Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Interview With Cory Richards

Watch the movie Cold and you'll quickly realise two things about American climber Cory Richards: He's apt to both swear and cry on camera. In Cold it only takes three words for him to drop an F-bomb, and his crying scene is the most intimately powerful moment in the movie.
For those who haven't seen Cold, it is a riveting watch. Cory filmed a very difficult yet successful first winter ascent, with Italian Simone Moro and Denis Urubko from Kazakhstan, of Gasherbrum II. Over the past 26 years 16 expeditions had tried and failed to climb a Pakistan 8000 metre peak in winter. The 2011 climb on Gasherbrum II nearly killed the trio. After summitting in the intense cold, they were hit by a storm – and then a huge avalanche – during the descent.
The success of Cold propelled Cory's photography and climbing career onto the world stage. He won the 2012 National Geographic Adventurer's Award, and now spends up to nine months each year away from home filming and climbing.
Cory was a guest speaker at this year's New Zealand Mountain Film Festival. After being entertained by his extremely funny presentation – he does great impersonations of Simone and Denis – I got to share a couple of beers with him and fire a few questions his way.

PH: Welcome to New Zealand. Is this your first time here?

CR: Yeah it is, and I've got to say I'm instantly blown away by two things. First is the landscape. We were flying into Queenstown and had an aborted landing, which was like holy shit what's happening. We were literally a few feet from the ground, but then powered off again. But I got to see a bunch more scenery as we flew around the second time. And the second thing is how nice everyone is. You can't walk anywhere without someone saying hi and being friendly. I was in New York last week and pretty much everyone there wants to kill you.

PH: So how is life being famous?

CR: Wow, I don't know that I am. I think maybe in a microcosm, but it all comes with a little bit of bullshit anyway. I was really lucky with Gasherbrum II, I guess the climb I've become known for. But it's also scary because I can never really top what I've done. I figure I will, or hope to, technically but will anyone appreciate that in the same way. Fame in the climbing world doesn't have much meaning attached. It's pretty shallow and fleeting. The hard thing is navigating the pitfalls of buying into your self image, drinking your own coolaide, too much. I'm still trying to figure out what it all means, how to stay true to my own goals. All this other stuff can be really detrimental. At times, I struggle with that a lot.

PH: I guess it must be pretty difficult trying to meet all your sponsorship and media commitments, but not let it get in the way of good decision-making in the mountains.

CR: Yeah it is something that takes a lot of consideration. I try to make a decision on an external factor, think about it and then in a way disregard it. I understand what a sponsor wants, I understand the notoriety this climb might get me, but is it the right decision for me to do this? Is it the right thing for my trajectory as a climber? I think we have to look at the big picture always.
Climbing is an interesting paradigm. It's only recently that money has come into personal climbing. Before, it was all about nationalism and how money and sponsorship brought teams together. It's only in the past decade or so that we see the influence of money towards individuals. They've become branded, and there are examples where decisions have been based around that. That can be a really dangerous influence. It can kill you.

PH: Did the success of Cold surprise you? And how does it feel being the most famous crying climber on TV?

CR: The success was completely unanticipated. It was a movie made on a whim. I mean we were lucky on so many levels. Lucky it was that year. Lucky that Simone was leading the expedition, and that we had Denis as the muscle. And we were lucky that I had the camera. Photography has always been my vehicle, whether it's photos of me or by me. I find something that needs to be documented. And yeah, when I filmed the crying scene, it seemed like the right thing to do. What I realised at that moment was that I needed to be that subject. I felt an intense release from the stress and exhaustion. It was like fuck I'm going to cry. So I turned the camera on myself. And it was the crying footage that made Cold what it was.
My Dad's a crier. He cries at films all the time. I learnt it from him. Yeah, I certainly cry when things affect me. I think tears are an incredible expression.There are times for them and then there are times to hold them back too.

PH: It seems that the Cory Richards brand has become pretty mainstream. You've got a polished routine going, especially up on stage. But you're a bit of an F-bomb hog eh? What's with that?

CR: I use swearing as a tool. It's part of my vocabulary. I use it with my regular conversations. In a way it's the parlance of our time. It's the way we speak. When I'm not using it on stage I feel that I'm being dishonest. The person I am swears. Why would I change that? I've had a few complaints, but I think ultimately it helps me connect with people. They realise the person in front of them isn't someone different but is very much the same. Some people get offended but most end up enjoying my talks more.

PH: You come across as being pretty honest, both on stage and in your movies, like you're putting it all out there?

CR: The irony here is that, whether it's swearing or crying, by exposing yourself with that emotional vulnerability, it can mean that people put you on a pedestal even more. What we've been taught is to not show our vulnerability, especially as men. We have this idea as a strong man, but no I fucken cry, I get scared and it hurts, and I bleed. All of these things mean that people start to connect. They get it, you know. I'm going to show you everything, all of my weaknesses, and yet they think I'm strong because of it.

