Making the rounds at mountain film festivals all over the world is a new movie by Anson Fogel and Cory Richards. In the classic style of adventure storytelling Richards shares his tale of three climbers in his award-winning film ‘Cold’.
“It’s a very raw real look into what’s kind of going on inside my head as I did a climb with Simone Moro and Denis Urubko last winter on a peak called Gasherbrum II,” Richards said in an interview.
Ascending one of the highest peaks in the world at temperature 50 degrees below zero as the film opens Richards can’t help but ask himself a quintessential question.
“What the f#@%! am I doing here? We have to get down,” he says in the film.
Gasherbrum II stands more than 8,000 feet above sea level.
“For you guys who aren’t good at math that’s above 26, 240 feet. There’s 14 of them in the world. Obviously Everest is the highest,” Richards said. “And 9 of those peaks are in Nepal and Tibet. And 5 are in Pakistan. And for the past 26 years since the Polish advent of winter 8,000 meter climbing all of the peaks in Nepal and Tibet had been climbed in winter, but none of the Pakistani 8,000-meter peaks had been successfully climbed in winter.”
Going after this Pakistani summit through a Himalayan winter in the tradition of the great Polish climbers of the last century Richards and his team Italian climber Simone Moro and Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan attempted to do what no one had done before.
“So when we did it on February 2nd 2011 it was actually a monumental achievement. And it’s funny for me to say that because I don’t necessarily look at it in that way. That’s not something that I think. But that’s how it’s viewed,” Richards said. “ ‘Cold’ is basically a representation of what I think goes on in everybody’s head when they’re climbing. They think about their family. They think about their life. They think about the doubts they have. And hopefully it’s just a real perspective, verses a chest pounding triumphant heroic film. It’s not meant to be that.”
At the 2011 Banff Mountain Film Festival ‘Cold’ took the grand prize. Climber, photographer and filmmaker Cory Richards also took a few minutes to tell me about his life now making movies on the highest mountains in the world.
What’s really fascinating is that you actually did all the photography yourself with a handheld camera throughout the entire expedition. At high altitude that’s a lot to take on in addition to actually doing the climb. What was it like to be able to be responsible for both climbing and surviving on Gasherbraum II and taking pictures?
You know it’s funny a lot of people talk about just that fact, that…”what’s it like to film up there?” And for me, coming from a photography background, coming from a film background, I don’t actually think of it like that because that’s just why I get invited to go on these trips because that’s my job. So I think it’s an added aspect, but it’s something that’s sort of hard for me to describe because it’s not a tangible thought process any more. This is what I’m doing here. This is what I have to do. So I’m doing it.
At the same time though you also have to have the presence of mind to set the shot, to be able to while Simone is puking on the summit you’re there holding the camera.
You can’t be on your knees
Yeah, it’s weird! It’s so true. You have to go fast sometimes to get ahead. You’re trying to be the fly on the wall. But what’s interesting is you’re also doing the climb. So at the same time Simone’s puking, I want to puke. But as a photographer and a filmmaker you realize that that’s a important and special moment. You hate to see your friends suffering but you have to realize that that’s pivotal. Something’s happening in front of you. And because you’re thinking about all that you’re realizing that your own sensations become muted. You put that on hold. You don’t have time for that. And now you’re in the moment with what’s in front of your camera.
Has this always been an aspiration of yours? Have you always wanted to be a high altitude mountaineer and photographer?
Yeah! Yeah, I think I have. I remember when I was 18 and I was I was training to go to Denali for my first time. I think I actually tangibly said at one point I really want to be on the North Face team one day. I realized too that I’m not a tremendous athlete. I think what I have is a sort of an innate ability to keep going in situations. So when I look back on the whole progression I think, “Did I always want to do this?” Yeah, yeah I did. But I found my way in it through photography because I wasn’t a great athlete. But over time I got better, at the athletic side of it and certainly that’s why now I am blessed to live the life I live. But yeah, the answer to your question is yeah I always wanted to do it.
So where are you going next? You’re now an established high altitude photographer. You’re the first American to summit a Pakistani 8,000-meter peak in winter. So you’re trajectory has been launched. So where do you go from here?
It’s funny, you know the whole first American to summit an 8-thousander in winter is, I still don’t even register that, like it doesn’t compute for me. But when you put it in those terms It’s interesting to look at the next year, how it’s laying out and so I’ll probably go to Patagonia this winter and work, which will be a nice break. I can spend some time with my wife. We just got married and that’s going to be great. And next spring I’ll go with Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin to the west ridge of Everest. And then after that, next year a year from now I’ll probably go back to Pakistan with Simone and Denis to try K2 in the winter. So that’s sort of where it’s headed. Who know how that plan will pan out? Try to take it a day at a time but at the same time you got to make plans all that. And I find that, that’s really the most challenging part of this whole thing is adapting to a new schedule that I’m not used to.
