Should a Mental Health Emergency Derail a Dangerous Climb?
The New York Times
By Kelley Manley
July 11, 2021
A mountain climber with bipolar disorder had an episode that thwarted his team’s plan to summit the world’s seventh-highest peak, prompting a debate about mental illness in adventure sports.
Cory Richards was about to attempt an unclimbed route up the seventh-highest mountain in the world when he realized he needed to stop before he started.
He was crying uncontrollably in his tent at base camp. The world was so loud, he said, it was as if he was standing between two freight trains going in opposite directions. And yet, Richards, who has long suffered from bipolar disorder, was exhilarated.
“I might actually die and that is really exciting to me,” Richards, 40, recalls thinking in early April as he looked up 26,795-foot Dhaulagiri, in west-central Nepal.
Two days from the nearest village and alarmed by his deteriorating mental health, he reached out to his therapist back home. That night, he told his teammates — Carla Perez and Esteban Mena, professional alpinists from Ecuador, and Tommy Joyce, a filmmaker documenting the expedition — that he was leaving, a decision his therapist supported.
“He told us he didn’t have it in him anymore and that he was going to go home,” Joyce wrote in an email.
Richards would fly by helicopter to Kathmandu before boarding a plane to his home in Boulder, Colo., leaving his teammates five days after the team arrived in base camp to attempt the climb.
Perez, Mena and Joyce were shocked and angered. The expedition, a training exercise for a new route on Everest in 2022, had cost tens of thousands of dollars and been years in the making. Without Richards, Mena and Perez had to abandon a possible career-defining first ascent.
“Plenty of athletes have mental health issues that don’t affect their performance,” Mena wrote in an email. “The lack of accountability and commitment is what bothers me the most.”
While Perez, Mena, and Joyce are sympathetic to Richards, they would not climb with him again. “The sport is too dangerous to have mental insecurity, especially at altitude,” Mena, Perez and Joyce wrote in a joint statement.
The episode sheds light on the complexities of accommodating mental illness in adventure sports, where taking part even at one’s best is perilous. What happens when an acute episode of mental illness takes place atop a crag or on a remote expedition? And what responsibility does someone with mental health issues have to fellow participants in a dangerous sport?
Richards grew up in Salt Lake City and has always lived with “a constant feeling of sadness and anxiety.” He was diagnosed as bipolar at 14 years old, and spent time in psychiatric facilities as a teen. His parents introduced him to climbing at five years old and from a young age, he found solace in the mountains. He would go on to become one of the most high-profile alpinists of his generation, pioneering routes on unclimbed mountains in the Himalaya, keynoting the South by Southwest Festival in 2017 and amassing one million Instagram followers.
In 2011, when he summited 26,358-foot Gasherbrum II, which straddles the border of Pakistan and China, he became the first and only American to climb an 8,000-meter (26,247 feet) peak in winter. On the descent, he survived an avalanche. The climb established him as one of the premiere alpinists of his time, and the self portrait he shot in the minutes after the avalanche of his terrified, snow-rimmed face launched his career as a National Geographic photographer. But that near-death experience left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he said led to substance abuse issues. “That was when I dove into alcoholism,” he said.
The incident on Dhaulagiri was not the first time Richards experienced a mental health episode during a high-stakes expedition. In 2012, he left Everest after suffering a PTSD-related panic attack on the mountain. In 2016, on Everest again, he lapsed in taking his psychiatric medications due to the inconsistent nature of travel and expedition life, which led to extreme anxiety. He worked with the expedition doctor to restart his medications and eventually he stabilized. Ultimately, Richards reached the summit without supplemental oxygen, a feat that only three percent of Everest’s nearly 6,000 summitters have achieved, according to the Himalayan Database.
Richards, who said he got sober after the Everest ascent, did not shy away from sharing his mental health struggles with the climbing community as his profile grew. “Cory’s mental health was something he and I talked a lot about,” said Adrian Ballinger, a professional alpinist. He had concerns about his climbing partner’s mental fitness ahead of their 2016 Everest expedition. “It was something I was aware of and knew we would have to work through.”
Ballinger pointed out that every expedition member comes with their own strengths and weaknesses, and that balancing them is critical. “Cory being on medication for mental illness is a risk in a teammate,” he said. “But I’ve always felt like the benefits he brought to the table outweighed those risks.”
Though not often discussed publicly, episodes of mental health issues on expeditions can have serious ramifications. Steve House, a professional alpinist, once had a teammate debilitated by depression while climbing in Pakistan’s Karakoram range. House said transparency and open communication are critical to a climb’s success.
“Would you go on an expedition with a partner who has a bad leg that flares up sometimes?” House asked. “You just need to know about that and have contingencies.”
Mena talked to Richards about his mental health in general terms before their April Dhaulagiri attempt. “He said it had been an issue since childhood, but it seemed like something he had under control,” Mena said. “He always said climbing was the best thing in his life. So, I felt that Cory in the mountains was stable, secure.”
The teammates had no plan for a psychiatric emergency.
After Richards left, Mena and Perez decided to climb Dhaulagiri’s standard route, but were forced to abandon their summit push because of dangerous avalanche conditions.
Back home in Colorado, Richards’s condition deteriorated before he was diagnosed as suffering from a mixed bipolar episode, a state in which manic and depressive symptoms are present at the same time. He improved with treatment, and shared what had happened in a three-part series of Instagram videos on April 27. They have been viewed a total of 159,750 times.
“I’m reticent at best to share so openly about what I’ve been going through,” he wrote in the caption accompanying all three videos. “In part because I worry about perception. But I also want to be careful not to overshare for the sake of sharing.”
It was his latest attempt to generate awareness around mental health, efforts that began in 2016, when he first shared his experiences publicly.
“I don’t want to be the poster boy for brokenness, that’s not what I’m trying to do,” Richards said in an interview. “I want to be an advocate for mental wellness. If I can speak to my own experiences in order to expand the conversation throughout culture and society then I’m willing to carry that flag in my small way.”
But for his climbing teammates, resentments linger. “I think he figured that he could leave and go back to being a ‘mental health advocate,’” Joyce, the filmmaker, wrote in an email. “Cory had to create a new narrative that protected his ego from his ever-present fear that he doesn’t matter.”
Richards understands the anger directed at him, but he sees it as symptomatic of the deep misunderstanding of mental illness that’s pervasive in our culture. “If I’d broken my leg, the conversation would be, ‘Well, that’s a bummer, sometimes you go into the mountains and things happen,’” he said.
“But because mental wellness is a topic of the mind and is unseen except through behavior, it’s nearly incomprehensible for people to apply the same logic and objectivity to it. I can’t demand that the world understands my experience, but I can ask that they believe it’s true.”
There are no easy answers when it comes to weighing the responsibility an individual with mental illness has to their teammates in the life-or-death sport of alpinism, but Richards believes it shouldn’t preclude involvement in high-stakes endeavors, or life in general. “What people with these struggles need is more participation, more engagement to understand that mental health issues aren’t prohibitive of living a full and complete life.”
But it won’t be an issue anymore for Richards, who says the episode on Dhaulagiri made him realize it’s time to hang up his ice ax. He plans to spend his time focusing on his career as a filmmaker and photographer.
“For a time, climbing was an act of catharsis, an act of gratification. It garnered me attention that I badly needed,” Richards said. “I really loved it for a long time.”