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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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Slowly, organically, Anker and Jenni Lowe fell in love. The relationship sparked considerable discussion in the climbing community.

“It’s not something where I asked myself directly whether it was the right thing or weighed the pros and cons,” he says. “It came from the heart and was very natural. Jenni embraced it and the boys were very much into it.”

In 2001, Anker and Lowe married, and Anker adopted the Lowe boys, who were then 10, 7 and 3.

“The boys and I have had a great relationship, and I’m honored to have the chance to play a role in their lives,” he says. “Sometimes the loss manifests itself in ways I don’t understand, but we move through it. I think they’re more at peace with me than some of the kids I’ve seen in families that have been divorced and remarried.”

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Anker understands why some questioned the relationship, and he never shied from answering those who bothered to ask.

“I think my friends and family were always supportive, but some people thought Jenni didn’t need another climber in her life,” Anker says. “I understand why they might feel that way. But I always tell people, if you’ve got a question, here’s my phone number. Call me and we’ll talk. This is a happy union, a real life where we deal with all things that everybody deals with.”

Esquire magazine is perhaps a curious place for Anker to show up, but there he is, No. 7 in the magazine’s online list of the 50 “greatest athletes currently in action.”

“If you haven’t heard of Conrad Anker, you should have,” wrote Garth Sundem last year. “He’s a badass and a heck of a nice guy … Though he can’t compete with the renown of a LeBron, his ratio of good fame to bad fame lines up just right.”

Anker is the top mountain athlete on the list; fellow North Face climber Alex Honnold clocks in at No. 12 and skier Lindsey Vonn sets up at No. 15.

The list, of course, is skewed by numerous biases, but a couple of things about it are interesting. First, one of the metrics is the difficulty of the sport, in which climbing ranks fifth, behind more traditional sports such as boxing and ice hockey but far ahead of others, such as distance running and golf. Second, the rankings include ratings for things like philanthropy and character, or failures of character, like Tiger Woods’ philandering and Lance Armstrong’s doping.

“The whole thing made me laugh a little bit, but it’s also nice to see recognition of climbing as a difficult sport,” says Anker, who found it amusing to be ranked above a household name like Tiger Woods. “Our sport has a lot of inherent difficulties, and it has some inherent risks that most other sports don’t have. I wouldn’t make too much of it, but it’s nice to see climbers be part of the discussion.”

The sport has come a long way since Anker was first introduced to it. He grew up near the mountains of central California and his father was a “backcountry enthusiast” who instilled love and respect for wild country.

“We were in Tuolumne County, which served as a gateway to the backcountry in the same way [Bozeman] serves as a gateway to the Yellowstone country,” he says. “That was our existence, and we were always going off into the backcountry with burros and donkeys for fishing and peak bagging. Some of my most formative memories are from those times, and I just remember thinking how badass my dad and his friends were.”

To this day Anker still has a pair of hulking leather boots owned by one of his father’s friends. “That’s a formative time, and I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where family was respected and where my parents nurtured this love for the outdoors,” he says.

That love eventually sent Anker to college at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where he studied commercial recreation and began working for The North Face in 1981.

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