How has Conrad Anker remained one of the world’s top mountaineers for more than three decades?
By Frederick Reimers
On Conrad Anker’s climbs, the menu gets monotonous. For 19 days on 20,700-foot Mount Meru in the Indian Himalaya in 2008, Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk subsisted on oatmeal, energy bars, and every single night, couscous with salami and hard cheese. In Meru, Chin's acclaimed 2015 film about the climb, the team cracks jokes about the all-couscous menu, but in reality, they know from experience that Anker’s planning philosophy is sound.
“The climbing at altitude is so exhausting that the last thing you want to do is to worry about what’s for dinner, or be digging around for that random ingredient,” says Chin. “The fewer decisions you have to make, the better.”
Says Anker, “It’s the same reason Steve Jobs wore a black mock turtleneck and dad-jeans every single day. Eliminate the trivial decisions.” Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg apparently follows Jobs’ wardrobe philosophy, and renowned author and physician Oliver Sacks ate the same breakfast every day of his life for the same reason.
Studies have shown that making many small decisions can compromise your ability to make the big decisions well. It’s called “decision fatigue,” and in mountaineering, it can have grave consequences. That the team lost 60 pounds between them on Meru (and failed to summit the route in 2008) had less to do with the Spartan diet than the storm that kept them on the wall for 12 days longer than they had planned. Still, says Anker, the decision to go light and basic was the right plan, one of the hundreds of details that make or break the effort, and one that worked on their second successful 2011 expedition. “Concentrating on the details is what sets you up for success,” says Anker.
Anker ought to know. He is arguably the most successful mountaineer still climbing today, with more than 40 international expeditions on his resume and scores of first ascents to his name. Even at 53 years old, he puts up four or five new routes each year, and in the last year became the face of climbing thanks to his starring role in Meru.
The story details Anker’s three attempts at the climb, and how he perseveres in the face of the loss of two of his best friends and mentors. It cements his reputation as a survivor, both professionally and personally, but amongst his peers, Anker is probably most celebrated as a meticulous preparer. “Conrad is exceptional with expedition details,” says Chin.
“It’s rubbed off on me. It’s rubbed off on a lot of people.”
Nothing symbolizes Anker’s relationship to preparation like his gear room—probably the most celebrated man-cave in all of adventure sports. In October 2015, I met with him there as he began to organize his gear for an expedition to Nepal’s 22,621-foot Lunag-Ri.
Anker, six two, and lean and taut like a big cat, pulls a tent off a shelf and tosses it into one of a pair of plastic bins on the floor. “I’ll fill the bins and then walk around them for two days, adding things and subtracting them,” he says. “Once I’m satisfied I’ll lay everything out on a tarp and take photos as inventory. Way better than writing a checklist.”
The converted bedroom in the basement of his Bozeman, Montana, home has been the subject of a few short documentaries, and is as much museum as storage room. There are racks of carabiners and cams, rows of ice tools, and shelves of tents. Spools of cord are slung below a workbench, and climbing shoes and boots are lined neatly in pairs. “This stuff is the fuel,” he says. “It’s here to be used. If it’s not in use I find someone to lend it to. It needs to be out making experiences, making memories.”
He gestures at the opposite wall, shelves crammed full of souvenirs from his 30 years of climbing—the memories his gear has helped create. There is a bottle of water from Gomukh, the primary source of the Ganges, high in the Himalaya. There is a rusted piton he pulled from the North Face of the Piz Badile in the Swiss Alps. A pacifier slung on a pink ribbon, which he brings on expeditions, “to remind people not to act like babies,” says Anker, grinning.
The gear room’s most poignant shelf is a shrine to his best friend and climbing partner Alex Lowe. In 1999, Anker and Lowe were attempting to ski 26,335-foot Shishapangma in Tibet when Lowe and cameraman David Bridges were killed in an avalanche that swept over all three of them. Anker ran in a different direction and somehow escaped with only injuries, but was roiled by survivor’s guilt.
In the months after Lowe’s death, Anker and Lowe’s widow Jenni, in their shared grief, grew close and fell in love, marrying in 2001. Anker moved into the Lowe home in Bozeman—the same one where they still live today—and together they raised the three Lowe boys.
The remains of Lowe and Bridges were found recently, 16 years after the accident, in April 2016. For Anker and the Lowe family, the news evoked mixed emotions. “It brings up the memories of what we went through in 1999,” Anker told NPR in an interview shortly afterwards. “And the other end of it is there's a sense of closure now. It will be a healing thing for our family.”
