Conrad Anker on Everest: In the Footsteps of Mallory & Irvine

Conrad Anker Profile

Originally published in the May 2008 edition of National Geographic Adventure magazine. The Wildest Dream is now in theaters.

“It was the most stressful trip I’ve ever been on,” says Conrad Anker. It’s July 5, 2007, and I’m in California, visiting Anker at his parents’ quirky and charming home in Big Oak Flat in the gold-rush country. The house, with wraparound balconies and towering picture windows, sits alone amid a thousand acres of ranch land, commanding a lordly view over the Central Valley to the west.

I’ve known Anker for eight years, but I’ve never seen him look so frazzled and worn out. We’re in the middle of a heat wave: At sunset it’s still 98 degrees (37 degrees Celsius) in Big Oak Flat—105 degrees (41 degrees Celsius) down in the valley. Even the Ankers’ four rambunctious dogs have gone droopy, their tail-wagging a languid afterthought.

But it’s not the heat that’s gotten to Anker. It’s Everest. He’s just returned from what seems on the surface to have been a phenomenally successful expedition. Anker was the climbing leader of a team that was attempting to make the definitive documentary film about George Mallory, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, and the eternal mystery of their 1924 disappearance on Everest. On June 8 of that year, the two climbers were glimpsed by a teammate “moving expeditiously” upward near the Second Step, less than a thousand feet below the summit. Then clouds swallowed the mountain. Mallory and Irvine were never seen alive again, and ever since, experts have fiercely debated whether the pair could have reached the summit 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the “official” first ascent.

In 2007 Anker climbed the mountain (his second time) via the North Col and north ridge. Parts of the film were shot with Anker (playing Mallory) and ace British rock climber Leo Houlding (playing Irvine) dressed in facsimiles of the clothing that the 1924 team wore—flannel shirts, wool sweaters, tweed jackets, gabardine knickers, hobnailed leather boots, and the like. To avoid having other teams in the background of their footage, and to ensure against getting caught up in the kinds of rescues that are increasingly the norm on Everest, the filmmakers and the climbers delayed their attempt until almost everyone else had gone home. During a spring season in which a record number of some 530 climbers stood on top of Everest, by waiting till the last possible moment Anker’s team had the mountain to themselves.

The tour de force of the expedition came when the team removed the notorious Chinese ladder from the Second Step—a short, nearly vertical rock cliff at 28,300 feet (8,626 meters) that is the crux of the route. Anker then free-climbed the Step, as Mallory and Irvine would have had to do in 1924 if they had reached the summit. In 1999, making a similar effort, Anker had tried to free-climb the Step with the ladder in place. He’d almost pulled off the feat but ended up standing on a single ladder rung that blocked the only available foothold. Ever since, Anker had been haunted by the feeling that he had cheated. This time the climb was pure.

Anker and 15 teammates, including ten Sherpas, made the summit on the extraordinarily late date of June 14, just as the monsoon that shuts down Everest through each summer began to smother the peak. One day later and the climbers would have had no chance for the summit.

The director-producer, Anthony Geffen, of London-based Altitude Films Ltd, was ecstatic over the footage the team brought back. Most important, no one suffered a serious injury on an ascent made all the more perilous by the dual pressures of climbing the world’s highest mountain and filming a movie at the same time.

As we sit in the shade of a live oak tree near the garage, seeking a respite from the heat, I study Anker’s face. The three-day stubble, the never combed sandy brown hair exploding in unruly tufts stamp the man’s habitual appearance. His narrow-set eyes always give Anker an intense look, but now, at age 45, the vertical creases above the bridge of his nose look deeper than I’ve ever seen them, painting his face with a fixed, querulous frown. He looks gaunt. Six feet two inches tall, he came back from Everest weighing only 165 pounds (75 kilograms), down from 180 (82 kilograms). His voice is a raspy whisper, and his predominant verbal tic—a way he has of starting a sentence, only to have it drift off unfinished—seems more pronounced than ever.

So why had the trip been so stressful? In the last analysis, the whole thing was Anker’s own damned fault.

