To Get to the Summit, Cory Richards Had to Lose It All
When alpinist and photographer Cory Richards dug himself out of an avalanche in 2011, he emerged alive but scarred—an ascendant star in a community that tends to shun the very idea that trauma can have lasting effects. As his profile climbed ever higher, his career and personal life imploded. Six years later, one of the world’s best artist-adventurers comes clean about the panic attacks, PTSD, and alcohol abuse that nearly killed him.
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As soon as Cory Richards realized that he had survived the avalanche, he turned his camera on.
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It was February 2, 2011, and Richards had just summited 26,360-foot Gasherbrum II—the 13th-tallest peak in the world—with two of mountaineering’s titans, Simone Moro of Italy and Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan. The trio had endured vicious weather and minus-50-degree temperatures to become the first climbers to conquer one of Pakistan’s 8,000-meter peaks in winter, a goal that had thwarted at least 16 teams before them. On the way down, however, an enormous white wall of snow and ice ripped free from neighboring Gasherbrum V. Richards watched in terror as the torrent of debris screamed toward them, hitting with such fury that it hurled all three over a gaping crevasse. When it was clear that they had lived, Richards snapped a now iconic self-portrait, his beard coated in icicles and his eyes frozen in a terrified stare. He was bawling.
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Ten months later, Cold, a documentary directed by Anson Fogel using Richards’s G2 footage, won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. Richards became famous overnight. He started shooting regularly for National Geographic, which put his avalanche portrait on the cover of its 125th-anniversary issue. The North Face made him one of the company’s most visible athletes and produced a T-shirt featuring that same photograph. Richards toured the country sharing his survival story and screening Cold to audiences ranging in size from 100 to 2,000. He estimates that he sat through the film more than two dozen times in the year after its release. Initially, he enjoyed watching himself nearly die. “I got a total charge from showing it,” the 36-year-old says. “I thought it was positive.” His presentations exhibited the wit and charisma his friends had long known, but the near-death experience was always the crescendo. “The final act that would leave me vibrating,” he says. “It was like having too many consecutive shots of espresso.”
Only later did Richards come to understand what was really happening. Each time he relived the episode, he was poking a crocodile in the eye, tempting it to snap. His G2 success made him the first American to summit an 8,000-meter peak in winter—and arguably the hottest commodity in the outdoor industry—but it also served as a catalyst for post-traumatic stress disorder. The topic is rarely discussed among professional adventurers, but it affects far more in the field than anyone might expect or be willing to admit.
Over the next four years, Richards did what he could to maintain the image he had created. He went on expeditions and excelled as a photographer, shooting features for National Geographic in Myanmar, Botswana, and Antarctica. But behind the scenes, he suffered what he describes as an “unraveling of self.” He got divorced, left his primary sponsor, and lost his fitness to a cocktail of booze and shame. For a while, he considered taking his own life. “I just didn’t want to feel that pain anymore,” he says.
Richards eventually turned to therapy, and recently he has shown signs that he has managed to halt the free fall. He summited Mount Everest without oxygen in 2016, then again with oxygen this past May, garnering mainstream attention via social media and appearances on CBS and ESPN. His return to prominence makes it easy to believe that he has finally vanquished the demons that consumed him. But the reality, like Richards himself, is far more complicated. PTSD was only the latest chapter in a tumultuous sequence of events that began in adolescence and included substance abuse, violence, and stints in a psychiatric ward. The past left him searching for direction and self-acceptance—quests that continue today.
Richards's therapist, Laurel Mulholland, says that dealing with trauma now comprise 70 percent of her practice—up from just 10 percent five years ago.
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I first met Richards at the New Orleans Café in Kathmandu in October 2009. Each of us had just returned from an expedition, me to western Nepal with a trio of professional skiers, and Richards to 22,349-foot Ama Dablam with Melissa Arnot. By then, Richards had already summited Denali, attempted the south face of Aconcagua, and notched a handful of difficult routes in the Alps. He’d also spent two months climbing on 27,825-foot Makalu with Steve House, arguably the greatest alpinist in the world at the time. But he was still virtually unknown outside the core climbing community. We drank beers until the bar closed, sharing our ambitions, griping about how hard it was to break into our respective fields. “I don’t know how to do it,” Richards said.
