A Lifetime of First Ascents: Interview With Conrad Anker

39_NPA_Image_12x18_300dpiFor more than three decades, Amer­i­can alpin­ist Con­rad Anker has achieved numer­ous first ascents across the world’s great ranges, from Alas­ka to Antarc­ti­ca. And yet, after so many years, his voice has nev­er lost the pas­sion and enthu­si­asm for his craft. Con­rad’s expe­di­tions are a tes­ta­ment to the great explor­ers of the past. In 1999, he found the body of George Mal­lo­ry, lost in the ill-fat­ed 1924 Ever­est expe­di­tion, and in 2000, he retraced Ernest Shack­le­ton’s trek across South Geor­gia Island with Rein­hold Mess­ner and Stephen Venables.

But his breath­tak­ing first ascents, from Rakekniv­en Peak in Antarc­ti­ca to the Shark’s Fin of Mt. Meru in India, have become his trade­mark. Away from the moun­tains, Con­rad is an author, ded­i­cat­ed envi­ron­men­tal­ist, hus­band, and father from his home in Boze­man, Mon­tana. He’ll next be seen in IMAX’s “Nation­al Parks Adven­ture” where he shares his love for Amer­i­ca’s Nation­al Parks. Catch­ing the always-on-the-move Con­rad was no easy task, but I was able to spend a few min­utes dis­cussing the suc­cess of Meru, his men­tor­ship with Mugs Stump, the impor­tance of Nepal in his life, and his recent Himalayan project with David Lama.


The Clymb: First of all, con­grat­u­la­tions on all the suc­cess of Meru.

CA: Thank you, I appre­ci­ate that, but I feel for Jim­my and Chai not get­ting the Acad­e­my nomination.


The Clymb: You cite your men­tor­ship under Mugs Stump as a cru­cial ele­ment of your devel­op­ment as a climber. Did you feel like you were step­ping into that role when you start­ed climb­ing with Jim­my and Renan?

CA: Yeah, there was a sim­i­lar men­tor­ship and encour­age­ment there. It’s inter­est­ing; I think Renan gained more from his men­tor­ship with Jim­my in terms of being a filmmaker.

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The Clymb: Near the sum­mit of Meru, you gave the reins to Jim­my to lead the last pitch. What brought you to this deci­sion to have Jim­my sum­mit first?

CA: I had led pitch­es that day, but part of it is what I had expe­ri­enced with Mugs, and he’d say ‘Hey, it’s your lead.’ So, it was unplanned. It wasn’t some­thing I had thought out, but it was more of a cour­tesy and the way that the pitch­es lined up so that it was his turn to get on there and have a go at it.


The Clymb: When you chose Renan to be a part of your Meru team, what qual­i­ties did he have that made you decide to have him join the expedition?

CA: Enthu­si­asm, opti­mism, charis­ma, challenge…those are the sort of things you want to look for in any­one, so he def­i­nite­ly had them.


The Clymb: In 2003 you climbed Meru with Doug Chabot and Bruce Miller in a fast and light alpine style. How did this expe­di­tion dif­fer from the big wall tac­tics that you used in 2008 and 2011?

CA: In 2008 and 2011, we had a por­taledge, which was a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence, and we had a big wall rack, so we had pitons and the type of equip­ment that you choose to go climb in Yosemite. Where­as in 2003 what we were try­ing to do was clas­sic alpine climb­ing, where we had a few cams, some ice screws and a few stop­pers so you’re not car­ry­ing much heavy equip­ment. It’s like the dif­fer­ence between climb­ing at Cha­monix and climb­ing in Yosemite, and it’s a Yosemite type climb, so you have to use big wall techniques.


The Clymb: When you men­tion that you had a por­taledge in 2008 and 2011, did you have any plan to bivy on the wall in 2003?

CA: Not on the wall; we tried to go through the low­er part and then skirt the wall and then go up onto the flut­ed snow ridges, but we got onto them and they were just uncon­sol­i­dat­ed, waist-deep snow. It was too dan­ger­ous and we real­ized that the risk of the snow blow­ing out, and an avalanche, was too great.