The year from the Spring of 1999 to the spring of 2000 was Anker’s annus mirabilis. At 36 he was considered one of America’s premier alpinists, having established cutting-edge new routes and first ascents in Alaska, Antarctica, Pakistan, and Patagonia. But as mountains such as Middle Triple Peak or Latok II or Torre Egger ring a bell only among the cognoscenti, Anker was hardly a household name. Then in 1999, at the last minute, he signed up for an Everest expedition led by Mount Rainier guide Eric Simonson, who intended to search the north side of the mountain for any traces of Mallory or Irvine.

Unlike several members of Simonson’s team, Anker had never before attempted an 8,000-meter (26,246-foot) peak. The highest he’d ever been, in fact, was 23,304 feet (7,103 meters). Just a year or two before, he’d been overheard deriding the overcrowded Everest scene as a farce. After supporting his climbing-bum habit through his 20s with the occasional construction gig, in 1993 Anker had become a sponsored climber—part of the North Face’s so-called dream team, which included such climbing luminaries as Greg Child, Lynn Hill, and Alex Lowe. The company, however, was dismayed by Anker’s plans to go to Everest because of the numerous appearances he would miss (the “petting zoo,” as Anker calls the gladhanding rituals that sponsorship demands). In the end, he agreed to take a pay cut in his annual North Face stipend as the price of spending two months on Everest.

A young German named Jochen Hemmleb, though not a serious climber himself, was an integral part of Anker’s initial Everest expedition. Something of a mad scientist of documentary evidence, Hemmleb had identified a “search zone”  where he thought Mallory’s and Irvine’s bodies ought to be. From Base Camp, peering through a telescope and talking over a two-way radio, the German intended to direct the search.

Anker never took Hemmleb seriously. And on May 1, 1999, with the team’s best climbers fanned out across the north face, exploring the search zone, Anker drifted far to the right and below his colleagues, following his intuition about catchment slopes and pockets rather than the eight-page, spiral-bound research manual Hemmleb had given each member. Seeing his errant itinerary, one of Anker’s teammates chided him over the radio: “Conrad, what are you doing way out there? We need to be more systematic.”

And then, shortly before noon, Anker discovered the body of George Mallory.

When the news got out, it electrified the mountaineering world (see “Out of Thin Air,” Adventure, Fall 1999). The BBC and NOVA worked together on an acclaimed documentary film about the expedition and the monumental discovery. Anker resisted Simonson’s full-court pressure to collaborate on the official expedition book, which came out as Ghosts of Everest, and instead issued his own, The Lost Explorer.

The discovery elevated Anker to a new plateau of fame. The North Face fell all over itself bringing its hero back into the fold. And several years later, Anthony Geffen—not himself a climber, but the producer of such highly regarded documentary films as Nefertiti Resurrected and The Conquistadors—read Anker’s book and was inspired to put together the 2007 filmmaking expedition in the footsteps of Mallory and Irvine.

If 1999-2000 was Anker’s annus mirabilis, it was also, ironically, his annus horribilis. Just three months after Everest, he went on an expedition to Shishapangma, another 8,000-meter peak, with his best friend and closest climbing partner, Alex Lowe (regarded at the time by many as the world’s finest mountaineer). On October 5, as Lowe, Anker, and Dave Bridges reconnoitered the bottom of the peak’s massive south face, a huge avalanche cut loose thousands of feet above. Lowe and Bridges ran one way, Anker another. The former two were engulfed by the avalanche and buried. No trace of their bodies was ever found. Anker was pummeled by the slide and knocked 70 feet (21 meters) downhill. He dislocated his shoulder and broke two ribs, but survived.

Anker had been extremely close to Lowe’s family in Bozeman, Montana—his wife, Jenni, and three sons, ages three, seven, and ten, to whom he had become a virtual godfather. At the outset of the Shishapangma expedition, Anker was living in Telluride, engaged to be married to Becky Hall, a climber and environmental lawyer. The date had been set, the guest list prepared.