Even then it was easy to peg him as a future star. He glowed with confidence and charm; he was the kind of guy who could enter a conversation with strangers and have every set of eyes and ears glued to him. He was self-deprecating and vulnerable, unafraid to talk about his failures and fears despite having what he admits is “a huge ego.”
His rise happened swiftly. Within a two-year span, from 2009 to 2011, Richards helped establish new routes on 19,990-foot Kwangde Shar with Ines Papert and 21,329-foot Tawoche with Renan Ozturk; he summited 27,940-foot Lhotse solo with oxygen; then he joined Moro and Urubko for the historic ascent of G2—the first 8,000-meter peak he climbed without oxygen.
That he was given those opportunities has a lot to do with him checking boxes that almost no one else can: He performs at elite levels athletically and with a camera at high altitude. He also gets along with a range of personalities, or at least he does when his mood doesn’t turn foul, as it often has since childhood. “When Cory is having a high moment, he’s one of the most entertaining, fun, creative, full-of-life people to be around,” says photographer Keith Ladzinski, who cofounded 3 Strings Productions, a Boulder, Colorado, creative agency, with Richards and Andy Mann in 2010. Everyone I spoke with who’d spent time with Richards pointed to the volatile mood swings that always seemed to lurk beneath his bubbly surface. “When he’s low, he won’t answer texts, won’t answer phone calls,” Ladzinski says. “He just kind of closes out the world.”
Richards will be the first to tell you that he is a good but not great climber—an opinion shared by nearly everyone who has climbed with him. “Cory’s talent in my opinion was really more as a photographer,” says Steve Swenson, a Seattle-based alpinist who has summited Everest and K2 without oxygen.
Swenson shared a climbing partner, George Lowe, with Richards’s father, Court, and met Richards during a backpacking trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range when Richards was ten. Later, as a young adult, Richards rented a condo from Swenson in Canmore, Alberta, where he climbed with some of the best alpinists in the world, including Will Gadd, Barry Blanchard, and Raphael Slawinski. They nicknamed Richards “Little Whipper Bitch,” because he routinely tried and failed to climb above his ability. He often ended up dangling from a wall.
Richards was a brooder from a very young age. The second child of Utah ski bums (Court and Richards’s mother, Kit, met when he was ski-patrolling at Alta and she was cleaning rooms at the Rustler Lodge), he grew up in Salt Lake City. Kit, worried that he was depressed, took him to see a child psychologist when he was one year old. Cory and his brother, Dave, who is two years older and works as a ski patroller at Alta, didn’t get along. Though Cory desperately sought Dave’s approval, he never got it.
“That has been one of the more painful relationships of my life,” Richards says. “I just always wanted that bond.” Both were gifted students and athletes, Cory in climbing and Dave in skiing, but Cory struggled. A doctor diagnosed him with depression in sixth grade and put him on Prozac. He dropped acid in junior high, grew dreadlocks, and quit going to class. His grades plummeted. He stopped climbing. “It was very frustrating,” Court says. “I was sort of at a loss.”
Shortly before Richards turned 15, his parents ran out of ideas about how to control him. “Every day we’d say, ‘We are in charge of this house,’ ” says Kit. “And he’d go, ‘No, you’re not.’ ” They put him in a juvenile psych unit in Salt Lake City, which led to a 12-step program called LifeLine, where older patients walked him around the building while holding onto his belt loops. He ran away three times in eight months and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After the last time, when he was 15, his parents said that if he didn’t go back to LifeLine, he couldn’t live at home. He moved out.
