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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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In 2011, Anker, Chin and Ozturk returned. And on their 11th day of climbing, the trio stood poised below the last pitch.

“You need to take this pitch, this is your dream climb,” Chin said to Anker. “No, you take it,” Anker responded.

“The Shark’s Fin had been Mugs’ dream and then, for a while, mine,” Anker wrote in Alpinist. “… It was already time to pass on that metaphysical ball of knowledge to someone younger.”

“I want to go last,” Anker told Chin.

And he did. Then he went home to Jenni and the boys.

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Anker didn’t always think first about returning home. When he was first starting his climbing career, it was more important to push himself and establish his place in the sport.

In 1999, Anker set out for Shishapangma in Tibet with his best friend, Alex Lowe. The trip would mark the first time Americans skied off the summit of an 8,000-meter—26,000-foot—peak, and would further cement Lowe’s status as the world’s best all-around climber.

The crew expected October 5, 1999, to be an easy day. Anker, Lowe, photographer David Bridges and the rest of the team planned on adjusting to the altitude before climbing the world’s 14th-highest mountain.

“This was a rest day and we were just trying to acclimatize, just doing some walking on the mountain,” Anker says. “In hindsight, it was obvious the place was an avalanche runout zone, but we weren’t on high alert.”

About 6,000 feet above where Anker, Lowe and Bridges were walking, a serac cut loose, triggering a slide that at first seemed distant and nonthreatening. But as the avalanche picked up speed and volume, the men scrambled for cover. Bridges and Lowe went one direction, Anker another.

“They went downhill and I went laterally,” he says. “I saw them in one place and then I laid down and saw them in another. And then they were gone.”

Anker, then 36, was hammered by the slide’s windblast and thrown 100 feet, suffering broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and cuts to the head.

The rest of the team was elsewhere when the slide occurred, but soon joined Anker in a futile search. Lowe and Bridges were gone without a trace.

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Anker had never lost a partner until Shishapangma.

“This was something new for me, a catastrophe in the mountains that hit me directly,” he says. “Mugs had died, of course, on Denali, but I was in Zion, so it was different. I think when we’re in our 20s and 30s, death hits us harder. Where I am now, I know we all die, that we’re all finite. But then, I was just crushed.”

Anker suffered survivor’s guilt, recycling the capricious equation that left him alive and his friends dead.

“Classic stuff: Why him? Why not me? What about his family?” he says.

Anker had climbed with Lowe since 1990, when Lowe worked for Black Diamond and Anker worked for The North Face.

“He’d moved to Salt Lake from Ventura and we just immediately hit it off,” Anker says. “We had the same drive, same motivation. We were a solid partnership. He was stronger than me, but he was stronger than everybody.”

Anker eventually brought Lowe onto the North Face team. They were pioneers in the early days of “professional” climbing. They climbed in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Alaska, doing rescue work on Denali, North America’s highest peak. Over those years, Anker got to know Lowe’s family, including his wife Jenni and three boys—Max, Sam and Isaac. In fact, Anker was present when two of the boys were born.

After his climbing partner’s death, he reached out to Jenni.

“I was struggling, and I spent a lot of time talking to Jenni on the phone about what had happened and what would come next for all of us,” Anker says.

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