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  Fall 1999 Cover
Conrad Anker is featured in "Out of Thin Air" in the Fall 1999 issue of ADVENTURE.
  adventure profile
Conrad Anker
Favorite Place
Dream Job
The Man Who Found Mallory
Big Oak Flat, California
Someplace I Haven't Been
Santa Claus
  Anker's Head   "I wonder if I could have just walked by George Mallory...and not have ever said anything."
Last spring climber Conrad Anker set off for "a little high-altitude trekking." He ended up finding the body of George Mallory, missing since 1924. Even before Anker joined the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition on Everest, he was a star among alpinists, having completed brutal routes in the Karakoram, the Himalaya, Antarctica, and Patagonia.

How do you describe your particular brand of adventure?

My specialty is alpine big-wall climbing—large granite spires and towers. I'm also a generalist: I like rock climbing, ice climbing, big-wall climbing, a little bit of altitude climbing. As a generalist, I do most of these things generally well.

  How did you get involved with the Mallory Expedition?

I was in Antarctica with climber Dave Hahn. That's when he asked me, "Well, you want to come along?" I was excited to go. I always wanted to go to Everest. I didn't want to have to guide on the mountain—guiding to me is too risky. And this was a neat story, a story that I was interested in.

  Did you think you'd find Mallory?

I didn't really think that I was going to be the person that discovered George Mallory. I went to Everest to climb the [North Face's] Second Step and go to the summit and work on the film [Look for it on PBS's NOVA series in January]. I wasn't one of the chief searchers. The search wasn't my goal. I wonder if I could have just walked by George Mallory lying in the air, resting in the ice, and not ever have said anything.

  How do you feel about the controversy the expedition has drawn for selling photographs of the discovery?

I have sympathy for the Mallory family. I wish that there had been clear and more direct communication with them regarding the photographs and some of the other aspects that have arisen. One should certainly respect the family. I've done my best to communicate with them and e-mail them and to speak with them on the phone, just so that they understand what I do as a climber.

People like to see those macabre-type photos. Even so, it wasn't as if they were of a recently dead person. When the Mallory story broke, there were pictures everywhere of excavations of mass graves in Kosovo. Those pictures were far more graphic, but no one got up to cry about them. No one said, "You've absolutely ruined the family of this dead person." That was never even brought up. It was just news that happened. When you're dealing with something historical, it really changes people's perceptions.

I feel the expedition was more high-altitude archaeology. If someone came up to me and said, "You're violating the grave for profit," I'd disagree. We went up there to look for it and to see it from an archaeological perspective. It wasn't like he had been put to rest and we had gone back [to dig him up].

  Given the danger, why climb?

I think climbing—and going on adventures—provides something elementally human that's not being met in today's society. In the '90s you've got all these wonderful luxuries and trinkets and things, but you don't have to prove your mettle against what's out there, show that toughness like we once had to do.

If you think back 150 years ago, there wasn't any need for recreation that was daring or risky. It was hard enough to drive wagons across the prairie. Similarly, in cultures today that are still not industrialized, life is already very hard—they don't find that elemental need to go out and risk life.

  How important is gear to what you do?

Without a doubt, it's an important part. It enables us to do as much as we are doing—providing warmth, security. But it's not good to let climbing be overshadowed by that. You keep things in perspective. You realize that by taking less equipment you have a greater experience.

  How did you get started?

I started with my family. We'd go in the High Sierra in the summertime, mostly backpacking, skiing, and stuff like that, and progressed gradually to do more climbing.

  What is it about climbing that gives you happiness?

Being in a remote place with another person and giving your trust entirely to them. There are few things that we do nowadays where we really have to trust someone. You really have the most trust and teamwork, I think, in mountain climbing. That for me is good—one of its intrinsic values. The other is the joy of being in a very beautiful place.

  What was your most frightening moment?

In 1991 we were way out in the Alaska Range in the Kichatna Spires, a bunch of rock towers southwest of Denali. We had two weeks' worth of food, but we ended up being out there for three weeks due to bad weather. So we were a little hungry. We had to ski back out. But it was a very good experience and expedition. It was very trying and wonderful.

  How do you make a living?

I work with The North Face, a company that designs technical outdoor equipment and clothing. In September I'll have been with them for 16 years. I started out in 1983 working in their retail store and progressed to the position of technical consultant.

I work a set amount of days with retailers, advising them on how to position and sell North Face products. Then I also work with in-house North Face people, helping them develop accounts with sporting goods retailers. It's a good way to make a living. As a climber I'm very grateful, of course, that I don't have to guide.

  Why don't you like guiding?

First, I find it very risky and dangerous. You're climbing with people whose ability is less than your own, so you must make all the decisions and be responsible for the well-being of the clients. My best friend was killed guiding in 1992.

Second, if you're guiding everyday, then sure, you're climbing, but you're doing it at a level that's a lot lower than your true potential. You end up spending all your time climbing at 5.6. When, if you really wanted to pursue your climbing, you'd try climbing at 5.11, 5.12.

  What would be the ultimate accomplishment?

It would probably be something like the Nobel Peace Prize or some humanitarian thing. That's what my goal would be, to do something good for people.

  So your goals aren't limited to climbing?

Climbing I enjoy. But I don't think there's one biggest, best climb—that there's another climb that's the ultimate or the hardest. I enjoy climbing for the experience. It's my life and it's my vocation and avocation. I'll always do it. But eventually I'd like to parlay what I've done in climbing into who I am as a person: a humanitarian and environmentalist. That's something that I work on as much as I can now. And I know that it'll become more of a part of my life.

  Do you work for any causes?

I work with groups here in the United States that are looking after the wilderness, groups like the Sierra Club. I'm on the board of the Access Fund, which keeps access to climbing areas open to more climbers. I helped out the American Himalayan Foundation, which is a foundation that builds schools, hospitals, does a lot of really good things for people in the Himalaya. Also, the Central Asia Institute, which is a group helping mountain cultures in areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It's people in mountain cultures that I feel closest to, because I've had the pleasure of interacting with them and learning from them. Sometimes I think, How come I'm just helping out mountain people? Mountaineering is what I do. It's given me my calling in life.

  Any advice for potential climbers?

Well, climbing is very serious business. When you belay someone, you really need to be aware of what you're doing—be 100 percent mindful of your partner. I've lost very close friends. Climbing has been the high points and the low points of my life. It's not to be taken trivially. If you want to do something trivial, play shuffleboard or boccie ball or badminton or something like that.

Climbing is very high risk. But for me, there are intrinsic rewards in this risk—an ability to fill this desire for adventure, which we have 7-Elevened out of our life.


Portrait by Thom Pollard


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