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Conrad’s Close Calls and Favorite Gear: Conversations With the Legend

At the rocks and his gear shed in Bozeman, Anker recalls his recent 25-foot ice-climbing factor-two leader fall, which put tremendous force on his anchor. And looking back from age 60.

Conrad Anker at a boulder farm(Photo/Matt Cairns)
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Five hundred feet up and stepping off the belay to climb a conditions-dependent WI5, Conrad Anker was careful not to dislodge ice on the team below.

“I really should have given it the soccer kick,” Anker told me as he assessed what went wrong and caused him to take his first ice climbing fall since he can remember.

He and his partner, Josh, a local high schooler, were on the last pitch of “Nutcracker (600’, M8 WI5)” on Winter Dance Buttress in Hyalite Canyon, Mont., which was Anker’s first ascent from 2014. Josh kept his eyes on the ice Anker was stemming, watched it crumble away, and watched him fall below and directly on the anchor. 

“Sixteen hundred pounds,” Anker estimates, describing the amount of energy generated as he slid off the wall, flipped over the ledge below, impacted his shoulder, and finally stopped as the rope arrested him. Worse for the wear but otherwise unhurt, Anker climbed back up to the belay with tools still in hand and took a moment to recompose. 

Conrad Anker in his gear room
The infamous Conrad Anker basement in Bozeman; (photo/Chris Van Leuven)

That was just one of the many stories Anker shared over the past 2 weeks, first talking from his basement gear room in Bozeman, where he keeps his ice tools, rack of cams, pitons, and even water from the mighty Ganges River in India. Over Bunnahabhain whiskey, he told stories about his alpine climbing career. The conversations spilled over to in and around his home in Groveland, Calif., including a foray in Yosemite.

During the conversations, he described his current involvement in climbing, close calls, the tools that have changed the game in his lifetime, and the future of cutting-edge alpinism. After 45 years of climbing, he said, “I’m lucky to be alive. I can’t believe it, to be honest with you.”

Conrad Today: Still Gettin’ After It

gathering wood with Conrad Anker
Conrad Anker and author at the Anker home in Calif.; (photo/Chris Van Leuven)

During a conversation, while gathering wood around his California property, Anker explained his DEI work in the climbing world. He talked about close involvement with the Full Circle Expedition that doubled the number of Blacks to reach the summit of Everest. And about his involvement with the film “Black Ice” and the connection to Memphis Rox, the nonprofit climbing gym that’s raised some $600,000 due to a fundraiser in the film.

Anker still climbs. During an outing at Yosemite on the “Half Dome” traverse, I noted that Anker completed a problem by shuffling his feet like an ice climber would — toes first and not crossing over — instead of edging and flagging. Other than rubbing his shoulder a few times, the one he impacted during his ice fall, he didn’t feel discomfort on the rock. I imagined how the decades spent in crampons impacted how he used his feet. 

Conrad Anker’s ‘Close Call’ List

Anker has had five other close calls, but I list four for brevity.

He opened a journal and turned to a page with a list of famous climbers who are gone from what he refers to as nonsequential deaths. They include David Lama, Alex Lowe, Ueli Steck, Dan Osman, Hayden Kennedy, and others. We took a moment to think about them and several dozen more. When he can’t sleep, he counts the number of people he’s lost. 

Anker describes the following as “the near-death experiences where you start to get the compression of time.”

Conrad Anker
(Photo/Chris Van Leuven)

1991: Airtime off Middle Triple Peak

Having completed a new route on Middle Triple Peak in the Kitchatnas in Alaska, an anchor failed that sent Seth Shaw 90 feet to the ground during one of the final rappels. Anker, now without any ropes since they’d gone down with Shaw and sure his partner had died, began down aiding the crack system he was on. Then he started hearing voices and thought he was hallucinating, but it turned out Shaw was yelling up that he was alive.

He was relieved to hear his friend’s voice, which took one thing off his list. But since Anker had no ropes, there wasn’t a safe way down. “It was a rigid Number 1 Friend that blew,” he told me. Faced with two options — jump for glory or go out fighting, he chose to hold on and fight.

But he lost contact with the rock when the cam he was on spit him out, and he shot 60 feet in the air before hitting the ground. “That was a pretty intense moment,” he says of the airtime that resulted in him slamming into a rock buttress on the way down and compressing his vertebrae. “My back glanced off the rock.”

