Cory Richards, a NatGeo photographer and The North Face team climber, was the first American to summit an 8,000-meter peak in the winter. We asked about his life as a climber and adventure photographer.
Top Photo: Mike Libecki ascending a fixed line in Queen Maud Land of Antarctica during a first ascent of an unclimbed tower in the Wolthat Range. View on Instagram.
IW: How did you get into climbing?
CR: I started climbing when I was about five years old — granted it was more scrambling up little mountains with my parents at that point. My folks had always been adamant that my brother and I were joining their lives vs. altering what they did to accommodate us. As such, we were born into a family that spent all of its time in the mountains, skiing and climbing.
As I went through adolescence, I kind of lost my way in some respects. I was a smart kid; entered high school two years early, but I dropped out at 14. Climbing and adventure photography were ultimately the two things that offered stability as I came out of that rougher period of life. In hindsight, I think that it was those years of tumult that allowed me a certain perspective regarding struggle. First, struggle is universal. Second, we can push through just about anything, no matter how hard.
As I developed as a climber and photographer, I found that those two passions complimented each other. As such, I got better at both. Eventually, the climbs that I was doing were bigger and harder than I'd ever anticipated. As someone who was photographing those climbs, I found that the duality allowed me to develop a unique skill set. As the severity of the climbs grew, so did the venues. First, it was the Cascades and Canadian Rockies. Then it was the Andes; finally, the greater Himalaya.
The learning curve was steep. Sooner than I'd anticipated, I found myself hired to go and climb in the Himalaya and bring back advertising assets for outdoor companies. This double-jointed job led me to The North Face, where I began climbing for them as an athlete; in-turn, propelled me towards larger expeditions in the greater ranges. Bringing the story and assets home was as much a part of my relationship with The North Face as climbing was. It's a very cool symbiosis.
IW: Tell us about Gasherbrum II.
CR: One of the biggest expeditions I ever took part in was to Gasherbrum II in the winter of 2010/11. G2, located in the Karakoram Himalaya of Pakistan (resting on the border of Pakistan, India, and China) is the world's 13th highest mountain. I was 29.
Of the 14 8,000 meter peaks that exist in the world, nine lie in Nepal and Tibet. Five are in Pakistan. At the time, none of the Pakistani 8,000 meter peaks had been climbed during winter — though 16 expeditions had tried over the past 26 years. Our goal was to do the first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II; simultaneously the first winter ascent of any of the Pakistani eight-thousanders. Before going on the expedition, I wasn't fully aware of the gravity of what we were trying to accomplish. It was a small team of three: Simone Moro of Italy, Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan, and me. I had no idea at that time, that if we succeeded, I'd be the first American to climb any 8,000 meter peak in winter.
We spent roughly 7 weeks in Pakistan before returning home. That climb, without question, changed my life forever.
IW: How did your expedition to climb Gasherbrum II change your life?
CR: The trip to G2 was hard. And to be completely honest, I don't think that I was truly ready for that type of expedition. Sometimes not knowing can be a strength. That winter, I think that not knowing played more to my favor. I was hired by The North Face to climb with and document Simone and Denis's ascent. Returning to base camp after six days of stormy climbing on our summit push, we were hit by an avalanche that nearly killed all three of us.
Directly after Simone had dug me out enough to move and I was able to dig myself out enough to get to my camera, I turned it on, pointed it at my own face, and immediately broke down. I think I was simply trying to deal with the trauma. It was humbling and deeply impactful. I still have a hard time watching the footage.
After surviving an avalanche while descending G2, @coryrichards turned the camera on himself and took this photo.
After returning home, we cut a short film called "COLD." It was a rough documentary of the climb and experience, but from a deeply introspective view. Anson Fogel of Camp 4 Collective, Kelly Cordes, and I wanted to make a climbing film that focused more on the psychology of big expeditions, vs. the more traditional chest-thumping, high-intensity films that are more common. Our film aimed to explore the fear, darkness, doubt, and growth that comes through experiences of that magnitude high in the mountains.
