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Exploration Isn’t Dead: A Photographer Captures the Ultimate Adventure

Epic Mountain Climb Proves “Exploration Is Not Dead”

In a world where it feels like everything has been seen and every peak summited, explorers long for uncharted territory. That’s what one climbing team was searching for in their attempt to measure the peak of Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi. The quest of expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill, author Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, videographer Renan Ozturk, and climber Emily Harrington was the subject of the recent National Geographic story “Point of No Return.” I spoke with picture editor Sadie Quarrier about her experience working with Cory Richards on this story, and about being part of the team from her base camp at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

[What’s it like to photograph an extreme expedition to Hkakabo Razi? Photographer Cory Richards tells all in the video above.]

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Blocked by tooth-like rock spires, Jenkins turns back from the ridge leading to Hkakabo’s snowy summit. To go on, the team would’ve had to spend a night without food, a tent, or sleeping bags. “We’d have lost digits, if not our lives,” says Richards. All Photographs by Cory Richards Unless Otherwise Noted

BECKY HARLAN: What makes summiting Hkakabo Razi, one of the highest peaks in southeast Asia, especially difficult?

SADIE QUARRIER: Quite a few things. There’s only proof of one person summiting this mountain, and though his route is known our team was attempting a new route, so this was real exploration. This meant a lot of guesswork and backtracking by the team when attempted routes didn’t pan out, which wasted precious time, energy, and food. Climbing-wise it was challenging because it was mixed terrain (ice and rock) and steep, unconsolidated snow with avalanche risk. The biggest logistical challenge was extreme lack of porter assistance. This led to two massive gear and food cuts as they marched 150 miles through dense jungle terrain just to get to base camp. Ultimately, they arrived to start their climb with too little of everything to comfortably attack what they needed to. In addition, this mountain is so remote that chances of a timely emergency rescue are close to nil.

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Stretched to the limit, the team—which included (left to right) videographer Renan Ozturk, author Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, climber Emily Harrington, and expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill—began running low on food on the hike out. “None of us anticipated we’d get that strung out,” says Cory. Photograph by Taylor Rees

BECKY: Why was Cory Richards chosen to photograph the expedition?

SADIE: For a story like this one the options are limited, because you want a talented photographer who also has alpine skills and fitness equal to the rest of the team. In addition, they need to gel with the team. For extreme expeditions, all of these aspects are important to team safety.

BECKY: On such a grueling trek, it seems like photography would be an afterthought to staying alive. How does Cory find a balance?

SADIE: Given the choice, Cory (and any photographer) will choose safety and staying alive. He’s come close to death a few times, and I trust his instincts to pull back when needed. It’s challenging when the photographer knows that money, planning, and a big magazine story are on the line, but I’ll be the first to say (as will everyone at NG), turn around when it’s time. We don’t need a summit for a good story! This story is visually stunning and fully engaging—debatably more so—without a summit. That said, Cory pushes himself very hard creatively, so I can be sure he’s not holding back.

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Balancing a 60-pound load, a porter tightropes a hanging bridge. The team struggled to find locals to haul gear. “We had about 35, we wanted about 60,” says base camp manager Taylor Rees. Eventually, they had to leave equipment behind.

BECKY: It seems like any photograph from such a remote and beautiful location would be a good shot. What elevates a climbing image to another level?

SADIE: Cory and I talked a lot about the kinds of shots we wanted from this story before he left. We wanted to show culture, thick jungle terrain and rope-bridge crossings, porter support, the grueling aspects of getting there, extreme mountain landscapes, and good climbing-action images. Cory got all of these in spades. He shot 31,000 pictures, normal for a long expedition. We went through rounds of edits separately and then together, becoming increasingly critical of frames that were well composed but not that interesting, or where the light/action wasn’t as good as [in] a similar frame. We looked for the very best pictures that were also important to telling this story. It comes down to a gut reaction: Does this picture move me enough to keep it for the next round of edits?

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Stepping cautiously, porters follow a narrow trail cut into the side of a ravine. “One slip and you were a goner,” says Jenkins, who had previously attempted Hkakabo in 1993. “There are so many ways to die before you can even see the mountain.”

BECKY: When you have a photographer out on assignment, are they always in the back of your mind?

SADIE: On stories like this one, absolutely! I never turned my phone off at night, especially as they started up the mountain. The time difference meant I usually got email updates from base camp manager Taylor Rees [at] around 11 p.m. my time. They were typically fairly stressful notes about porters getting sick and having to leave base camp or news that the team high on the mountain decided to turn around, etc. I live vicariously through expeditions like this in a thrilled/anxious kind of way, as they’re all my friends. I was relieved when I could finally go back to turning the phone off at night!

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Jenkins (standing) and Ozturk pause for lunch within sight of the snowcapped peak of Hkakabo Razi (top left). The climbers hoped to be the first to measure the mountain’s height precisely using a GPS.

BECKY: How many stories have you and Cory worked on together? What have you learned about working with him over the years?

SADIE: We are currently working on our sixth story together. Part of a photo editor’s job is to be a counselor, coach, friend, and creative collaborator with the photographer. I know Cory very well. I know when to praise, [when] to push, and to be a listening ear and problem solver when things get stressful. Cory is fiercely determined to improve as a photographer on every story. He has grown from an adventure/portraits photographer to also being a good cultural, landscape, and now wildlife photographer. These are massive strides in this craft. Feeling content is so dangerous in this profession. You have to stay hungry and a little fearful about whether the pictures are good enough.

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Above a sea of clouds, Ozturk pauses on a slope of Hkakabo Razi. He was one of three climbers making a summit attempt on the mountain, believed to be Myanmar’s highest.

BECKY: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

SADIE: While this interview has been focused on Cory, the videographer, Renan Ozturk, had the equally difficult challenge of filming this expedition. Despite video equipment issues, he worked tirelessly to capture all aspects of the experience while also being an essential team member on the climb. He delivered a film that is personal, compelling, moody, raw, and beautiful. He won the award for best cinematography at the Telluride Mountainfilm festival for his initial long edit of this expedition, called Down to Nothing. Renan also shot two amazing photographs in our final published story (our opener and closer) and posted a number of great Instagrams. A seven-minute version of Renan’s film can be seen here.

This expedition was sponsored by a grant from National Geographic’s Expeditions Council and The North Face.

Not enough exploration? Immerse yourself even further in the expedition to Hkakabo Razi by reading the feature article and viewing more images from the September 2015 National Geographic magazine story “Point of No Return.”

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