Some nights he slept at a friend’s house, other nights on a park bench. For a couple of weeks, he lived with an LSD dealer. He broke into his parents’ house and stole money, leaving behind notes to say he loved them and was sorry. “People tired of me very quickly,” says Richards. “I demanded space and attention as a child who was trying to scream at the top of his lungs at everything, all the time. And it was for attention. I don’t know what I was trying to say other than, ‘I’m very hurt and I’m very lost, and I feel fucked up.’ ”
Kit and Court agonized over Cory but made two pacts as a couple. First, Cory’s disruption would not destroy their marriage. Second, if Cory chose to commit suicide, as Kit’s brother had done at 15, it was out of their control. “I know that sounds truly cold,” Kit says, “but for our well-being I had come to terms with that fact.”
The defining incident in Cory and Dave’s brotherhood took place when they were 17 and 19, respectively. Cory had bounced around from family friends in Idaho to a rented house in southern Utah to an aunt and uncle in Seattle. He got so depressed that one day he decided to drive home to Salt Lake and seek help. When he arrived, he and Dave got into a fight; neither remembers what it was about. They had always pummeled each other like cage fighters—way beyond normal sibling brawls—but this time Dave lost it. “I pounded knots on his head,” Dave says. Cory flailed as he fought off his brother, then kicked out two of his car windows in anger. The next day, convinced that he needed professional help for his depression, Cory asked his mother to take him back to the psych unit.
Though Richards eventually emerged from his adolescent turbulence, his mental health issues continued to haunt him. Some research suggests that those who struggle with such problems may be more susceptible to PTSD. Richards has taken antidepression medication for most of his life, and there is a history of depression and addiction on both sides of his family. When he headed to Pakistan for the G2 climb, he was primed to struggle if he encountered trouble.
At the time of that expedition, Richards had already attracted the attention of established climbers. Moro asked him to join the G2 team after watching Richards’s rapid ascent of Lhotse in 2010; Richards had summited the world’s fourth-tallest peak in six days with virtually no acclimatization. He had also caught mountaineer Pete Athans’s eye that spring. It was Athans who pitched Richards as a photographer to National Geographic.
Richards got his GED and spent a semester studying photography in Austria. Andrew Phelps, his instructor there, referred to him as “one of the best we’ve ever had.” By the time of his post-G2 ascension, however, Richards was still relatively green when it came to professional photography. He launched his career serving as an assistant to a fashion photographer. That led to gigs shooting expeditions for Alpinist, Climbing, and Rock and Ice.
Then came G2. When the North Face and National Geographic organized an expedition to Everest in the spring of 2012, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the American summits of 1963, Richards was a logical choice to partner with alpinist Conrad Anker for a high-profile attempt of the West Ridge and Hornbein Couloir. The route hadn’t been repeated since Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld climbed it 49 years earlier. The organizers sent an all-star team of climbers up the standard route, while Richards and Anker tackled the harder line, disseminating regular updates to millions of followers via social media and the publication’s website.
“There was so much pressure, which I had assumed, and there was so much media around it, which I had created,” Richards says. He felt rattled from the start, repeatedly voicing his concern about the Khumbu Icefall, then lagging behind Anker as they climbed technical ice toward the West Ridge on an unusually warm day at 23,000 feet.
“If I’m really honest, I didn’t want to be there,” Richards says now. “It was too hot, I was wearing a down suit, and I think I knew: I need to get the fuck off this mountain.”
He was already overheating when Anker shouted “Rock!”—just in time for them to dodge a microwave-size slab that had fallen thousands of feet. They retreated, but Richards could not control his breathing on the descent. Longtime Everest doctor Luanne Freer, who treated Richards when he came off the mountain, would later say that he was taking 80 breaths per minute—four times the rate of a normal person at that altitude. “His eyes were as big as dinner plates,” Freer recalls. “He looked terrified.”
The more tests she ran, the more she believed Richards was having a panic attack. Her suspicion was all but confirmed when she administered a dose of Valium through an IV and he calmed down immediately. He confided that he had been struggling to move past his close call on G2, and he and Freer discussed how the tough-guy mountaineering culture might not look favorably on a panic attack. Richards knew what she meant. “Climbing is macho—chest pounding and high fiving and fist bumping. It’s not a touchy-feely place,” he says.
