Anker in Antarctica with Alex Lowe in 1997
Anker in Antarctica with Alex Lowe in 1997
Conrad Anker (right) in Antarctica with Alex Lowe in 1997 (Photo: Gordon Wilstsie)
Outside Classics

The Climber Comes Down to Earth

His life’s grand pursuit has killed his closest companions. His bride-to-be is his best friend’s widow. His exploding fame owes as much to happenstance (stumbling upon Mallory’s body on Everest) and luck (escaping an avalanche in Tibet) as it does to his great skill as a mountaineer. An intimate look at the serendipitous, tumultuous, and nearly unbearable success of Conrad Anker.

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Drinking his third latte of the morning on our way to ski Alta, Conrad Anker looked, for a moment, content. I’d pulled him away from his glad-handing duties at the Outdoor Retailer trade show, and as we drove through Salt Lake City’s suburban sprawl and into the frozen Wasatch Mountains, he seemed giddy at the prospect of some fresh air. Dark clouds hung low over the peaks, the snow-dusted road curved below shattered ribs of rock, and Anker, who lived nearby for a decade and a half, ripped apart a cinnamon bun and bubbled with nostalgia. Reaching across the dash, he pointed out an eagle’s nest, then a mixed ice-and-rock route he’d once done in a single day, then a snow chute he used to ski in late spring—“Big GS-style turns,” he recalled fondly, “not tips and tails.”

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A handsome, 38-year-old alpinist, with boyishly side-parted blond hair, close-set blue eyes, and a lantern jaw, Anker looks more like a high-strung surfer than a consummate mountaineer. With no hiker’s thighs or gym-pumped muscles, there’s a surprising lightness to his physique, and his head leans perpetually forward, as if straining into the future. A sometimes wry self-promoter who talks earnestly about saving the world, Anker also has the playful manner of the outdoors Peter Pan. Which makes sense, given that he has spent his entire adult life in a very particular America—an adventure-sports subculture in which status derives less from money than from talent at skiing, kayaking, and climbing, a subculture in which well-meaning environmentalist and anticonsumerist opinions make up an informal state ideology. Success begins with finding work flexible enough to let you play whenever the powder’s deep, the ice is in, or the rock is dry. Greater success means making a living at some approximation of your game, like working ski patrol. True arrival means making a living doing the thing itself: travel, adventure, freedom.

Anker has been getting paid to play for most of a decade as a salaried, globe-trotting member of The North Face Climbing Team, and it’s been a great ride. But lately he has been negotiating the transition from being the favorite partner of some of the world’s great expedition leaders to becoming a leader himself. At the same time, he has had a painful reckoning with the costs of playing one of the world’s most dangerous games—costs that include his own brushes with mortality, the untimely deaths of his three closest friends in the high mountains, and the strange fallout that those deaths have had in his life.

Turning down the car radio, Anker gestured at a band of granite called Hellgate Cliff. He told me that together with his first serious climbing mentor, the legendary Mugs Stump, he established a notoriously committed rock climb there, Fossils from Hell, in the 1980s. (Stump disappeared into a crevasse in 1992 while guiding clients on Alaska’s Mount McKinley.) As we approached Alta, Anker remembered how he and another college climbing buddy, the underground hero Seth Shaw, had sometimes crammed an ice climb, a rock climb, and a few ski runs into a single day, even begged used lift tickets off skiers leaving Alta early. (Shaw was killed in May 2000 by falling ice, also in Alaska.)

“Wow!” he exclaimed as we rounded a snowbanked curve and a frozen waterfall swung into view. “Look at all the people on that ice climb! Wear your helmets today, boys!” Anker told me with evident pleasure that he and Shaw had held the round-trip speed record on that climb until Alex—Alex Lowe, Anker’s best friend and a man once considered the best climber in the world—shattered it. In the fall of 1999, an avalanche struck Anker, Lowe, and a friend named Dave Bridges on the flanks of Tibet’s 26,291-foot Shishapangma. Anker ran one way and survived, but Bridges, 29, and Lowe, 40, headed another way and disappeared. Lowe left behind a widow, Jennifer, and three young sons.

Even Anker’s most famous achievement is shadowed by ambiguities. In 1999 he joined the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition to Mount Everest. That May, just above 27,000 feet, he found the 75-year-old remains of the British climber George Mallory. The discovery shed new light on one of the great unsolved mysteries of world exploration—what befell Mallory and his partner, Sandy Irvine, during the third summit attempt on Everest. But for Anker, who has put up important first ascents from Antarctica to Baffin Island, and who has no particular preoccupation with history, it was more a quirk of fate than the kind of cutting-edge climbing achievement of which he is most proud. Nevertheless, he was lionized in newspapers and magazines the world over; he coauthored (with David Roberts) a book on the Mallory expedition; and he has been on a near-constant speaking tour ever since.

