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.

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