Caught Inside: How Cory Richards Battled Depression at The Top of the World
Feature story originally appears on Teton Gravity Research.
Cory Richards is an accomplished mountaineer, photographer and filmmaker. Among other notable climbing achievements, he is known for being the first American to summit an 8,000-meter peak in winter, a feat he documented in the 2011 film “Cold,” and summiting Everest twice to document the expeditions on social media as part of the #everestnofilter project. Since childhood, Richards has suffered from severe mental disorders that took a severe toll on his life, something that has only recently become public. He told his story to the author through several interviews.
When I first met Cory Richards seven years ago, I had fallen for it, just like everyone else.
To us, Richards was a hero, an icon of American mountaineering, who had not only just accomplished the impossible, but had come back from the dead doing so. Richards had just premiered his film Cold in front of a hometown Colorado crowd that watched him, Denis Urubko, and Simone Moro summit the world’s 13th highest peak in winter, making him the first American to do so. On the descent, the team was hit by an avalanche, barely escaping with their lives. Richards managed to capture the whole thing on camera, showcasing his skill as one of the best storytellers of his generation.
Perhaps it was his skill as a storyteller that had us all fooled. Perhaps it was our ignorance. Sitting in a backyard at the premiere’s after party, having a beer with Richards and a stoked group of fellow college students, we chatted about climbing and how gnarly we thought the avalanche story was. He retold it in even more riveting detail, making us laugh with impersonations of his partner’s outrageous foreign accents.
Likely not a single person sitting in that backyard was aware that Richards was projecting a character that was far from reality. On the surface, he was a legend–filled with bravado, wit, and that little something special big mountain climbers seem to give off.
But internally, Richards felt anything but legendary. Behind the façade, he battled alcoholism, severe depression and bipolar disorder, all while weaving a narrative about his life that made it seem like all was fine in paradise. Richards’ life as a storyteller was torn apart by a deep identity crisis.
The Seeds Were Planted At A Young Age
“Imagine tilling a field. You plant all these seeds and then all it takes is one torrential downpour and it all blossoms. All of the trauma you have bottled up throughout your whole life comes up through the soil. Then it’s time to harvest, and the field itself gets choked out. That’s life.” – Cory Richards
To explain the underlying struggle with his own mental health, Richards points to his adolescence. He grew up in a middle-class family in the Salt Lake City area, with a cabin in the mountains and parents that took his older brother David and him skiing whenever possible. Richards’ mother suffered from severe postpartum depression after David’s birth, which helped set into motion events that would define Richards’ childhood.
Cory and David grew up fighting, often extremely violently, searching for–in Richards’ words– emotional support and acceptance. Their father, whom Richards calls “ever the pacifist,” did not support the fighting, but never laid down disciplinary action to effectively discourage it.
The lack of emotional direction weighed heavily on Richards, who at the time was already diagnosed with ADHD. His coping mechanism centered around dissociation, disengagement, and turning off emotions completely. What first started as running away from home to escape a stale and unsupportive environment, led to him spending nearly a decade without a true home, bouncing between rehab, therapy, different friends’ couches, and even an attempt to pull what he calls a “Christopher McCandless” (running away to live in the backwoods of Alaska).
The Mountains Are the Answer
After his parents taught him to enjoy the mountains, Richards was drawn there to figure out who he really was. His McCandless-inspired escape to Alaska was cut short when his car broke down in Seattle, so he settled there for a few years to live with his uncle who suggested he return to education. After applying to colleges, and even a quick stint as a hardcore Christian (a Christian seminary was a top choice for school), he started attending Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.
The summer after his freshman year, Richards felt an insatiable urge to return to climbing. Rebellion was a thing of the past, and he felt he had the skills and strength to excel at something. A sense of stability had manifested itself in his life, so he pursued expeditions to Alaska’s Ruth Gorge and Denali, Peru, and finally moved to Europe to study and climb in the Alps.
It was here that he started to learn the art of photography, under the mentorship of a university professor. Richards climbed as much as possible, with a penchant for ticking off scary alpine routes in the Swiss and French Alps. He took his camera anytime he could, focusing on capturing the inherent suffering involved in climbing, not just the beauty. The climbing, however, mixed very well with drinking.
“I remember, during that first summer in Austria, calling my mom and telling her that I was an alcoholic,” says Richards, realizing it was a cry for attention, “she basically told me: Cory shut up, I can’t deal with that right now.” His brother had just been involved in a life-threatening car accident in Utah, and his father had been fighting illness for several years. His mother was in triage mode and responding to her son’s alcoholic cry for attention was the least of her worries. She responded curtly, “Call me when you grow up.”
So Richards turned again to climbing and proving his own self-worth in the mountains. At the time, that seemed to happen automatically, and he only recognizes this today, after unpeeling the proverbial onion and digging deep into what drove him into a dark place as a young adult.
Who Am I?
Today, Richards is known for his haunting work as a photographer and cinematographer, all while putting his climbing skills to the test documenting expeditions all over the world. The Himalaya, the Karakoram, Antarctica, Burma; you name it and Richards has likely climbed there and shot there, often on assignment for publications like National Geographic or brands like The North Face.
However, he does not call himself a climber. Or a photographer for that matter. To me, it does not sound like a move of humility, rather a new form of self-expression. Sure, he can be counted among the best climbers and photographers of the world, but he has now come to the conclusion that calling himself by those titles is reductive.