By far the greatest change in Anker’s life came shortly after the October 1999 memorial service for Alex Lowe, in Bozeman, Montana. In what must have been a bewildering and exhausting half-year, Anker had come straight back from Everest to spend five months cowriting the Mallory book, flown off to Shishapangma with Lowe, survived a battering in the lethal avalanche, and returned just in time to go on a book tour. Everywhere he went, according to Topher Gaylord, longtime director of The North Face Climbing Team, “people were giving Conrad so much support. But he had to go back alone to his hotel room every night, and it didn’t bring Alex back, it didn’t change anything. I think that’s where Jenny and the kids became the best way of coping with losing Alex.”

In a series of events that Anker understandably preferred not to discuss with a journalist, he eventually broke off his wedding engagement to an environmental lawyer named Becky Hall and became romantically involved with Jennifer Lowe. In December he proposed, and they plan to be married by the time this magazine arrives on the newsstands. Anker now lives with Jennifer and her sons in the Lowe home in Bozeman—finding himself, in other words, husband-to-be to his best friend’s widow and stepfather to three boys who lost their father while he was climbing beside Anker himself.

In Little Cottonwood Canyon that day, Anker did not dwell on his own and his new family’s losses, and this was only partly because he knew that I already knew all the details. He also resolutely insists on a life-affirming view of his profession. In his Mallory slide show—the story of yet another young husband and father who died climbing—Anker doesn’t mention the half-dozen mangled corpses that he came upon on Everest and that he describes in his book. He never shows the macabre photographs of himself looming over Mallory’s grisly body. (He criticized this magazine for running one of these shots on its cover.) He sometimes even tells audiences, in all sincerity, things like, “If I can motivate just one of you to go home and plan just one climb tonight, I will have done my job.”

Anker is, of course, a paid spokesman for The North Face and a man who has never known much beyond extreme alpinism. But one senses, too, that he feels a great compulsion, even obligation, to argue aloud that his chosen profession has been worthwhile and that Alex Lowe did not die foolishly—that his life’s foremost pursuit is still as it has always seemed: good for body, soul, and mind, and inspired by grand purpose.

As I clunked across the Alta parking lot in telemark boots, Anker instructed me, teasingly, on how to carry skis—over one shoulder, tips down—so as not to look like a dork. Once on the mountain, he humored me on the mogul-free intermediate runs I’d said were my limit, but he dipped repeatedly off the trail, diving between steep trees and soaring, as airborne and playful as any teenager, back into sight. Anker has a reputation as a fantastic partner. Jochen Hemmleb and Jake Norton, for example, of the Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, extol Anker as exceptionally hardworking and fun to be around, and all it took was a few runs that morning to see what they meant. When enthusiasm got the better of Anker, he steered me onto a series of experts-only bump runs through tight rock chutes, but I quickly forgot my irritation and terror in the sheer pleasure of watching someone ski the way you dream of skiing: as if your skis will never cross, your balance never falter, your reflexes never fail—as if the mountains, even at their steepest, are your best friends.

Indeed, Anker’s two-page, single-spaced climbing résumé, with its emphasis on highly technical routes up good-looking mountains, must be the envy of all but a very small world elite. It includes a new route on the Russian Tower, in the Ak Su Himalaya, and desperate new big-wall lines both in Zion with Mugs Stump, and on Patagonia’s Torre Egger with Yosemite hardmen Steve Gerberding and Jay Smith. The list goes on: Cerro Torre; Ama Dablam and Lobuche, in the Khumbu Himalaya; a first ascent, with Lowe and the writer Jon Krakauer, of Queen Maud Land’s Rakekniven.

Anker may not be quite world-class at rock, snow, or ice climbing, but his combined skills at all three put him in rarefied company. As photographer and mountaineer Galen Rowell told writer David Roberts in 1999, “Conrad can ski down virgin faces of big peaks in subzero Antarctica, climb El Cap routes in a day for fun, sport-climb 5.12, speed-climb up Khan-Tengri in the Tien Shan faster than the Russian Masters of Sport, climb the north face of Everest or Latok, ice-climb the wildest frozen waterfalls, and run mountain trails forever. Plus enjoy hanging out with his friends talking about other things besides mountains.” For this reason, Anker is a much sought-after expedition member: On both Everest and his recent re-creation of Ernest Shackleton’s traverse of South Georgia Island for an IMAX movie, with renowned alpinists Stephen Venables and Reinhold Messner, Anker was the designated technical climbing leader. (Their film, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Epic Journey, premiered in February.)

