On the morning of April 2, 2021, Cory Richards, one of America’s most accomplished alpinists/mountaineers, arrived with a small team at basecamp on Dhaulagiri (26,795 feet), all sights set on its unclimbed Northwest Ridge. At the time, he was excited.
“The ridge is exceptional,” Richards says. “It’s 2,000 meters of mixed chutes and ladders up to a small band of seracs that guards the top of the face. After that, it’s a high-alpine ridge that starts at 6,400 meters and climbs to 8,000 meters. It’s a dream route.”
Yet just 48 hours later, on the evening of April 4, Richards, who’d spent much of the preceding two days sobbing in his tent, informed his teammates—the American filmmaker Tommy Joyce and the Ecuadorian climbers Carla Pérez and Esteban “Topo” Mena—that he was leaving the expedition, retiring from climbing, and moving to LA to pursue a career in writing and filmmaking. His partners were shocked. They’d spent tens of thousands of dollars to get there; they had already sold film rights to Eddie Bauer, the expedition’s primary sponsor; and, perhaps most significantly, the climb was part of a training mission for a much more ambitious goal, a new route on Everest, the subject of a documentary for which Joyce and Richards had spent eight months preparing.
By the morning of April 6, Richards, who was having what was later diagnosed as a mixed episode (a combination of mania and depression, as a manifestation of bipolar disorder), was on a helicopter to Kathmandu. Two days later he was back in Boulder, Colorado, where he began trying to figure out what had just happened—and how to move on.
Joyce, Pérez, and Mena tried to make the best of the expedition, attempting Dhaulagiri by the standard route, but Mena and Joyce had both structured their careers around the planned new route on Everest, and Richards’s retirement threw a lot of unknowns in front of them. Joyce remembers thinking: “We built a whole team to make this film about Everest, I raised almost a million dollars to do it, and now Cory is retiring from climbing? Come on.”
But as the time has passed, their feelings have evolved. “Now it’s just a thing that happened one time,” Joyce says. “At the end of the day, I feel for Cory. He was definitely not in a good place when he left Dhaulagiri.”
Cory Richards was born in Salt Lake City in 1981. His parents introduced him and his older brother to skiing and climbing at an early age, but behind its idyllic veneer, his childhood also involved what he vaguely describes as “toxic” and “violent” family relationships, which transformed Richards’s congenital penchant for unhappiness into something more serious. At age 12, he was diagnosed with depression. At 14, he was diagnosed as bipolar. For several years, he went in and out of psychiatric hospitals and 12-step programs. Then, in his late teens, he began to pull himself together, re-engaging with climbing. He summited Denali. He attempted the South Face of Aconcagua (22,838 feet), the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. He summited Ama Dablam (22,349 feet). He spent two months on Makalu (27,825 feet), the world’s fifth-highest mountain, with Steve House. Meanwhile, he began building a photography career, publishing photos in Rock and Ice and Climbing, including a cover image for this magazine—of Sonnie Trotter on The Path (5.14 R), Lake Louise, in January 2008.
When he was in his late twenties, Richards’s alpine career took off. He established a new route on Kwangde Shar (19,990 feet) with Ines Papert and one on Tawoche (21,329 feet) with Renan Ozturk. He soloed the world’s fourth-highest peak, Lhotse (27,940 feet), and made the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II (26,362 feet) with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko—becoming the only American to summit an 8,000-meter peak in winter, a title he still holds. On the descent, the team was caught in an avalanche (details below) and barely survived. In the aftermath, Richards shot one of mountaineering’s most iconic images: that of his own face, bearded and terrified, coated in ice.
