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.