Climber Cory Richards; Photograph courtesy The North Face

Alpinist and photographer Cory Richards is on the rise—literally and figuratively. He is presently making his way to Everest Base Camp as part of our 2012 expedition, which involves climbing, science, and school kids following along. Once there, Richards and his good friend Conrad Anker will prepare to make a challenging ascent of Everest’s West Ridge nearly 50 years after the first Americans made it to the top. Richards will be shooting the climb for a 2013 article in National Geographicmagazine. Not bad for a 29-year-old.

We first featured Richards in 2011 when he became the first American to summit a peak over 8,000 meters, Pakistan’s Gasherbrum II, in winter. Richards documented the entire climb, including a Class 4 avalanche during descent that nearly claimed his team’s lives. His footage became the film Cold (watch the trailer), which went on to win numerous prizes, including the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. This remarkable ascent, combined with a groundbreaking approach to adventure storytelling, made him one of our 2012 Adventurers of the Year in 2012. Here Richards discusses the climb at hand. We wish the entire team the best of luck—you can follow them on Instagram at #NatGeo.

Adventure: What are you going to encounter on the West Ridge?
Cory Richards: When the West Ridge was climbed by Unsoeld and Hornbein in ’63, it was light years ahead of its time. Primarily, I think Conrad and I are looking forward to revisiting that terrain nearly 50 years later in a contemporary style. As far as difficulty, there is far more technical terrain on the route. From what we can tell as of now, the region has seen a super dry and very windy year. If there isn’t at least some precip between now and when we push for the summit, the likelihood of encountering some really physically challenging terrain (and abundance of blue ice) is very real. Likewise, the simple isolation of the route compared to the more traveled routes lends a massive degree of severity, especially in the face of a possible accident.

A: How many days will it take?
C.R: We are in country for ten weeks, but the majority of that time will be eaten up by the approach and acclimatization process (which requires rotations climbing higher and higher and returning respectively to Base Camp in order to allow our physiology to adapt). Conrad and I hope that the final summit push won’t take more than five days on the mountain.

A: You and Conrad have done some training together?
C.R.: Conrad likes to get after it when we are in the same place together … but given the battling schedules, it’s kinda hard. We’ve had some great days out together, though, and this is really just an extension of that partnership.

A: Do you think of Conrad as a mentor?
C.R.: Without question. Conrad has been more than a mentor to me. He is on a very short list of people who are directly responsible for my life as it is today. I would say older brother is a closer approximation to how I actually see him. He has so much experience—both life and climbing—under his belt that I would be foolish not to look to him as a mentor. I’m truly humbled to be climbing with him this season.

A: How will the Mayo Clinic aspect fit in to your climb?
C.R.: I’m really fascinated to see the end result … to see what the data tells us. Spending time at altitude fascinates me. It’s wild to see how our bodies TRY to adjust. That said, it’s the information AFTERWARD that is interesting. Sometimes on big trips, I would rather not know how my body is responding and simply operate on the knowledge base that I have built. Knowing too much can be a distraction rather than use trusting in your historical abilities.

A: You recently climbed Lhotse. Did you think about climbing Everest then?
C.R.: Lhotse was in 2010 … and yes, I thought of it on that trip because Conrad and I had already begun talking about this trip. Climbing the normal route has never fully appealed to me just because I like to get off the beaten track a bit. Any way you climb, however, is of little consequence … it’s a big mountain and it deserves big respect.

A: How hard will the West Ridge be compared to Gasherbrum II?
C.R.: Thats a good question … but really hard to answer. I think they will just be very different. The West Ridge is much harder and much higher, but probably not as severe and cold.

A: What do you admire about the story of the first Americas in 1963?
C.R.: Pure vision … and a real desire to explore … to blast off onto an unknown side of the highest mountain in the world and just roll the dice that way … that was absolutely visionary.

A: I take it some climbers don’t take Everest all that seriously…. But it is really about more than the climbing, isn’t it?
C.R.: It depends on the camp you’re in. I think there is an inherent fascination with it because it IS Everest. But for me, outside of that, it is just about the climbing. I am excited to be alone in one of the largest and harshest mountain environments on our planet … that makes the climbing exciting and worth while. The flack that Everest gets is caused by mis-use and misunderstanding. It comes down to personal goals and ONLY an individual climber can answer whether or not they are there for the right reason. I try to stay out of the debates regarding Everest’s normal route. I have a tremendous amount of respect for individuals’ respective goals and find it presumptuous to interject my opinion … after all, I’m just another climber.

A: How are you preparing yourself as a photographer? 
C.R.: I’m trying to pack just enough … but not too much. Honestly though, I want this to be more visceral … so I am looking closely at the images that have been taken in the past and finding what in them makes me respond emotionally. It’s a hard thing to quantify. This time around, I want to look for the off moments that show what it actually feels like.

A: With this team, the climb is going to be pretty fun, right?
C.R.: Couldn’t imagine being here without a single member … SUPER fun!

A: Is your wife going?
C.R.: She is en route with us to Base Camp right now … it’s nice. My folks are along as well … which has been fun for us as a family.

A: Aren’t you and Conrad going to tend the Extreme Ice Survey cameras that are recording time-lapse images of glaciers? It’s pretty cool to see those glaciers, right?

C.R.: Yes, we’ll be tending to photographer Jim Balog’s EIS cameras and bringing back more data to be plugged in. The undeniable change that is so obviously happening right before our eyes is extremely impactful. It’s emotional to see our world changing for the worse at our own hands. The cameras help us translate that experience … and hopefully ignite change.

A: Do you think you’ll make more films?
C.R.: Where there is a story, there is a film. I will definitely continue down this road. That said, I don’t want to force creative output. I’d rather it occur organically.