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We’re in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Anker is paying a visit to a nearby mill that’s knitting a sock he designed for his particular occupation: climbing up the sheer, ice-covered walls of the largest mountains on earth in sub-freezing temperatures. Tonight, though, we’re cracking lagers at the Carmike East Ridge 18 & IMAX theater.
It was his idea to play a drinking game while watching Everest, which chronicles the 1996 Mount Everest expedition that took a turn for the deadly, documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air. It’s your run-of-the-mill drinking game: six rules, each man-dating anywhere from a swig to a half beer for different situations, tropes and tragedies. Rule number one: take a swig for every theatrical stumble. For death, we dip a pinky into the beer and flick it three times, a gesture of respect Anker says is practiced by Sherpas in Nepal. Beck Weathers, played by Josh Brolin, slips on a ladder bridge and I give Anker a thumbs up, crack my beer and take a swig.
Anker, now 53 and living in Bozeman, Montana, is well acquainted with Mount Everest. He first summited in 1999 when a team set out to find the body of pioneering English mountaineer, George Mallory, who disappeared en route to the summit in 1924. Anker found Mallory’s preserved body — apparently only hours after the search began — and members of the expedition ultimately suggested that it was unlikely Mallory and his partner Sandy Irvine made it to the 29,029-foot summit. Anker ascended Everest two more times, first in 2007 to further document the circumstances of Mallory’s disappearance and then again in 2012, without supple-mental oxygen, to do geological research and conduct tests on high-altitude human physiology. While Anker says that climbing Everest would leave him “depleted for weeks,” it was far from his most challenging ascent.
The routes that best define Anker’s mountaineering require mixed climbing, or a combination of rock and ice climbing, on vertical and overhanging terrain, often at 20,000 feet or more above sea level and in extreme weather. They’re often first ascents — routes that nobody has ever climbed — and in some cases they’re considered nearly impossible. Most recently — and by his own measure, his greatest achievement — he climbed a route up the Shark’s Fin feature on Meru Central in India’s Garhwal Himalaya Range, elevation 20,700 feet, in 2011. A film about the climb, Meru, won the US Documentary Audience Award at Sundance in 2015.
The credits roll at the end of Everest and the theater empties, but Anker sits quietly until the screen goes dark. He’s reading through a list of friends and colleagues, including his periodic climbing partner, Krakauer, and Rob Hall, the head guide of the doomed expedition, who never made it down from the mountain. “These are real people with real families,” he says, thoughtfully. “But if you were to take that away and compare it to Kung Fu Panda, it’s good entertainment.”
But he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t like playing the critic. “Write this down,” he says. “I find the positive in whatever I do.”
Anker’s rack of climbing gear is draped over a tree branch. There are little anchors etched into the carabiners and cams. His shoes have little anchors drawn on them in black marker. Between songs the carabiners blow like chimes in a gentle breeze.
“This is one of my favorite things to do,” he says. “Just hang out at the crag and climb. I’ve been doing it for 39 years. I can’t live without it. I wake up and I’m like, ‘Let’s go climbing.’”
This morning, we drove 45 minutes to Foster Falls in South Cumberland State Park after a quick night’s sleep at a climbing-themed hostel called The Crash Pad. The park has a two-mile-long cliff filled with climbing routes, many of them difficult wall and over-hanging roof climbs. We settled in front of a rock face called the Dihedrals on a route called Twist and Shout, next to a few twenty-somethings Anker befriended at the trailhead.
“If you want to run, you just go,” Anker says. “Climbing, because it’s so systems-intensive, you need someone who can, literally, show you the ropes.”
With Anker is Ben Schoedel, a local carpenter and climber, someone he met by exchanging photos on Instagram. Schoedel scouted routes earlier in the morning and is helping Anker put on something of a lesson and demo today. “Getting a call from Conrad is like Michael Jordan calling you for a game of pickup basketball,” Schoedel tells me as we unpack ropes and harnesses. This inclusiveness and mentorship is the backbone of climbing, a sensei-student relationship that allows the discipline to progress with each generation. When you complicate things with snow, ice and extreme elevation, as Anker does, mentorship is even more important.
“In climbing, it’s essential,” Anker said earlier on the car ride to the park. “If you want to run, you just go. Climbing, because it’s so systems-intensive, you need someone who can, literally, show you the ropes.”
Anker first learned about the outdoors from his father and grandfather. Though he moved around as a kid because of his father’s work — from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Frankfurt — his family has been based for several generations in Big Oak Flat, California, just outside Yosemite National Park. He’d climbed Mount Rainier, a bucket list event for many outdoorsmen, by the time he was 16. Anker met his first mentor, Mugs Stump, while studying at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he also worked in a mountaineering store. Anker had a side job selling bicycle parts and traded Stump a bike for some camming devices. From then on, the two climbed together — until Stump died in 1992, while guiding clients down the South Buttress of Alaska’s Denali, the highest peak in North America.
