Photographer and mountaineer Corey Richards has acquired some perspective since, in 2011, he became the first American to make a winter peak on a height of 8000 meters, Gasherbrum II. National Geography The magazine has embraced him around the globe: from canoeing among hippos and crocodiles in the Okavango delta in Botswana to tracking down the happiest people in the world.
However, he is perhaps the most widely known as one of the messy guys in the Snapchat #Everestnofilter series, where he and his partner Adrian Ballinger have documented their experience of climbing the highest mountain in the world in two years. In the second season, Richards talked about his fight with depression, PTSD, alcoholism, and bipolar disorder. Since then, he has been sober and now focuses on a grueling curriculum from his home in Boulder, Colorado, to solve his current task: passing a new route along the north-east side of Everest without additional oxygen. This year, after spending the night at 7,300 meters, Richards and his partner Esteban "Topo" Mena were too cold and exhausted to continue. They plan to try again next year.
We met with Richards 10 days after his return home to get his opinion on the 2019 climbing season and much more.
Your work goes far beyond adventure stories. This was your fourth expedition to Everest. Why do you keep coming back?
A trip to Everest as a mountaineer has always inspired me, even since childhood. But I regarded it as a springboard to try something more, whether on this mountain or on another 8000-meter peak. In particular, I wanted to do something new in the Alpine style, without oxygen, on one of the 8000-meter peaks. How often do we ask Olympians why they return to the Olympics? We never ask this question, because we know that it is about improving the craft, improving, continuing. It is about being the best version of your sports personality you can be. And at some point you retire, because you passed this premiere. But at the moment, I do not see that I passed the prime minister. Actually, I think I'm still on this trajectory, and I'm on the rise. Honestly, I can’t think of a better, more exciting place for me than trying to build a new route to Everest without oxygen.
You have been on a very aggressive training plan for the past year. Now that you are back, will you immediately start training for the next year?
I was at home for 10 days and I trained twice. In my head and in my heart, I want to get down to business. But I did not regain motivation.
I spoke with Alex Hönnold about this the other day. He spoke immediately after Oscar, he just hit this wall, he could not train. He wanted to train, but it was right after this huge life event, and there should be a natural unwinding. So, no matter how I wish to return on a horse, the reality is that I fail in this rather difficult.
By now, you have come to the media coverage of the Everest season. The south side in Nepal was a shit show. You were on the north side in Tibet / China. Is the North side less crap show than the South side?
The north side is a lot less crappy show than the south side. This is due to the financial background of the respective industries. On the south side you have a country that needs income and desperately needs it. And as such, their restriction of permissions does not exist. On the north side you have a limited number of permits issued. You also have a route that tends to distribute people more efficiently due to topography. On the north side there are three potential points for traffic. But to be honest, the mountain range is so long that it allows people to simply lose weight.
In China, the attitude is: “Let's keep the mountain safe. Let's keep healthy and limit the number of permissions. Let's use it to our advantage, but we don’t need it. ” The money that goes to Everest in China is not even a thing. Look at their GDP.
Are there on the north side mobs and corpses that we hear about in the news?
On the north side there are corpses and all that shit. I believe that these bodies should remain in place, unless the family has a strong feeling that they will be removed. The nature of sports is such that people can die. They are dying. They will die. Not that I want people to die, but some people have to die while doing this. If we get rid of the risk, then part of the spirit or soul of the sport will be erased. We do not want the ascent of Everest to be absolutely safe. Not in this case. Therefore, I think that these bodies are a solemn reminder of the seriousness and seriousness of the activity itself.
Is there a garbage problem? Absolutely. On the mountain, there is a 100 percent problem with garbage – on both sides. It’s a matter of finding the right system to clean it up, and it will happen. Denali, Aconcagua, these mountains were a bunch of trash at one point. And they have become much cleaner and they are really well managed. I think we will see, especially on the Chinese side, the Rangers, as in other mountains. Rangers will be present in each camp during the season, and they will ride and go out of the bike, so people will not stay at an altitude of more than 8000 meters for too long. They will watch the garbage being taken out.
I also think that the Rangers will help with security issues, just like they do at Denali. When someone gets in trouble, it's the Rangers who raise slack. If they need to attract others, then they do it. It seems to be the system that works best. Setup will take time.
Is this being considered, or are you planting a seed of a solution that we hope can take off?
Both. Adrian Ballinger and I talked about this. His guides are supporters of this. I think this is a model that has proven its effectiveness in waste management and rescue. At least on the Tibetan side, where they seem to be more entwined, I think it will probably start soon.
What prevented you from reaching your goal this year?
It was a series of things. There were clear restrictions not very good weather conditions. There is no denying it. That's what made people climb and descend the mountain. It was a three day weather window, one good day on top. And this is a sensible day at the highest level – for people who carry oxygen.
Being there without oxygen changes the whole game. You can spend a nice, fresh, cool, but clear day with extra oxygen and be fine. But if you have a fresh, cool day without supplemental oxygen, it is frostbite. So for us, part of it was that.
