Photograph by Cory Richards
Photograph by Cory Richards

This Photo Captures a Near-Death Experience—and Later Trauma

After surviving an avalanche, climber and photographer Cory Richards captured the moment. But then what?

This story appears in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

I took this photo about an hour after digging out of an avalanche that nearly killed me and two friends as we were descending the world’s 13th tallest mountain. It was February 4, 2011, and we’d just completed the first winter ascent of Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II. Since then, this image has run on the cover of National Geographic, appeared on posters and billboards, and circulated on the Internet. In a way, it’s become my “brand” and has led to many lucrative assignments. But over the years, the story that the picture suggests—of a heroic mountaineer who has just cheated death—has bothered me deeply.

I’ve always found it difficult to think of climbing as heroic, though I understand how some might view it this way. Stand at the foot of a Himalayan peak, and you quickly understand that getting to the top is going to require exceptional strength, stamina, concentration, and courage. But I’ve always thought that an act of heroism requires some sort of higher purpose than just risking your life to see if you can make it to the top. Sure, I can make the case that mountaineering supports developing local economies in many places, including Pakistan, and that climbing remote peaks taps into something vital in the human psyche. But let’s not kid ourselves: A lot of it comes down to expensive, dangerous recreation and a certain amount of self-indulgence.

Video

Cory Richards talks about surviving a massive avalanche—and the inner turmoil that followed.

It wasn’t my idea to climb Gasherbrum II. I was invited by two veteran climbers, Simone Moro and Denis Urubko, to join their expedition. I was a young climber who’d progressed from peaks in North America and the Alps and finally made it to the ultimate proving ground, the Himalaya. Simone and Denis were icons in the climbing world who’d pioneered new routes on some of the world’s tallest, most dangerous mountains.

It’s difficult to describe how excited I was when they asked me to join them for a winter attempt on Gasherbrum II. Mountaineers choose their climbing partners with extreme care. It’s a decision that can determine whether or not you survive an expedition. You need someone who can tolerate prolonged suffering—frostbite burns on your cheeks, grinding hunger, losing feeling in fingers and toes, overwhelming weariness—all while maintaining the will to push forward and the coherence to respond to an emergency.

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8,035 m Elevation of Gasherbrum II, one of Earth’s 14 tallest mountains. All are more than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) above sea level.

These two legendary climbers asking me to join their expedition was sort of like an ordination into a priesthood. That might sound weird, but for many mountaineers, climbing is a kind of religion. I know it saved me, offering a path out of a rocky adolescence. I dropped out of high school, got into alcohol and drugs, and lived on the street for a while. Climbing was my salvation. It gave me a singular purpose, focused my mind and body, and made me healthy.

The more I climbed, the farther I seemed to get from the insecurities and anger that had defined so much of my life. After any ascent, regardless of how dangerous or benign, I’d find myself overlooking the world below and discover that I could finally breathe deep, satisfied, relaxed breaths. But then I would descend back into the world below, and my inner turmoil would return. When Simone and Denis asked me to be a part of a potentially historic climb, I felt that if I could just make it to that summit, then I would be permanently “fixed.”

We summited after a mad push during a brief window of clear weather. Winter climbing really comes down to timing—being able to slip up the mountain between fast-moving winter storms that load the peaks with unstable snow. But reaching the summit is only the halfway point. Fatalities often occur on the way down as climbers navigate minefields of crevasses—deep cracks concealed beneath thin veneers of snow—and multi-ton drifts that threaten to release thunderous avalanches at any moment.

We were hurrying—the three of us roped together—hoping to beat a line of storms moving toward us, when I heard the roar. Mountain guides teach that if you’re caught in an avalanche, you should try to swim your way to the top. I remember futilely trying to move my arms and kick my legs, but very soon I was being spun like I was in a furious washing machine. I’d catch a blurred glimpse of blue sky then dark, then blue, then dark, then black. My mouth and nose were packed with powder, and snow was stuffed into my down suit. The roar was replaced by a profound silence, and a heavy cold began seeping into my body.

It’s hard to put into words the terror of that experience—being caught like prey in the teeth of a primordial monster, waiting for your spine to snap, your consciousness to wink out, the mountain to swallow you. But we all survived.

Far from fixing me, my experience on Gasherbrum II broke me. As time went on, waves of panic would suddenly sweep over me like mini-avalanches. I’d break out in sweats. I’d suddenly get irritated or enraged. It was like the mayhem of my adolescence had returned, bigger and darker. To escape, I drank heavily and cheated on my wife, which added shame and self-loathing to the mix. I ended up buried and choking to death all over again. I got divorced, lost my main professional sponsor, made an ass of myself, hurt people I care about. There is no excuse for bad behavior and bad decisions. But sometimes the ensuing chaos yields a bit of clarity.

A therapist finally explained that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and with the love and support of a lot of people, I’ve gradually been able to dig myself out. I’ve quit drinking and started climbing again, and have returned to the Himalaya. I’ve come to recognize that the notion that summiting a mountain could fix me was as much an illusion as the idea that that photo of me post-avalanche somehow portrayed a hero.

Still, I can’t escape the photo. It seems to follow me around like a ghost of some former self, reminding me of how fragile I really am. How fragile we all are.