Grit or Gift: Conrad Anker
If you’ve ever heard of the award-winning documentary called Meru, you’ve heard of Conrad Anker. He’s one of the world’s most renowned adventurers who notably found George Mallory’s body on Everest in 1999, climbed peaks that many believed to have been unclimbable, and then survived the avalanche that killed his climbing partner Alex Lowe and cameraman David Bridges.
With a deep sense of responsibility to Lowe and his family, Anker eventually married his widow, Jenni Lowe Anker, and adopted their three sons.
Now, at the age of 59, after suffering a heart attack that may have been caused by summiting Everest without oxygen, Anker just stepped down from his role as team leader for the North Face. We caught up with him recently at his home in Bozeman, Montana, to find out how he’s doing and what’s next.
Click here to listen to the full podcast and hear it from Anker himself.
Photo credit: Jimmy Chin
Q: For someone who’s accomplished as much as you have, Conrad, you’re an incredibly down-to-earth guy. How do you stay so humble?
Anker: I guess there’s a humbling nature of what we do in climbing. It’s a game of gravity. Whenever you think you’re 10 feet tall and made of gold, gravity will remind you you’re only here for a brief period of time. Also, I live with myself every day and I’m more interested in hearing other people’s stories.
Q: Tell me a little about your early years. Who inspired you to get outside?
Anker: My grandfathers, my grandmother, and my mother, Helga, were all outdoorspeople. We were all part of the wave of immigrants that came to California in the gold rush. Every summer we would take time off and go into the high country. As a young person, that was what summer vacation was. Eventually, though, my grandmother thought I should get a real career. And for some reason she thought I’d be a good produce manager at the Safeway store in Sonora.
Then, eventually, I kept doing it, and they saw that. I had a tremendous amount of support from my parents. For them, No. 1 for their children was to find something they’re passionate about, whether it’s art or science or theology or sports or whatever, they were happy with that. That gave me the space to pursue this frivolous passion of mountain climbing.
Q: Certainly being the produce manager at a grocery store would have been far less dangerous. Did they worry?
Anker: They worried. My mother came to [my climbing partners] Mugs’s funeral and they lived in Yosemite. They were well aware to the inherent risks. They understood the value proposition: with the risk you take, there is an intrinsic reward that is worth it. Having that foundational understanding was really key.
Q: When you get to the level where you got, you’re going to be surrounded by death—it just comes with the territory. You lost Mugs, and then Alex Lowe. Tell me how that affected your thoughts about your own mortality, and how your perspective on that has changed now that you’re nearing 60.
Anker: In 1992, when I was 29, I thought we were invincible. But that first time I went through loss it was really difficult. Seven years later, an avalanche swept away David Bridges and Alex Lowe. When this happened, I walked away from it. But learning to come to terms with death, especially someone you’re close with, that’s one of the challenges of the climbing community. When things like that happen, you’re in a pit of despair, but when you have someone who’s been there…. Well, those messages are in a small way what I can do to give back to the climbing community.
Q: What do you think it is about you and your climbing that you think has kept you alive all these years and through so many difficult expeditions?
Anker: I’m enjoying it. I’m persistent more than anything. I’m also a hyper situationally aware person, which is the upside of ADHD, which I was the poster child for as a kid. In second grade, everything was screaming for my attention, and I didn’t’ know how to process it. Then, probably at age 14, I realized that when I’m climbing, all this information is jumping in and I’m processing it and trying to figure out which I need to pay attention to. Everything went through the prism of being in a vertical space. When you’re three body lengths above the ground, all of sudden the deepest part of your mind knows you can injure yourself, and you need to plan and act accordingly. And that was always my way to quiet things down. So now I see my situational awareness as a blessing. It allows me to listen to the snow, observe the weather, stay alive. Do all that all goes into a safe climb.
Q: When you set off to Meru, Jimmy Chin made a comment that the more nonchalant you are about the objective, the more scared you should be. How did the conversation to go to Meru go with Jenni, your wife?
Anker: With Jenni, I’m like, hey, here’s the picture of where we’re going. She understands climbing and knows. There’s no way I’m going to put up a picture of a trail in the forest. Jenny knows what I do and trusts my judgment.
Q: When you’re in these precarious positions and you’re in a tent for days on end…do you have any belief in something bigger than you?
Anker: My higher power is gravity. Gravity runs this universe, and I worship it by going climbing. From a theological sense, I am a nonbeliever. I am culturally respectful of all the world’s religions and the commonality of both trying to answer the questions of the universe and to create a social contract for humans. I love the culture of religion, and I always try to remind myself of the good. And other times, we know how it can be less than ideal. People think there’s got to be something bigger than this. My astrophysicist friends talk about the scale and size of the universe in geologic time. There’s a time frame for humans, plants, insects, and the cosmos. Here in Gallatin Canyon, we climb rock that’s 2.5 billion years old; it predates the atmospheric oxygen event that’s responsible for life on this planet.
Q: Jenni talked about having a bad feeling about things before Alex died. Does that ever happen to you?
Anker: I haven’t had them right before leaving for the trip. The big expeditions I do take two years of planning. So by the last two months, your only questions are how many carabiners and what rope and do I have my visa. I have had it happen, though, that we’re in base camp and something just doesn’t sit right. More often than not, the mountain is moving down, whether it’s snow or rock, and then I just know it’s not the right place to be at that right time.
Q: As a parent, your first job is to stay alive so you can provide for your kids. How did you reconcile that with the level of danger inherent to climbing the kinds of objectives you chose?
Anker: The type of climbing I did I always felt that I was within my comfort zone. Yes, staying alive is the most important thing, especially for Jenni and the boys after having gone through that once. People think I’m absolutely selfish, but it is what I do and what I’ve spent my life practicing. It’s who I am.
Q: Talk to me about this phase of your life. You had a heart attack somewhat recently that you were lucky to survive, and you also handed the mantle of The North Face expedition team leader to Hilaree Nelson. Is it going to be difficult for you to reign it in?
Anker: When I did Meru, I was 49, and 5 years later I was still climbing 7,000-meter mountains. In Nov. 2016 I suffered a myocardial infraction, or heart attack. I might have damaged my heart earlier in 2012 climbing Everest without oxygen…
In the big picture, I see life in chapters or novellas. The first part, you’re a child under your parents’ wing. You figure out life and they steer you and instill you with values. That second part of your life, you find something you love to do—whether it’s art, knowledge, or education, or whatever—and in the third section, you become the best you can at that thing. You pursue it and you try to move the collective ball of knowledge further along. This is now my fourth chapter, which is when you become a mentor for people in the second and third parts of their lives.
Q: So you’re really not mourning the loss of what you could do in your youth?
Anker: No I am happy for today. Today is the best day of my life. Life is a linear experience. Have you ever seen the film, “Napoleon Dynamite”? There’s a guy in the van who’s reliving his toss as a quarterback playing football. That moment defined his existence. That can’t be me. I’m not going to live for something that happened in the past.
Prior to the heart attack, I wanted to hold onto the reins and get more stuff done, but now I’m happy to ride at the back of the mules and take in the flowers and a little dust on the trail. I’m happy to be struggling up 5/11. Before, I’d camp out on 5.11. But the intrinsic joy we get from struggling with gravity is still there and still very meaningful for me.
Q: What are some of your other interests?
Anker: I’m not much of an artist or musician, and I think other people are, like, “Please stop playing.” Jenni and I love gardening. We have a good balance there, and it’s nice to see things grow. I also enjoy helping out other people