For 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.