Climber Conrad Anker on the State of Everest

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
April 10, 2003

Tall and thin with a youthful face that belies his 40 years, Conrad Anker resembles a distance runner more than one of the world's elite climbers. "I think as a young guy, I was always drawn to being in wild places," Anker said in a recent interview. "Climbing was a logical extension of that." Anker has racked an impressive array of first ascents—including Rakekniven, a 7,759-foot/2,365-meter granite monolith in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica—and the inevitable near-misses bound to follow a climber working at the extreme edges of his sport for more than 20 years.

Today Anker is married to Jennifer Lowe, the widow of climber Alex Lowe who perished in an avalanche on Shishapangma, a 26,000-foot/8,000-meter peak in southern Tibet— the same avalanche that nearly claimed Anker's own life on October 5, 1999.

Earlier that year, Anker gained notice as the man who found George Mallory's body, the English climber missing on Mount Everest since 1924. This month, Anker returns to Everest, although this time he won't try for the summit. Rather, Anker will provide color commentary for the Outdoor Life Network's Global Extremes: Mt. Everest, the latest—and perhaps inevitable—reality television program that aims to send five amateur climbers to the summit of Everest during a live broadcast.

What do you think of the program?

I'm glad to be part of Everest and be part of the history and to share that with people. To say it's for the experts only would be a little bit elitist.

Mount Everest seems more popular than ever. What's your take on the growing number of climbers attempting the summit?

It doesn't bother me [that] more people want to climb it. There's certainly a carrying capacity. People will obviously figure out what they can and can't do. I shouldn't be there to say, "No, you can't go there because you're inexperienced but you can pay for it." Mountains are freedom. Treat them respectfully. Obviously there's no way of doing anything without impact one way or another. The impacts that are the greatest are [often] the ones that are invisible. By flying in a jet plane over to [the] mountains, you're putting many tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. So we don't see that, but we focus on a few oxygen cylinders sitting at the South Col. Yes, it's an eyesore. But that's aesthetic garbage rather than something that's really going to affect life and the quality of it.

You, more than most people, travel to the most remote corners of the planet. Do you see signs of environmental change?

Well there's a joke that I read one time: How do mountains hear? With "mountaineers." It was in a little Bazooka Joe gum wrapper, and I've remembered it ever since. There's a bit of truth to it. We are the ears and now the eyes of the mountains. The alpine environment is very delicate. I've been able to see change in the mountains in the 20 years that I've been climbing full-time. Glaciers have receded. The tree-line is changing. That's very rapid to see nature changing in a 20-year period. To see pictures [of glaciers] taken 100, 120 years ago and [compare them to those taken by photographers that] have gone back and put their tripods in the same spot, it's dramatic to see how much they've receded. So there's very real ways that we see. If you live in an urban environment you don't [necessarily] see these changes.

How do you feel about climbing today, compared to when you first started 20 years ago?

Well, climbing is life. So I don't feel the same way about life now as when I was 14 and I started climbing. Things obviously mature and change. Climbing, as my grandmother said, it's a pretty frivolous thing. She always wondered when I was going to get a real job. But climbing is a real job for me now, and I enjoy it. It's a gift that I'm able to do it, share adventure and motivation with people.

Being in the wilderness is one of the best ways for humans to interact because there's a dependency and a communication and a trust that's essential to it. You don't get that when you play football, tennis, or baseball. It's humans against humans within the framework that humans are defined. You're in a baseball diamond and it's 360 feet [110 meters] to the homerun line. If you don't win by nine innings, it's overtime. It's all these rules and regulations that drive us crazy, at least me, in our modern-day society. That's what we put into our sports, our recreation. Whereas when you go into the wilderness, it's an unknown. It isn't the same each time you go there.

Continued on Next Page >>


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