K2 in winter, that’s something that hasn’t been accomplished yet by anyone.
That’s kind of a big deal. Especially when were talking about, for people who don’t know, Everest is the highest mountain in the world, K2 is arguably the hardest mountain in the world in terms of climbing. It’s been climbed before but never in winter. I think the film Simone was talking about how climbing in winter is like a lottery. And it’s not always a matter of being strong enough or tenacious enough. Sometimes it’s just a matter of how the weather falls. Can you imagine what your challenges will be to do that climb a year from now?
One of the things I guess I want to say very clearly is that it’s hard to talk about these kinds of things before you do them, because who knows. Most likely what’s going to happen is we’re going to go and we’re going to get shut down. So who knows? But if we were to succeed or if or just going there and being there I think what’s going to be the deciding factor between success and failure is like you mentioned, weather. You really have to have a calculated approach to when you’re going to climb, how high you can climb. You have to be very calculated because your weather windows are so small. And you have to start sometimes in weather this is terrible and it makes no sense to be climbing in. And that was sort of the key to success in climbing GII was having a great weather report and knowing that this was our only option. We have to take this option. If we don’t take it this is not going to happen. And certainly I think it will be exactly that for K2 but amplified because it’s higher, it’s harder, it’s colder, but it’s definitely worth it. I mean I’m very, very excited for that trip. The Russians are there now. I wish them all the best of luck. And even if they do do it I think we’ll still go and try it because with 33 people siege-style there’s a good chance they’ll do it. We want to do it cleaner and more pure. Three people, no siege, alpine style.
Wow, that in and of itself is kind of mind-blowing to me. Now you mentioned the Polish climbers that basically created Himalayan, winter true climbing back in the late 70s early 80s. I don’t know if you had a chance to read Bernadette McDonald’s book Freedom Climbers and that’s an amazing account of that entire era. And one of the things that she told me when I interviewed her earlier this week is that the Polish experience post World War II, post Soviet occupation through the Solidarity Movement, circumstances at home were pretty tough so it created a very tough mentality among the Polish people and by extension Polish climbers. I’m just going to say it, are you tough enough to climb K2 in winter?
Yeah, I am. And again, what the Polish had was innate tenacity because of situations at home like you were talking about. And the word tough is attached to them. But I don’t think at the time they would think of themselves that way, or maybe they did. But I certainly don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as having the ability, based on my history as well. I was a high school drop out. I was born to fight against the system, whatever that system is simply because that’s my personality. If somebody, a superior or an authority figure told me to do something my instant response was to give them the middle finger. That was just me. And because of that time period where I dropped out, where I was a complete screw-up I had to fight very hard against everything. And it was at that time when my brain developed its fortitude to say, “my toes are cold, this sucks. Could be a lot worse so I’m going to keep going because this is beautiful. This is a wonderful experience.” But yeah I do have that ability. But I think knowing your timing too, having the right psych for it, being excited at the right time and engaging it at the right time is equally important as just trying.
So are you going to carry a camera on K2 as well?
Man I don’t think they’d let me go if I didn’t at this point. No I definitely will. There will only be one ‘Cold’ because I think we took a risk on how Anson and I cut it. There will be a story of K2 regardless and hopefully we’ll come back with having made it to the top. Maybe we don’t, probably we don’t. That’s just the reality of it. We’ll spend three months and not do it. But that’s OK. At least there’s still a story there to be told. And often times I think the story of failure is more pertinent to this whole junk show, this whole community of ours than success. We want to succeed but Steve House said this to me. And Steve is one of my greatest mentors and one of my best friends. And he said “you know Cory alpinism is 90 percent failure and a lot of it is learning how to fail well, fail gracefully.” Graceful failure. That’s a hard think to think about. But yeah, it won’t we ‘Cold’ but it will be something.
The film Cold by Anson Fogel and Cory Richards is part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World tour. Ask your favorite gear shop for local screenings and show times near you. You can also see Cold as part of the Reel Rock Film Tour now available on DVD and online download. Visit ReelRockTour.com
The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of sponsor Patagonia. Check out their latest new media and conservation initiatives on their blog the CleanestLine.com. And special thanks to the Walton Works whose underwriting of travel expenses to Banff helped me to bring you this and other great stories. Visit the Waltonworks.com
Thanks for listening. But you know I want to hear from you. So please drop me a note with your questions comments and criticisms to email@example.com
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