The conditions on our route were not perfect. They were more intense than we expected, and we used a lot of energy on the first day. We thought we could find a place that would be reasonable for a bivi and really get some sleep. If we slept well the first night, we would continue. But we did not.
We did not expect what we were going to find, quite right. We ended up doing an outdoor bivvi of 7300 meters. If we knew that we were going to make an open walk at an altitude of 7300 meters, we would have packed differently, and we would be fine. But we did not, so we just turned out to be cold and tired. And it really struck us.
We woke up and began to climb into the night, and we just found ourselves in a place that was a little unnerving.
It was thin snow over a stone slab. During the day you can see. But at night it just seemed to me: “Damn, we climb into what may not be very smart here.” Also, because you are in a rockfall funnel.
Have you seen the fall of a stone?
Oh yeah. Yes of course. I advocated that we rest, try to sleep all night. It was really my fault. But yes, when we woke up, we really planned to go down. We said, "No, we can't give up." Therefore, we again set to work, climbed another 1,000 feet and realized that we were too tired. We wondered: “Do we have enough energy to enter a small weather window that will be cold and make it safe?” The answer was negative.
Then when you came down, were you ready for the season? Or are you going to look and wait to try again?
Oh, we fully expected to go back, but the weather window never appeared. But hopefully next year we will come back stronger. Now we know the size of the face. We are really sure of it. Everything about it was actually a positive experience. Just very hard to train the head for another 11 months.
You wondered if there would be haters who would have made it difficult for you, saying that this route is a new line. What happened at the end?
I think they probably would have called us if we had completed it. Because then it would be something to choose. Right now, people just say, "Well, they didn't, so it doesn't matter." I do not think that there are many arguments that this will not be a new line. Whenever I hear such things, I kind of point to Teddy Roosevelt’s quote: “It’s not the critic who matters.”
People who say that this is not a new line are obviously not very well versed in Himalayan climbing or in general climbing. Because let's just look at the north side of Everest. Messner climbed up to 1,400 meters of standard terrain on a standard course, before leaving to finish 800 meters of his own terrain. So is this a new route? I mean, he was called one. It has been rated as Messner line. Right?
The Northeast ridge itself was passed by the Japanese in the 90s. Full Northeast ridge. And it was called the new route. What is hysterical is that the whole area has been passed before. It simply was not related.
Another vivid example of this is the ridge of Mazeno on Nanga Parbat. Steve Swenson climbed Mazeno in 2004. And only when the route was actually completed before its completion, he was awarded the Order of Piolet d’Or. Thus, to say that this is not a new route, if we climbed, say, 6,000 or 6,300 vertical feet of terrain, and then finished 900 feet of established terrain, this is an argument of blue. But besides who cares? This is not a critic who counts. Very rarely do I get criticized by people who do more than me.
You have been very public about your mental health issues. Did they break out on this expedition? Or does rock climbing help balance you?
They definitely came to the surface. The anxiety I experience on these trips is enormous. But this is what I learned to deal with. I am so frank and open to medication for depression and whatnot. Oddly enough, I actually did not bring enough on this trip, which was not a very good scene. I mean, we worked our way, but this is just a funny look – I am usually very alert about this. And suddenly I have no drugs.
Does it make your anxiety go through the roof?
Yeah. But again, it’s just a natural look: “Well, I did it. I know what's going on. I know where I am. I know ". This suggests that everything is in order, you are safe and just perform the movements pragmatically and measuredly. But, of course, there is anxiety. It’s just learning to see concern about what it is, which in fact is not realistic. I mean, that doesn't make it any less uncomfortable. But anxiety is a manifestation of the brain. Right? If you see what it is. It can still do harm, but it can't hurt you. As soon as you spread it, when you sort of disarm him in this way, it becomes much more manageable.
Standard Everest routes are mostly non-technical ascents. Will the route you are trying to climb include climbing, mountaineering and ice climbing?
Yeah. At the top there is an area that we call the "event horizon." The event horizon is the edge of a black hole. This is where gravity is the strongest and you can't see c. You do not know what is on the other side. Thus, in the horizon of events on the route, this is a complete rock climbing, if not a lot of snow. We do not know. This is at the top, and the truth is that we just don’t know how to go through it, because we cannot look into it from any point of view. In general, there is climbing. In low rock bands down quite difficult. And that's what we avoided on this trip and walked around. But we decided that, seeing this, the way to go through it. Next time we do it.
Do you think that before you return to Everest, you will solve some big mountaineering tasks?
Honestly, we are talking about this Southern Shishapangma this fall, which would be great. This is the face that Alex Lowe died on. But I don’t worry about it from this point of view. I am thrilled to do it. I really want to find out: do I have the motivation to do this? Then Topo and I decided that we would try to make the south side of Aconcagua. And it could somehow sharpen us on a rather serious alpine terrain. This year I really worked hard on fitness. Exercising this year, I think I would focus on fitness equally. But then I would add a lot more climbing. I do not believe that the best practice for climbing is climbing. I just think that a bit more mixed climbing would be helpful.