Then a strange thing happened. Out of some mixture of grief and attachment, Anker and Jenni Lowe fell in love. Anker did not handle the breakup with Hall very well, and the two are not on speaking terms today. But the bond with Jenni was true. In December 2000, a year and two months after the avalanche, Anker proposed to her. They were married in 2001, and shortly after, Anker adopted Alex’s sons.

This turnabout was the talk of the close-knit American climbing world. Very few of Anker’s friends thought the marriage would work. But seven years later, the union has proven to be deep and fulfilling, and perhaps most remarkably, the boys—18-year-old Max, 15-year-old Sam, and 12-year-old Isaac—have accepted Anker as a full-fledged, loving father.

Anker would have preferred to keep all of his private life from the public eye. In 2001, however, Outside magazine proposed a cover story profile. He agreed on the condition that the writer ask him nothing about his personal life. Somewhat naively, Anker did not realize that the pact would not preclude the author’s writing about his private life. The cover line: “LAST MAN STANDING. His friends are gone. His life is a soap opera. His career is in overdrive. The high cost of being Conrad Anker.” (The subhead to the story included the line “His bride-to-be is his best friend’s widow.”) When the article came out, Anker was furious.“It was sensational,” he tells me in Big Oak Flat. “But now I can put it behind me. If I got worked up about all the stuff in articles and on websites, I’d be a neurotic wreck.”

With their deliberate plan to climb Everest as late as possible last spring, the Anker-Geffen expedition did not arrive at Base Camp below the Rongbuk Glacier until the unusually late date of May 7. (Most expeditions get to Everest Base Camp in early April and aim to summit by or before May 20.) Even before reaching the Rongbuk Valley, team members grew apprehensive about the tight schedule. From the town of Shigatse on the approach road, Leo Houlding wrote on the expedition website, “Concerned about time. We are supposed to be on the summit in less than a month and are racing against the monsoon.”

Geffen brought his own pair of professional cameramen, neither of whom was a climber or had more than minimal experience at altitude. Dubious about that decision, Anker suggested that the team also include Jimmy Chin and Ken Sauls, both of them excellent cameramen, but more important, top-notch climbers who had summited Everest before.

One of Geffen’s professionals, Peter Allibone, gamely struggled to reach the North Col, at 23,000 feet (7,010 meters), but was unable to shoot above that camp. The other cameraman developed what Anker calls “high-altitude malaise,” never felt comfortable on the mountain, and ended up going home well before the expedition was over.

On the route, the perfectionist Geffen—in the tradition of notoriously demanding filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Otto Preminger—insisted on take after take of each piece of footage he deemed essential. “Anthony is . . . something of a workaholic,” Houlding wrote as early as May 5. Four days later, he voiced his concern that “we have insufficient time for acclimatization, filming, and climbing.” On May 13, Houlding reported, “Slept terribly and felt crap. Filming a TV show is a slow process—filming a movie is ten times harder. Every shot takes an hour to set up and has to be done three times. Just packing and unpacking the camera gear takes ages.”

With Allibone unfit for filming above the North Col, Sauls and Chin took charge of the heavy, tripod-mounted high-definition camera and a handheld. On May 19 Houlding posted a dispatch: “Ken Sauls’s comment on the approaching summit day—‘I cannot emphasize enough how f---ing radical this is going to be.’ Long production meeting . . . Made comprehensive, exclusive shot list—man, we have our work cut out.”

Then, on May 22, the worn-out Sauls came down with a bad case of bronchitis, from which he recovered only well after the expedition had ended. And the straw that almost broke the expedition’s back came when Chin—the team member with the most Everest climbing experience of all—got a sat phone call informing him that his mother was dying of cancer. Chin made the agonizing decision to leave the expedition on June 5 and fly back to the States to be with her. She died only five days after Chin arrived at her bedside.

With Allibone and Sauls out of commission and Chin on his way home, the making of the film was in dire jeopardy. Now location manager Russell Brice—the most experienced organizer of guided climbs on Everest—came up with a brilliant solution: He pressed into camera service Mark “Woody” Woodward and Dean Staples, two guides from his commercial adventure travel company, Himalayan Expeditions. Both men had already summited that spring during a Brice-led Discovery Channel expedition, on which they had done some filming. Now they proved quick studies in a crash course in operating the high-tech cameras.