In the end, Richards was evacuated to Kathmandu. News reports characterized his condition as altitude related or possibly a pulmonary embolism. Richards did little to counter those stories. Once he calmed down, he even tried to get back on the mountain. Anker, who declined to be interviewed for this story, would not let Richards rejoin the expedition. Humiliated, Richards spent the next three days getting plastered in Kathmandu. It was the start of his implosion.
Richards bottomed out in January 2015, ending his marriage, splitting with The North Face, and giving up his equity in the production company he cofounded—all in the same month.
The effects of psychological trauma remain a mystery to some degree but are much better understood than they were even a few decades ago. This is mostly due to combat veterans sharing stories of their struggles with PTSD. Former Marine David Morris, author of The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, believes that the prevalence of PTSD in the military overshadows how common it is throughout society. “The central message of PTSD research is that memories are not created equal, unlike men,” Morris wrote in an e-mail. “If you almost died, there is a 12 to 20 percent chance”—or so the research suggests—“that it’s gonna haunt and hound you for a while.”
As Morris reports in his book, one study of 5,877 people showed that natural disasters like avalanches and earthquakes can leave as much as 5 percent of their victims with PTSD. That pales in comparison with human-caused events: nearly half of all female rape victims and 15 percent of military veterans experience the condition.
Laurel Mulholland, a Boulder-based therapist who works with Richards and other adventure athletes, says that “our brain kind of encapsulates trauma, and certain things trigger it. When we haven’t processed it, we can start to wonder, What the fuck is wrong with me? Why am I experiencing panic on this bike ride when I’ve done this bike ride a thousand times?”
Hilaree Nelson O’Neill is one of many who can relate to that. In January 2010, a year before Richards survived the G2 slide, the North Face–sponsored athlete was guiding a heli-ski trip in her hometown of Telluride, Colorado, when a female client fell into a creek, got her head wedged under a rock in such a way that O’Neill couldn’t free her, and drowned in 12 inches of water. O’Neill, who was the mother of two young sons, stopped sleeping at night. She suffered a panic attack in a chairlift line when she saw one of the first responders from the accident scene. She and her husband drifted apart and got divorced, an outcome that O’Neill says was directly related to her trauma.
“I think I was in shock for a year,” says O’Neill, who sat through three therapy sessions immediately after the accident at the behest of her employer. “I didn’t want to let my kids out of the house. I didn’t want to let them ride their scooter bikes. It just seemed like I’d lost control.”
Other athletes tell similar stories. Steve House completely rearranged his life—no more free soloing, no more dangerous expeditions—after narrowly surviving a 2010 fall in Banff National Park. Joe Simpson, whose book Touching the Void ranks among the greatest survival stories in history, once dismissed PTSD as an excuse for poor behavior but experienced crippling flashbacks when he returned to the site of his accident 17 years later. Steve Swenson suffered for months after a woman he was climbing with slipped from a ridge last summer in British Columbia and plummeted to her death.
“I could be sitting there having dinner, and all of a sudden that image of the woman falling off the mountain will pop into my brain,” Swenson says. “You can’t sleep—you replay those images over and over.”
It’s impossible to know how many adventure athletes suffer from PTSD, in part because formal diagnoses are rare. But awareness is growing. Mulholland says that adventurers dealing with trauma now comprise 70 percent of her practice—up from just 10 percent five years ago. Her clients include rock climbers, alpinists, skiers, even kite surfers. “People say, ‘I put this off for years because I thought it was a sign of weakness,’ ” she says. “Or ‘I never thought I’d come to therapy,’ or ‘I never thought of this as trauma.’ I’ve heard every one of those statements.”
The nature of psychological trauma is such that not everyone responds to therapy—be it EMDR or talk—the same way. But many adventurers who’ve been traumatized swear by it.