Late in the day at Alta, when light snow flurries turned into a miserably cold wind, Anker plopped beside me on a lift and told me something I’d heard him say several times before: that Stump, Shaw, and Lowe had all been better climbers than he. It’s a frank self-assessment: Anker has tended to play lieutenant to bigger names rather than headlining expeditions himself. As a professional climber, he has also had to favor routes on which he has a reasonable chance of success and on which photographers and film crews can come along. Climbing’s purist ideal—personified by Anker’s very own mentor, Mugs Stump—is the two-man team moving fast with a minimum of gear, taking only enough pictures to prove what they’ve done, as Anker did for years with Seth Shaw. By contrast, caravan climbs like Anker’s and Alex Lowe’s National Geographic Society–funded first ascent of Rakekniven, with pressure for good photographs and a return on investment, require heavier anchors, more fixed ropes, and a slower schedule.

Without criticizing Anker by name, last year’s American Alpine Journal featured fierce denunciations of “Barbie mountaineering” and “business climbing.”

Anker admits that professional climbers sometimes use power drills and fixed ropes with such abandon that it’s akin to “hunting Bambi with a bazooka.” He acknowledges that he and Lowe could have done Rakekniven in a single day, without drilling a bolt, instead of in four days with 28 bolts. But the role of alpha male is now wide open to Anker. He could easily pick one of climbing’s “last great problems”—some hideous Himalayan north face—assemble a world-class team, and join the ranks of his sport’s true immortals, climbers famous not just for stumbling across a dead guy on a trade route, but for hanging it all out in the most daring circumstances possible. Except, of course, that a lot of those immortal climbers have been turning up dead lately, and Anker now has the same incentive to stay alive that Alex Lowe did: Jennifer Lowe and her three sons.

As we rode Alta’s Supreme lift for the last time that day, Anker’s conversation reflected the painful complexity of this moment in his life. He remarked that he’d probably never have his own kids, then expressed his love for the kids he’s now caring for—how he does homework with one, plays LEGO with another, does Brio with the third. Moments later, he mused on a high-altitude big wall he hopes to do this summer in Pakistan, then wistfully described the last time he’d skied Alta with Shaw. Such a bittersweet predicament: fame shadowed by loss, dreams seeming obsolete just as they come true, sudden responsibility but also love, and opportunities to weigh against the well-being of a still-grieving family. As we disembarked, I wondered aloud if Anker couldn’t use a run to himself.

“You don’t mind?” he asked.

I didn’t, and as I shuffled toward a groomed slope, I watched him slip under an out-of-bounds sign, take one look off what I was quite sure was a cliff, and vanish.

Conrad Anker at home in Bozeman with Max Lowe, 12, and Annapurna
Conrad Anker at home in Bozeman with Max Lowe, 12, and Annapurna (Martin Schoeller/Agency Saba)
Anker at home with Isaac Lowe, 4, and Lucy
Anker at home with Isaac Lowe, 4, and Lucy (Martin Schoeller/Agency Saba)

Anker was born in San Francisco in November 1962, but he grew up largely abroad. Anker’s father, Wally, was an international banker who moved his wife, Helga, and four children first to Tokyo, then later to Hong Kong and Frankfurt, Germany. An avid mountaineer and skier, Wally also took the family on annual summer visits to Priest Ranch, the Ankers’ California homestead, just outside Big Oak Flat, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Later, in the mid-1970s, the teenage Anker boarded at the outdoors-oriented Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

Graduating in 1981, at age 18, he chose the University of Utah, at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, and majored in commercial recreation. (Yes, the school’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism really does offer such a degree.) Anker was more enthusiastic about fieldwork than homework and took seven years to finish his bachelor’s degree. Along the way, he worked at the local North Face retail store and bicycled around Salt Lake City peddling homemade fleece hats to local shops for his fledgling outdoor-clothing company, Alf Wear. Anker took several semesters off to climb in Alaska with the soft-spoken, quietly driven Shaw, a classmate at the university. Starting in 1983, he also apprenticed himself to Terrence “Mugs” Stump, 31, a hard-living former college-football star (he played defensive back for Joe Paterno at Penn State before damaging his left knee) and one of the great American climbers of the period, renowned for his bold and visionary solos in the great ranges.

“I was like Grasshopper, listening to the master,” Anker recalls. Up to that point, Stump was the most influential person in his life, “except for my parents,” he says. For a time, Anker shared a house in Emigration Canyon, near Salt Lake City, with Shaw and Stump. Kevin Boyle, who started Alf Wear with Anker, recalls, “Their mentality was like, ‘Hey, I can buy a bag of Bisquick, a thing of peanut butter, and I can live for a month and don’t have to work, and now I can devote all my effort to climbing.”