The shrine contains a dozen items, from prayer flags to a signed climbing helmet, a pair of climbing tools, and a 90s-vintage satellite phone. It’s a constant reminder of the risks Anker faces in his chosen profession, if Jenni and the boys aren’t already reminders enough. At one point Jenni, dark-haired and fair-skinned, comes downstairs to check on a travel detail with Anker. After the Nepal expedition, they’ll be meeting in Paris for the Climate Summit. She seems on edge.
“This is the hardest part for her,” says Anker, once she has gone. “The time before the expeditions.” Still, this is how he provides for his family, and he treats climbing the same way a doctor treats his practice. “I need to be as professional and organized as possible in order to get the best returns,” he says. “I can’t climb at this level forever.” Not that his work isn’t compelling. He’s in the inspiration business, after all. “I love climbing. It’s what I’m best at, and taking the risk out of life would be tremendously boring,” he says.
The trick, then, is to manage that risk by managing the details ahead of time. For example, he only climbs clean, solid walls anymore, versus the sort of crumbly, sedimentary rock that’s likely to peel off the wall and land on you. “Life’s too short to drink bad coffee or to climb crumbly sedimentary rock in the Himalaya,” he says. He selected the granite route on Lunag-Ri by reading geology papers.
Anker famously remembers details of every major climb he’s done. He maps the routes, move-by-move, in his collection of notebooks, and even copies out the route maps of climbs he hasn’t yet done in preparation. “It’s a memory trick,” he says.
According to Chin, Anker approaches foot care with same attention to detail. Every night, Anker carefully cleans his feet with soap and water—seemingly a real extravagance when crammed onto a hanging porta-ledge with two other exhausted people—and scrubs between each toe. He then rubs them carefully with salve before putting on a fresh pair of dry socks for bed. Says Chin, “On the first attempt at Meru, Renan’s feet and mine were a mess, but Conrad’s were fine. I learned from that.”
He feels the foot routine is emblematic of what has kept him climbing for 40 years. “Having dialed feet is both a psychological benefit and a necessity,” says Anker. “No detail is too small, and success lies in the details. Having to walk many kilometers in rough terrain simply requires good foot care. Without it, your dreams run the risk of being stopped in their tracks.”
That care is what makes Anker a coveted gear ambassador as well. He has worked with The North Face on gear design for years, and is the visionary behind their heralded Ice Project pack. As a longtime Smartwool ambassador, he recently collaborated on the award-winning PhD Outdoor Mountaineer, a sock designed for the specific needs of alpine climbers.
He and some fellow Smartwool athletes started discussing a new sock design around a fireplace in a small log cabin high in Montana’s Hyalite Canyon after a day of ice climbing in freezing weather. “We looked at the current state of footwear and what socks were available,” he says. “There were no mountain socks available with graduated calf compression, which aids in preventing leg fatigue, wicks moisture from the toes and arch, and facilitates zonal insulation.”
Anker’s relationship with Smartwool led him to collaborate with John Ramsey, development director of the brand’s sock category. “Conrad has given us the best feedback of anyone we’ve ever worked with who wasn’t a professional designer,” Ramsey says. “He knows exactly what he wants.”
Anker took their design ideas to Ramsey’s team at Smartwool’s design laboratory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they used cutting-edge computerized weaving machinery to build the complex sock, which includes that graduated compression as well as toe and heel insulation that differ in thickness by degrees of millimeters.
“John’s a third-generation sock knitter,” Anker says, “so it was a challenge he enjoyed tackling. He knows the nuances of wool. After six versions we had a product we were really proud of.”
See the story behind the PhD Mountaineer Sock
Anker sees his gear design as a sort of service to the climbing community—the fruit of his years of experience. Also benefitting from the experience are his young climbing partners. Invariably, Anker selects the young hotshots from the North Face team, which he manages, as climbing partners. Chin was one such beneficiary before he became a star in his own right. Alex Honnold, 31 and already famous for his free-soloing exploits, is another. Anker plans to get Honnold onto some alpine routes in the coming year to help him round out his climbing experience.
The partnerships are more of a two-way street than it would seem, however. “I’m using the young guys’ energy to stay psyched and to stay relevant,” says Anker, rubbing balm on a new pair of leather gloves. “Hopefully, I can teach them a thing or two about being a professional—and staying alive.”
Even if that means a monotonous diet and meticulous foot care.
Frederick Reimers is a freelance writer who grew up at Keewaydin Canoe Camp, a wilderness canoe-tripping youth camp in Temagami, Ontario, where his father was camp director. He was the editor of Canoe and Kayak magazine from 2007 to 2009 and writes for numerous outdoor and action-sports titles, including Outside, Skiing, Powder, and Men’s Journal.
All photos courtesy of Mark Fisher / @fishercreative fishercreative.com