With the sun plunging into a murky haze over the Central Valley, the temperature still in the high 90s (36 degrees Celsius), Anker, photographer Pete McBride, and I mosey out to Anker’s favorite spot on his parents’ thousand acres, where he promptly clambers up into the branches of a 200-year-old valley oak. Although he was born in San Francisco and moved all over as a child, following his father’s job postings, Anker feels a stronger emotional tie to the Big Oak Flat spread than perhaps any other place on Earth. He spent three summers here as a boy, when the ranch belonged to his grandfather, and lived here from 1988 to 1992, after his parents built the house they call home now.

Earlier that day, I sat around the dining room table having lunch with Anker, his parents, Helga and Wally, and his sister, Denise, visiting from Los Angeles. Though in many milieus Anker’s used to being the center of attention, at the family table he recedes into the background while the others talk.

In 1999 a friend had told me that if I really wanted to understand Conrad Anker, I had to meet Helga. A formidable German woman in her early 70s, Helga, as I had already noticed, tends to treat her son as though he were still her teenage helper. “Conrad, did you let the dogs out?” she had called, and, “Conrad, I need you to come here a minute,” as she struggled with an intransigent panini maker. Now, at lunch, she gazes with unfeigned affection on her wizened 45-year-old and comments, apropos of the fuss over Everest, “People always say, ‘Aren’t you proud of your son?’  And I say, ‘I don’t know, I just worry.’”

Wally is a genial, self-effacing fellow. He walks slowly and is in evident pain as he climbs the stairs to the second floor, the aftereffects of a serious fight with cancer. He had had a very successful career in international banking—hence the postings all over the world. And I was surprised to learn that he’d also become a Buddhist late in life. Anker, I knew, likes to think of himself as a Buddhist; at Big Oak Flat he’s strung Tibetan prayer flags between a pair of bull pines. But he told me, “Yeah, I guess I’m a Buddhist, but not near as much a one as my dad.”

That afternoon, looking at his son, Wally asks me, “Did Conrad tell you how he almost died on Mount Washington?” I look over at the über-alpinist, who has a sheepish smirk on his face. Mount Washington in New Hampshire? All of 6,288 feet (1,917 meters) tall, and a walk-up? “He was two years old,” Wally delivers. “We got caught in a June snowstorm.”

They’re a tight clan, these Ankers. About a month earlier, Wally and Helga got a surprise phone call in the middle of the night. “I’m calling from the top of Everest,”  Anker crowed. “Everything’s fine!” Yet in the Big Oak Flat house, the climber doesn’t seem entirely comfortable. Later he’ll email me, “Visiting my folks is nice, but I wouldn’t qualify it as relaxing.”

That evening Wally, Conrad, and I drive into Groveland to have dinner at a favorite Mexican hole-in-the-wall. Over his burrito and nonalcoholic beer, Wally muses, “When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to get away from here. And when I was 58, I couldn’t wait to get back.” I doubt that Anker will voice the same sentiment a decade from now.

I’m drinking red wine. Says Wally, “Even in my drinking days, I’m not sure I would have drunk red wine on a day this hot.” Anker, the designated driver, sips iced tea. Late that evening, as we park in the garage back at the homestead, in his scratchy whisper Anker says something more to himself, I suspect, than to me. (I later learn it has become a kind of mantra he tries to live by.) “That’s one thing—not drinking and driving, and not sleeping around on the wife . . .  If I can follow those . . .”  The sentence trails off unfinished.

As a self-styled Buddhist, Anker firmly believes in leaving the world a better place than he found it, in “giving back.” To this end, in the spring of 2002, when he was guiding trekkers to Everest Base Camp for Wilderness Travel, he came up with the idea for what he calls the Sherpa School. “There were lots of Sherpas,” he says today, “who had summited Everest but didn’t know how to tie a figure eight knot. And I realized that the Khumbu Valley had beautiful water ice climbing in the early spring.”