Gasherbrum II was, as Richards puts it, an “inflection point.” The ascent and avalanche, depicted in the award-winning documentary Cold, turned Richards into an outdoor celebrity. He became a National Geographic photographer, was promoted to The North Face’s Global Athlete Team, and gathered a million-plus Instagram followers. Yet the avalanche also left him with PTSD, which reignited his self-destructive impulses. He struggled with alcoholism. Attempting Everest’s Hornbein Couloir with Conrad Anker in 2012, Richards experienced what was at the time described as a panic attack and was forced to leave the expedition. In just one month in spring 2015, he got divorced, separated from The North Face, and gave up his stake in 3 Strings Productions, the company he ran with fellow climbing photographers Andy Mann and Keith Ladzinski. Interspersed with the lows, however, were some highs: A year later, in spring 2016, he Snapchatted his way up Everest with the famous guide Adrian Ballinger, summiting without oxygen.
Richards, now 40, is a handsome guy with pale-blue eyes and spiky blond hair; he’s hyperarticulate and easily confessional, yet he speaks somewhat dispassionately about his own emotions, perhaps recognizing that they can be untrustworthy representations of the external world. When I Zoomed with him this past September, he was sitting in his new home in Southern California—exactly where he’d told his Dhaulagiri teammates he was going to reinvent himself.
Richards now believes that his flight from Dhaulagiri is best understood through the twin lenses of personal history and mental health. On the one hand, what he experienced was a mental-health emergency: a nightmarish reignition of old traumas coupled with undertreated bipolar disorder. On the other, Dhaulagiri saw Richards finally acknowledge that his almost Faustian relationship with climbing—a sport that has provided him with wealth and fame and external validation—was no longer sustainable … and may never have been.
The thing is: I've always been better at making a name for myself than actually climbing.
Climbing: Your relationship with climbing is about as old as you are. Tell me about your childhood.
Cory Richards: My earliest memory of climbing was my dad throwing a rope over a boulder and then hip-belaying my brother and me. That was in the Wind River Range, and we were, like, five and seven. I had a pretty idyllic childhood. We skied or climbed every weekend. My parents cared about us. They wanted us to do well. And there was also a lot of happiness. But there were also toxicity and stress and violence, and that pushed me—I don’t want to say off course, because the course was what it was—but it left me with trauma. When I was 12, it became clear that my life was not working out the way it should
Climbing: What did that life look like?
Richards: At first it was about school performance. I was a very good student growing up. I got straight As and went to high school two years early. But when I was 12 years old and a freshman, I suddenly didn’t like school anymore and was underperforming. It was as if I had stepped into an alternate version of myself—a version that was the inverse of everything that came before. Of course, this coincided with my home life becoming more toxic. I gravitated toward this older contingency of kids who were having sex, doing drugs, exploring things that are a normal and arguably healthy part of adolescence. But I was too young for it. And I fell too hard for it.
Climbing: Why this sudden shift?
Richards: I had some difficult relationships at home, sometimes violent relationships, so I was looking for acceptance and affirmation elsewhere. Part of it concerns my relationship with my brother. He’s the person that I have loved most deeply, and the rejection I felt within that relationship propelled me toward other relationships that could mirror the brotherly dynamic. The same basic paradigm later informed my relationship with people like Conrad Anker. I wasn’t just looking for a climbing partner and a mentor; I was looking for an older brother.
Climbing: At one point, you were institutionalized, then homeless, and, according to a story at Outside, lived with an LSD dealer ….
Richards: I was briefly installed at the psych ward at Primary Children’s Hospital, which was a jumping-off point for my experiences at Lifeline, a 12-step program. I was in and out of there for eight months. Then, when I was 17, I went back in to the hospital for depression and a severe sort of bipolar episode. After that, I started cleaning my life up. But I ran away from Lifeline three times. And the last time, my parents were like, “OK, whatever. We’re at a breaking point where we either have to choose our relationship as husband and wife or keep enabling this behavior.” They chose to preserve their relationship. I imagine that’s one of the hardest decisions you can make as a parent.
The last time I ran away from Lifeline was when I was “homeless.” But homeless is a big word. Most of the time I was taken in by people. There were some periods where I was out on the street, but it was infrequent. I didn’t spend 13 months living under a bridge.
Climbing: Did you consciously escape from a powerless situation in a psych ward into its opposite: the openness of the mountains?
