Adventure Is Out There: Climber Conrad Anker Refuses to Sit Still

There is inconvenience and there is adversity, the word choice pretty much depending upon the person doing the suffering. We all know people who can be undone by an interruption of the signal to their iPhone. And on the other hand, readers who attend the event described here will find themselves in a room with people who have harvested dew or melted ice for drinking water, people who—by choice, in tiny tents crowded with colleagues and perched upon portaledges hanging thousands of feet above ground from Himalayan cliffs—have had to do the chilly yoga necessary to poop into a Ziploc. Some of them have returned from sporting adventures that ended the lives of friends or family in their party.

The iPhone can wait for another article. But just how and why does a rational adult find himself or herself dangling from great heights, far from home and safety? Directing the question to the accomplished climber and writer Conrad Anker, one can ask, how and why does one repeatedly find oneself struggling to adapt to environments where humans are neither welcome nor intended to spend time?

"I just really enjoy climbing," Anker says.

Anker was kind of in Knoxville late this summer, as a principal and plot-hook in the film The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest. (Anker's wildest dream, it seems, is having the film fully behind him. "I finished a brutal film tour this summer," he says. "Time to move on to other things.") He's returning, as part of the North Face's Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series. What is gained at great heights and peril that could possibly be useful among family and friends while at sea level? Explaining why he enjoys climbing, Anker sheds some light on the subject.

"One must live in the moment and focus on what you're doing at that exact time," he says. "That clarity of vision is really helpful. In a way it just sort of clears out the cobwebs, or the ‘too much information' that you get hammered with in our society. I'm here at my computer, and you have to be really disciplined. You have to say ‘I'm going to open up this Word document and I'm going to write on it. I'm not going to answer my phone or go to my e-mail account. Lord knows I'm certainly not going to go to Facebook or something like that, which is just such a total time-waste.'"

Anker, 48, is probably the most celebrated American climber of his generation. As he does with gravity and distance, Anker has a way of making age seem irrelevant. In 1999, when he led the Everest expedition during which he discovered the frozen remains of British explorer George Mallory (last seen alive in 1924, and the other plot-hook for The Wildest Dream), Anker led climbers mostly around half his age or younger.

"I have three children and a wife and I have to take care of them," Anker says. "So there's always that—when someone else is depending on you, you always work a little more. I think I come from a family of people that like to work. And whether I'm climbing—I hope to get out and do a little climbing this afternoon—or my public-speaking work or my writing, I'm pretty much always staying busy. I'm just not one to go idle."

In 2008, Anker led a team ascent of the Shark's Fin on Mount Meru, in India. For Hindus, Mount Meru is the spiritual center of the universe, at the headwaters of their sacred river, the Ganges. For climbers, it is one of the most challenging group of peaks in the world. The oldest other member on Anker's team was 35. Anker's presentation at the Bijou will feature slides and video from his Mount Meru trek. (Since he's written about it in other public venues, Anker says it's okay to let slip the fact that the Shark's Fin remains unsummited.)

Anker has worked for the North Face for 27 years. Beyond endorsement fees and income, what is the incentive to explore? Anker says it has more to do with human nature than his nature.

"Exploration is innate to humans," he says. "Humans have the largest geographic footprint or range, second only to the orca, the killer whale. We've been able to go everywhere. It's always been this elemental part of being human, that we continue to evolve. We have these huge brains, and in there somewhere is the need to go explore. It goes back 40,000 years; it's why humanoids left the savannahs of Africa and started this great dispersal all the way across the planet. Excepting Antarctica, there are pretty much humans everywhere, in every climate, from Sahara up to the Arctic."

Anker's expeditions have gathered film and photographic evidence of diminishing glaciers and climate change. Anker and others founded the Khumbu Climbing School, in Phortse, Nepal, where high-altitude workers like porters and Sherpas can learn vocational skills.

"The Khumbu Climbing School is a great opportunity for us to take what we've learned and share with people who work in the mountains and make things safe for them," he says.

Khumbu is also supported by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, named after Anker's late climbing partner. The story of the coming together of Anker's family is both beautiful and terrible. Lowe died during a 1999 avalanche that nearly killed Anker as well. While grieving together, Anker and Lowe's widow, Jennifer, fell in love. They've since married and Anker has adopted Lowe's three sons.

Although Anker is probably best known for his mastering of the Himalayas, he also has an appreciation for the mountains surrounding Knoxville.

"I make it out there probably once every two years," he says. "I really like being there. The Appalachia are some of the oldest mountains on our planet. Very beautiful. There's really good rock climbing there, no question about that."

Subscribing to the Jeffersonian precept that knowledge is power, Anker's goal for his work is to simply add to the collective human base of information in hopes that it might help solve any of the planet's increasingly dire problems.

"The Europeans never knew North America existed until Columbus stumbled upon it," Anker says. "It was this great mistake that turned into something. So will the next thing be nuclear fusion? Is it more efficient use of solar? Is it tapping into photosynthesis and creating oxygen? When I speak to schools and science groups, I use that to tell them that we need to keep this gene of exploration alive and healthy in our society, and that we're a vehicle for doing that.

"There's this need, and climbing, for me, is part of that expression. We kind of support and keep that gene of exploration alive. Planetary exploration has reached its apex. You can go to Google Earth and you can look at your neighbor's mailbox. I can go on Google Earth and I can look at who's facing Mount Everest. But there's so much knowledge still to be found. I see the biggest step in that as how do we feed, clothe, and heat 9 billion people, which is where we'll be at the end of our lifetimes. Where do we find the balance? The solutions are out there, we just haven't discovered them yet."