Out of college in 1988, Anker took Stump’s advice and dedicated himself to life as a professional climber—a career that, in many respects, did not yet exist. He sold his interest in Alf to Boyle, switched from North Face retail clerk to product tester (meaning he got free stuff in exchange for telling them how well it worked), and made ends meet as a carpenter and high-access construction worker, scaling river dams and transmission towers. Like anyone who spends so much time in the mountains, Anker had his share of close calls. While attempting a new route on Alaska’s Eyetooth in 1989, Anker and Stump, stormbound on a portaledge, suffered for a week without food until the weather lifted. Then, in April 1991, Anker and Shaw flew to Alaska and grabbed the much-coveted first ascent of Middle Triple Peak. During their descent, however, Shaw fell 80 feet to the glacier below, surviving only because he landed in deep snow. A moment later, Anker also fell. Both men walked away, and the route made Anker’s name in the American climbing community.

In 1992, the year Stump was killed, Anker claimed first ascents in Baffin Island’s Sam Ford Fjord and Antarctica’s Sentinel Mountains. In 1993, he joined Alex Lowe in the Khan-Tengri speed-climbing competition, in Kyrgyzstan. They’d met as coworkers at the Black Diamond store in Salt Lake City two years before, and they now became close friends. Shortly afterward, The North Face made Anker a founding member of The North Face Climbing Team. By 1995 he was living in Oakland, California, and managing the team full-time. Just two years later, he decided business was taking too much time away from his real work. Giving up his apartment, Anker had all his mail forwarded to his family’s Priest Ranch and began a relentless series of climbing trips that culminated, at the end of the decade, in the search for Mallory and the fatal avalanche on Shishapangma.

Until early 1999, relative youth and luck allowed Anker to focus single-mindedly on the positive, upbeat aspects of his sport. That May, however, he began a protracted confrontation with climbing’s hardest truths. The Mallory & Irvine Research Expedition, led by Mount Rainier guide Eric Simonson, represented the latest in media-friendly commercial climbing projects: a demonstration of emerging technology that can broadcast events from remote corners of the globe and a chance to feed the ravenous appetite for tales of disastrous adventures. Invited along as the technical climbing specialist, Anker had never been above 24,000 feet. He jumped at both the free ride to Everest and the enormous career opportunity.

At 5:15 on the morning of May 1, Anker and four others left Camp V for the “search zone,” high on Everest’s northeast ridge. Wandering around at 27,000 feet looking for two dead climbers was novel enough, and even slightly bizarre, given that the usual goal at that fatal altitude is a dash to the summit and down again. The prior Himalayan snowy season had been the lightest in a hundred years, and almost immediately Anker and his companions came across what one of them, Tap Richards, would later describe as “a virtual graveyard of…frozen bodies, a kind of collection zone for fallen climbers.” Anker encountered a corpse in a purple nylon suit with its face eaten to the skull by goraks (ravenlike birds that haunt the high Himalayas). Finally, at about 11:45 a.m., he came across Mallory himself, wool-clad, frozen into the scree, and preserved well enough that bruises still showed through his skin. While the others emptied Mallory’s pockets for clues, Anker lifted the body. He wrote later that it “made that same creaky sound as when you pull up a log that’s been on the ground for years. It was disconcerting to look into the hole in the right buttock that the goraks had chewed. His body had been hollowed out, almost like a pumpkin.”

A few days later, after a short rest, Anker and his teammates headed up again, this time to tackle the question of whether Mallory, without modern equipment, could have free-climbed the Second Step, a crucial obstacle near the summit. (En route they found the body of a woman from Telluride whose family had asked that they unclip her from the fixed ropes so that future climbers wouldn’t have to step over her). Anker’s difficulty on the Second Step led him to believe that Mallory could not have gotten past it; after summiting, he returned to Base Camp convinced that the two British climbers had perished before reaching the top.

“Alex Lowe died in an avalanche last year,” Anker told an audience in Lowe’s hometown. “I survived, and I don’t know why. In the memory of Alex, and of carrying on what Alex began with his family—Jenny and Sam and Max and Isaac—we’re together.”

Five months later, Anker had a much more devastating encounter with mountaineering’s mortal consequences. In early October, Anker, Lowe, and seven other climbers started up Shishapangma in an attempt to become the first Americans to ski down an 8,000-meter peak. According to Topher Gaylord, of The North Face (which also sponsored Lowe), Anker and Lowe had by this time become “the closest of friends—I mean true soul mates.” For more than five years, the two had climbed together around the world and occasionally visited each other’s families. Anker and Lowe were close enough in size to share climbing shoes, and they often zipped their sleeping bags together during bivouacs. Anker recalls that they also talked about becoming old men together. “You’re going to come out to Big Oak Flat,” Anker remembers telling Lowe, “and I’ll come visit you, and we’ll be in rocking chairs, reliving our youth.” They shared the belief, Anker says, that “climbing’s a wonderful thing, but if you don’t come back again it’s not worth it.”

