The climbing gear is sorted and packed, and Conrad Anker emerges from his basement gear room with Hyalite Canyon on his mind. He’s handled his morning business—a chat with National Geographic, a magazine interview and a quick reschedule for a business meeting. Now, he’s ready to get out.
“What are you thinking for the day?” says his wife, Jenni, as Conrad cinches up his pack.
“Well, we’re going to shoot some pictures and climb some ice,” he says. “I’ll see you at sunset.”
The last line is not just something a husband tells his wife. For Conrad and Jenni, it’s a pledge forged through a tragedy that reconfigured both of their lives. He says something to this effect every time he leaves for a climb.
After 25 years in the sport, Anker has become one of alpinism’s biggest stars. His record of hard ascents on icy mountains and rock faces around the world puts him among the world’s elite. He captains the North Face company’s climbing team. Last spring the Bozeman resident summited Mount Everest without oxygen while assisting a group of Montana State University researchers. It was his third time reaching the highest point on earth.
Yet for all his accomplishment and stature, Anker is still bound to a single day in 1999 when the course of his and Jenni’s lives dramatically changed. What happened that day is why he never leaves home without telling her when to expect his return.
Conrad Anker, now 50, is paid to climb, paid to be one of the faces of the North Face brand. In other words, he is paid to be seen, preferably on the most scenic, radical terrain possible.
“What I do is sports marketing, and I guess I see myself as a brand compass,” he says. “That involves making sure The North Face is visible, is respected, and is a good citizen. Job one, though, is making sure the company is visible in the media.”
That means numerous appearances, countless interviews, and juggling a schedule so Byzantine that he has a Bozeman assistant who refers to herself as “Girl Friday.”
It also means climbing big routes—the kind that get covered in magazines and on film.
“Part of the way I am paid is by exposure in the media,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with that, in part because it’s good for the company, but also because I want what we do to be out there. I want people to think about the exploration aspect of what we do. I want to inspire people to challenge themselves.”
Though some climbers grouse about the effects of money on the sport, Anker says the concern is misplaced, at least at The North Face.
“Our athletes, it’s up to them what to do,” he says. “It’s a pretty organic thing. What do you want to go do? We never say go do this or that.”
Some have argued that money has influenced climbers to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make, to climb routes that involve outsized risk designed to garner maximum media.
“What people don’t understand is that climbers understand risk in a way that many people don’t,” Anker says. “It’s true, I think, there are some people involved in all sorts of risky professions who aren’t good at assessing risk. Those professions weed those people out, whether it’s firefighting, police work or climbing. I know the people on the North Face team, and I don’t think any of them don’t think about coming home at the end of the day. I know I do.”
One of Anker’s signal achievements bears witness to that statement.
The Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru has long been one of alpinism’s holy grails. Located in the Garhwal Himalaya of India, Meru marks the mythic center of the universe, according to Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The faithful believe the body of God twined itself with the body of the land at Meru, thus linking the physical and spiritual worlds.
The fin, a startling, iconic spire, became the focus of Anker’s climbing universe by way of his mentor, Mugs Stump, who was twice rebuffed by the “sharp blade of stone.” Anker, too, was turned back in 2003 and 2008.
“Maybe we weren’t deserving of going to the center of the universe,” Anker said after the 2008 attempt.
Part of the dynamic that ended the 2008 effort with Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk was Anker’s promise to his family in Bozeman. He wrote after the trip that there are more important things than reaching every summit.
“It felt fitting that the upper world was unattainable. Perhaps our goal had been another form of Western hubris,” he wrote in the spring 2012 edition of Alpinist. “And yet I felt good about the attempt; we’d gotten so close, no one was hurt, and I’d returned to my family. We’d played on the mountain’s terms, and the mountain had won.”
Anker had plenty of other objectives in the great ranges, but Meru lingered. As much as he convinced himself that his decision to turn around was the right thing to do, a part of him couldn’t let it go.
It was sort of like the sports car that you don’t really need,” he says. “It wasn’t something I had to do, but it was there all the same. We’d been so close and the fact is, it was still unclimbed.”
When he announced to Jenni that he wanted to try again, her response was understandable. “What is the sense in going back?” she asked.
Anker’s answer perhaps resonates only with climbers and other explorers.
“I still had to finish Mugs’ dream for him, even if I didn’t understand why,” he wrote in Alpinist. “I tried to justify the hazards in the same arrogant way I had for 20 years. With proper planning, I thought, we will avoid risk. Fear and doubt awakened me late at night. All my rationalizing was bullshit. It was dangerous and selfish to go to Meru.”
In 2011, Anker, Chin and Ozturk returned. And on their 11th day of climbing, the trio stood poised below the last pitch.
“You need to take this pitch, this is your dream climb,” Chin said to Anker. “No, you take it,” Anker responded.
“The Shark’s Fin had been Mugs’ dream and then, for a while, mine,” Anker wrote in Alpinist. “… It was already time to pass on that metaphysical ball of knowledge to someone younger.”
