Cory Richards first caught the world’s attention in 2011 when he survived an avalanche while climbing one of the world’s tallest peaks, Gasherbrum II, in winter in the Karakoram of Pakistan. He survived the avalanche and became the first American to climb one of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks in winter. A talented photographer, his star also began to rise at National Geographic, where he was given assignment after assignment. Fast forward to 2016 and he and his partner Adrian Ballinger launched Everest No Filter, a Snapchat series showing the real experience of climbing Everest via the North side, in Tibet/China. It went huge. In the second season he made his second summit—this time without supplemental oxygen—and revealed his struggles with mental illness.
Now sober, unsponsored, and living in Boulder, Colorado, he’s headed back to Everest on his own terms, preparing to climb a new variation on the North side.
They call it the “Everest Circus” because each year that’s what it becomes. Thanks to fixed lines and the thriving guiding services, it is possible to pay your way up Everest on the standard routes on both the Nepali and Tibetan/Chinese sides. Traffic jams ensue. It hasn’t been since the 1980s and 90s that people have been regularly innovating on the peak. The last time a new route was set on Everest was in 2009. Setting a new line requires everything to go right. Weather, health, communication, decision-making, risk assessment. And rarely does everything go right in life.
We caught up with Cory about his plans. Follow his story in the new ROAM Original Series, The Line.
When did Everest first become part of your story?
Cory: The first time I ever went to Everest was in 2012. I was climbing with Conrad Anker. He and I were trying to do the West Ridge, which would repeat the American route that had been done in 1963.
I had some health problems that were related to an avalanche that I had been through earlier in my career, so that ended my trip, basically. But it was during that trip that I really met Adrian Ballinger, who became my partner, who I went back with in 2016, 2017.
It was those trips with Adrian, when we did Everest No Filter, that I met Topo, which is what we call him, though his name is Esteban Mena. Topo is my partner for the climb this year. He’s this young Ecuadorian, amazing–really, he’s just a good human. But he’s a great alpinist, too.
Both Topo and I have climbed Everest without oxygen. Together, we have six summits, and we’ve spent all six of those seasons sitting under that face, watching the conditions of that line. So, when you look at that, there’s really no other two people that could come together to try something like that, that have actually more experience with that side of it.
What is your route this year on the Chinese/Tibetan side?
Cory: We started talking about this line that sort of strikes almost directly up from Advanced Base Camp, on the north side of Tibet. It’s obvious. It’s an anomaly, because it truly is like this line in the sky. It goes directly up the center of this face.
So, initially we sort of talked about it, more almost in a joking context. But then, it got more and more serious, because one of my goals has always been to do a new route on an 8,000-meter peak. That’s always been something that’s been on my mind, as a climber.
Why go back?
Cory: It’s like asking an Olympian, “You went to the Olympics, and you won gold. Why go back?” They go back, because they love doing that thing, and they want to perfect that thing even more. They want to evolve, and keep going with it, and become better athletes or better competitors, or whatever. So to me, going back to Everest and trying this new line is in every way, the same as an Olympian returning to the Olympics.
It’s not about getting to the top. It’s not about winning gold. It’s about the whole process, and the refinement and the reduction that allows you to get back to that place, and hopefully execute in a meaningful way.
You’ve got six weeks until you leave. How have you been training?
Cory: This is my third time through this kind of training with Steve House and Scott Johnston. They have a company called Uphill Athlete. What’s interesting is we learn each other more and more, every time. They certainly have better athletes than me. I’m not a tremendously gifted athlete. That’s just not what I’ve ever been. But what I’ve learned is that I can be damn near gifted, if I put my mind to it.
I wake up, and I try to go do the workout pretty much first thing. Because most of it is fasted, meaning I don’t eat, meaning I don’t eat for ideally, 12 hours before I do the workout, unless it’s a weightlifting workout.
So, I get up, I go do the workout. And by the time the workout’s done, usually at this point in the training, it’s middle afternoon. Maybe even early evening. It’s long. It’s not like I’m just going out and getting in an hour and a half run. I’m getting in eight hours. And if I’ve got to go to Rocky Mountain National Park to do that, then you’ve got to drive like an hour and half – an hour to two hours both ways.
So, all of a sudden, you’ve got a 12-hour day, and you didn’t do shit. You didn’t even answer an email. You didn’t take a call, you didn’t do anything. That is super isolating. And by the end of it, you’re just fucking alone all day, every day, looking at your heart rate monitor, going “Okay, am I going too fast or going too slow? And how much longer is it? And I’m really fucking hungry.”
But on the other side, my legs look super sick!