The idea, then, was to go to Nepal in February and give any Sherpa who wanted to sign up a free course in mountaineering technique—something very few had ever learned on the expeditions for which they were hired and on which they routinely risked their lives. Now, in the spring of 2008, the Sherpa School, based in the village of Phortse, is entering its fifth consecutive year of operation.

“For Sherpas, Everest is the equivalent of the NBA,” Anker amplifies. “If you’re a multiple Everest summiteer, you’re [like] a big-league ballplayer, pretty much guaranteed work every spring and fall. In the future, Sherpas are going to be the leading climbers in the Himalaya. They’re already the strongest.”

In similar fashion, Anker uses his position with the North Face to promote environmentally and culturally responsible manufacturing—no sweatshops in the

Far East, organic cotton instead of the traditional heavy-polluting cotton agriculture. “It’s all about the kind of planet we’ll be leaving future generations,”  he argues. “They’re going to look back at us with the same disdain with which we look back on the slaveholders before the Civil War. Hello? Where were you guys?”

So how did last spring’s Mallory-Geffen-Anker Everest expedition and film fit into this weltanschauung? Frankly, it didn’t—and about this point, Anker’s a wee bit defensive. “To be honest,” he tells me, “I went to Everest because it was good work. I don’t get paid to climb Cerro Torre. “I’ve got a family to provide for. I’m a professional climber, and if I can squeeze six more years out of it, I’ll be happy.”

The fear that the Team had waited too long, that the monsoon would cancel their summit chances, gripped the climbers as early as May 25, when teammate Gerry Moffat reported from the North Col, “The notorious jet stream [has] arrived and Everest [has] taken on a new and frightening persona.” Monitoring the weather by precision forecasts sent from Chamonix, France, however, Russell Brice reassured the members that the monsoon was still weeks away. The original plan had been to go for the summit on June 8, the same day on which Mallory and Irvine had disappeared in 1924. Now Brice revised the tentative summit push to June 11—one of the latest dates on which Everest had ever been attempted.

As the team slowly worked its way up the mountain, it had crossed paths almost daily with jubilant climbers from other parties returning victorious from the summit. Geffen and Anker’s plan was working to a T: In the last weeks of May, Everest was being steadily abandoned. But that fact only ratcheted up the climbers’  anxiety. As Moffat wrote on May 24, “We have found it difficult to join in the celebrations of the various summit teams. . . . Our task is only beginning and one wonders exactly how long the stable weather pattern will hold.”

On May 30 Moffat reported, “Morale in camp is very low at the moment. . . . Everest shows no sign of compassion for our woes. . . .” In the end, even June 11 proved too optimistic a date. It was not until June 13 that the climbers were fully installed in Camp IV at 27,500 feet (8,382 meters). On that day, Anker led Woody Woodward down and rightward into the basin where he’d found Mallory’s body in 1999. To revisit the corpse of the great climber would obviously promise valuable footage, but Anker was also motivated by a personal qualm. After he’d discovered the body in 1999, the team of climbers under Eric Simonson’s leadership had gathered what they rather callously called the “artifacts,” in the process cutting a patch of shoulder skin loose for DNA testing and stripping the body not only of the items Mallory was carrying, but of all that remained of his clothing, which was stuffed into plastic bags and hauled back to Base Camp.

For this effort, the team had been roundly criticized, especially in Britain. By now Anker agreed with the criticism. Before he left for this year’s expedition, Anker told me, “We were a bunch of punch-drunk kids at altitude. And it was about us, not Mallory. When I watch the [1999] film now, I just cringe.”

On June 13 Anker quickly found Mallory’s eternal resting place, recognizing landmarks from his cardinal discovery eight years before. But after two hours of searching, he couldn’t find the corpse. The reason was obvious. “In 1999,” Anker explains, “the face was so dry, it was down to bare scree. This year there was so much snow there, you could have skied it. Mallory’s body was somewhere under all that snow.”