“I want to go last,” Anker told Chin.
And he did. Then he went home to Jenni and the boys.
Anker didn’t always think first about returning home. When he was first starting his climbing career, it was more important to push himself and establish his place in the sport.
In 1999, Anker set out for Shishapangma in Tibet with his best friend, Alex Lowe. The trip would mark the first time Americans skied off the summit of an 8,000-meter—26,000-foot—peak, and would further cement Lowe’s status as the world’s best all-around climber.
The crew expected October 5, 1999, to be an easy day. Anker, Lowe, photographer David Bridges and the rest of the team planned on adjusting to the altitude before climbing the world’s 14th-highest mountain.
“This was a rest day and we were just trying to acclimatize, just doing some walking on the mountain,” Anker says. “In hindsight, it was obvious the place was an avalanche runout zone, but we weren’t on high alert.”
About 6,000 feet above where Anker, Lowe and Bridges were walking, a serac cut loose, triggering a slide that at first seemed distant and nonthreatening. But as the avalanche picked up speed and volume, the men scrambled for cover. Bridges and Lowe went one direction, Anker another.
“They went downhill and I went laterally,” he says. “I saw them in one place and then I laid down and saw them in another. And then they were gone.”
Anker, then 36, was hammered by the slide’s windblast and thrown 100 feet, suffering broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and cuts to the head.
The rest of the team was elsewhere when the slide occurred, but soon joined Anker in a futile search. Lowe and Bridges were gone without a trace.
Anker had never lost a partner until Shishapangma.
“This was something new for me, a catastrophe in the mountains that hit me directly,” he says. “Mugs had died, of course, on Denali, but I was in Zion, so it was different. I think when we’re in our 20s and 30s, death hits us harder. Where I am now, I know we all die, that we’re all finite. But then, I was just crushed.”
Anker suffered survivor’s guilt, recycling the capricious equation that left him alive and his friends dead.
“Classic stuff: Why him? Why not me? What about his family?” he says.
Anker had climbed with Lowe since 1990, when Lowe worked for Black Diamond and Anker worked for The North Face.
“He’d moved to Salt Lake from Ventura and we just immediately hit it off,” Anker says. “We had the same drive, same motivation. We were a solid partnership. He was stronger than me, but he was stronger than everybody.”
Anker eventually brought Lowe onto the North Face team. They were pioneers in the early days of “professional” climbing. They climbed in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Alaska, doing rescue work on Denali, North America’s highest peak. Over those years, Anker got to know Lowe’s family, including his wife Jenni and three boys—Max, Sam and Isaac. In fact, Anker was present when two of the boys were born.
After his climbing partner’s death, he reached out to Jenni.
“I was struggling, and I spent a lot of time talking to Jenni on the phone about what had happened and what would come next for all of us,” Anker says.
Slowly, organically, Anker and Jenni Lowe fell in love. The relationship sparked considerable discussion in the climbing community.
“It’s not something where I asked myself directly whether it was the right thing or weighed the pros and cons,” he says. “It came from the heart and was very natural. Jenni embraced it and the boys were very much into it.”
In 2001, Anker and Lowe married, and Anker adopted the Lowe boys, who were then 10, 7 and 3.
“The boys and I have had a great relationship, and I’m honored to have the chance to play a role in their lives,” he says. “Sometimes the loss manifests itself in ways I don’t understand, but we move through it. I think they’re more at peace with me than some of the kids I’ve seen in families that have been divorced and remarried.”
Anker understands why some questioned the relationship, and he never shied from answering those who bothered to ask.
“I think my friends and family were always supportive, but some people thought Jenni didn’t need another climber in her life,” Anker says. “I understand why they might feel that way. But I always tell people, if you’ve got a question, here’s my phone number. Call me and we’ll talk. This is a happy union, a real life where we deal with all things that everybody deals with.”
Esquire magazine is perhaps a curious place for Anker to show up, but there he is, No. 7 in the magazine’s online list of the 50 “greatest athletes currently in action.”
“If you haven’t heard of Conrad Anker, you should have,” wrote Garth Sundem last year. “He’s a badass and a heck of a nice guy … Though he can’t compete with the renown of a LeBron, his ratio of good fame to bad fame lines up just right.”
Anker is the top mountain athlete on the list; fellow North Face climber Alex Honnold clocks in at No. 12 and skier Lindsey Vonn sets up at No. 15.
The list, of course, is skewed by numerous biases, but a couple of things about it are interesting. First, one of the metrics is the difficulty of the sport, in which climbing ranks fifth, behind more traditional sports such as boxing and ice hockey but far ahead of others, such as distance running and golf. Second, the rankings include ratings for things like philanthropy and character, or failures of character, like Tiger Woods’ philandering and Lance Armstrong’s doping.
“The whole thing made me laugh a little bit, but it’s also nice to see recognition of climbing as a difficult sport,” says Anker, who found it amusing to be ranked above a household name like Tiger Woods. “Our sport has a lot of inherent difficulties, and it has some inherent risks that most other sports don’t have. I wouldn’t make too much of it, but it’s nice to see climbers be part of the discussion.”