With every move documented in online postings and webcasts, the trip was precisely the kind of media spectacle that Anker and Lowe were tiring of, but they had so much fun together it hardly mattered. They would wake in the wee hours to brew coffee, e-mail home, and talk. “We’re so in synch,” Lowe wrote in a dispatch to, “words become superfluous—I’m awake—Rad’s awake, my still, small voice speaks to me and echoes its words to Conrad. Partners are golden and Conrad’s the motherload.”

On October 5, 1999, the two partners, together with cameraman Dave Bridges, were crossing a flat section of glacier when they heard a crack high above. A huge avalanche began heading straight down toward the glacier. Lowe and Bridges ran downhill—Anker thinks they intended to jump into a crevasse—and Anker ran horizontally. Lying flat, he dug in his ice ax, only to be blown down the mountain.“It dragged me about 20 meters along the snow,” Anker would later write. “It cut my head in four different spots, broke two ribs and stretched out my shoulder from the socket. During the course of this, I thought that I was going to die. Then light came and I realized I was alive.” Holding his watch, Anker began searching for Lowe and Bridges, knowing that the last seconds of their lives were ticking away. Several hours later, Anker endured what he calls “the worst moment of my life.” He used the expedition’s satellite phone to call Jennifer Lowe.

Anker recuperating in a tent shortly after clawing his way out of the Shishapangma avalanche
Anker recuperating in a tent shortly after clawing his way out of the Shishapangma avalanche (Kristoffer Erickson)

Many career climbers, as they get older, yearn to come down off the mountaintop with something to say, some essential wisdom that will translate all those years of lonely, dangerous struggle into something of value to the rest of the world. Anker is no exception. Where most of the Shishapangma dispatches offer quick, sketchy impressions of the trip, Anker’s tend to be thoughtful essays on moral matters—some serious, like his reflections on the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and some comedic, like his mock diatribe on the deplorable preponderance of fake plants (“palm frondus plasticus, lilyus nylonus, and carnation imposteroti”) in the LAX terminal. In The Lost Explorer, his Mallory book, Anker writes that he tries to use his slide shows and ski outings “to talk about being a good person, about how anger and hatred disrupt an expedition, about how sometimes it takes a little more effort to be positive than negative, but that it’s ultimately life-enriching.”

Last November, Anker traveled to a Marriott conference center in San Ramon, California, a few miles east of San Francisco Bay, to give what he called the “state of the union” speech at a sales conference for The North Face. A poster on the ballroom’s back wall featured the perpetual ghost in Anker’s life, Alex Lowe, dangling from a Baffin Island cliff. Anker stepped to the podium and began his presentation, “An Alpinist’s View of the Fall 2001 Selling Season,” by projecting a slide of himself high on the Grand Teton. Leaning toward his notes and furrowing his freckled brow, Anker declared, “A lot of the things we believe in climbing are very similar to what is there in business. There’s a good metaphor that goes with doing business: doing an expedition, doing a climb.” The targeted summit, apparently, was $240 million in annual sales. Successive slides interspersed more glory shots of Anker with the motivational steps common to climbing and high-end retail fashion: Identify the Goal, Select the Route, Create Your Team, Climb, Believe, Summit.

Anker was, admittedly, just doing his job—thus the hokey nature of his speech—but a messianic side to his character does seem to have blossomed since Lowe’s death. He talks a great deal about using his fame to spread his “message,” a loose amalgam of Buddhism, environmentalism, and adventure-sports boosterism. I once asked who his heroes were, and Anker replied, “Reinhold Messner, of course—but that’s just a sports thing. My real heroes are the guys getting change done, like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Gandhi.” As evidenced by his North Face speech, Anker has also been drawn to that most enduring of aging-climber axioms: I have gotten to one extraordinary summit after another by adhering to principles that will see you through to your own summits, whatever they may be.

It seems both ironic and natural that the one struggle in which those principles cannot help Anker is the job of reconciling himself to what climbing has cost him. He told me, for example, that the turnaround moment in his mourning of Mugs Stump came during the Khan-Tengri speed-climbing competition, when Anker saved a Russian climber’s life. “I felt then,” he said, “that there’s something good to climbing, there was a meaning to it.” Anker has saved quite a few lives in situations that he could easily have ignored. But the tortured logic of validating one climbing death by preventing another exposes the limits of climbing as a universal metaphor. What kind of game is redeemed by the opportunity it offers to save lives risked only in playing it?

Seth Shaw’s death last May in Alaska, only seven months after the disaster on Shishapangma, brought Anker a new kind of regret. In a sense, he had long ago left Shaw behind. Shaw had stayed in Salt Lake City, working as an avalanche forecaster, and their near-fatal 1991 Alaska trip was the last time they climbed together. It was also, in the view of Durango climber Kennan Harvey, a good friend of Shaw’s, “the last pure”—i.e., noncommercial—“expedition Conrad’s done.”