PH: So where to now? What new opportunities have been opened up?

CR: Oh a lot of doors have opened for sure. But I think perspective is one of the things that I've recognised the most. Success grants you possibilities. But it also grants you a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility. How do I want to live up to those expectations? Do I care? Opportunities and pressure come into play equally. Things are expected when you go on trips now. And to be honest we were just really fucken lucky with that climb.
Things have drastically changed since then. Im married and have a house and all those grown up things, but it also means I'm away nine months of the year with my commitments. There are a lot of different things to manage and try to keep together.
I guess ultimately I'm so grateful to have walked away from that experience on Gasherbrum, grateful to have had a camera, but much more, what makes me so fucken happy is people celebrating the humanity of it. I don't give a shit that I was involved in it or not, rather that it's an opportunity to celebrate being human. I get a kick out of seeing this. People are saying 'I'm going to go out and I'm going to try, just fucken try'. As climbers especially we're so lucky that we can have the opportunities to do this.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Marty Schmidt – Walking Your Own Path

Ahh Marty...reading that email that Kester sent to me felt like a knife being jammed between my shoulder blades. You and Denali had been killed on K2, swept away by an avalanche which blasted through Camp 3 where you were resting, waiting for your chance to finally summit that mountain which had been gnawing away on your thoughts. You had big plans for it you said last time we were in contact, soon after your climb on Everest. And you were relishing climbing with Denali, opening your son's mind to the high world you had known for decades.
Emotions and memories threatened to overwhelm me as I read the short report of your loss. A long walk on a beach near home gave me time to reflect – to try and gather a faint sense of perspective through the initial shock.
In a climbing community that has had its share of larger than life characters, you stood taller than most. So many years ago now when I first met you: back in 1993 while we were both living in Christchurch. I was pretending to study at Lincoln University, and my classmate Glenn boarded with you and your family. He said you were a hard task master at home, with another new project still to be completed. He reckoned he came to varsity to rest.
I remember going for runs and cragging on the Port Hills, having to share the babysitting of Denali and Sequoia while others took their turn to climb. At five, Denali was already competent enough to clamber around safely on his own, but you would tie knots in the end of the rope around the younger Sequoia, hoping that you could complete a route before she managed to undo them and crawl away.
You offered to take us on an expedition, but Glenn reckoned you'd load our packs too much, expecting us to carry the same as the Sherpas. The tales you told of climbing overseas reminded me of the great expedition books I had read as a youngster Your life seemed like one long, epic adventure.
Since then our paths have crossed a number of times over the years, including during the terrible challenges of the Christchurch earthquakes. We both had our stories of near misses, and shared them over coffee in your broken kitchen, and wine in our sharply-leaning lounge, listening and offering support where we could. At a potluck dinner, you accidentally threw a glass of wine everywhere while retelling another expansive adventure. I was reminded again of your intense enthusiasm for everything, along with your bottomless tank of endurance and obvious talent as a climber and guide. I felt incredibly privileged to consider you both a friend and a mentor.
Since moving to New Zealand from the United States in 1988, you always thought of here as your home. ‘Everyone has a calling inside,’ you told me once. ‘For me it was to live here in this beautiful land.’ And you explored it piece by spectacular piece, living in various locations – sometimes out of your van – as you climbed our mountains and rocks.
One of the many things that I admired about you was the philosophy you had developed over the years for your guiding. In the big money game of high altitude guiding, the large commercial companies chase increasing numbers of clients. Ropes are fixed and piles of oxygen cylinders cached by high altitude Sherpas. You chose to follow a different, more difficult path. Rather than reducing the mountain to the standard of the client, you tried to raise the client’s skills to match the mountain.
No Sherpas (above base camp), no oxygen and no drugs was your guiding motto when possible. 'It’s how we grow, how we understand more about ourselves and about the environment around us,’ you explained. At times, this meant 'piggybacking' on the infrastructure already set up by the big companies for their many clients, but you accepted that as part of the challenge.
‘I’m flexible with it,’ you said. ‘Maybe on summit day, I might suggest my client uses O2. But it’s a style I like to stick to if I can.'
This approach saw many of your clients stick with you for 20 years, an ongoing relationship that most high altitude guides would be jealous of. But, recently, you had begun to use oxygen for your clients more frequently – a safety concession you explained to me.
It's fair to say that you ruffled a few feathers over the years. Your individualistic approach didn't always fit within the more regimented systems of the mountain guiding fraternity. And this was exacerbated further on the world's highest mountains.
During my research on the recent punch up on Mount Everest, I was stunned to realise that some chose to try and taint your actions of bravery. (For those who have been in an Everest news vacuum, three European climbers had an altercation with a team of Nepalese Sherpas on the Lhotse Face, and were then assaulted by a large group of Sherpas back down at Camp 2. The three westerners involved were high profile climbers Ueli Steck from Switzerland and Simone Moro from Italy, along with Briton Jon Griffith. Some foreign climbers and Sherpas intervened, trying to calm the situation at Camp 2 enough so that the three could escape through the Khumbu icefall to the base camp further down the mountain. From firsthand accounts – people who actually witnessed the altercation at Camp 2 – Marty was among the first to try to stop the aggrieved Sherpas from attacking the three Westerners.)
Rushing up to that group of angry men, you gestured at them to stop, and tried to knock the rocks from their hands. They attacked you also, but onlookers hailed you a hero for trying to halt what could only be described as an attempted lynching. And yet, you had a finger pointed at you as an instigator by some, as if your actions could be used as a scapegoat for the wider issues of unrest that were threatening to undermine western guiding on Everest. From all of my own experiences with you over the years, and from those who I had contact with in regards to Everest, you can categorically be called a hero, and certainly not an aggressor.
And this wasn't the first time you acted heroically in the mountains. In 2010 you singlehandedly rescued three Ukranian climbers from high on Makalu, before going on to complete a successful solo ascent. This was an amazing feat of strength and bravery, and yet another example of your endless drive and energy.
But K2 proved one climb too many. As always, the loss seems pointless. I sometimes wonder at the worth of chasing our dreams, especially when the cost can be so goddamned high. But then I remember one thing you said to me: ‘If you know who you are at any given moment, you’re more likely able to cope with whatever situation is thrown at you.’
Thinking of you Marty makes me want to strive to be a better person, to step forward more often, be less afraid, or if I am afraid to still be able to act with that knowledge.
Ahh Marty...the world is a far lesser place without your energy and enthusiasm and drive to squeeze every last fulfilling drop out of life. Rest easy mate.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A New Wetsuit For Shelley (or A Visit To The Seventhwave)