“Growing up, I saw the mountains as a place where I could express myself and receive a degree of emotional gratification both internally and externally, and most of all feelvaluable,” says Richards. “Out there, there wasn’t a demand on identity, you more or less just align yourself with those activities.”
After finding the world of climbing and aligning with that identity, he realized that it seemed profoundly limiting to call himself just that.
“Only recently have I emerged to say that no, I’m not a climber, and no, I’m not a photographer, I’m just fucking Cory,” Richards says emphatically.
It took him until recently to realize that just because he became insanely good at one thing his whole life, that one thing does not define him: Talent can and eventually will fade, and once it disappears, what is left?
I Am A Profound Introvert
Richards calls himself a profound introvert, something he admits will confuse those around him. He is very outgoing, open, and willing to talk, but his own explanation of the introversion is very simple: He can only fully recharge alone. Getting away from people and spending time in his own head is both what gets him into trouble, but also what gets him through episodes.
He explains that he has learned everything he knows about himself this way, especially when it comes to controlling anger and impulsive behavior.
“I am a very combative person and have always struggled with anger, but it’s never outwardly focused,” says Richards. “Instead, I’m hard on myself to the point where it’s not simply, ‘hey you can push a little harder’ but it’s more like, ‘if you don’t succeed at this you fucking suck as a human’ so that I succeed no matter the call.”
As a climber at his level, that kind of mentality and behavior can lead to trouble, and Richards is well aware of that fact.
“I consider myself very risk averse, and only through climbing so much has my level of acceptable risk tolerance gone up to the point where I can do what I do,” says Richards.
To others, it may seem like a laissez-faire approach to life, but to Richards, every adventure is a highly calculated undertaking, and he intends to come home from each one.
He says he gets scared a lot, likely more than most who climb at his level. On an ultimately doomed expedition to climb the highest peak in Burma where the team ran low on food and pushed well beyond their limits, Richards became very vocal about his fear on the mountain, and attributes it largely to the team’s decision to turn around.
A Lowpoint On the Top of the World
“I want people to know that you can be a high functioning, high performance human, and still be dealing with these things, and in fact quite often dealing with them alongside everything else you are doing. It’s important to know that people who achieve these things don’t have everything figured out. That’s just a lie.”- Cory Richards
In 2016, Richards teamed up with friend and fellow high-altitude mountaineer Adrian Ballinger to climb Mt. Everest. They would make an attempt at climbing the mountain as fast as possible, and document the entire expedition live on SnapChat and other social media channels. It was supposed to be an attempt to show the real side of climbing these peaks, to delve into the nitty-gritty detail of what it took to suffer at the top of the world and offer a deeply personal look at the mountain. The mission went by the name #everestnofilter.
Richards summited the mountain without oxygen, but the most notable aspect of the expedition was not the climbing. For the first time in his life, Richards took an opportunity to speak about his struggles with PTSD, alcoholism, and general mental health.
“It’s kind of ironic, but I think my low-point, my rock bottom, was actually when I stood on the summit of Everest,” says Richards. “It’s almost poetic to say my low point was literally at the highest point in the world; I had to run to the farthest, most out-there place on the planet to realize that I had to deal with my problems in a real manner.”
Coming down off the mountain, he vowed to face his demons and seek treatment. On November 23 rd, 2016 he became sober.
When the two returned to Everest the following year, Richards really opened up. He had been six months sober at the start of the expedition and used his position as an influencer and storyteller to talk about alcoholism, PTSD and depression. That year, he summited again, but made it a point to stress the importance of how his evolution as a person was behind his accomplishment.
We Need To Stop Being Our Own Heroes
“There’s nothing that galvanizes us an as animal more than suffering. Trust that people want to help you, trust that people love you, because they do so much more than we could ever imagine. There is so much more love out there than there is malicious judgment.” – Cory Richards
After his audience fully embraced the openness and his story, Richards was bombarded with outreach in the form of notes, letters, emails, and phone calls. He recalls one woman, who has now come to several of his talks on the matter, who reached out to him saying she was going to take her own life but was inspired to push through.
“Do I take ownership for that? No. These people were searching for ways to escape the same cycle that was swallowing them, and I provided a voice at an appropriate time that was profound for them,” he says. “It illustrates the point that all of us collectively talking about our struggles can offer the same profound moment for different people at different times. It’s so important for us to own up to that stuff and stop being our own heroes.”
Richards’ lifelong battles have taught him a few things about mental illness. He talks about mental illnesses with all the confidence of professor or a doctor. His explanations are clear and concise and make a compelling argument for the idea that honesty and openness are the first step toward living a life without these demons.
“The number one cure to this kind of thing is honesty,” Richards says. “Once you’re honest with yourself, once you have accepted that you have a problem and see these cycling patters, it gets easier. Of course, step one is really not drinking. But once you’re past that, find that person, that friend who will listen and tell them you have a problem.”
Today, he still struggles through episodes of depression, but has found that talking himself through it and recognizing that the simple act of feeling again has returned him to the right direction. Richards is hopeful and sounds far from the closed-off storyteller of years past.
Richards is still the same man who I met in the Boulder, Colorado backyard seven years ago. The difference, now, is that he is no longer afraid to hide his dark side. No longer does his storytelling only touch on the staggering highs to accentuate the moments of daring high alpine heroism. Through sharing his pain and struggle, Richards has learned to give it space in his life, recognizing that only through his tackling it all head on would he get through it.
As luck would have it, that honesty has made him an even better storyteller.