The role of alpha male is now wide open to Anker. He could easily pick one of climbing’s “last great problems” and join the ranks of his sport’s true immortals. Except, of course, Anker has a new incentive to stay alive

Anker was in Telluride, accepting an Adventurer of the Year award from Polartec, when he heard that Shaw had been killed. “Jenny and the little guys were there,” Anker told me, “and at the time it was really hard to deal with it, because here I am—I’ve got the kids now, they want to go stay at a hotel with a swimming pool and watch the cartoons. And I realized how close Seth was to me, and we’d had a trip planned, and I’d backed out of it and decided to do a trip with Peter Croft and Galen Rowell instead…” Anker’s attention wandered for a moment, perhaps distracted by what he’d implied—that he’d chosen a trip with a bigger-name partner and a bigger-name photographer.

Shaw, like Stump and Lowe, remains buried on the mountain where he died. Shaw’s family and friends held a memorial service in Salt Lake City, planting a tree for him in Little Cottonwood Canyon, near a taller one planted for Stump in 1992. By most accounts Anker gave a beautiful eulogy, but Harvey, who attended the memorial, feels that there was something detached, almost impersonal, in Anker’s delivery. “Conrad was out of touch there, because he’d had to move on,” Harvey says.

Doug Heinrich, another old friend of Anker and Shaw, considers Anker’s dilemma just “part of being a star. Your career, to a certain degree, takes the place of a lot of what sometimes seems mundane, like your day-to-day interaction with your friends. And once that’s gone, it creates a huge void, especially when your friends pass away.”

A few days after his North Face speech, just before he flew back to Montana, I met Anker for breakfast at a café in Berkeley. He was unshaven and looked exhausted. Twenty years of mountain sun and a year and a half of personal upheaval showed in the wrinkles around his mouth and eyes.

After coffee and eggs took the raw edge off his mood, I asked him to talk about what Alex Lowe had been going through toward the end of his life. Lowe, he said, had grown tired of back-to-back climbing expeditions, their canned commercial agendas, and of the time they took away from Jennifer and their three boys. Lowe’s Shishapangma dispatches make frequent mention of his family, and he muses several times about the relatively frivolous nature of climbing. No one is in a better position than Anker to understand the bitter irony—that Lowe was preoccupied with climbing’s calculus of selfishness just as the self-indulgence inherent in the sport was about to exact its greatest toll.

Later that morning, Anker drove us to the Berkeley Marina. Sitting on a bench under a chilly blue sky, he acknowledged how devastating the first six months after Lowe’s death had been. At the suggestion of a friend at The North Face, he’d spoken to a therapist. “It was worthless,” Anker said with palpable contempt. “Maybe I was defensive or angry, but she didn’t get where I was coming from.” In his anguish, Anker turned to Jon Krakauer and confessed he’d had thoughts of suicide. “I said, ‘Jon, it’s fucked up,’ and Jon goes, ‘Yeah, it’s normal. You’re just angry, and you feel like your friend’s been cheated, or you’ve been cheated, and you’re wondering why did it end up like this.’”

A hard wind blew across San Francisco Bay. His hands deep in his pockets, Anker told me that he’d found the most solace in the friendship of Gil Roberts, a San Francisco emergency-room doctor who was a member of the 1963 expedition on which Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest. Roberts had been walking through the Khumbu Icefall beside a friend, Jake Breitenbach, when Roberts stopped to wipe his goggles. Breitenbach took a few steps forward, a block of ice fell on him, and he was never seen again. Hearing about Lowe’s death, Roberts contacted Anker and talked to him about survivor’s guilt—shortly before, as it turned out, Roberts discovered that he had metastasized melanoma and only a few months to live.

“Climbing is a good thing,” Anker told me, switching abruptly from dazed emotion to his formal spokesman mode. “It’s about the experience I had with Gil just before he died. We spent a day and talked about how death changes your view on life and makes you live life fuller.”

It was an extraordinary thing to say: Climbing is a good thing—it’s about hearing a dying man’s views on death. And yet, why not? Climbing’s relentless encounter with death appears to teach a twinned lesson. On the one hand, the sentiment captured in Psalm 103, which was read over the body of George Mallory high on Everest: “As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone.” On the other hand: Enjoy it while it lasts.

