A Talk With Conrad Anker
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Conrad Anker is a mountaineer and author. Aside from his technical expertise, he is perhaps most widely known as the man who found the body of George Mallory on Everest in 1999, missing since Mallory and climbing partner Sandy Irvine disappeared on the mountain’s upper slopes in 1923.
Anker has established himself as a professional by largely avoiding the kinds of expeditions which usually make climbers household names. Instead, he has focused on self-financed, small-scale technical ascents of less-headline-grabbing peaks. And yet his principal fame is still tied to large-scale, well-publicized expeditions to Everest.
In 1999, he was an eleventh-hour addition to the expedition searching for Sandy Irvine’s body—and was “out of bounds,” pursuing his own intuition, when he discovered not Irvine’s body but Mallory’s.
In 2007, he led a return expedition to Everest in an attempt to more fully explore the technical limitations and details of the ill-fated 1923 British Expedition. And this time out the quest seems more personal—not so much an attempt to examine Mallory’s limitations, but to confront his own. We’ll never know for sure, after all, whether Mallory climbed the Second Step, and the question of whether he could have is pure speculation. But for Anker, really, the question was: Could he himself do it?
The Wildest Dream: The Conquest of Everest, the film which resulted from that 2007 expedition, and which is now playing in theaters, doesn’t really give us all the backstory behind the making of the film—and it can’t. So I jumped at the chance to sit down with Anker while he was in Seattle promoting the film, hoping to get a little bit more of the details.
One of the things that has fascinated me about the mountaineering experience, at least since the period of Mallory and Irvine, is not just the mountaineering itself—it’s the politics that’s attached to it. There’s not just the need to finance these expeditions, there’s the need to be answerable to the people who have financed them. So as with movies or books or whatever, with a high level of financing there’s a lot at stake. Yet with mountaineering, there’s an added level because you’re doing all this at 26,000 or 27,000 feet—and so the decision-making becomes all that more complicated. My real big question is what that’s like, trying to manage all those expectations when your mind is oxygen-starved.
Conrad Anker: The experience of filming on an expedition, and after having done a few of them I can see this, always comes down to standing on a pin. It comes down to one day and one moment that you have to pull it off. In 2007, it was making the summit and the Second Step. And everything came down to that point and we knew very well we had to make the summit. We had a million dollars invested in this project, and if you come back and you don’t have the summit, it changes it. In most of my climbing, there’s never this financial concern that goes into your decision-making. Is it right? Is it good? Everyone has a different reason why they climb and when they turn around, and make those decisions. But when you have a film, and you have investors, and you have a story, and you realize you only have one chance to do it, you’ll be more focused on it. And leading up to it, you’ll have a stronger team going in to it.
Ed Viesturs talks about the one time he feels he made a mistake, the one time he didn’t follow his own intuition: when he summited on K-2. He felt that they should have turned around, but they went ahead anyway. So for him, that’s what he feels helps him keep coming back alive: trusting his gut feel, and not pushing beyond where his common sense tells him, “Hey, this isn’t safe. We shouldn’t be doing this.” What’s your own experience with that—particularly on this expedition, when you know the monsoons are coming, time is getting short, you probably have one last shot at getting this… and that moment comes? What is going on in your head, and what is your own intuition telling you?
CA: Fear is your self-preservation instinct. So this whole “No Fear” thing is a bunch of baloney. They’re trying to sell this to teenaged boys to get them to ride their bicycles off of ramps and stuff. It’s not based in climbing. Knowing your fear is your self-preservation instinct and knowing where that limit is, knowing what you can and can’t do, is extremely important. On the one hand, you’ve got people who will always find some excuse to turn around and who will never have success in the mountains; and then you have those who will ignore that fear feedback, and sooner or later they die in the mountains. Finding that balance, knowing where it is… The metric I like to use is that probably 95% of the time you’re underperforming and you’re well below what that critical limit is. And then that 5% of the time when you’ve got to throw it down and put it on the line, be prepared to step out of that comfort zone and be sure that you have all your ducks lines up and you’re spot on with it… and that your contingency plan is in place, you’ve reverse-engineered a worst-case scenario—so when your enter into it, you’re seeing the big picture. So looking at all those eventualities—and looking at that moment when you say, “Okay, I’m going to land the lunar module with a ball-point pen,” be ready to do it.
One thing I’ve run across in a lot of different contexts, to use the paradigm from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, is that the world is full of two kinds of people: the kind who likes to say, “You never know what you’ll do in any given situation,” and the kind who says, “Well, actually, you can influence that a lot by the mental preparation that you do.” It sounds to me like you’re in that second camp: you can anticipate a lot of that stuff, and your contingency plan and the way that you play those scenarios through in your mind really are going to affect what you do in certain circumstances.
