On the eve of his latest expedition, Conrad Anker explains why there’s a lot more to mountaineering than egos and competitiveness.
There’s an old climbing proverb that goes something like this: “There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers.” Like most proverbs that have stood the test of time, this one has more than a little truth to it. But whoever wrote it probably didn’t know Conrad Anker. At age 52—which, admittedly, is the new 42—Anker continues to push himself harder than most climbers half his age. So it’s no surprise that he’s teaming up with 25-year-old Austrian wonder kid David Lama for his latest expedition, which Conrad is calling his first “soul brother” trip since Meru.
I recently had the honor of moderating three of Conrad’s presentations of “The Other Way,” a retrospective of his climbing career, which gave his fans a revealing look into his motivations and the triumphs and tragedies he’s experienced during a lifetime of cutting-edge climbing. Between shows, we kept ourselves entertained with many stories that can’t be shared publicly, but I also got him to go on the record about his upcoming trip, and, more importantly, about why he’s still driven so hard to push himself as a climber and explorer.
Tell me about your upcoming expedition.
The mountain is called Lunag-Ri. It’s located in the Thame Valley, which is in the Khumbu region. David Lama and I are planning to attempt the northwest face. The peak is 6,895 meters, so it’s a serious climb. The French climbed a buttress on the right side of the face, but there’s a corkscrew buttress on the left side that we want to try. It’s been attempted a few times but remains unclimbed.
When do you leave?
We depart November 7.
Kind of late in the season, huh?
Yes, but I climbed Ama Dablam [on] December 25 years ago, and it was just perfect. We only had one storm and the weather was mostly clear. But yeah, it was cold, like Denali cold. This climb should be similar—technical climbing in down pants and mittens. I just bought a huge box of hand warmers from Costco.
Is this your first “soul brother” trip since you climbed Meru back in 2011?
Yeah, I’m pretty psyched about that. But I did climb Everest in 2012 with National Geographic and then Denali in 2013 with my son Max.
Wait a second, for most people those would be the climbs of a lifetime, but it kind of sounds like you’re saying you’ve been on a hiatus for the past few years.
Well, they were both standard routes, and I do draw a distinction between trade routes and exploratory climbing.
What is the difference?
My friend Jay Smith once that said that if you’re going to all the expense to go climbing in the Himalaya, you might as well be doing a new route. It’s more of an adventure when you set off into unknown territory, and there’s nothing like that feeling you get when you discover a place on the Earth where no one has ever been. There is still so much unexplored terrain in those mountains. And that’s our goal—we want to do a new route.
I get it, but can you explain it a little better for people who maybe don’t go on these kinds of adventures? What exactly is so compelling about these blanks on the map that justifies risking your life to go to these places?
Well, it might sound cliché, but more people have been on the moon than have been on some of these unclimbed walls in the Himalaya. Perhaps you could say that mountaineers are driven by ego or our competitiveness, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Whether it’s a huge face in the Himalaya or some crag in the woods behind your house, exploration offers us a unique perspective on the world that you can’t really find anywhere else.
Do you think that humankind has benefitted from people like you who have this compulsion to explore the unknown?
That’s a really easy set up question, but yes, of course. It’s our human nature to explore. Tens of thousands of years ago, our species walked out of Africa, traveling far and wide across the entire planet, from the Arctic to the tip of Tierra Del Fuego, making us the most geographically diversified species on Earth. As an animal, we’ve been everywhere, and I think there have always been certain people [who] yearned to go out and find something different, to explore the unknown. It’s an instinct a lot of us have, and it makes us who we are.
Do you think it’s fair to say that the more we explore our world and make discoveries, the better we will know and understand it, and the better we know our world, the more we’ll love and protect it?
Definitely, and that’s a great way of putting it. Take the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, as an example. If you’ve been there and seen it with your own eyes, you’ll know how important it is to protect it. But if you’ve never been there, you might just think of it as a godforsaken tundra, swarming with bugs, where we should be drilling for oil.
Tell me about your partnership with David Lama. How did it come about?
A few years ago he contacted me to get information about a route I did on Torre Egger in Patagonia back in 1995. I had first learned about David from Peter Habeler, who I met at a film festival in Austria several years ago [in 1978 Habeler, one of the world’s most accomplished alpinists, became the first person, alongside Reinhold Messner, to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen]. Peter runs a mountain guiding school in Austria, and he had been training up David since the age of three. David’s father is a Sherpa and his mother was a competitive sport climber from Austria. David and I started chatting and we hit it off, and pretty soon we were batting around ideas about doing a trip together. Then last year, when he was in the U.S. to attend some film festivals, we met up in Vegas and drove to Zion to try and free climb a big wall route I put up 20 years ago on a formation called the Watchman.
David is one of the best young climbers in the world. At age 15 he became the youngest person to ever compete in a World Cup climbing competition, and in 2012 he made the first free ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, in Patagonia. Yet he is 25 and you’re 52, and clearly you have a much wider range of experience as a climber. Is there a mentorship thing going on here?
Yeah, maybe you could say that. I mean, there’s no way I can mentor him on how to rock climb. Up on the Watchman I watched him climb a 5.12 pitch with no bolts that I would surely have bolted if it had been my lead. But in terms of general mountain sense, and with high-altitude alpinism like we’ll be doing in Nepal, I think I have something to offer him. In preparation for our trip we’re talking a lot about clothing, how we’ll stay warm, exactly what the kit will look like, and how we’ll keep our pack sizes reasonable so we can climb in alpine style. The interesting thing is that even though his father is from Nepal, this will be his first climbing expedition to the country. And since I’ve been there so many times I’m looking forward to showing him around.
That’s interesting that David has never climbed in Nepal.
Yeah, he’s done a couple trips to Pakistan—Trango Tower and Choglisa—but nothing in Nepal. He did just visit his dad’s village in early October, and I think the only other time he had been there was when he was nine years old. So I feel super lucky to be teaming up with him for this project.
You are one of the most prolific climbers of your generation, having been on more than 40 international climbing expeditions, yet you are married and have three children. I know personally how difficult it is to find a sense of balance between going on expeditions and being there for the family. How do you do it? And do you have any secrets you could share with those of us still struggling to figure this one out?
Finding that balance is difficult. My wife, Jennifer, is my greatest advocate. She understands my drive to explore, and she has always supported me in my climbing endeavors. But she also sets boundaries for me. For example, I have long dreamed of climbing K2, and I even had a trip planned with my friend Alex Lowe before he died. And I’ve been offered a fair purse to guide a fellow up it. But it’s not in the cards, and I can live with this. The education and happiness of our children is paramount, and I’ve always worked really hard to dedicate a lot of time to the family when I’m not in the mountains. It’s all about how one makes decision, and to make good ones, you have to process the feedback you’re getting from your family.
If you could share one life lesson with your children that you’ve learned from all the time you’ve spent in the mountains, what would it be?
Live in the moment and make the most of every single hour that you’re alive. Like it says on the sign outside the drop zone in front of the school: No Idling.