Still, there is some skepticism among professional adventurers. It’s a reflection not only of the community’s hypermasculine culture, but also of the fact that everyone reacts differently to trauma. Before Simone Moro survived the G2 avalanche with Richards, he was injured in a 1997 slide that killed renowned alpinist Anatoli Boukreev and their cameraman, Dimitri Sobolev, on 26,545-foot Annapurna. Moro has never missed a minute of sleep, he says.
Jimmy Chin was thrown 50 feet by the wind blast of a massive serac avalanche on the North Face of Everest in 2001. Ten years later, he survived another large slide without serious injury, near his home in the Tetons, just days before he planned to fly to Nepal and ski the fabled Lhotse Couloir. Chin says he suffered no lasting effects from either event, even though he canceled the trip to Nepal. “If I were really tough, I would’ve just sucked it up and gone to Lhotse,” he says of the 2011 accident.
Chin, 43, speaks with a hint of detachment when addressing trauma’s effect on adventurers. Though he agrees that therapy has its place, he believes previous generations dealt with things differently than millennials, whom he refers to as “fragile snowflakes.”
“I came up under Galen Rowell and Rick Ridgeway and Conrad Anker and David Breashears,” Chin says. “And it’s like, fuck, everybody’s been traumatized, you know? A life in the mountains is hard, man. If you’re making a living at it and you’ve been around 45 expeditions, a lot of shit can go sideways.”
Even before his freakout on Everest, Richards often joked with friends about having developed PTSD, but he was a long way from embracing it. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, that was fucked up, ha ha ha,’ ” recalls climber Matt Segal. “Just brushing it off a little bit, not really accepting that it did actually mess with him.”
The panic attack changed his perspective. After digesting what Freer told him in Nepal, he began researching psychological trauma in the summer of 2012. “All these little things were aligning,” he says. “Like memory loss and my behavior—you can go down the list. I was like, I think I might have some form of PTSD.”
Richards still took assignments and spoke in public, but behind his pensive Instagram captions, which now reach more than 900,000 followers, he was lost. “I felt like it was all fake,” he says. He relied on alcohol to numb his mind. He cheated on his wife, Olivia Hsu, a yoga instructor and professional climber who he married in the fall of 2011. People began to wonder whether he was merely a product of good climbing partners and luck—two commodities that had seemingly run out.
In 2014, Richards was preparing for a National Geographic expedition led by O’Neill to Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar. O’Neill suggested he try something that had helped her process her own trauma. Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is a form of therapy that at its most basic involves following a finger or sound from side to side while discussing a traumatic memory. Doing so helps the nervous system integrate the event and make sense of it, proponents say, so it stops haunting the patient.
Richards, who had begun processing the avalanche through talk therapy, worked on EMDR with Mulholland. He says it evoked a visceral reaction—“convulsive, nauseating, full-body tightening, clenching, and dry heaving,” he says—that left him exhausted. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
But it didn’t solve all his problems. Though he performed without incident on the Myanmar climb, back home he was still struggling. He drank too much, kept cheating on his wife, felt ever more ashamed, and sank deeper into a hole. Eventually, his wife found out about his infidelity. He was shunned by many in the climbing community in Boulder, where he lived. He bottomed out in January 2015, ending his marriage, splitting with the North Face, and giving up his equity in the production company he founded with Ladzinski and Mann—all in the same month.
Richards had considered killing himself back when he was 12, and those self destructive thoughts began to reenter his mind. He always had plenty of sedatives to help him rest during long travels for work. To take them all “would’ve been easy,” he says. “You’re out pretty quick.” When asked how close he came to following through on his thoughts, he says, “The idea of killing myself was very real and very present. Because I didn’t want to wake up to that feeling anymore, looking at myself in the mirror, knowing what I had done.”
Richards’s ex-wife acknowledges that he can be a “great, fun guy” but also an enigma. “He’d say to me, ‘I’m so lucky to be married to you. I’m afraid someday you’ll wake up and realize what a phony I am,’ ” Hsu says. “I would be like, ‘What are you talking about? I married you, I love you, don’t be ridiculous.’ But now it makes more sense.