Anker bouldering in the Karakoram during a 1998 expedition to Pakistan
Anker bouldering in the Karakoram during a 1998 expedition to Pakistan (Galen Rowell)
Anker climbing on Shishapangma, one week before the disaster that changed his life
Anker climbing on Shishapangma, one week before the disaster that changed his life (Kristoffer Erickson)

Bozeman, Montana, with snow thick on the surrounding Rockies and cottonwoods, and holiday lights on the eaves of all the Queen Annes just off main street, couldn’t be a more picturesque mountain village. It also couldn’t feel more like Alex Lowe’s town. Barrel Mountaineering, down the street from the single-screen movie theater, has a kind of shrine to Lowe, with a signed poster hanging near a framed photograph of Lowe that someone has draped with white gauze. Barrel maintains a first-ascents binder in which local climbers, after establishing new routes, pen descriptions and attach photos. It might as well be Lowe’s personal scrapbook. And when 1,400 people showed up late last year for Anker’s Mallory slide show, it was a tribute to just how much Lowe mattered in the town in which Anker now lives with Lowe’s family.

The boisterous audience quieted as Anker took the stage of the Bozeman High School auditorium. “As I’m sure some of you already know,” he began, “Alex Lowe died in an avalanche last year.” The auditorium fell silent, and Anker did a remarkable thing. “Alex died,” he said, “and I survived, and I don’t know why. By some miracle, I’m here, and in the memory of Alex, and of carrying on what Alex began with his family—Jenny and Sam and Max and Isaac—we’re together.” Anker paused then, as if to make sure everyone realized that he had just opened a slide show entitled “The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine” with a public declaration on the nature of his domestic and romantic arrangements. “And that’s the best way that I can honor Alex…and I just thought that I’d say that and get that out there.”

Shortly after Lowe’s death, Anker talked about the loss of his friend with Tom Brokaw, on Dateline NBC, adding, “There’s an unwritten thing that should one of the others make it through something, we would be there to help out.” One can certainly imagine a warrior code by which duty demands that Anker look after Lowe’s wife and kids. Anker has a strong desire to see—and to have others see—his actions as motivated by a clear moral purpose. I suspect that the appeal of climbing, for Anker, lies to some degree in its simulacrum of this clarity. When everything goes right, a climb can be very much the way he described it at the North Face sales conference—you always know exactly where you’re coming from (the bottom), exactly where you’re going (the top), and exactly what means you’ll use to get there (gear, ability, and daring). But life has thoroughly undermined Anker’s straightforward worldview, and no such surety is available in his current adventure, nor will it ever be again.

Anker later told me that Jennifer’s once-skeptical friends were duly impressed by his words that night in Bozeman. (Jennifer Lowe declined to be interviewed for this article.) But who can really say if one best honors a fallen comrade by marrying his widow? Why even ask the question? Sir Edmund Hillary married the widow of a former expedition partner, and he ascribes the union to the very things that might well be drawing Anker and Jennifer together: mutual affection, common interests, a shared sense of loss.

The next day we spent the afternoon driving around town. Anker told me he’d been awake since 2:30 that morning—not the first time he’d alluded to missing sleep. He had a lot of organizational work to do for an upcoming Antarctica trip with Krakauer and a NOVA film crew, the subject of a PBS documentary on global warming scheduled to air in winter 2002. Around 8 a.m., Anker had walked the Lowe boys to school, and by noon, when he picked me up, he had already bought $800 worth of food for the expedition. The bed of his old Japanese truck—or, rather, Alex’s truck, as Anker noted—sagged from piles and piles of plastic bags full of vegetable protein, nuts and dried fruit, brown rice, and black beans. We stopped first at a small sound studio where Anker recorded voice-overs for the IMAX film on Shackleton. We moved on to an office-supply store and then a mountaineering store. In each, people spotted Anker and asked about the Lowes. At the end of the day, we sat down in a bistro that hadn’t opened yet. A waitress recognized Anker and gave us a booth.

“For the first six months,” Anker said of the aftermath of Shishapangma, “it felt like I’d lost my arm. There was this missing part of me.”

Anker had been talking constantly about the Lowe boys. “One kid’s one thing,” he said, “but three kids, all boys and all hyperactive, bouncing off each other like neutrons—it makes a real challenge for Jenny. So Isaac and I do the alphabet, and Sam and I read, and Max and I do math, and it’s a really good thing. I won’t have children of my own, so that’s…” His face tightened, and that “message” voice came back on again: “But overpopulation is the bane of our planet, and I’d always questioned the value of adding more souls to the world. So this is… These are good kids, and they deserve a chance to enjoy a normal childhood.”

Someone cranked up “Jingle Bells” until it shook the empty room. When they’d turned it back down, Anker seemed slightly deflated. “I do feel bad leaving town now,” he admitted, “especially over Christmas. You know what Max said? He’s like, ‘Dad was only here for two Christmases, and now you’re going away for Christmas.’”

