“You could say I’m going back to get a Snapchat from the summit,” says the 35-year-old climber and National Geographic photographer, based out of Boulder, Colorado. “But really, the only reason I’m going back is for Adrian.”
In 2016, Richards and Adrian Ballinger, a professional mountain guide from Squaw Valley, California, set out to climb Everest without using supplemental oxygen—a feat only an estimated 197 climbers out of the 4,469 who have stood atop the summit have achieved. The duo also documented their journey on Snapchat via the account @EverestNoFilter.
Richards summitted. However, his phone died—and therefore he blew that golden opportunity to take a summit Snap.
“It was the most tragic irony of the whole trip,” Richards says.
Ballinger, meanwhile, did not make it to the top of the 29,029-foot mountain. He succumbed to the effects of altitude around 28,215 feet and made the wise, if difficult, decision to turn back.
This was the other irony of their experience: Ballinger has far more experience on Everest than Richards does. In fact, prior to 2016, Ballinger had reached the top six times, albeit with oxygen. For Ballinger, climbing Everest without oxygen has been his dream since he was 14 years old.
“I learned so much from Adrian in the wake of last year,” Richards says. “It was a lesson in what graceful failure looks like. He was so humble. I'm not sure I could've upheld my end of the partnership in the same way that he did. He was very honest with what happened and supported my success beyond the summit, and that took a huge amount of humility. Really, that’s why I’m going back.”
We reached out to the two social media-savvy climbers to hear more about the lessons they learned from last year, and their expectations for what’s to come.
Fat, not Carbs
Over the last six months, in preparation for his next crack at Everest, Ballinger has worked to change his metabolism to access energy in fasted states. Much of his training took place on little more than a cup of black coffee in the morning. He changed his diet from pizza and pasta to a macronutrient makeup of around 10 to 20 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 50 to 60 percent fat.
“I’m excited to see if a new diet, and this new training, is going to work,” Ballinger says.
“Only about 25 percent of what we shot last year actually made it to Snapchat,” says Ballinger. “This year, we’re hoping to get out more of our story through faster internet.”
They’re using a service that guarantees higher speeds, a luxury that will come at a much higher cost. Last year Ballinger and Richards spent $23,000 on internet. This year their budget is a whopping $75,000.
Confidence and Consequence
Richards says his biggest challenge this year will be balancing his confidence that he can climb Everest again with all the inherent risks involved.
“Just because I climbed it once without oxygen doesn't mean my body can do it again,” he says. “Overconfidence is a huge thing, and I want to pay attention to that and make sure I'm not overextending, overestimating, overconfident at any point. Because altitude doesn't work that way.”
One of the biggest failures from last year may also have the easiest solution. “This year Cory’s going to carry an external battery so his freakin’ phone doesn’t die on the summit,” Ballinger says laughing.
Partners in Climb
“Adrian and I have a great partnership,” says Richards. “It’s sappy at times, and I make a lot of jokes about it, but the truth is that I would do anything to make this work for him, because I know he would do the same for me.”