. In May 2016 I went back with a new climbing partner, Adrian Ballinger. We aimed to bring people to the Himalaya with us via social media. On Snapchat, #EverestNoFilter amounted to Adrian and me being jackasses half the time, but it gave us a vehicle to tell an authentic story. Think about that: How much more do people connect when we stop showing only the beautiful stuff and start sharing the real stuff?

We aimed to reach the summit of Everest—8,848 meters (nearly 5.5 miles) up—without supplemental oxygen. When Adrian was struggling at about 8,600 meters, he selflessly chose to end his attempt and let me go on. It was his decision to turn around that allowed me to summit last year. This year, my chief goal is helping him reach the summit.

To cap last year’s climb, Adrian and I had planned on Snapping from the top of the world. Then, when I got up there—this is what it looked like—I opened Snapchat, and my phone died. What a great ending, seriously. I ran as fast as I could to get back down to camp.

The lessons started to pile onto me at that point, and in the months following. I thought Everest would be some cathartic act; it would puncture the darkness that I was in, solve the PTSD, and somehow vanquish my guilt. I thought it would be a sort of phoenix-rising moment. What I found instead was that I had literally run to the highest point on the planet to escape my truth, and I couldn’t bury it any more. Allegorically, Everest is the point from which all else flows—at least that’s what I see there—and it’s from there that I had to go downhill and into all the things that I had to face.

Why do I talk publicly about divorce and PTSD and alcoholism and infidelity and confuse the whole conversation with adventure and a river in Africa—where is this going? The answer is simple: It’s all tied together. Our personal issues are inseparable from our global issues. What do we do about the changing climate and how we’re contributing to it? What are the solutions for the corrosion of cultures? How do we address conflict, and look out for those affected by conflict? Where are the voices for the voiceless and what would they say to us?

For me, it comes down to a singular solution: honesty. The truth matters because this isn’t just my story. It’s our story.

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