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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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The legendary Stump would occasionally cruise into the store where Anker worked to buy a block of chalk and would soon be telling stories about epic climbs around the world. The best stories were always of summits that denied him. Those stories would eventually include the Shark’s Fin.

“To me, Mugs was a seer,” Anker wrote in Alpinist. “He used big, hard routes to try to cross into that ideal space where you climb without conscious thought and imagine an unlimited reality. I wanted to experience what he did. And then, that one day, he asked me to go climbing. That was it.”

On one of the last days of Bozeman’s ice-climbing season, Anker heads to Hyalite Canyon with a group of friends and newcomers. Like some emissary of goodwill, he makes his way around the so-called Genesis area, greeting one and all as if he were running for political office.

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  • A shrine to Alex Lowe inside Anker’s gear room in Bozeman

He’s not, although Anker is intensely involved in both the local and worldwide climbing communities (see sidebar). This is just how Anker carries himself, especially when he’s climbing.

“We have to realize how lucky we are to be here,” he says after lending his ice tools to a novice climber from Butte. “You have to be ready to get all the joy you can get out of these days. That’s part of what we’re doing here.”

The statement sounds a lot like something Alex Lowe used to say: “The best climber is the one having the most fun.”

The one having the most fun on this particular day is a 20-year-old named Luke, who is new to ice climbing. He’s climbing with old, heavy ice axes. Luke himself is a bit heavy, as well. But he doesn’t care. He’s climbing ice and he seems to be loving every minute of the experience.

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  • Anker in Hyalite Canyon

Even the most clueless climbing novice knows Anker’s name, and it’s not lost on Luke that he’s in the presence of one of the world’s best. When Anker gets around to greeting and encouraging him, Luke does everything but genuflect as the pro offers a few tips.

One of those tips is pretty pointed—either lose weight or be resigned to climbing badly. As Anker moves on to climb a few routes, Luke beams. “Did you see that?” he asks. “Conrad Anker talked to me. He told me what I need to do. I know I’m too heavy, but I’ve been working on it. Now, though, I’ve got to do it. I mean, dude, that’s Conrad Anker. I gotta do what he said.”

As the day winds down and Anker and his posse drive toward town, he recalls the conversation with Luke.

“I think it’s important to take time for that sort of stuff,” he says. “That’s going to matter to him. It’s part of our job as older climbers to talk to the youth, to encourage and inspire them. Climbing makes us better if it makes us happier. He’ll be happier when he’s more fit.”

The truck winds down the frozen road, and Anker starts to wax philosophical about a life shaped by rock and ice, by love of the mountains and those he shares them with.

“I’ve learned that these things—my family, my passion for climbing and for being a force for good in the local community and in the larger community—are the source of happiness for me,” he says. “I know that life will keep changing and keep throwing new challenges my way, but my intent is always to embrace them and explore them and find a way to turn them into an experience that’s rewarding. Even when we’re suffering, whether it’s in the mountains or because of something going on at home, trying situations are a way to understand our human condition. You have to try to rise above the adversity. I like doing that.”

The sun is close to setting as the truck pulls up outside the Lowe-Anker home. His promise is fulfilled one more time.

The Anker file

Born: November 27, 1962

Nickname: Radster

Residence: Bozeman

Five notable climbs: First ascent, with Mugs Stump, of “Streaked Wall” in Zion National Park (1990); first ascent of the southwest face of Latok II, Pakistan (1997); Mount Everest research expedition to seek answers to the disappearances of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine (1999); three new routes to Vinson Massif, Antarctica (2000-01); first ascent of Shark’s Fin on Meru Peak, Himalaya (2011).

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Five bucket-list climbs: Southeastern ridge of Annapurna, Himalaya; Nameless Peak, Himalaya; the Matterhorn, Swiss Alps; Mount Robson, Canadian Rockies; Mount McKinley, Alaska, with son Max.

Civic good in Bozeman: Affiliated with the Bozeman Boulders Initiative, which funds and builds realistic climbing boulders in local parks and open spaces; and fundraiser for the Bozeman Ice Tower, a premier climbing facility and concert venue that would be built on the Gallatin County Fairgrounds.

International outreach: Board member of The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and the affiliated Khumbu Climbing School in Nepal; board member of the Conservation Alliance; and board member of the Rowell Fund for Tibet.

Creed: be good. be kind. be happy.

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