Richards: I’ve never actually made that correlation, but I like the analogy. Even as a kid I was always more attracted to big, snowy, alpine environments than to rock climbing. Rock climbing was harder than I was willing to put effort into. [It] came down to acute physical ability, whereas alpine climbing was more of a mental game. I could suffer well. High-alpine climbing fundamentally excited me. I wanted that exposure. I wanted to be riding that line. I wanted to be higher up. I used to sit on the floor in my dad’s library and look at pictures in the Boardman-Tasker Omnibus, or pictures by Kurt Diemberger or Chris Bonington, and gaze in awe at these enormous spaces.
Climbing: When did you find climbing again?
Richards: In my late teens. I had dropped out of high school and was living in Seattle with my aunt and uncle. I had a job at REI, and I saved some money and went to the Ruth Gorge. This was after I’d done some climbing in the Cascades, on Mount Rainier and stuff. I did Denali when I was 18 or 19. Then I went to Peru and climbed in the Cordillera Blanca. That’s when it started to become an identity for me.
Climbing:What did that identity look like?
Richards: I’ve always felt a little out of myself, like I don’t have a real identity, so I’ve attached myself to things and activities that have provided one. Plenty of young climbers find identity and validation in climbing. There is a tremendous and observable fervor in their obsession. It’s everything to them; it’s all they talk about. I was like that, too. So climbing began as something that was quite pure, and then I attached my identity to it, and then I attached my career to it, and then I attached more identity to it, and then it was perverted by the very nature of how I had pursued it.
Climbing: So the more external validation you got, the less internally pure it was?
Richards: Yes. But also, to be honest, I think climbing—and I’m a bit fearful of saying this—always had an element of external validation for me. It was never strictly about love of the sport. My family built that structure for me. I’d climb something hard, and it would be like I’d done some good deed, and I’d get rewarded for it, and my father and mother would be proud of me. So it was a natural default to run back to that structure when I was trying to rejoin the family.
I would contrast myself to someone like Marc-André Leclerc, at least as he comes across in The Alpinist: He was in it for the soul. I would be lying if I said that I was, at any point, in it strictly for the soul. Which also probably hindered my ability to be the best climber I could be.
Climbing: Tell me about Gasherbrum II.
Richards: By the time I got to Gasherbrum II, I had climbed Lhotse; I had done an FA with Ines [Papert] on Kwangde Shar and another on Tawoche with Renan Ozturk. I had climbed Ama Dablam. And I had been on Makalu with Steve House. So I had a backlog of Himalayan experience. It was because I was “making a name for myself” that Simone [Moro] asked me to go. But the thing is: I’ve always been better at making a name for myself than actually climbing. The degree of my success can be measured by the talents of my partners. I was never a great climber; I was an ambitious climber. I found ways to go to big objectives with the people who’d help me succeed.
Climbing: Can you walk me through the avalanche?
Richards: After we summited on February 2 , a severe storm hit the mountain. We descended through that storm for two days. Then, on February 4, still in the storm, we left Camp One for Basecamp. That’s when it happened. We were walking down the Gasherbrum Glacier underneath Gasherbrum V and VI. The mountains were right above us, and they had all these seracs. It’s like a 45- or 50-degree slope, prime avalanche terrain. We’d watched avalanches come down in this area in the previous weeks, and we were walking through avalanche debris in the deposition zone.
For me, as a storyteller, documentation is a coping mechanism. I'm like, "Oh, my God, this is overwhelming. Well, here's how I can get outside of it for a moment: I'm going to tell the story of it."
Anyway, it was still storming, and we were basically in clouds. Simone was leading. When we heard it, I looked up and saw the avalanche burst down out of the cloud layer. We were on flat ground, so the avalanche slowed just before it hit us, but it still carried us something like 500 feet over at least one large crevasse. I was almost entirely buried. I had one arm and my face above the snow. When I realized I was alive, my first thought was, Well, Simone and Denis [Urubko] are dead, and then intense fear came over me because I knew what kind of terrain I still had to cross. There are crevasses everywhere.
Climbing: How did you experience the avalanche?
