About halfway through the documentary film Meru, we see world-renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker and his two climbing partners, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, heating up cheese rinds over an open flame. They’re huddled in a tent, hanging off the side of a cliff while a storm rages outside. The trio is tired, cold, running out of food ... and they’re giggling. They understand how dire their situation is, and yet they couldn’t be happier. It’s one of the few moments of levity in a film that follows Anker’s quest to summit the Shark’s Fin of Meru, a 21,850-foot peak in northern India that, at the time, had yet to be climbed.
“You’re not going out there for a picnic,” Anker says from his home in Bozeman, Montana. “There’s an expedition food axiom: The further you are from the road, the better the food tastes.”
And really, hanging out in a portaledge at 18,000 feet above sea level eating scraps of food to survive is just another day at the office for Anker, 58, who has spent the past 30-plus years becoming the most recognizable mountaineer in America by climbing very tall, very dangerous peaks.
Anker has many first ascents — where he’s been the first person to successfully climb a specific peak or a particular mountaineering route — earning the distinction on mountains all over the world, from Yosemite to Pakistan. He’s climbed Mount Everest three times, most recently, in 2012, without oxygen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of that mountain.
Anker’s career might be most closely aligned with his adventures on Everest (he famously found the body of climbing legend George Mallory in 1999, who died leading an ascent in 1924), but leading the first team to reach the summit of Meru is Anker’s crowning achievement as a mountaineer.
Shark’s Fin, which was unconquered until Anker and his partners’ successful ascent in 2011, is an extremely technical climb that requires mountaineers to scale 4,000 vertical feet of snow, ice and rock before hitting a 1,500-foot wall of pure granite. And unlike Everest, where climbers can rely on Sherpas to do the heavy lifting, climbers attempting Meru have to carry everything they need with them. Anker and his partners were weighed down by more than 200 pounds of gear.
The multiyear effort — Anker, Chin and Ozturk attempted the climb in 2008 but had to turn back after enduring extreme weather that dumped more than 10 feet of snow on the mountain — is documented in the eponymous film Meru.
Unclimbed mountains of this stature — peaks rising more than 20,000 feet, with steep, granite walls — are increasingly rare, which made Meru a target of professional mountaineers for decades. Anker’s climbing mentor, Terry “Mugs” Stump, attempted Meru twice in the ‘80s. It took Anker three tries before he succeeded.
“People kept trying it and trying it,” Anker says, adding that in recent decades, professional mountaineers have shifted their focus to unclimbed mountains like Meru instead of hammering away at the tallest peaks in the world, like Everest. “Everest in the ‘70s was the apex of alpine expedition climbing. If you were to try a new route [on Everest] without oxygen, that’s totally legit. But if you’re doing one of the two standard routes with Sherpa support, it is its own bizarre style of climbing. You get these people who climb the mountain who never learned how to run a stove or lead a pitch. They’re just high alpine tourists.”
Nobody would mistake what Anker does for tourism. Hypothermia, frostbite, avalanches, falling ice — high alpine mountaineering is a risky endeavor where success is more about survival than reaching the top. Anker has lost friends to the mountains over the years, including his mentor, Stump, and his climbing partner and best friend, Alex Lowe, who died in an avalanche in 1999. After Lowe’s death, Anker grew close to Lowe’s widow, Jenni, and in 2001, the two married. Anker adopted Jenny’s three boys, and raised them in Bozeman. Since then he’s lived a dual life — one a very normal, suburban existence as a father and husband, with family meals and college tuition bills, and the other a life of far-flung expeditions, with all of the implicit danger involved.
“The risk that I put [myself and my family] through — if I lose my life, it’s incredibly selfish what [we] are doing,” Anker says. “No one benefits from someone going climbing. We didn’t make the world a better place in a material sense. We didn’t find a potato that’s rot-resistant. We didn’t find a vaccine for COVID But when you’re out there and asking that story about exploration and allowing other people to see it, there is an intrinsic reward that I can have with climbing.”
Oftentimes for Anker, the reward isn’t in reaching the summit of the mountain but in the process itself. “Meru took me three times,” Anker says. “A lot of these big peaks, it’s two or three expeditions before you understand what you need to climb that peak. You’re always learning from failure.”
Anker has continued to climb and lead expeditions well into his 50s, exploring the world’s harshest landscapes with partners who are sometimes half his age. He was 49 when he finally climbed Meru. At age 50, he climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen in partnership with the Mayo Clinic as part of its ongoing study of how athletes perform in high alpine environments.
In 2016, at 54, Anker was attempting to summit Lunag Ri, an unclimbed peak in the Himalayas, when he suffered a heart attack several hundred feet up a granite wall. He had to rappel down the wall and hike back to his advanced base camp before getting helicoptered out to a hospital in Kathmandu, where he underwent emergency angioplasty. Since the event, Anker has had to make some changes in his approach to mountaineering. He’s no longer leading high-altitude expeditions, but he says his heart problems aren’t going to keep him out of the mountains altogether. He’s still climbing rock and ice in Montana, and plans more expeditions to Antarctica once pandemic travel restrictions are lifted on the continent.
“I had an epiphany when I was 14 or 15 on a backpacking trip that I was happiest in the mountains. I’m hardwired to do this. It’s my factory setting,” Anker says. “Now the next generation needs to push the limits in the mountains. But if I can be of support at camp, running logistics and making sure things go smoothly ... I really enjoy that.”