Cutting the film was a process that allowed me to have a much deeper look at what climbing meant to me and what it meant as a storytelling vehicle. It also gave me a decisive insight on the finite nature of our experience as humans — meaning this all comes to an end. In reality, that is the only certainty of any of our lives — that they do end. With that knowledge, compassion towards others despite cultural, religious, and racial barriers can be allowed to be a constant. I've tried to carry that into my photography, focusing less on what makes us exceptional or different; and more on what makes us all the same. When you look at it, that is the greatest potential and power that photography and storytelling offers. By focusing on how we struggle collectively, we become acutely aware of how similar we all are. That bridge is essential; my experience as both a climber and photographer on G2 gave that to me.
Adventure is allegorical to the larger experience. In many ways, my experience on G2 shifted my goals with adventure photography from exonerating a physical act to celebrating a psychological engagement and transformative experience.
Bajo spear fisherman, Sulawesi Indonesia. View on Instagram.
IW: How does your climbing experience uniquely enable you to photograph assignments for NatGeo?
CR: My first assignment for the magazine required the use of climbing to access ancient burial crypts in the Kingdom of Mustang on the border of Nepal and Tibet. That was a direct translation of skill set to scientific and cultural storytelling that hinged on my ability to climb. The same was true when I went to Everest and Antarctica for the magazine. That said, the perspective of adventure as a uniquely human act and the rawness that comes with that is more the heart of this question. Adventure is hard. It opens up and makes us dig. National Geographic is about making the exceptional relatable; creating emotion and connection to the larger plan and what we have at stake. I think my experiences as a climber have led me to a place where I can not only tell the story of a physical act, but connect people to the environments and culture that host those activities.
IW: Does your climbing experience often come into play while covering assignments for NatGeo?
CR: It's pervasive — even if I'm not actually climbing. In many ways, climbing is about problem solving: "How do we get from the bottom to the top? How do we do it safely? How do we do it beautifully and creatively?"
When we spend all of our lives exploring these questions, the solutions become relatable to other aspects of our lives. Naturally, there are assignments that are really just about climbing as an act. More often however, I find myself using the problem solving skills that climbing creates; applying them towards storytelling.
Sherpa children affected by the avalanche that struck the Khumbu Icefall on Mt. Everest. View on Instagram.
IW: What type of photography equipment do you use while covering assignments?
CR: It really depends on the assignment. If I'm in someone's home, shooting an intimate situation, I'll shoot with my Leica M with a 35mm lens. It's simple and non-invasive. Those scenarios are about finding intimate moments and inviting viewers to be a part of the experience that I'm having.
If I'm climbing, I'm usually shooting with a 5D MkIII or 1Dx, carrying a 16-26mm f/2.8, 24-105mm, f/4, and a 70-200mm f/2.8. Honestly, I prefer shooting with prime lenses. That said, the dynamic nature of climbing often demands more rapid versatility.
If I'm doing landscapes and I have time, I'll shoot with a Phase One with a IQ180 back. It allows me the option of slowing down and really finessing a scene to the point of perfection. If you want to get into landscape, you have to incorporate the textures and intricacies of all that makes it up.
It's kind of like having an arsenal of hammers. You're not going to use a jackhammer to do finishing work on trim. Likewise, you're not going to use a finishing hammer to break concrete.
I can't stress enough however, that any camera can accomplish any job. The best zoom lens is never as good as your legs and feet. You don't need to have an arsenal to make great images. It goes back to that problem solving idea of climbing. On G2, I carried a 5D MkII with a 25-105mm and a G10. Some of the best footage and images were shot with the point and shoot. What matters is the moment. If you have the hammer for the job, use it. But you certainly don't need a garage.
This is what it looks like to be COLD.
IW: How do you keep the gear functional in extreme environments?
CR: I don't! It's a constant struggle. Keeping batteries alive, keeping lenses fog free, continuing to shoot when you're miserable — it's all a struggle. The most important piece of equipment to keep alive and well is you. That's what I pay attention to most. If you can't function, your cameras sit unused.
More technically, I pay special attention to how I keep my batteries warm or dry and how I store my camera to avoid moisture. That all depends on the environment that I'm in. It can be as simple as silica packets or as uncomfortable as sleeping with your batteries stuffed down your long underwear. You just have to observe and be adaptable to what the environment demands. There is no real recipe.
IW: How do you handle power when out in the wilderness?
CR: Goal Zero! Is there any other answer?
IW: What are your storage solutions?