Daylight had faded from the snow-covered street outside. “We do talk about Alex every day,” Anker said, “and things Alex did, and we do little special things for the boys, like work on the scrapbook and get out Alex’s collection of old nickels.” He added that he and Jennifer had been on a sort of tour of places she and Alex visited together—Telluride, Yosemite. “It’s kind of taking the edges off,” Anker said. “There’s a lot of rough edges still…” His voice drifted, and he looked into his cup. “There’s things that really set her off, and I could be wallowing in all this, but I’ve got to be a pillar of support to this family.”

It occurred to me then that love, mourning, and Anker’s ongoing life as a climber are all inextricably bound together right now. Anker has the difficult job of keeping his predecessor’s flame burning for the family he calls his own—never will Anker be able to declare that he’d prefer not to hear about his wife’s late husband again. After all, he too grieves for Lowe every single day. “For the first six months,” he said, “it kind of felt like I’d lost my arm. There was this missing part of me. I would keep thinking, ‘Well maybe the phone’s going to ring and it’s going to be him, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, what’s up?’”

Anker had channeled his best memory of Lowe’s voice, and it seemed to alarm him, as if he’d spoken Lowe back into being. “You know,” Anker went on, “I still kept thinking, up until one year after the accident, that he was going to come back. I had these dreams that he would come back and he’d be like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Anker’s voice filled, for a moment, with genuine agony: “I’d go, ‘Alex, man…here.’” With that, Anker leaned back and raised both hands in a resigned and desolate gesture of letting go, relinquishing any claim.

The waitress flipped over the “Open” sign, and I asked Anker if he’d ever thought about the disconnect between his turmoil and the picture of climbing he’d given to The North Face sales team.

“That’s just the rosy side of climbing that people want to hear,” he replied, shifting in his seat. “They don’t want to hear that we all have demons somewhere driving us.” Anker looked away briefly. “Putting yourself in that much harm’s way, you’ve got to.”

“To what degree did you feel like you were—”

“Lying through my teeth?” He laughed. “I don’t think I was.”

But could he ever communicate to such a group the things he’s actually learned in climbing? About loss, loneliness, ambition?

“They wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand.”

And how could he? Love is hard enough to find without questioning where we find it. Nobody knows an easy way to get over the deaths of people we care about. And while Anker does have a family counting on him for the first time in his adult life, he has also spent 20 years becoming a world-class climber. However he spins it in slide shows, his life has at its very core a deliberate dance with the reaper. “On Everest,” he told me, “Death is right there. It’s sort of like you’re underwater, and there’s this sort of semipermeable membrane, this gel that surrounds you, because you have warm boots and gloves and an oxygen apparatus. But you can kind of push through this thing, and there’s death right out there. All your energy becomes focused on living, on surviving. That’s the allure.”

Anker says he wants to do more film and TV work. He has talked The North Face into moving its climbing-hardware division to Bozeman, which could provide him with long-term security. And he talks about staying off avalanche-prone 8,000-meter peaks. This will not be easy. Anker is coming into his physical prime as a high-altitude climber; on the very biggest mountains, experience and endurance count for more than fast-twitch muscle speed. He finally summited Everest on the Mallory expedition, his first trip into the so-called Death Zone, that realm where the air is too thin for long-term human survival. In the process, he proved what every climber hopes to: that his body performs very, very well there. The moment for Anker to make a permanent mark is now.

And even if he chooses not to defy the critics of risk-averse, high-publicity commercial expeditions—what is sometimes called “guaranteed-outcome mountaineering”—Anker will still make a good living as a member of The North Face Climbing Team. He loves the mountains of Antarctica, and he dreams of accepting an invitation to join his hero, Reinhold Messner, on Cerro Torre, where Messner wants to repeat the famous Ferrari Route. Talking about it, Anker’s eyes lit up—the pure climber thrilling to the next great vision.

But Cerro Torre and Antarctica are, of course, both in the Southern Hemisphere, where the climbing season coincides with Thanksgiving and Christmas, the very holidays that Anker doesn’t want to miss again. He also knows that none of his friends died pushing their limits. Stump, Lowe, and Shaw all vanished in unfore­seeable mishaps on relatively easy terrain. Their deaths argue that it is not the difficulty level that kills the best climbers, nor the presence of film crews, but the sheer amount of time they spend in the high mountains.

Night had fallen by the time Anker and I stepped back outside. Just before we parted, I pressed him with a final question. How would he feel about dying on this trip to Antarctica? Would it seem an honorable climber’s death?

“No,” he replied, “it would be really bad. I would just have let people down. For the person who dies, it’s like a lightbulb going out, but the pain for people who are still there… It would be really quite foolish.” His intelligent eyes widened, as if the possibility were terribly real. Then Anker wrapped both arms around himself, looked away, and said, mostly to himself, “I’ve got to keep my ass really safe.”