“I don’t know what explains his actions, whether it’s being a narcissist or trauma,” she adds. “It’s kind of a concoction.” (Richards concedes he has narcissistic traits but denies that he is one.)
As the 2015 spring climbing season unfolded, Richards sat at home day after day, alone. Months passed. His public image—of the gifted photographer and daring climber and charming public speaker—taunted him. Few people knew how far he’d fallen.
In a life defined by highs and lows, it’s only fitting that Richards would earn redemption on the world’s tallest peak. Ten months after he left the North Face, he signed with Eddie Bauer in October 2015. Despite his public meltdown on Everest, the brand saw him as a “bright, energetic personality with an impressive climbing and creative résumé,” director of marketing Kristen Elliott says. Richards saw the sponsorship as a means to reclaim some semblance of what he’d lost. “Eddie Bauer didn’t even know how pivotal they were in pulling me out of this,” he says. “They came in and gave me enough financial support that I could train, focus solely on being a climber again, sort of put my life back together.”
Knowing he couldn’t afford to fail on another high-profile Everest expedition, Richards adhered to a torturous three-month training regimen, designed by Steve House, who now runs a coaching business, for the spring 2016 climb. House continued to help him on Everest, too, sometimes exchanging 20 text messages a day. On May 19, five days before he summited, Richards had a particularly bad day and texted House: “My fucking numbers suck. I hate knowing that fatigue level is so high!” To which House replied: “Seriously forget the numbers. Time to get into your body. Not your head.”
Richards struggled to keep up with his climbing partner, Lake Tahoe, California, guide Adrian Ballinger, during their acclimatization rounds, but the dynamic shifted on summit day. Ballinger’s energy began to wane, while Richards gained strength. As they climbed higher, Ballinger began slurring his words and shivering uncontrollably. The then six-time Everest summiter (all with supplemental oxygen) aborted his attempt. Richards summited alone, after covering the last 1,800 vertical feet in eight hours—nearly twice as fast as it takes the average climber. Ballinger admitted to feeling jealous that he couldn’t continue, but he told me, “If it had to work out that one of us summited and one didn’t, I would’ve chosen Cory a hundred times out of a hundred. I honestly mean that. I feel like so many people didn’t believe in him.”
“I would’ve struggled with depression and alcoholism regardless, but that avalanche was the biggest gift I’ve ever been given,” Richards says.
In June 2016, shortly after Richards returned from Everest, I met him at his luxury two-bedroom apartment on Pearl Street in Boulder. It was the first time I had seen him since 2009, and despite his triumphant achievement he seemed on edge. The glow I had witnessed seven years earlier was missing; now I saw only raw reflection. His face tightened when he described his mindset from the prior year. “I hated the world. I hated it so much,” he said. “I hated that people thought I was one thing but I felt like something different. I hated that I had come from this place of being told I was a fuckup, and I had done everything in my life to prove to people that I wasn’t, and somehow I couldn’t believe it.”
Perhaps the only thing more painful for Richards than his loneliness was his estrangement from his brother. In their early thirties, he and Dave, who is now the director of Alta’s avalanche-safety program, went four years without speaking. Despite small steps toward reconciliation—like when Dave joined Instagram and Snapchat to follow Cory’s adventures—they are not close, and both acknowledge that they might never be. “I found my life in the mountains, and Cory found his,” Dave says. “Different mountains.”
Each, however, can relate to the effects of trauma in their respective pursuits. For Dave, that meant responding to fatal accidents as an avalanche professional. He remembers little things from his early missions: the hand with a gold wedding band sticking out of the snow; the young man missing the back half of his head. There were more than a dozen in all. Some loitered in his mind for months. But he felt that they weren’t a serious issue.
