Conrad Anker: On Fatherhood and Looking Forward

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Conrad Anker on lead in Hyalite Canyon, Montana.Janie Osborne, Associated Press

If you saw Conrad Anker in the grocery store, you might not recognize him. A 56-year-old man, slightly above average height, slender, clean shaven with trim hair that has faded from the shining gold of his youth to a more refined golden brown. Perusing the produce section, Anker wouldn’t be wearing the tattered yellow North Face puffy jacket that most climbers picture him in. It’s more likely he would be in a black pea coat, accentuated by the circular rim prescription glasses with transition lenses that his wife, Jennifer, helped him choose. If you see Conrad Anker in the grocery store, you are seeing someone’s dad—as well as one of the most accomplished alpinists alive, with first ascents on Meru, Vinson Massif, Ulvettana, and El Capitan.

Today, Anker fits the aesthetic of the archetypal father figure, though his introduction to parenting was less-than stereotypical—it was abrupt and enshrouded by tragedy.

In 1999, Anker was at the apex of his climbing career. It was the year that he famously discovered George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest—an event that cast him into the limelight, a limelight which has since rarely wavered. Later that season, in an attempt to ski off the peak of Shishapangma in Tibet, Anker barely escaped an avalanche that buried and killed David Bridges and Alex Lowe—the latter of which was Anker’s longtime climbing partner and best friend. Lowe was survived by his three sons, Max, Sam, and Isaac, who were 10, 7, and 3 at the time, as well as his wife, Jennifer. After being so close with Lowe, right up until the day he died, Anker began to help raise the boys and, in his own words, “Jennifer and I grew in love and built our love based off what we both lost.” They were married in 2001. Even though parenting was far from his radar at age 36, Anker feels that being a father made him a better climber, with familial support helping him to stay focused and hone his craft.

Anker belaying in his yellow North Face puffy jacket.

Now after 20 years of fatherhood, Anker feels that he has raised the boys to a standard that would make Lowe proud. “Alex and I operated on the same wavelength,” he said. “I was able to raise the boys with a sense of decency, courtesy, timeliness, punctuality, dedication, perseverance—good things that are important to me, and that were really important to Alex.”

I met Anker on a trip to his hometown of Bozeman, Montana. (The trip, hosted by Dove Men+Care, brought “double-duty dads” from all over the country to climb ice with Conrad Anker—“double duty” meaning a father who is both dedicated to his work and his family.) Among the other attendees were a police officer, a mental health professional, and a school teacher. At the introductory dinner the first night of the trip, Anker’s presence hung heavy in the air, with the other dads nerve-wracked by the legend in the room. But the more time they spent together, the more the men’s edges were dulled and nerves were eased by Anker’s warmth and normalness. The conversation ranged from raising children, to architecture, to diet, to beer, to aches and pains—regular dad stuff.

Anker with the crew of double-duty dads, who won a contest to climb ice with him in Hyalite Canyon.Janie Osborne, Associated Press

The following morning was still and cold, the boundless Montana sky a crystalline blue. As the men fitted their boots and crampons for a day on the ice in Hyalite Canyon, Anker addressed the group: “I just want to let everyone know before we get going here that, because of coronary complications, my doctor says I should be taking it easy, so I won’t be hucking myself up any hard mixed routes out there today.”

Two-and-a-half years earlier, on November 16, 2016, during an attempt with David Lama to climb Lunag-Ri, the 22,660-foot Himalayan peak, Anker suffered a heart attack—20,000 feet above sea level. It was none of the expected dangers of high-alpine mountaineering like a blizzard or avalanche that forced Anker to look death in the eyes, it was a simple heart attack.

“I knew within a pitch-and-a-half that this was a coronary incident,” said Anker.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“It’s just—you know. It’s not like there’s an app for it. It’s like, ‘You’re fucking dying,’ and it’s slow motion and it’s fucked up and it’s a ton of weight on you. This is biology.”

Anker and Lama self-rescued, rappelling down the face, downclimbing through the icefall and over bridges, and tracking down a helicopter, all while Anker breathed through the excruciating pain. Nine hours later, he had an angioplasty in Kathmandu, clearing the blockage from his heart. Since then, Anker has given up what he calls “the hurt locker” of high alpine mountaineering.

“I enjoy climbing for what it is,” Anker said in reference to finding contentment and satisfaction in toproping moderate ice routes in Hyalite Canyon, just a 40-minute drive from his house, as opposed to “hucking himself.” At this point in his life, mellow days out climbing or skiing with the family are more important than nailing down hairy first ascents in the alpine.

“Life is in 20 year epochs,” Anker said. “The first 20 years you’re getting completely taken care of, and the next 20 years you define what you’re going to do, and those next 20 years is what you’re doing, and that brings you up to 60, that’s when you’re the best. Those next 20 years into 80 is sort of like, What do you take that you’ve learned and turn that into something?”

Anker and the family in Hyalite Canyon, Montana.Christopher Murphy, courtesy Conrad Anker

As he looks forward into the years and eases off of his career as an alpinist, Anker is taking his intensity for the mountains and allocating it to different aspects of life—things like being intellectually curious, raising awareness about climate change, humanitarian work, and, as always, fatherhood. 

“When [my son] Isaac was young, he was a child, and that relationship with a child is unique and predicated by that time,” Anker said. “Now that he is an adult, he is my best friend, and his brothers are my best friends.”