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The Clymb: On the sec­ond try with Jim­my and Renan in 2011, you were able to cov­er much of the low­er ground in about six days. What fac­tors affect­ed the speed that time?

CA: In 2011 we knew what we were up against, and then we had a lit­tle kid­dy-sled that we tied our haul bag onto so it slid up the moun­tain eas­i­ly. We tied the haul bag to the sled at a low­er angle, it was still 70 degrees of ice and steep, but it slid eas­i­er. Also in 2008 we got hit with that storm right off the bat that came down on us, which we had to deal with.


The Clymb: Your expe­di­tions have tak­en you from climb­ing Ever­est dressed in 1920’s climb­ing out­fits to fol­low­ing Ernest Shackleton’s foot­steps across South Geor­gia Island. What spurs your pas­sion and imag­i­na­tion for these explorato­ry types of missions?

CA: There’s no oth­er way to get into the mind­set of what it was like for those climbers. Nowa­days you have every­thing squared away; we have satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions and food and there’s no chal­lenge that’s left to us. By going there and see­ing what it was like for them, you put into rel­a­tive terms how dif­fi­cult it was.

The South Geor­gia Island expe­di­tion was for an IMAX film that we shot in April of 2000, and our goal was to recre­ate the leg of the jour­ney that Shack­le­ton, Frank Wors­ley and Thomas Cre­ane took across South Geor­gia Island. What was real­ly amaz­ing, where they just slid down a slope, we had to rap­pel, down-climb and ice climb, and if we had slid down as they had in their sto­ry, it would have been cer­tain death. Then the Cre­an Glac­i­er, which was mea­sured in 1956, had melt­ed out and reced­ed quite a bit, so it was one of the first trips which real­ly saw the effects of cli­mate change. So being able to put it into his­tor­i­cal con­text, from the ear­ly explor­ers to where we are, cer­tain­ly was anoth­er part to it.


The Clymb: In late 2014, a film was released chron­i­cling your ascent of Win­ter Dance, a unique mixed-climb in cen­tral Mon­tana. What was the sig­nif­i­cance of this climb to you?

CA: Alex Lowe had done the first ascent, which was Win­ter Dance, and then there was anoth­er route that was in that same area but didn’t infringe upon his orig­i­nal route. You always want to respect someone’s first ascent and the style in which they climbed it. It was also a mod­ern climb, so it was steep­er and more difficult.

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The Clymb: When you say ‘mod­ern climb,’ do you mean by the stan­dards that he was climb­ing com­pared to the climb­ing of the mid to late ’90s?

CA: Yeah, right now dry tool­ing has evolved, peo­ple don’t use leash­es on the ice tools and the ice axes are curved, so the tech­nique and the pur­suit of mixed climb­ing as an end in itself has real­ly grown in this time.


The Clymb: You’re very con­nect­ed to Nepal, and it’s spir­i­tu­al cul­ture, espe­cial­ly with the devel­op­ment of the Khum­bu Climb­ing Cen­ter. What dif­fer­ences do you see in the rev­er­ence of the moun­tains in East­ern ver­sus West­ern culture?

CA: For peo­ple who live in the shad­ow of Ever­est, whether in Tibet or Nepal, they both share the same reli­gion; they’re Tibetan Bud­dhist by nature, so they share that com­mon­al­i­ty. For them Chomol­ung­ma is the name of the moun­tain, the god­dess of the snows and the god­dess of the Earth. The moun­tains are a deity and the place where the gods live, so there’s that spe­cial aspect.

In Nepal, the idea of climb­ing a moun­tain is a friv­o­lous pur­suit. It’s expen­sive, it’s hard work, you suf­fer, and why would you go do that? For a lot of these peo­ple who are strug­gling with food, with shel­ter and with cloth­ing, climb­ing seems like a sense­less pur­suit. So, there’s a mod­ern jux­ta­po­si­tion of where one’s soci­ety is and Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs. We have every­thing tak­en care of here in the West with shel­ter and cloth­ing, and we do these intel­lec­tu­al pur­suits that direct us towards self-actu­al­iza­tion. For a lot of these Nepali peo­ple, they say ‘You guys are crazy,’ and they go into the moun­tains because they’re paid to do it, but some of it is chang­ing, as the younger gen­er­a­tion is pur­su­ing climb­ing for it’s own sake.


