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King of the mountain

Conrad Anker is known for climbing the highest peaks in the world, but one promise keeps bringing him HOME.

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“Our athletes, it’s up to them what to do,” he says. “It’s a pretty organic thing. What do you want to go do? We never say go do this or that.”

Some have argued that money has influenced climbers to make choices they wouldn’t otherwise make, to climb routes that involve outsized risk designed to garner maximum media.

“What people don’t understand is that climbers understand risk in a way that many people don’t,” Anker says. “It’s true, I think, there are some people involved in all sorts of risky professions who aren’t good at assessing risk. Those professions weed those people out, whether it’s firefighting, police work or climbing. I know the people on the North Face team, and I don’t think any of them don’t think about coming home at the end of the day. I know I do.”

One of Anker’s signal achievements bears witness to that statement.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Jimmy Chin
  • Portaledge camp at 20,000 feet in the Garhwal Himalaya

The Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru has long been one of alpinism’s holy grails. Located in the Garhwal Himalaya of India, Meru marks the mythic center of the universe, according to Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The faithful believe the body of God twined itself with the body of the land at Meru, thus linking the physical and spiritual worlds.

The fin, a startling, iconic spire, became the focus of Anker’s climbing universe by way of his mentor, Mugs Stump, who was twice rebuffed by the “sharp blade of stone.” Anker, too, was turned back in 2003 and 2008.

“Maybe we weren’t deserving of going to the center of the universe,” Anker said after the 2008 attempt.

Part of the dynamic that ended the 2008 effort with Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk was Anker’s promise to his family in Bozeman. He wrote after the trip that there are more important things than reaching every summit.

“It felt fitting that the upper world was unattainable. Perhaps our goal had been another form of Western hubris,” he wrote in the spring 2012 edition of Alpinist. “And yet I felt good about the attempt; we’d gotten so close, no one was hurt, and I’d returned to my family. We’d played on the mountain’s terms, and the mountain had won.”

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Yogesh Simpson
  • The gear room

Anker had plenty of other objectives in the great ranges, but Meru lingered. As much as he convinced himself that his decision to turn around was the right thing to do, a part of him couldn’t let it go.

It was sort of like the sports car that you don’t really need,” he says. “It wasn’t something I had to do, but it was there all the same. We’d been so close and the fact is, it was still unclimbed.”

When he announced to Jenni that he wanted to try again, her response was understandable. “What is the sense in going back?” she asked.

Anker’s answer perhaps resonates only with climbers and other explorers.

“I still had to finish Mugs’ dream for him, even if I didn’t understand why,” he wrote in Alpinist. “I tried to justify the hazards in the same arrogant way I had for 20 years. With proper planning, I thought, we will avoid risk. Fear and doubt awakened me late at night. All my rationalizing was bullshit. It was dangerous and selfish to go to Meru.”

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