CR: It's pretty simple. I use a mirrored system, from naming to downloads. I'll take enough Thunderbolt G-Drives to accommodate the information, name, and organize in Adobe Bridge Creative Cloud, and then copy the files to both drives. Once they are all copied on both of those drives, I'll do a master backup to a larger drive that I'll then back up to my server at the office. On location, it's usually double the number of drives I'll need for the information. I'll keep them in separate locations, sometimes in dry bags or pelican cases as per the specific moment. Most important is to keep the workflow consistent — do it the same way every time.
IW: How do you handle file dumps?
CR: Always a laptop. Often, I'll take a backup laptop for longer trips.
@freddiewilkinson and Mike Libecki climbing a new route in the Wolthat Range of Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.
IW: How does outdoor gear play an important part in your expeditions?
CR: Outdoor gear is fundamental in keeping me comfortable enough to get the job done. That's one of the coolest things about working with The North Face — I can have tangible input in the design of products that help me perform in the field. If we aren't comfortable enough, or if we are outright uncomfortable, we won't be able to shoot. With The North Face, we are always trying to allow the athlete the absolute maximum functionality without impediment. The less you're thinking about your gear, the better that gear is. The less you're thinking about being comfortable, the more capable you are of focusing on your job — that being the story that's unfolding in front of you. Gear is the jumping off point. That said, once you've leapt, you shouldn't be thinking about it at all.
IW: Most outdoor gear and apparel is improved incrementally, but every once in awhile, a product category is revolutionized. Has any one particular piece of gear revolutionized how you explore?
CR: In all honesty, it's those incremental progressions that are constantly revolutionizing how I work. For example, if we look at weight ratios and the idea a simple shift or evolution in fabric effects how much we are carrying in the field, you're actually talking about your maximum potential physical output being increased by default. As fabrics and designs are refined to cut weight, we see the combined weight of all that we're carrying decrease. As that decreases, by the end of the day, we have more energy. If we have more energy, we are more creative. It's a simple breakdown. Again, one of the coolest aspects of my job with The North Face is the ability to test certain materials and refinements that have the potential to maximize my creative output.
As far as one thing, I see backpack design and footwear as integral pieces. The lighter your pack is without any gear in it and the more comfortable it is to carry, the more likely you are to take that extra little piece of kit that might mean the difference between a good image and a great image — for example, a lens or filter, or an extra battery, or a light source.
With footwear, it's all about being comfortable. They say a pound on your foot is like ten on your back. I believe that; having shoes or boots that are both light and warm (depending on your environment) is essential. If you're on your feet all day, then that is the foundation of your movement in the field. Innovations in both of those areas have been pivotal for me in the past few years.
IW: In what areas of climbing do you see the most room for gear innovation?
CR: Alpine climbing has undergone an extreme gear revamping over the past 20 years. As materials evolve, we are able to carry less weight and thus climb harder objectives. I think that trajectory is going to continue and be even more impactful in high altitude alpinism. I also think we'll start to see (and indeed are already seeing) more and more combinations of sport. For example, lightweight paragliders that are allowing people to descend at an extremely fast rate and subsequently achieve more climbing in a single day.
In reality though, I think we'll see more innovation in how we as humans are training for climbing — honing in our the unique physiology of climbing-specific endeavors. The greatest evolution will come from within. That is the nature of the sport.
IW: What's your favorite piece of outdoor gear?
CR: My gloves. I know it sounds kinda banal. But the reality is that I use my gloves more than any other piece of equipment when I am in the high mountains. They are like old friends. The more worn-in they get, the better. I like seeing the miles they've covered. I like seeing the history. It's a constant reminder of the privilege I have to do the work that I do. My gloves. And of course, my camera.
IW: What kind of gloves do you use?
CR: They are the Venom Glove by The North Face. Designed by Dan Ramos.
IW: What key piece of advice can you offer for someone who is interested in outdoor adventure photography?
CR: If you want to shoot adventure photography, you have to go on adventures. It's pretty simple really. Jon Krakaeur wrote, "If you want to get off the map, you have to leave the map behind." It doesn't have to be the newest, the highest, the fastest, or the boldest, but it does have to challenge you and push your comfort zone. Redefine adventure to fit your comfort zone and document that journey. There are no road maps, so forget trying to read one to arrive at your destination. Just step out the front door.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.