The Clymb: In the wake of the 2014 avalanche, and the 2015 earth­quake, how has the mis­sion of the Khum­bu Climb­ing Cen­ter tak­en on greater depth?

CA: The class­es are tak­ing place right now, but it’s hard to say. The earth­quake affect­ed every­one in Nepal, espe­cial­ly some of the rur­al areas east of Kath­man­du, and the avalanche in 2014 cer­tain­ly had an adverse effect with the 16 Nepali peo­ple who were work­ing in the moun­tains that lost their lives.

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The Clymb: How has alpin­ism changed since you first start­ed climbing?

CA: Now, there’s less of a goal towards the real­ly large siege-style expe­di­tions. There are small­er, lighter-weight groups, which peo­ple are doing. Equip­ment is bet­ter and com­mu­ni­ca­tions are more read­i­ly avail­able. You used to walk off the map and now in many places there are cell tow­ers, which are solar pow­ered. Now if you have a satel­lite dish, you can bring the whole world to your fin­ger­tips in terms of the Inter­net. Acces­si­bil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tions is one thing, but teams are climb­ing with less equip­ment, and are small­er, faster, and lighter with­out the use of fixed ropes.


The Clymb: You recent­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed with David Lama in Zion and Nepal. Can you tell me about the project?

CA: We had met just com­mu­ni­cat­ing. He had want­ed some infor­ma­tion about a route I had climbed in Patag­o­nia, so I shared it with him and we planned to go to Alas­ka but we didn’t have enough time, so we went to Zion and fin­ished a route that I had start­ed. We met a friend of mine, James Mar­tin, who put up a video of it. Then this past Novem­ber, we tried Lunag Ri in Nepal, and we turned back, we didn’t make it to the top, but we had a good time nonethe­less. David’s dad is from Nepal and he’s half Nepali, so it was a neat home­com­ing for him. He just put up a film online about the trip.


The Clymb: Being young, do you feel David Lama rep­re­sents mod­ern alpin­ism con­sid­er­ing the attrib­ut­es of fast and light with small expeditions?

CA: Yeah, he cer­tain­ly embod­ies that and he’s a real­ly good climber; boul­der­ing and win­ning com­pe­ti­tion climb­ing when he was 18 or 19, and it was real­ly great to see that tran­si­tion into the mountains.

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The Clymb: You will next be seen in Nation­al Parks Adven­ture on IMAX. What attract­ed you to the film?

CA: The her­itage of our parks, my grow­ing up in the parks as a young guy, was some­thing that helped devel­op my character.


The Clymb: What do the nation­al parks mean to you personally?

CA: There was a real con­nec­tion to the parks. My fam­i­ly is from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, just out­side of Yosemite, and it’s always where we went on vaca­tion. We nev­er went to amuse­ment parks and we nev­er had a motor­boat or any­thing like that. The back­coun­try was our vaca­tion. To be able to share my enthu­si­asm with future gen­er­a­tions is a big part of the moti­va­tion for that film.


The Clymb: What con­tin­ues to fuel your curios­i­ty and your passion?

CA: I think I wake up in the morn­ing and it’s like ‘I want to go climb­ing.’ I’ve already planned a climb this week and I’m get­ting all psy­ched over it. It’s just what I love to do. We’re such an over­sub­scribed, mech­a­nized, auto­mat­ed, dig­i­tal world, that it over­tax­es the sys­tem, and for me, going out­side is how I find bal­ance in life.

 

Fol­low Con­rad on Insta­gram and Face­book and see him in Nation­al Parks Adven­ture open­ing in IMAX on Feb. 12, 2016.