Sourcing a perfectly fitting wetsuit can be tedious business. And if your shape is anything other than what's considered middle of the road, it can be downright disheartening. In the past I've always bought my new wetsuits off the rack at a surf shop. But, especially living in Dunedin where the need for good insulation is paramount to a good surf, I haven't always been satisfied with the options.
A correctly fitting wetsuit is integral to enjoying my surf session, especially in colder temperatures. The suit needs to insulate and protect me from cold water, wind and rubbing. And in winter especially, an ill-fitting wetsuit is risky: it can lower my core body temperature, or at the very least be uncomfortable to wear for very long. If it's too big or loose around the arms, neck, torso or legs, water flushes through the suit. And chaffing can occur around the areas where there is too much rubber. Or if it is too tight, especially in torso length, I can get pressure points and extra stress areas on the suit's seams and panels. The wetsuit will not be as flexible as it can be, which may make it harder to surf.
My wife Shelley has been surfing for the past couple of years, but has struggled to find a decent suit. This discourages her from getting out in the waves, especially during winter. Shelley is of slight build, and the suit she owns is baggy in a number of areas. But there have been very limited options for finding her a new, and warm, suit.

Two friends recently had new wetsuits tailor-made by Christchurch company Seventhwave, and they both raved about how comfortably fitting and warm their news suits were. Finally I convince Shelley that maybe we should pay Seventhwave Wetsuits a visit.
100% Kiwi owned and operated, Seventhwave Wetsuits has been providing topnotch wetsuits for the surfing public since 1987. Its manufacturing plant and headquarters are based in Bromley, Christchurch, and the cold water temperatures of the South Island are its proving ground.
Wandering into the shop, the first thing I notice is a friendly face. A few Autumns back, I went on a surf trip to the Catlins with the perpetually smiling Tom Owens and a few other keen souls. Tom bears a striking resemblance to Australian icon Wayne Lynch in his younger days, complete with the hefty dark mop of hair. I'd forgotten that Tom worked at Seventhwave, and relax when I recognise him. I know Shelley will be in good hands.
Tom starts taking Shelley through the Seventhwave custom-fit process – a unique 22 measurement record used to providing the most comfortable and warmest wetsuit Shelley is likely to ever own.
Seventhwave boss Paul Zarifeh turns up, and Tom introduces us. Discussion drifts to recent swells hitting the East Coast, before switching back to which model of wetsuit might be best for Shelley.
Then the brains trust is called out. Janet and Charyn are 'the custom team', and start assessing Shelley's body shape, taking particular note of the fit of a suit Shelley has tried on for size. Their educated eye for cut and form is quickly apparent. Even Shelley is starting to think that maybe she might enjoy surfing in winter again.
Eventually measurements are recorded, photos taken, second handshakes completed. We hand over a decent chunk of cash, but given the service and quality of the product, not to mention supporting New Zealand made, this is certainly value for money.
A week or so later, a box from Sevethwave turns up in the post. She tears into the cardboard box and quickly tries on her new suit. She is very impressed with its fit and cut.
And finally a field test – the next north swell Shelley and I head to our local break. The smile on my wife's face confirms what our friends in the know had told us. A toasty suit = fun times in the waves. And I know where I'll be getting my next suit from.