“When Mugs died it rocked my world because I was 29,” Anker said. “I see now how emotional it is for the 20-year-olds when they lose someone. Now, in my 50s, it’s just a matter of time — not in the mountains, but generally. People my age die because of health problems and things like that. When you’re young and you first get into climbing, it’s like this gift — nothing can go wrong — and things do go wrong.”
Twist and Shout begins with an over-hanging section and then follows an arête, or sharp edge, up the face — and Anker is making short work of it. He’s about six-foot-two and strong, but he looks bigger when he starts to climb. He has a broad reach in all directions, and he’s densely muscled, the cumulative strength of four decades waging war against gravity. He’s wearing his red trucker hat, along with a green t-shirt, gray pants and amber tortoiseshell glasses. He’s past the initial overhang quickly and begins to scale the arête fluidly toward the powder blue sky.
“Clipping,” he says, attaching a carabiner to a bolt in the rock and putting his rope through. He continues upward, using contours and indentations to grip with chalk-covered hands and push off with his feet. He never appears to be reaching too far or trying too hard. He moves gracefully. He makes it look easy. And then, just before he reaches the top, he pauses.
“Hello, look around, wake up!” he says to himself, realizing he missed an easier way up. “Hey, you know what? I’m having fun. Life is good. We’re climbing. All of a sudden we had that moment where we’re like, ‘This is what we’re meant to do.’”
“Don’t Let Me Down” by The Beatles is playing on the portable speaker at the bottom of the rock wall. I’m in love for the first time. Don’t you know it’s gonna last? It’s a love that lasts forever. It’s a love that has no past. “Clipping. Lower please.” Anker tiptoes down the wall backwards. “Nice work!” I say. “Nice enjoyment,” he says.
Anker’s best friend, Alex Lowe, died in an avalanche in 1999. Lowe was Anker’s climbing partner and by most accounts the greatest mountaineer of the ‘90s. He, Anker and a climber named David Bridges were on an expedition to ski from the summit of Shishapangma, 26,335 feet above sea level in Tibet. While scouting the route, a piece of the mountain cracked off and rushed toward them, killing Lowe and Bridges and battering Anker. Footage from the event, which appears in Meru, is haunting: Anker, bleeding from the head and dazed, calls Lowe’s wife, Jenni, and shares the terrible news.
Lowe and Anker were rock stars in the climbing world for the better part of the ‘90s, earning a reputation early in their relationship when Lowe placed first and Anker second in a speed climbing competition in 1993. The route was up Khan Tengri, a 22,950-foot mountain in Kazakhstan, where Lowe broke the world record by four hours. The exploits continued from there, including first ascents up Ak-Su in Kyrgyzstan’s Pamir range in 1995 and Rakekniven in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, in 1997. In 1995, they rescued two Taiwanese climbers on Denali, dragging them 3,000 feet by their harnesses to a rescue helicopter and then immediately going on to summit a 4,000-foot route of rock and ice on Mount Hunter. Yet their friendship was even more compel-ling than their physical accomplishments together. In a letter to Jenni, printed in her memoir Forget Me Not, Lowe wrote of Anker:
“If true soul-mates are the gold bullion of the climbing experience, Conrad Anker is the mother lode. To extol his matchless technical and athletic climbing genius and dwell on his boundless résumé of climbing adventures misses the most remarkable and profound aspects of this unique person. Conrad’s motivation for climbing is altruistic and endearingly simple — he reveres the mountains. Being in the mountains, for Conrad, is as natural and essential as breathing… It’s where his heart beats, where his soul abides.”
Lowe’s death crushed Anker. “It’s a very expensive price to pay to understand that you live in the moment with people,” he says during a quiet moment at Foster Falls. He’s a bit guarded, or lost in thought, or both. “You can’t circle back and live in the past. You celebrate the people you’ve lost, but you want to be present and live in the moment and think about the future.” His tone isn’t prescriptive; it’s more Socratic, like he’s having a discussion with himself, reaffirming what he believes to be true. He lives by those words to a rather extreme degree. In 2001, in the wake of Lowe’s death, Anker and Jenni fell in love and married, with Anker adopting the couple’s three children. It’s hard not to notice the resemblance to a Levirate marriage, historically a part of Tibetan and Central Asian culture, in which the brother of a deceased man marries his brother’s widow. “It’s some-thing we never talked about, but it feels very natural,” Anker says.
Although these tragedies close to Anker have in large part defined his public image — he’s had two unsmiling portraits on the cover of Outside magazine — his career as a mountaineer has been a tremendous success, with first ascents or major expeditions in places that include Everest, Latok II in Pakistan, Tibet’s remote Changtang Plateau, Middle Triple Peak in Alaska’s Kichatna Spires and the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. He also founded the Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse, Nepal, which provides a variety of safety training courses to high altitude workers. Outside of the climbing community all of this may not mean much, but the release of Meru is bringing more awareness to the significance of his achievements. Beyond winning at Sundance, it received positive reviews in Variety, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, NPR and The Guardian. More than being about a near-impossible Himalayan climb — it’s “the culmination of all I’ve done and all I’ve wanted to do,” Anker says in the film — Meru is the definitive Conrad Anker biopic.
