How climbing Mount Everest taught photographer Cory Richards to be real

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Cory Richards Snapchatted his way to the top of Mount Everest.

Last May, the 35-year-old climber and National Geographic photographer launched a brilliant social media campaign focused on his journey to the highest point on earth. Through raw and real 15-second clips, he gave his followers a candid look at what it really takes — the good and the bad — to accomplish a feat like this.

So what happened when he reached the top and prepared to take his final Snap? His phone died.

“Some things maybe just shouldn’t be Snapped,” said Richards during his hourlong keynote speech at SXSW on Friday afternoon. “There’s some poetic justice in that. I stayed up there for three minutes and I was very, very scared. I was thinking, ‘This is as close as I’m ever going to get to space.'”

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Climber and visual storyteller Cory Richards speaks at South by Southwest at the Austin Convention Center on Friday, March 10, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Despite its anticlimactic finale, what the Snapchat-Everest project taught him is that life is better, and people respond better, when it’s authentic rather than manufactured.

“(Before),” he said, “social media had me in a death spiral of comparison.”

His keynote doubled as a narrated photo essay of some of his excursions to places like Pakistan and Indonesia. He detailed a trip to Myanmar where he encountered a terrifying mode of transport called a “death train” and woke up one day with 50 spider bites.

“Great adventure is really just a hook to talk about the things that matter, like science,” he said. “In the field, I felt completely satiated.”

At home, however, he found it was becoming more and more difficult to satisfy his need for adventure. He was also grappling with PTSD from surviving an avalanche.

“I started to hate coming home. I wasn’t stimulated. I was bored. I had to sit in the silence. I felt like the darkness inside of me had erupted and now was the darkness all around me,” he said. “The idea of being comfortable in my own skin was like speaking Japanese to me.”

Slowly, Richards started opening up to others, and found that, in doing so, he discovered himself. To conclude his keynote, he urged the audience to attempt to find their most authentic selves, too.

“How effective is it when you’re actually authentic? How much more do people connect when you stop putting the beautiful stuff up (on social media)?” he said. “All we have to do is be honest.”


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