Mountaineer Cory Richards came close to death in an avalanche, but it was what happened afterwards that almost destroyed him.
Richards is a mountaineer and National Geographic photographer. The 37-year-old American has climbed mountains all over the world from South America all the way to the Himalayas.
Mountain climbing is exhilarating and fun. However, it can also be dangerous. Even the most experienced climbers can’t avoid the perils of the mountain forever.
Richards was 29 when fellow mountaineers Simone Moro and Denis Urubko invited him on an expedition to climb Gasherbrum II, also known as K4.
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Gasherbrum II is the 13th highest mountain in the world, and its peak is 29,515 feet above sea level—one of only 14 peaks above 8,000 meters in the world. It is located on the border between Pakistan and China.
To add to the danger, Richards, Moro, and Urubko planned to climb Gasherbrum II during the winter, when the weather is significantly more severe. If they were successful, they would the first climbers to complete a winter ascent.
Richards is an experienced climber, but there was no preparing for an expedition like this.
“Going on any significant Himalayan expedition, specifically one that aims to climb an 8,000 meter peak, and on top of that to do it in winter, is by its very nature scary. There’s no better word for it. It’s scary,” Richards told Humanity.
“I felt like I was a little bit like a fish out of water as though I was biting off a bit more than I could chew,” Richards recalled.
They set off in January 2011. He felt like this expedition was slightly above his abilities, but Moro, an experienced Italian mountaineer, had confidence in him.
Summiting Gasherbrum II was an arduous climb, but fortunately the weather was favorable. However, as they reached the summit, the weather began to deteriorate. It only got worse as they began to descend.
The wind picked up, the clouds rolled in, and visibility decreased dramatically.
Unknown to people outside of the climbing community, the descent is the most dangerous part of mountain climbing. Eighty percent of climbing accidents occur on the way down, according to Richards.
“I remember Denis’s eyes starting to freeze shut a little bit,” Richards recalled.
Then they heard a loud noise from above. A large piece of glacier called a serac cracked, and plummeted into the snow below causing a large avalanche.
Richards looked up, and saw the behemoth of snow and ice barreling toward them.
“I understood we were most likely going to die. I was pretty resigned at that point. I mean I was angry for sure. I was upset about it,” Richards recalled feeling.
Richards, Moro, and Urubko were tossed over several crevices. Richards began trying to do what you’re supposed to do in an avalanche, which is swim against the direction of it.
However, that practice in an avalanche of this magnitude didn’t work.
“It’s just chaos. It’s loud. You can’t really do it. You’re just getting pushed around,” Richards explained.
He couldn’t see anything either.
“It’s just different shades of blue that get darker and darker and darker as you get pulled deeper into the snow,” Richards said.
When the snow settled, Richards was buried up to his face. He believed his friends were surely dead.
But then he heard Moro’s voice. Moro eventually was able to dig himself out, and then dig Richards out. Then they heard Urubko’s voice, and recovered him too.
In the midst of dealing with the realization that he had survived, Richards pulled out his camera and took a selfie. It became the cover of National Geographic magazine.
Richards was still concerned. They still had a ways to go on their descent.
“I remember feeling relief that I was not dead. But I also remember feeling frustration, anger, and anxiety about getting down,” Richards said.
Fortunately, all three climbers made it down to base camp. Richards returned to Boulder, Colorado, about a week later.
At first, returning home was a great feeling. He was also engaged at the time, so it was a joyful experience to see his fianceé, and they married soon after his return.
“It was exciting. It was nice to get home. It was nice to be out of the mountains,” Richards said.
However, the trauma of the avalanche would follow him home.
Different emotions started to accumulate over time. Richards had always felt distant from other people, but his experience on Gasherbrum II made him feel even more so.
“I felt confused, disassociated, disinterested, misunderstood, scared, and that all kind of just lingers and grows,” Richards explained.
He started drinking to cope with his conflicting feelings. The drinking only exacerbated his depression.
“You become sort of a shell of yourself,” Richards said.
Unable to deal with everyday life, he threw himself into his work, embarking on extraordinary adventures in remote locations. But no matter how far he traveled, he couldn’t escape his inner conflict.
His marriage began to fall apart and he became incapable of making rational decisions both in his personal and professional life.
“There was a time where I was so unhappy, and I started to pursue that within therapy. My therapist at the time suggested to me that some of things that I was displaying were consistent with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” he said.
He continued climbing, but he wasn’t able to enjoy it to its maximum potential.
Richards reached a point where he had to make a decision to change his life.
“If I continued doing what I was doing I was going to kill myself. Whether literally take my own life or dissolve so completely as a human that I’d just drink myself to death,” he recalled.
Richards, on his own accord, began receiving treatment for alcoholism and quit drinking in November 2016.
Even before he fully quit drinking, he started to feel alive again. In May 2016 he found joy on the summit of Mt. Everest—alone.
#NatGeoInspires Wanderlust // The mountains are where it all started for me. As I grew, so did my objectives. The past few years steered me away from the very places that gave me energy, and I felt my excitement for life begin to wane. There is a freedom in the mountains that we can’t find anywhere else…a sense of being part of vs apart from. Returning to Everest this spring was about reconnecting with an arena that I almost abandoned for some time. It was a truly selfish act…and one that I own wholeheartedly. But I’ve realized too that we have to find and own the motions in life that fulfill us daily. If we don’t, we stagnate…and stagnation is just a layover on the way to death. // insta retrospective
“It was beautiful. I just remember that moment as being really quite elated,” Richards said. It was the first time he fully enjoyed climbing again.
Like the long trek up a mountain, for the last year and a half he’s been taking his recovery step by step. Simply feeling emotion again is a huge success.
“I didn’t feel for a lot of years. Feeling again is what matters to me,” he said. “Being able to experience things more completely and more fully is what matters to me, and I still have a long way to go in that as well.”
It won’t be long before he’s back on top of the world—his next Everest climb is planned for 2019.