The sport has come a long way since Anker was first introduced to it. He grew up near the mountains of central California and his father was a “backcountry enthusiast” who instilled love and respect for wild country.
“We were in Tuolumne County, which served as a gateway to the backcountry in the same way [Bozeman] serves as a gateway to the Yellowstone country,” he says. “That was our existence, and we were always going off into the backcountry with burros and donkeys for fishing and peak bagging. Some of my most formative memories are from those times, and I just remember thinking how badass my dad and his friends were.”
To this day Anker still has a pair of hulking leather boots owned by one of his father’s friends. “That’s a formative time, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where family was respected and where my parents nurtured this love for the outdoors,” he says.
That love eventually sent Anker to college at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he studied commercial recreation and began working for The North Face in 1981.
The legendary Stump would occasionally cruise into the store where Anker worked to buy a block of chalk and would soon be telling stories about epic climbs around the world. The best stories were always of summits that denied him. Those stories would eventually include the Shark’s Fin.
“To me, Mugs was a seer,” Anker wrote in Alpinist. “He used big, hard routes to try to cross into that ideal space where you climb without conscious thought and imagine an unlimited reality. I wanted to experience what he did. And then, that one day, he asked me to go climbing. That was it.”
On one of the last days of Bozeman’s ice-climbing season, Anker heads to Hyalite Canyon with a group of friends and newcomers. Like some emissary of goodwill, he makes his way around the so-called Genesis area, greeting one and all as if he were running for political office.
He’s not, although Anker is intensely involved in both the local and worldwide climbing communities (see sidebar). This is just how Anker carries himself, especially when he’s climbing.
“We have to realize how lucky we are to be here,” he says after lending his ice tools to a novice climber from Butte. “You have to be ready to get all the joy you can get out of these days. That’s part of what we’re doing here.”
The statement sounds a lot like something Alex Lowe used to say: “The best climber is the one having the most fun.”
The one having the most fun on this particular day is a 20-year-old named Luke, who is new to ice climbing. He’s climbing with old, heavy ice axes. Luke himself is a bit heavy, as well. But he doesn’t care. He’s climbing ice and he seems to be loving every minute of the experience.
Even the most clueless climbing novice knows Anker’s name, and it’s not lost on Luke that he’s in the presence of one of the world’s best. When Anker gets around to greeting and encouraging him, Luke does everything but genuflect as the pro offers a few tips.
One of those tips is pretty pointed—either lose weight or be resigned to climbing badly. As Anker moves on to climb a few routes, Luke beams. “Did you see that?” he asks. “Conrad Anker talked to me. He told me what I need to do. I know I’m too heavy, but I’ve been working on it. Now, though, I’ve got to do it. I mean, dude, that’s Conrad Anker. I gotta do what he said.”
As the day winds down and Anker and his posse drive toward town, he recalls the conversation with Luke.
“I think it’s important to take time for that sort of stuff,” he says. “That’s going to matter to him. It’s part of our job as older climbers to talk to the youth, to encourage and inspire them. Climbing makes us better if it makes us happier. He’ll be happier when he’s more fit.”
The truck winds down the frozen road, and Anker starts to wax philosophical about a life shaped by rock and ice, by love of the mountains and those he shares them with.
“I’ve learned that these things—my family, my passion for climbing and for being a force for good in the local community and in the larger community—are the source of happiness for me,” he says. “I know that life will keep changing and keep throwing new challenges my way, but my intent is always to embrace them and explore them and find a way to turn them into an experience that’s rewarding. Even when we’re suffering, whether it’s in the mountains or because of something going on at home, trying situations are a way to understand our human condition. You have to try to rise above the adversity. I like doing that.”
The sun is close to setting as the truck pulls up outside the Lowe-Anker home. His promise is fulfilled one more time.
The Anker file
Born: November 27, 1962
Five notable climbs: First ascent, with Mugs Stump, of “Streaked Wall” in Zion National Park (1990); first ascent of the southwest face of Latok II, Pakistan (1997); Mount Everest research expedition to seek answers to the disappearances of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine (1999); three new routes to Vinson Massif, Antarctica (2000-01); first ascent of Shark’s Fin on Meru Peak, Himalaya (2011).
Five bucket-list climbs: Southeastern ridge of Annapurna, Himalaya; Nameless Peak, Himalaya; the Matterhorn, Swiss Alps; Mount Robson, Canadian Rockies; Mount McKinley, Alaska, with son Max.
Civic good in Bozeman: Affiliated with the Bozeman Boulders Initiative, which funds and builds realistic climbing boulders in local parks and open spaces; and fundraiser for the Bozeman Ice Tower, a premier climbing facility and concert venue that would be built on the Gallatin County Fairgrounds.
International outreach: Board member of The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and the affiliated Khumbu Climbing School in Nepal; board member of the Conservation Alliance; and board member of the Rowell Fund for Tibet.
Creed: be good. be kind. be happy.