Then, last fall, an excavator overturned on a steep slope at Alta; the driver fell out of the cab and was crushed to death. Dave observed the gruesome aftermath. All the other images he thought were gone came flooding back. He couldn’t sleep. He stared at the wall for two weeks at work. “I was having absolutely terrifying visions of broken people in my sleep,” he says. His mother mentioned that EMDR had helped Cory, and Dave sought it out. Processing each image through EMDR, he says, “brought me back to life.”
The nature of psychological trauma is such that not everyone responds to therapy—be it EMDR or talk—the same way. But many adventurers who’ve been traumatized swear by it. That represents a change from past eras, when mental health care was often scoffed at—or simply out of reach for a climber who wasn’t as successful as Richards, especially considering that sponsors almost never provide insurance.
Not only did House go to therapy after his accident in 2010, but he also recommends it to young climbers through his nonprofit, Alpine Mentors. “For a lot of us,” he says, “the first step is just knowing that there is a feeling there. I remember my first few times seeing a therapist. He’s like, ‘So, what do you feel about that?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ I wasn’t very aware I even had feelings like that to begin with.”
Richards credits therapy for getting him through his worst times and helping him manage his PTSD. “It’s not that you won’t be bothered by avalanches or explosions, but you come to peace with the experience rather than being trapped by it,” he said when I visited him in Boulder. Despite his recent summit, he still seemed uneasy. He’d been drinking a lot, but not to cope with trauma or even to celebrate, he said—he was just bored. “It’s the letdown after. And I know this always happens. This is what I do. It’s been a month now and it’s time to saddle up and start training again. But it’s OK to come home and be a wreck for a month.”
In February, I flew to Bozeman, Montana, to check in with Richards once more. He relocated there late last summer, needing a change of scenery from Boulder and wanting to be closer to his parents, who live two hours east in Red Lodge. We went skiing at Big Sky, where we hiked an exposed ridge that Richards said reminded him of Everest.
He was training, preparing to return to Tibet and support Ballinger on his attempt to reach the top of the world the hard way—without oxygen—honoring a pledge he made after their 2016 trip. He knows how much it stings to fail and how euphoric it feels to get back on top.
The visit was more subdued than our past meetings, for good reason. In December, Richards finally accepted that he could not control his “slow burn” drinking habit and quit cold turkey. He completed a 30-day treatment stay in Thailand and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every morning at seven when he’s home. He says he has had no problem staying sober.
As we sat in front of his fireplace, he told me that he still struggles with self-doubt and loneliness. He’d tried to go skiing a few days earlier at Bridger Bowl but couldn’t get out of the car when he got there, despite fresh powder and an empty parking lot. “I felt more isolated and removed than I had in months,” he said. “I turned around and drove home.”
Richards, who still works with a therapist once a week and remains on antidepression medication, is trying to face his bad days. He accepts that his mental wiring could mean that he’ll never attain complete peace of mind. So it’s easy to wonder why he keeps going back to risky environments to climb when he could simply focus on his photography assignments. (He spent much of the past year shooting part of a National Geographic piece that, ironically, focuses on the new science of happiness, in locales ranging from Copenhagen to Singapore.) But Richards says his Himalayan climbing career is far from over. “Everything is clearer and makes so much more sense up there. There’s nothing like it,” he says. “I don’t need climbing to define me anymore, but that’s why I’ll always go back.”
His patience paid off again this spring, when he and Ballinger summited Everest. Ballinger did so without oxygen, but Richards donned a mask as he began struggling at 28,500 feet, so that the two of them could stand at the top together.
As for his PTSD, Richards views the entire experience differently now. Maybe he had no choice but to change his perspective—anything else would have amounted to agony. “I would’ve struggled with depression and alcoholism regardless, but that avalanche was the biggest gift I’ve ever been given—professionally, personally, emotionally, physically,” he says. “Because it pushed me into a place of such utter fucking darkness that I was either going to kill myself or I had to evolve.”
He looks up from the fire. “That’s the beauty of any traumatic experience. It gives you the opportunity to grow.”
Outside correspondent Devon O'Neil wrote about mountain biker Howard Grotts in August 2016.