By now Brice had determined that June 14 was the last possible day for the team to go for the summit before the monsoon swept in. Over the radio, he dictated the time limits for each stage of the operation—no more than two hours to be spent on the Second Step, half an hour on the Third Step, a maximum of one hour on the summit, and so on.

On June 14 sixteen climbers set out from Camp IV—six “Westies,” as Anker called himself, Leo Houlding, Gerry Moffat, Dean Staples, Kevin Thaw, and Woody Woodward—and ten of the most competent Sherpas on Everest. In order to have enough light for filming, the climbers left their tents at the relatively tardy hour of 3 a.m.

They reached the Second Step, at 28,300 feet (8,626 meters), just before 7 a.m. All the Sherpas and four Westies climbed the Chinese ladder. The Sherpas, guided by Ang Phurba and Nuru Gyaljen, untied the ladder, pulled it up and anchored it above the Step, then cut loose and hauled up the collection of 15 or so old fixed ropes that festooned the cliff. Anker took off his pack and supplemental oxygen gear (too heavy to carry on a free-climbing attempt) and faced the Step as Houlding belayed him. Staples and Woodward filmed the attack from above.

“Going up the crack,” Anker recounted later, “I actually slipped. I grabbed a cam I’d just placed and stopped myself—Leo didn’t have to catch me. Then I went back at it. From the crack, I moved onto small face holds on rock right under where the ladder had been fixed. I kept my crampons on. The Step’s only 25 feet (8 meters) high, but it’s difficult. I placed three pieces of protection, and then I pulled over the top.”

Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

“Man, oh man!” Anker bellows in the taped radio recording made during the moment of triumph. “Thanks, guys, for hauling the ladder up! The thing was hard!” Anker soon rated the climb at 5.10, just as he had in 1999. With a top rope, Houlding climbed the Step by a different line, farther left. He rated it at “only” 5.9.

As the Sherpas lowered the ladder back into place and rigged three new fixed ropes (as required by the Chinese mountaineering authorities), Anker got out his sat phone and called Jenni. She remembers his peals of delight: “I did it, dear, I did it! I finally did it! I’ll be on top in three hours.”  Confesses Jenni, “I was nervous about him falling. And earlier I’d told him, ‘Don’t you dare get frostbite just for that damned movie.’”

All 16 climbers reached the summit around 10:45 a.m. For five of the Sherpas,

it was their third Everest summit that season—an unprecedented accomplishment. (For Staples and Woodward, it was their second summit last spring, which may be a record for Westies.) According to Thaw, “The monsoon crept over us right there on the summit.” It began to snow, and thick clouds swarmed the mountain. Had they summited an hour or two later, the team would have had a very hard time finding the uppermost fixed ropes to guide themselves down. Remarkably, though, everyone descended all the way to Advanced Base Camp, at 21,300 feet (6,492 meters), by 9 p.m. that night.

It was one of the more extraordinary performances Everest has ever seen. But did Anker’s free-climbing the Second Step cast any new light on the mystery of Mallory and Irvine? In The Lost Explorer, Anker had pondered the question of whether the brave duo could have reached the summit in 1924.

In a carefully reasoned argument—citing, among other things, the difficulty of the Second Step and Mallory’s final resting place as evidence—he had argued that the chances were slim. In his last dispatch on, however, Anker seemed to retreat from those conclusions. On June 18 he wrote, “Were we the first to free-climb the Second Step? Perhaps it was Mallory. . . . What I have learned is that Mallory and Irvine could have climbed it, and that is worth thinking about.”

At Big Oak Flat, the heat wave will not relent. Anker and I seek refuge under an umbrageous tree near the garage, sitting in picnic chairs beside a rusty wheelbarrow. Anker takes off his shirt, hoping to fan his scrawny-looking post-Everest torso with the sickliest hint of a breeze.

“In your career,” I ask him, “what do you regret most?” He thinks hard, then comes up with a 2003 Everest expedition when he served as color commentator for an Outdoor Life Network presentation. “It was to commemorate the first ascent in 1953. I had a chance to climb the mountain for the second time, but instead I sat at Base Camp for two months.”

“Come on, Conrad,” I needled. “You can do better than that. To put it another way—what’s the greatest mistake of your life?”

