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This photographer nearly died mountain climbing. His memoir details the mental toll

Self-portrait after the avalanche, first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II, Karakorum Himalaya, Pakistan, Feb. 4, 2011.
Cory Richards
Self-portrait after the avalanche, first winter ascent of Gasherbrum II, Karakorum Himalaya, Pakistan, Feb. 4, 2011.

Updated July 10, 2024 at 15:01 PM ET

Given the places he’s gone, you wouldn’t think much would scare world-renowned photographer and filmmaker Cory Richards.

He came close to death, as seen in his short film Cold, while mountain-climbing in some of the most dangerous places in the world. His ice-crusted face appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 2011 after he survived an avalanche in the Himalayas and captured the moment on video.

As kids growing up in Utah, he and his brother learned survival techniques from their dad while trekking mountains. “He teaches us how to trust tiny edges that seem too small to hold any weight. He shows us how to place pieces of metal in the rock to protect us from hitting the ground if we fall,” Richards writes in his new memoir, The Color of Everything: A Journey to Quiet the Chaos Within.

His book, out this week, goes far beyond his intrepid mountaineering. It explores his struggles with mental health that eventually led him to quit his attempt to climb the seventh highest mountain in the world early.

I was a gifted kid. I went to high school two years early. My second year in high school, my grades sort of fell off a cliff,” he told NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer on Morning Edition. “And there was more and more upset in the home.” In his teenage years, he ended up in a psychiatric unit, living on the street for a while and in and out of institutional care for months on end.

Denis Urubko (leading) and Simone Moro take in the first rays of sun at 7,600 m on the FWA of G2.
Cory Richards /
Denis Urubko (leading) and Simone Moro take in the first rays of sun at 7,600 m on the FWA of G2.

Richards also opened up about his adventures around the world and the ways in which they did – and didn’t – help calm his racing mind.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Cory Richards: High-end climbing at that level is oftentimes deeply tied to extreme levels of stress. And when you couple that with the demand to document it, while it can be very freeing and beautiful, and you have these very big meaningful experiences at the same time, it can be a very long, sort of tedious meditation on your own mortality. So when you go on these big expeditions, say trying to climb a new route on Everest without oxygen, I'm also constantly thinking about death and dying. And so in those moments of fear, both in anticipation and on the climb, yeah, I hate climbing. It's terrible. But then you quickly forget. And then you're like, this was the best thing I ever did.

Sacha Pfeiffer: You also note that survival sells stories. And as you survived and were able to sell stories, you sold more photos. So it kind of propelled you forward because it had a positive effect on your career.

A Pakistani army helicopter near Gasherbrum II base camp, Karakorum Himalaya, during winter 2010.
Cory Richards /
A Pakistani army helicopter near Gasherbrum II base camp, Karakorum Himalaya, during winter 2010.

Richards: One of the things that I started to realize is that a very successful career does not always a healthy brain make. I look at somebody's success and I go, 'They must be really happy and really healthy,’ when in fact there was proof in my own life that that isn't true and unraveling that was really hard. Because when I let go of those identities, I really question what place I have in the world and what is my value here? And how do I find it if I’m not those things?

Pfeiffer: You kind of became a stereotype of this dashing, itinerant adventure photographer and the wild life that comes with it. You talk about your drinking and drugs. You cheated on a wife. You were an unreliable friend. On the other hand, you had a lot of mental health issues, which you are open about, and the ongoing highs and lows that come with being bipolar, which is a diagnosis you got.  Why share that?

Richards: We joked early on, it could be a ‘mountains memoir mea culpa.’ I never wanted it to be an apology because I think apology is not necessarily the right term. What I wanted it to be, and what I worked really hard towards, was a reconciliation and an acknowledgement that there are complications in life, specifically mental health. But that doesn't excuse me from making decisions that negatively impact other people. And I see so much in culture right now, where because we've learned the language of psychology, we've learned the language of trauma, that oftentimes people learn their stories, and then that story can almost become an excuse for not very good behavior.

Pfeiffer: How much do you think the various mental health issues that you were very open about versus the corrosive effect of celebrity explains the ways that you could behave badly?

 Matt Segal climbs into an ancient cave complex below the village of Tsele, Mustang, Nepal, 2011.
Cory Richards /
Matt Segal climbs into an ancient cave complex below the village of Tsele, Mustang, Nepal, 2011.

Richards: I think they sort of are equal in some ways because they feed each other. I'm living with a mind that I don't want to call unstable, but it has specific hurdles. As you add stress, which then becomes what I would call a toxic stress of fame or notoriety, that compounds the anxiety and depression in a way. I found that it was very hard to say, 'Hey, look, you know, I'm bipolar; ergo, all of my terrible decisions are somehow excusable.' For me, it doesn't work that way, and I think that's very problematic.

Pfeiffer: You write in your memoir, you kind of had your own MeToo incident. Are you disclosing this for the first time in your book?

Richards: I'm disclosing it publicly for the first time in my book. The people closest to me know about this. And it was a really, really hard moment for me. It was incredibly challenging.

Pfeiffer: You basically goosed a woman – you kind of thumped this woman on the butt a in a public setting. I believe she was arguably a superior, someone who worked at National Geographic. Correct?

Richards: Yeah.

Pfeiffer: Where you were doing assignments. And years later, you get a call from a lawyer. Essentially, you didn't face permanent legal consequences, but do you believe it had a damaging effect on your career?

Richards: Damaging is hard. I think it had an absolutely, profoundly positive impact on my life to go through it. After that point, I no longer worked for National Geographic. Despite the fact that it was all sort of worked out and I was invited back to work for them, what I really noted was by that time, the psychology of the office had changed and so much was going on, including COVID and George Floyd, that the space for me as a photographer there seemed to have run its course. And so while there was enthusiasm at times for me to shoot another article, it felt like that piece of my life was over. And part of that was shame, and part of it was pain, and part of it was really just an extension of what was going on in the world.

Pfeiffer: I assume you have a thick enough skin to hear this because you've been so open in your book. But I suspect there are many people who don't like you and will hate this book and find it very self-helpy and wonder if it's an extension of attention-seeking. How do you field that possible criticism?

Richards: Oh, thank you. That was the most refreshing question ever asked. I assume you're probably right, and I'm OK with that. There was a time where sharing like this was about attention-seeking. Truly it was. But the beauty of writing it was the shift from making this about me to get attention, to sharing hopefully for the benefit of other people, so that in reading it they might also see that life is very messy. It's hard at times, and that they might feel validated in their own unique struggles.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.