CA: Yeah, yeah. And Shackleton is another leader as an example. He wasn’t a great man. He wasn’t a great husband, his finances were in shambles, he played one sponsor off of another, just wasn’t a true gentleman in that sense—where Scott was. But when it came time for Scott to lead in Antarctica, Scott was hidebound by the traditions of the Royal Navy and the class structure and all of that; but Shackleton got there and he scrubbed the floor with his guys, he slaughtered the dogs with his men, he led by example and was plugged right into that. [In disastrous situations, Scott and his companions died; Shackleton and all his companions survived.] Now, that can be learned; but some of that is innate. Some people have this ability to look at something and think through it in the larger picture.
Now on the flip-side to Viesturs, I read Wickwire’s Addicted to Danger. It seemed to me he was saying, yes—all of that is well and good. But at a certain level, climbers are all adrenaline junkies, too. And since there’s nothing quite like the rush of climbing an 8000-meter peak, we keep going back for more—because it’s just such a thrill.
CA: Yeah—free-soloing a rock face or climbing an ice climb, or driving a jet boat: everyone responds to risk in a different way. And risk is what creates adrenaline. And adrenaline—like that “No Fear” thing—has been maligned. It’s not risk; it’s what we need to do. And the risks that I take, to someone not in it, I seem like the craziest person in the whole world. “You’re going to go climb Everest—you’re doing it for the second time. You are completely nuts.” And yet this same person can be sitting in a board room running billions of dollars into a hedge fund, selling short and buying long, working with these derivatives that tanked the whole thing. And they have a tremendous amount of risk. It’s just they’re looking at it in a different way.
That’s kind of funny. I was on Facebook just yesterday and someone posted a video of footage taken at what they call The Devil’s Pool at the very top of Victoria Falls. And the question posted with that was, “Who would do this? Who would go swimming at the top of a waterfall? You’d have to be nuts, because here you are literally right at the lip of Victoria Falls.” And I said, “Well, you know, statistically speaking, it’s probably safer than driving on the freeway here in Seattle half an hour before what they call Rush Hour.” But people don’t do it because of perception. The perception of safety and risk—
CA: The same thing with running with the bulls in Pamplona. Every year, four or five young men get gored and beat up—so you know there’s going to be a toll… but out of the thousands of people that do it. The perception of risk—politicians use it completely to their advantage. They’re using it right now with regard to climate change and global warming. While someone might say it’s very real, others are saying it’s hysteria. Perception, as opposed to what’s real… The first Freakonomics book does a good job of addressing that, and saying, “You’re safer doing some of these things that have a huge risk perception, but then there’s the outcome…” And the best example that they use is sharks. There was the movie, and the press coverage, that all makes that kind of a perfect storm of why we need to be scared of sharks; whereas we have a greater danger posed by walking across the street at rush hour, or something like that. Being able to prey on those fears… I see it in Montana with wolf reintroduction. We need wolves for a better balanced ecosystem; but wolves, culturally speaking, have been so maligned (to use the term again) in the big picture, going back to the fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm, that everybody says, “The wolves are so horrendous, particularly on livestock.” Well, the coyotes take down more livestock. “They take human life.” Grizzlies are more dangerous. But because they have this outsider status and it’s easy to address and identify fear with them, they are not favored.
At the same time, in spite of processing all of this at the intellectual level, we come head to head with the unanticipated and the unexpected. With Wickwire, it’s on Denali or with Marty Hoey on Everest; with you it’s on Shishapangma with Lowe. At that point, something else clicks in, right? Or you say, “Now it’s happened; now it’s reality.” And you have to go through the survivor guilt, and say, “Did we go too far? Did we manage the risks?” What makes you want to get back on the bike, as it were, after that?
CA: Obviously, in a balanced intellectual sense, you would have to say, “Well, the rewards are greater than the risks.” Something like that. And I think some people can analyze that, and say, “Yes, that’s what it is.” And someone else can say, “Well, I’m not going to climb any more.” But doing that at a certain level where you’re not crossing the line over into that danger zone, I just think that there are certain people who are hard-wired in their DNA to go out and take on more risk than their fellows. And that’s what has allowed humans to become what we are. For just one example, look at Homer’s Odyssey: these great tales of leaving behind the family and going off into the unknown—and great risk of death or disfigurement. And then they come home and are heralded as heroes. They might come back with bounty, and things like that. It goes back into when we were hunter-gatherers. The men would have to go out and do this, and it is sort of the basis of how we have created society.