There’s an even longer pause. Then Anker gets a squirmy look on his face. In his raspy whisper, almost inaudible, he confesses, “I guess the whole scene with Becky. It would have been less of a mess if I’d gotten out earlier. I wasn’t as good as I could have been, and I regret that today.” He’s deep in painful memories. “We had a trip planned. I was going to try to ‘unwed’ myself during that trip. I just knew it wasn’t going to be. But, you know, I always avoid confrontation. And it always comes back to haunt me.”

On the other hand, Anker’s marriage to Jenni and his adoption of Alex and Jenni’s three sons seem to have resulted in an unmixed blessing, producing a healthy ménage that has defied the predictions of nearly every onlooker. “The kids have really accepted me as their father,” says Anker. “There was never any resentment. We have a happy household. Jenni and I are cool parents. “We know Alex is gone. There are pictures of Alex and me on the walls of our house in Bozeman. And I get to have the joy of raising children, without the karmic overtones of overpopulation.”

After a fitful, years-long struggle, Jenni recently completed a book about Alex, to be published this month by the Mountaineers Books, under the title Forget Me Not. Says Anker about Jenni’s false starts and revisions, “My first job was to be supportive.”

There’s no getting around the extreme personal toll climbing has taken on Conrad Anker: His three closest partners were all killed in the mountains. Seven years before Lowe’s death, the legendary alpinist Mugs Stump, Anker’s mentor and longtime ropemate, was killed on the South Buttress of Denali. And just a year after the 1999 avalanche on Nepal’s Shishapangma, Seth Shaw, Anker’s partner on several landmark expeditions, was killed in the Ruth Gorge in Alaska. Anker wrote Shaw’s obituary for the American Alpine Journal, which ends, “Yes, Seth, we loved your sense of humor and childlike goofiness, but damn, we’ll miss you. You were always motivated, and you were stronger than all of us.”

Those losses are all the more poignant due to the fact that all three occurred in

circumstances that should have been child’s play for such gifted mountaineers. Stump was guiding clients on an easy route when he scouted ahead to look for a snow bridge across a crevasse; suddenly the lip collapsed, burying him under tons of snow and ice. Lowe (and Dave Bridges) were not even yet launched on Shishapangma, but only scouting a route, when the huge avalanche struck. And in 2000, Shaw had just completed a formidable route on Mount Johnson in the Ruth Gorge; while he and his partner waited for the bush pilot to pick them up, Shaw went out to practice climbing on a small ice wall near base camp, only to have the wall collapse and crush him.

Other climbers would have quit after such tragedies. Anker insists instead that he climbs more safely than he used to, and that there are routes too objectively dangerous for him to contemplate. “I don’t think I’d go through the Khumbu Icefall on the south side of Everest, for instance,” he says. But he remains a wholehearted defender of climbing as a way of life. “Do we improve the lot of the world?” he asks rhetorically. “No. Climbing’s recreation, pure and simple. But it’s a healthy form of recreation, and recreation is vital to human beings.

“What we do as certified risk takers . . . ” The sentence trails off unfinished, but

then Anker picks up the thread. “Kids need to know that there are still some badasses out there, doing incredibly demanding things to their bodies. Most people are so risk-averse. The world’s full of couch potatoes. Hell, we climbers should get government stipends for keeping the risk-taking gene pool alive.”

Anker smiles briefly, then lapses into silence. There beside the rusty wheelbarrow in the California heat, he’s got a faraway look in his eyes. “You know,” he says softly, “Alex’s kids really did suffer, in ways they’ll only begin to understand later in life. . . .” The voice fades again. “I still miss Alex. Especially when I see Isaac—they have the same character.” Anker shakes his head, as if to clear it. “But hey, I knew what I was getting into 20 years ago, when I wanted to be a climber.” Another long pause. “I just didn’t think it would be this.”

Read This Next

'World’s worst shipwreck' was bloodier than we thought
World’s first ultrasounds of wild manta rays reveal a troubling truth
Titanic was found during secret Cold War Navy mission

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet