No room for fear

It's hard to define near-death.

So says Mr Cory Richards, who is known for photographing his climbing adventures in vast, high-altitude environments.

The man, whose photographs have appeared in National Geographic magazine, paused before telling The New Paper: "The last time I had that experience was at Gasherbrum II (the 13th-highest mountain on Earth). I hope I don't feel that way again."

Mr Richards, 32, and two climbers were descending from the 8,034m Pakistani mountain in February 2011 when they were hit by a Class 4 serac avalanche.

This type of avalanche involves boulder-size ice chunks tumbling down at high speeds. It can destroy a railway car, a large truck or even buildings.

He still suffers from mild post traumatic stress disorder, but said the fear in such situations is a "fascinating experience".

"You're only scared before an accident, but during an accident, there's absolutely no room for fear. It's a complete acceptance of the present, and life does pass before your eyes, but it's not this big, grand vision...

"It's like parking tickets and Grape-Nuts (a brand of breakfast cereal)... You realise it's fleeting, and you need to make the best of it," he said.

Fighting his fears is par for the course.

"Going to the mountains is hard enough. Going back after you've had a really bad experience... that's really hard ."

Mr Richards was in Singapore earlier this month for a National Geographic exhibition at VivoCity, which showcased his photographs, among others. He said besides the danger, the work is tough in other ways.

On a particularly difficult day, it may involve shooting up to 60,000 photos in a session, out of which only 12 are used for a magazine article.

"When you're out in the field and you're shooting, and you're just not getting the shot, you're banging your head against the wall, trying to figure out how to do this and you're feeling that you're failing.

"That happens more often than not," he said.

"People see the published photographs, and this larger-than-life National Geographic photographer, but they don't see the months of work that go into those 12 photographs," he added.

Despite the risks, and the fact that the job takes him away from home for up to nine months in a year, he believes his work is the best there is.

"I do it anyway, despite the fear, because the experience is just that amazing. It's like falling in love," said Mr Richards.

He is married to a yoga instructor who also climbs. The couple have no kids.

He is looking forward to returning to South-east Asia early next year, visiting Malaysian Borneo for a story "he can't say too much about yet".

What he is happy to talk about, however, is the one thing he strives towards in all his photographs: an emotional connection.

"I want people to feel something. I don't care if they hate me for it... I feel that's the definition of good art, good photography. It's evocative. If it doesn't move you, it doesn't need to exist."

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