Well, at a survival level, even then there had to have been some people who said, “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.” And because of the extremity of the circumstances, they tended to be bred out of the equation.
CA: Or they became the ones who made the better baskets. And for their tribe and their clan, they were able to have worth in a way that wasn’t necessarily equated with going out on the hunt.
Well, two things I think the film did really well. One was demonstrating how absolutely outrageous it was for Mallory and Irvine to attempt the summit when they did—simply from the standpoint of the gear. We’ve naturally gotten accustomed to the idea of outdoor gear getting so much better—but we have forgotten what things were really like in 1923.
CA: Leather caulkers, wool pants, and cotton wind-shells over them. You go to an outfitter’s store here in Seattle and get outfitted for Everest. It costs you two or three thousand dollars. But it’s light years ahead of what Mallory and Irvine would have had. This stuff like that they sell now is Filson fashion gear and hiking boots; it’s not the high-end technical gear like they use on Everest.
The other thing I thought the film did really well was not scaring the wits out of the audience. If you hadn’t appeared early on in the film talking about the event as already having been in the past, even with my knowledge of mountaineering and Everest, I don’t know what I would have been feeling in those sequences where you’ve taken the ladder off of the last portion of the Second Step and you’re attempting the free climb. The tension of watching that just would have been insane. The scene has just been so well set up by what has gone before.
CA: Some of that is technical. My wife asked, “If you had fallen there, would you have pulled Leo from the mountain?” I said, “Of course not, dear. I built a 100% [secure] bomber belay.” Of course, nothing’s 100% bomber, everything can fail.
Which wasn’t talked about in the film. But those familiar with climbing can see that.
CA: Yes. There’s safety. There’s a “net” that they’re working with.
CA: Yeah. For the average person, it makes it grappling hooks and Spider-man. There’s a rope up there, but it’s this huge disconnect. It’s a mystery, until you learn some things. And I’m sure there are things I don’t understand!
And yet specifically, what people may not realize or thought an awful lot about is: so there’s this 30-foot ladder bolted to the wall at 28,000 feet… how did this ladder get up there in the first place? Who carried it up there, and at what risk? And when it comes to unbolting that ladder and reattaching it—what’s that got to be like to do that kind of labor at 28,000 feet? If you’re at sea level, what’s the correlate? Having run two successive marathons, having a SCUBA mask on, and unbolting this thing off the side of the Space Needle, or what? How difficult is that?
CA: In that case, we were working with the Sherpas so they knew we were going to be taking it down, and we had loosened it up. That was their job. There were three of them who had nothing more to do than carry the cameras to the location and then take the ladder away. And the Chinese insisted that we return the ladder there, from a historical context and, I think, from a business perspective—because guiding on Everest is a big source of income for their mountaineering association. So they wanted to have that back in place.
One thing that wasn’t touched on in the film—the route you were taking: was that the same route Messner used on his solo summit?
CA: That was the route I was taking when we found Mallory’s body.
And you summited on that expedition, too.
CA: Yes. That was on the northeast ridge. Once you pass the Yellow Band and the First Step, you are kind of committed to that route. To ascend through the Great Couloirs or the Norton Couloirs, you have to traverse below the Yellow Band. I was reconnoitering out through there to see what Messner might have encountered when I found the body in 1999.
So Messner would have had to pass through that area too, without finding Mallory’s body.
CA: Yes. But that was chance in 1999. It was a lot of bare rock and the body was frozen into the mountainside. It was a ski run in 2007.
What was it like reflecting on what Messner accomplished in that ascent?
CA: You just imagine. No one else was on the mountain, his girlfriend was back at base camp—
He started out below the North Col, right?
CA: Yes, at the standard Advance Base Camp. 20 miles up from the Base Camp at the end of the road. So he was there, and just to have that sense of solitude, isolation. And that’s what Mallory experienced.
Do you think maybe that’s part of what helped? With all the things that go along a with an “expedition”—I guess on the 2007 trip you had 20 Sherpas and ten climbers—with all of the technology and the gear and the climbers… if it’s just you, and it’s just the mountain, it’s a lot simpler and you can focus all of your mental energy just on the climb.
CA: Yes. Again, going back the question of the infrastructure and obligation of an expedition, to the film, it changes things. But even then, with Messner—on his ascent, he was convinced that he was communicating with Mallory while he was up there. And he traversed into there and did that climb in 1980, which is a pretty phenomenal climb; and then to have that connection to Mallory…