Unable to work as a guide due to a compressed vertebra, he spent the season shacked up in a cabin in Alaska “in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “And I listened to Nine Inch Nails and their album Pretty Hate Machine.”

1999: Avalanche on Shishapangma

While 19,000 feet up the mountain and looking up at the summit of Shishapangma at 26,335, Anker, filmmaker David Bridges, and Anker’s best friend Alex Lowe watched the mountain crack and release an avalanche toward them. The men ran for their lives. Only Anker survived, having been thrown and partially buried. 

Using home video footage and interviews with the family, the film by Max Lowe, Torn,” tells the aftermath of the accident. The film shows Anker and Lowe’s widow, Jennifer, marrying. Anker took on the fatherly role of raising the three boys. “Torn” also shows Max’s journey in understanding his late father and Anker.

Anker and Jennifer also started the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and the Khumbu Climbing Center. The climbing center teaches the next generation of Nepalese guides the best practices for high-altitude climbing. 

2016: Cardiac Arrest on Lunag Ri

Anker and Lama are attempting the unclimbed 6,895m mountain called Lunag Ri on the border of Lama’s home country of Nepal and neighboring Tibet. Anker had a type of heart attack that many call a widow-maker. Lama called in helicopter rescue, and Anker underwent emergency surgery where a stent was put into his left anterior artery.

“David saved my life,” he said matter-of-factly. 

You can watch this close call in the late David Lama’s “Walk the Line” YouTube video produced by Red Bull.

2023: Factor-Two Ice Climbing Fall

“So, thank you,” Anker said, referring to high school senior Josh, who arrested Anker’s unexpected, lengthy ice climbing fall in winter 2023. The two were on “Nutcracker,” the 600-foot WI5 M8, a line that parallels the late Alex Lowe’s “Winter Dance.” Mountain Project describes this as “the most obvious route in Hyalite and the only one visible from Bozeman.”

He continued, “That was a kind of a close call. I mean, it could have been more,” he said when he righted himself that he was below the belay ledge and hanging in space with his arms and ice tools crossed out in front like George Foreman blocking a heavyweight punch. “Where I’m at right now, I can’t afford to break my ankle. My career would be over because recovery time takes forever.”

Conrad Anker carves out designs
Conrad Anker tinkering in his Bozeman basement; (photo/Chris Van Leuven)

Climbing Tools That Changed the Game

Anker has climbed long enough to see so many changes in the gear used in climbing. Here is his list of the most impactful.

1978: Spring-Loaded Camming Device (SLCD)

This brought a fundamental shift, he says. Ray Jardine was inspired by the logarithmic spiral and applied that design to make an active camming unit, what he called Friends. SLCDs changed how people protect parallel cracks. 

Late 1980s: Climbing Gyms

“Everyone benefited from climbing gyms in the progression of climbing grades,” Anker says. 

1991: Petzl GriGri

“Because it allows you to go hands-free and to lower and belay the climber from above, and you can rappel on it,” Anker says. “It’s the first belay device that allowed you to stop and work a section of a route.”

He added that before GriGris, it was all about getting to the top of the climb, and with GriGris, you could now raise the difficulty by being able to work individual sections. When hang-dogging and auto-locking with the GriGri, it just changed how we get after it.”

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The Future of Alpinism, According to Conrad Anker

Conrad Anker still climbing
Conrad Anker still climbing at 60; (photo/Chris Van Leuven)

Anker spent decades in the limelight of executing cutting-edge alpinism. Officially retired from the pointy end of the endeavor, he offered his opinion on the future of alpinism.

“Look at what Josh Wharton and Vince Anderson climbed last year,” Anker says, referring to Wharton’s story of freeing the “Italian Integral” on 20,100-foot Jirishanca in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash. The route involves 5.13a rock climbing, WI6 ice climbing, and M7 mixed climbing.

Anker also mentioned the late David Lama. “And the true genius of that was David Lama, who is no longer with us. They’ll never be another person like him; it was like I was his uncle.”

For the final question, I asked, “How do you keep going past 60?” 

“I’m still finding inspiration, still active. Part of it is genetic, but I have a lot of things in motion.”

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