Rock Bottom at the Top of Everest

by Katelyn Rousch

National Geographic explorer and photographer Cory Richards. Photo by Katelyn Rousch

At a recent event hosted by the Kennedy Lecture Series, National Geographic explorer and photographer Cory Richards opened up with Athens campus about his experiences, not just in his line of work, but with human struggles including anxiety, depression, and alcoholism.

During his presentation, Richards described the trip to Everest where he decided to start opening up about the things he was going through. The explorer used Snapchat as his medium to capture his real, un-photoshopped pictures and experiences as he ascended the mountain without oxygen. By the time he reached the peak, he had over a million followers but said he had never felt more alone.

“In hindsight, it was my rock bottom,” Richards said. “I’d gone to the hardest, highest, most inaccessible place to try and get away from myself.”

Several years earlier, he had become famous for surviving a grade four avalanche along with two other hikers. The photo Richards took of his own face shot him into fame and landed on the front cover of National Geographic. When he left the mountain, his life had been changed in more ways than one.

“Without the resolution, it [the avalanche] just further damaged my brain,” Richards said. “I didn’t know how to voice what I was going through.”

Having struggled with anxiety and depression throughout his life, the avalanche became a post-traumatic catalyst for other issues that went unresolved. 

“[When] the brain prepares for death and when it doesn’t happen, it just starts to spin and spin and spin.”

In response, Richards threw himself into his work and started to drink more heavily. He cheated on his wife, and their relationship eventually ended in a divorce. Even in the mountains, where Richards had once found peace, everything was spinning and crumbling around him.

“I became a horrible person,” Richards said. “I would stand up on stage and talk about virtuousness.”

It was on top of Everest where he finally hit rock bottom. He explained that he never cared about the climbing part of his adventures. It was always about doing that next impossible thing to prove to others and himself that he had worth, that he had value. To get away from all the eyes and expectations, including his own. So Richards started to re-evaluate his outlook.

“I love going to these places because it teaches me things.”

He described his drive behind photography, citing experiences all over the world, including Nepal and Uganda. By looking back at his experiences, he found there was a greater meaning behind both his adventures and motivations.

“It’s the complexity of the human family, but also the simplicity… we really want the same stuff and if you can see one another on that base level… it becomes so much easier to have a dialogue if you disagree,” Richards said.

“I used this veneer of awe to tell the story of human struggle.”

Through photography and exploration, Richards has been able to connect with people from different cultures and backgrounds all over the globe. He explained that at the most important, fundamental level people are all the same.

“The betterment of the world is not a political issue,” Richards said. 

He described his recovery and exploration as an ongoing process, citing his desire to share what is real rather than what is perfect with his audiences, both when speaking and through his photography.

“It’s important to me that I talk about everything… not just the pinnacles,” Richards said.

Life itself is an ongoing process. Struggles can evolve for anyone out of seemingly nowhere. The anxiety Richards felt and still deals with is something that students, both at Ohio and around the world can relate to. There is no one right approach to coping with these issues, but there are a number of healthy habits students can form such as meditation, exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep. Ohio also has resources on campus for students to reach out to through Counseling and Psychological Services.

For Richards, every day is a chance to be better, both in relationships with others and in individual self-care. It is never too late to seek out help. 

“We have the opportunity to say ‘What is the next right action?’”

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