The Shark’s Fin route on Meru had been attempted unsuccessfully more than two dozen times before Anker set his sights on it. Two of those belonged to his mentor, Mugs Stump. Anker tried it once in 2003, before recruiting Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, both climbers and professional photographers and filmmakers, to join the expedition. He also added Chin and Ozturk to The North Face’s professional athlete team, an incubator for some of the best adventure athletes in the world, which Anker has helmed for close to 10 years.
Anker pauses at the base, treads for a minute, then reaches out of the water, grabs hold of the rock, and in nothing but his underwear, he starts to climb.
Chin credits Anker with launching his career as a professional photographer and climber, he said over the phone. “He’s not just doing it for the brand,” he said. “He’s giving people career opportunities. He picked me, Renan, Daniel Woods, Alex Honnold — there are so many people he’s pulled onto the team over the years.” Ozturk, the youngest member of the Meru team, further credits Anker with recognizing that he and Chin were the right match creatively to make the film possible. “Conrad loves creativity in his own way,” he said. “He saw that there could be an incredibly creative partnership between me and Jimmy — he had that inkling — and he deserves a lot of credit for that.” With commentary by Jon Krakauer to lend big-picture context, coupled with real-life footage by Chin and Ozturk — beginning with their unsuccessful attempt in 2008 and their return in in 2011 — Meru makes clear why the Shark’s Fin climb is so difficult. Unlike Everest, which has its own challenges of extreme weather and altitude, Meru is mostly vertical and overhanging climbing on rock walls and ice, requiring a mixed bag of skills that few athletes on the planet possess. Anker, Chin and Ozturk haul a few hundred pounds of gear and supplies up sheer walls as they climb, sleeping at night suspended in a tent, called a portaledge, that hangs from the rock.
The climbing shots in the film are spectacular. At one especially harrowing point, Anker, Chin and Ozturk sit in their portaledge for three days while a storm batters them and avalanches crash down around them. There are moments of joy, humor and even bliss in Meru, but the climbing it portrays is mostly hard living, complete with meager portions of simple food, extreme cold and uncertainty with every movement into new territory.
Meru also establishes Anker as an elder statesmen of mountaineering, a guy who has accomplished much, experienced great loss and come out the other side with humility and wisdom for the next generation. As the three climbers reach the summit of Meru, Chin suggests that Anker lead the final few meters to the top. It had been his dream, inherited from Mugs. But Anker has another idea. “I was now seven years older than Mugs was when he died,” he wrote later in The Alpinist. “It was already time to pass on that metaphysical ball of knowledge to someone younger.” He insists Chin take the lead.
Anker, for his part, sees mentorship as the role he’s inherited by virtue of his long career. “Just by being the silverback and being around and bossing the kids around, they gave me the job,” he says of his leadership role with The North Face athlete team. “I’m grooming other guys, though. You’ve got to think about your successor and not hog it all.”
I resist asking the obvious question, the one that Krakauer poses to the climbers at Base Camp in Everest: Why? Lowe’s account in his letter to Jenni seems consistent with the present-day Anker, whose enthusiasm for climbing remains endearingly simple. But this explanation seems somehow incomplete. How can he explain his own desire to keep pursuing extreme routes in the Himalayas, with its potential for tragic accidents? As we pack up and hike toward Foster Falls for a late-afternoon swim, I think about a book Anker gave me the previous night at The Crash Pad, one that he thought would help me better understand his chosen vocation.
In Starlight and Storm, published in 1954, French alpinist and mountain guide Gaston Rébuffat describes climbing as a fellowship with the mountains. “At the end of the day the mountaineer looks for a ledge, lays down his sack, hammers in a piton and attaches himself to it,” Rébuffat writes. “After the hard, acrobatic effort of the climb he is lost — like the poet — in contemplation; but to a greater degree than the poet he can be a part of the hills around. The man who bivouacs becomes one with the mountain.” Anker climbs to be one with the mountain. Implicit in this relationship is that the climber must submit to the laws of the mountains, which are indifferent to ideas like fairness and empathy; death is part of the natural order of things.
At the end of the day of climbing, we drop our packs and start stripping down for a quick swim under the falls, which pours down from 60 feet above. We’re hot and sweaty, fingers scraped from wedging them into cracks in the rock. Anker is in the water before anyone else. As the rest of us wade in, he’s off swimming under the waterfall. He pauses at the base, treads for a minute, then reaches out of the water, grabs hold of the rock, and in nothing but his underwear, he starts to climb.
This story first appeared in Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 280 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from seven distinct locations around the world. Subscribe now and receive free shipping on the biannual magazine. Offer expires soon.