Richards: It was scary, it was loud, it was big, but as time has passed, I’ve gone back and been like, Well, how big was it? How scary was it? How dangerous was it? Almost like I’m gaslighting myself. I think about that all the time. But the truth is, it was horrifying, and I thought I was going to die, and then I didn’t die, and I got up, and I took this picture, and I filmed myself crying, which is this weird duplicitous experience where you’re both aware of yourself as a storyteller but at the same time you’re having the emotional experience that you’re documenting, which puts you directly at odds with yourself. It’s like you’re two different people in the same moment. That really fucked me up for a while. It still does.
Climbing: And then you just walked down?
Richards: I was insistent that we descend in the middle of the glacier rather than right under the mountains. So I started leading. But it wasn’t five minutes before I was like, Oh, shit, this doesn’t feel good, and then, Wham, a huge snow bridge collapsed underneath me and I fell into a massive crevasse. The rope caught me, and I was just hanging there like, Oh, my God, really? So we went back to our original route under the mountains, and I remember constantly thinking: When’s the next one coming? You’re right underneath these big seracs for a couple of hours.
Climbing: Was Gasherbrum a trigger for both your career and PTSD?
Richards: When the avalanche happened, I was already in an unstable psychological position. I was coming out of my twenties, I had just gotten engaged, I was probably experiencing untreated and recurring symptoms of bipolar—so the avalanche was like adding fertilizer and water to a planted field of issues. That said, I wasn’t properly aware of the trauma for years. It manifested as alcohol abuse, sex addiction, anger, erratic behavior, disassociation, memory loss. Only when I look back at that period do I see PTSD mixed with preexisting bipolar disorder. At the time, an avalanche was just an avalanche.
Climbing: What about Simone and Dennis? How did they process it?
Richards: They were totally fine—or, no, who am I to say that? I don’t know their personal journey. But it didn’t seem like as big a deal to them. It’s all relative, remember. And, Simone, he’s like Marc-André Leclerc: He just loves it. Climbing is his life and his livelihood.
Climbing: Afterward, you’re suddenly about as famous as climbers get. What is climbing fame like?
Richards: It was intoxicating, but at the same time I always felt slightly fraudulent because, again, I feel like most of my successes were derived from the talents of my partners. While I loved the attention, I also felt like I didn’t belong in the spotlight.
Climbing: Was this imposter syndrome part of what motivated you to do Everest without oxygen? There’s no faking that.
Richards: Yes and no. I will say this: For as much shit as Everest gets, it’s a legit undertaking without oxygen. Even if you’re on the normal route, it’s still a profound exercise in tenacity. I also love Everest—the idea that it connects the planet in one singular point, that it transcends cultural differences and borders. And I always, always wanted to climb it without oxygen. So as much as I got external validation, my experiences on Everest were also genuine indulgences in the spirit of climbing.
Climbing: You’ve ended up serving as a spokesperson for PTSD in the adventure community. What’s that been like?
Richards: The way it generally works is I’ll give a talk and people will come up to me and say, “Thank you so much for talking about this,” and then they tell me their story. I love having that effect. But I also tend not to get too deep. My response is often, like, “Man, I’m so sorry you’ve had that experience, but I’m so grateful you’re finding your way through it, and I’m happy that anything I might have done sparked that conversation and that healing process, and I’m with you.”
Climbing: After Gasherbrum II, you went to Everest with Conrad Anker in 2012, but had to bail after a PTSD-related panic attack, correct?
Richards: I think what happened was PTSD related, but I would no longer necessarily call it a panic attack. We were trying the Hornbein Couloir, but I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was more ego than skill, more hubris than awareness. I didn’t know how to manage the stress, and I wanted out, and I made that happen. I would still relate that to trauma and PTSD, but I don’t really know how to categorize it anymore. Maybe unresolved trauma and too much stress and an outsized ego and sort of a self-inflated or arrogant or grandiose view of self. All of which, I think, is tied to bipolar.
Climbing: How did Conrad deal with it?
