Conrad Anker, a world-renowned rock climber and a member of the North Face climbing team, recently headed out to Lander, WY to co-host this year's International Climbing Festival with adventure photographer Galen Rowell. It was his first time at the home of the National Outdoor Leadership School, and in between slide shows, climbing seminars, and even a competitive game of tug-a-war with the event's sponsors, Conrad spoke about his climbing adventures with The Leader.
BY KERRY BROPHY
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1999
The goal was to summit a mountain, but the journey to get there was the real adventure--not the climb itself, nor the fame, nor the majestic and unclimbed walls looming above. It was Conrad Anker's greatest adventure, and this coming from one of the most recognized names in the climbing world, a man who has tackled difficult routes on mountain ranges around the globe.
And he didn't even strap on his climbing gear. The year was 1992, and Anker headed out to the Baffin Islands to climb the region's biggest walls. Instead, he and his partner encountered a land of thick pack ice so dense they had to emerge from their kayaks in places and walk along the ice, dragging the boats. They were two Caucasians in an Inuit world, paddling through frozen water in boats invented by these people hundreds of years ago. Suspended in time, Conrad found himself on equal grounds with the native culture, stripped of any fancy equipment, and paddling a simple boat rather than hanging by his fingertips from the big walls he had set out to find. He was intrigued. No ropes, no ledges, no cameras, just the journey, and his own thoughts...
Conrad Anker's adventure stories offer one man's reflections on the age-old question, why? Why do we go into the wilderness? What is it exactly that has pulled many of us onto a NOLS course, or any immediate experience with the outdoors?
At 36, Anker tackles such questions with a quiet and pensive authority--and there are few climbers who have obtained the experience and prestige he holds in today's climbing community. His accomplishments include first ascents in Antarctica, and new routes on El Capitan, the Karakoram Himalayas, the Khumbu Himalayas, and Patagonia. On May 3, 1999 Conrad gained international attention when he discovered George Mallory's body on Mt. Everest during the famed Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition. Mallory disappeared while climbing the mountain in 1924.
Anker has certainly taken himself to some of the world's most stellar climbing destinations, but he also enjoys tossing aside the fancy equipment, and finding himself without a definite agenda, lost in a world of opportunity.
Out there, confronting wind, fatigue, and fierce storms, Conrad finds what he considers the most cherished aspect of the mountains: teamwork. Your competitor, says Anker, is rarely another climber; instead, it's the environment that can turn an adventurous outing into a desperate attempt to stay alive. Just like any NOLS course, group members need to work together to ensure safe passage, and this camaraderie throws in a philosophical and spiritual element that few sporting arenas offer. Alpine climbing leaves no room for the crush-your-opponent mentality inherent in football, hockey, or tennis. "If you want to be competitive and seek a challenge," he continues, "then you challenge yourself."
These challenges--hanging 2,000 feet off a cliff, or breathing in the virtually oxygen-less air on Everest's summit--draw Conrad to the mountains again and again. For Anker, the rigors of climbing require just as much mental brawn as brute physical strength. There's a lot to think about when you're out there, especially considering today's fancy climbing equipment: straps, bolts, trinkets, and tools that must be accounted for, checked, and checked again.
At the same time, Conrad believes outdoor adventure is also a way to, as Thoreau once said, simplify, simplify, simplify our complicated daily lives. The mountains, he says, strip away the layers and leave us exposed on a granite wall--alone except for the wind, and our own breathing, and thoughts like 'where do I put my left foot next?' In this setting, even life's most complicated problems seem irrelevant, almost trivial.
"There's people who might be at a crossroads in their life, especially students on a NOLS course," says Anker. "There might be challenges that they need to address, certain things in their own life that they can't figure out. But going into the wilderness is a great vehicle for [self-discovery] because you just strip all the lounge chairs, television sets, and credit cards, and you bring it down to a very simple, base level-you have to wake up in the morning and eat food, or you have to hike over that pass to get to the other side."
Sounds good, right? Why, then, are so few individuals willing to take on the risks that Anker tackles as a career--why don't we all head out to K2 and solve our most frustrating personal dilemmas? Perhaps, he admits, it's the physical and chemical composition of his brain, some neurological fluke that gives him the ability to hang off rocks thousands of feet above ground and not experience the heart-thumping, breath-stopping fear that would send the average person reeling. Or, perhaps it's just something he's learned, or perhaps we'll just never know.
"I tend to shy away from this idea that we need to know everything, that everything is explainable," says Conrad. "I like life because it's a mystery. I happen to enjoy standing on the side of El Cap during a climb and just being tied in, and I savor that exposure looking down 2,000 feet in the same way that someone might enjoy a glass of wine. That sensation of being up in the air is something that either you're going to like or you're not going to like, because from the beginning it's something we're not engrained to do. We weren't meant to be up in the air, and so our initial reaction--our own self-preservation instinct as humans--is to think 'I don't want to die.' And whether people know it or not, that instinct really governs so much of our life."
Climbing has given Conrad an unusual freedom--the ability to really feel alive in a profession so shrouded by death. Death, he says, is a subject we avoid all too often in America.
"I think in our culture we don't want to address death or talk about it. I've experienced this since I've been back from Everest where I came across George Mallory. People say, 'oh gosh, wasn't that gross?' but it was quite peaceful. I walked up to him, and sat next to him and he was inanimate, he was a piece of rock, his soul was long gone."
For Conrad, climbing is about life, not death, and--just like any great adventure story-- it's about the journey, not the destination. "I'm not afraid of death. It's going to happen one of these days. We don't know where, it could happen anytime. In that, you want to think of every moment as precious, and you should live in that moment and be the best person you can be. Death is looming over you, but life is precious. A lot of people say, 'You must have a death wish, you're a fatalist because you go up on the mountains,' but I get to see how beautiful life really is when I'm up there."