Richards: We had a huge falling out. And it was my fault. Most things that have happened in my life have been my fault … As much as I was looking to be a climber, I was looking for an older brother. Conrad and I have [since] repaired our relationship. I love him, and have nothing but respect for him.
Climbing: This spring, you had a similar experience on Dhaulagiri.
Richards: With Dhaulagiri, the result was the same: I left an expedition unanticipated. But the inciting incident was very different. Dhaulagiri was an acute mixed bipolar episode. We were looking at the Northwest Ridge … and I was excited about it, but I was also excited by the fact that it was dangerous and I might die, and that duality was scary to me.
Climbing: Is that what caused the departure?
Richards: Well, I didn’t understand what was happening at the time. I was just, like, None of this works, I’m fucking out of here, I’m freaking out. I was sobbing in my tent, silently screaming because I didn’t want to freak out the cook staff. I was crying to the point of dry-heaving. It was chaos in my brain. Absolute chaos. I’d lose my shit just reading a book. Part of it was stress. Part of it was precipitated by jetlag that turned into insomnia that turned into sleep deprivation that turned into mania or hypomania, which for me presents as heightened emotional feedback: I’m quick to tears. I’m irritable. I get angry. I feel stress more acutely. And I was experiencing all this alongside this deep sense of despair and sadness and self-loathing. It’s called a mixed episode: You’re fucking jacked, but at the same time you’re like, “I want to fucking die.”
Climbing: But some of the thoughts were also accurate, right?
Richards: Yeah. A lot of the stuff I was thinking has turned out to be spot on: I am retiring from climbing, it doesn’t fit anymore, it doesn’t work for me in the same way it did. And there, at Dhaulagiri, I was finally saying those things to myself. And it was accurate. What wasn’t clear until about a week later was that this was a full-blown bipolar shitshow. This was brain chemistry on display.
Climbing: How did your partners react?
Richards: It pissed them off. They’re like, “Wait, you’re leaving and moving to California? What the fuck, dude—we’re making a film, we’ve invested all this time, and you’re just out?” So that’s where the frustration comes from, which I totally get. I don’t think we should excuse poor behavior—mine or anyone else’s—because of mental health. Some people use mental health as an excuse for being a fucking asshole. They’re like, “Oh, hey, I’ve got this problem, so I can’t be held accountable.” But at the same time, I don’t know what accountability looks like except saying, “Yeah, this happened, and that’s it.”
All passion is worth pursuing to its ultimate end, but it just so happen that a consequence of climbing is mortal.
Climbing: Do you think these kinds of bipolar experiences have been playing a role in your life all along?
Richards: Absolutely. Now that I’ve recalibrated around this, I see a lot of my career through that lens. I was diagnosed at 14, remember, but they just put me on a couple of medications, and I stayed on those medications for 26 years. I never changed them. I never re-addressed it. It seemed fine. But it’s almost certain that those drugs were not having their intended effects, and when I look back at how I’ve handled things—everything from my divorce to my departure from The North Face team—I’m like, Holy shit, how much has this thing steered my life?
Climbing: How do you think climbers with mental-health issues should approach the sport?
Richards: Transparency. One misinterpretation of mental health is that it should keep you from doing things. That’s wrong. Just because someone has epilepsy doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go skiing. Go skiing! Just figure out your infrastructure. The people you ski with need to know how to deal with it, and you need to take every precaution. [It] doesn’t mean you should stay home for life. That’s a terrible interpretation.
Climbing: What does retirement mean for you?
Richards: I’m still trying to figure that out. It doesn’t mean I’m never going to climb again or that I’ve lost that innate passion for alpine environments. All of that still exists. But I need to let go of the identity piece of it, the parts that no longer fit and feel fraudulent. I’m writing a book now, about mental health and addiction. I’m aiming for something a bit different than those “I’m-rad-and-I-climbed-Everest” memoirs. Eventually, I want to make big films that tell big stories, big narratives. I’m ready to not be defined by the things that have always defined me. And part of that means leaving climbing behind, at least for a time.
Steve Potter, a digital editor at Climbing, holds an MFA from New York University and has been climbing since 2004.
From Winter 2021