Like Brave Mountaineers

Groveland mountain climber Conrad Anker. Groveland climber speaks in Sacramento by Michael Monasky Conrad Anker cut his climbing teet...

Groveland mountain climber Conrad Anker.
Groveland climber speaks in Sacramento
by Michael Monasky

Conrad Anker cut his climbing teeth in the Big Oak Flat foothills of the Sierra Nevada; his favorite rock wall is the Rostrum in Yosemite. This spring he made his third summit to Mount Everest. The ten-week journey to Nepal from his home in Bozeman, Montana, takes six weeks to acclimate to the altitude of the base camp at 17,000 feet, and is not without injury. Anker said he injured his back when he “picked up a duffel bag at the airport.”

Anker said that an ice fall on the west shoulder of Everest is probably the biggest climbing challenge on the mountain, but that most risk occurs on the descent from the summit; climbers are exhausted and psychologically off guard after their achievement. He cited the “conga line” of tourists scaling the mountain in the pre-monsoon month of May that resulted in four deaths. Sherpas are most likely to die, suffering a majority of fatalities. Conrad supports a climbing center in Khumbu, Nepal to educate locals in safe techniques. Climbing tourism is the biggest part of their economy.

Conrad Anker's notoriety came from his discovery of the body of famed climber George Mallory in 1999. Mallory and his partner Andrew Irvine were lost in a 1924 climb, 29 years before the successful summit by Edmund Hillary. This year, however, Anker took on a personal challenge; to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen. He finds inspiration in the words of friend Doug Scott: “Enlightenment is not found with a full belly or on a soft bed.” During a climb of Alaska's Kichatna Spires, Anker's mates complained that they'd “run out of food”; Anker responded, “that's the point.” He suggested “starving once a year” as a way of understanding how different the food-abundant USA is from 80% of the rest of the world that lives on less than a few dollars a day.

Anker climbed an Indian patch of rock called the “shark's fin” of Mount Meru just northwest of Nepal. The climb was extreme and characterized his favorite type of climbing: “alpine, big wall, free climb.” His first effort was thwarted in 2008 during a five-day storm during which the climbers remained attached to the vertical wall.

Anker is concerned about climate change, and documents shrinking glaciers. “The Hillary Step is melted,” and is now a “warm ascent” he said, referring to the previously snowy prominence on Everest. A nine month time-lapse ice survey of the Nare Glacier in Nepal was devastating. The Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) demonstrates global warming while transcending language. Nare will likely “disappear in 50 years,” Anker said. He showed more evidence of the meltdown of Alaska's Columbia Glacier that beat a 2.2 mile retreat between October 2007 and August 2009.

Conrad Anker's sponsors include the usual sporting equipment companies such as Patagonia, REI, and The North Face. Montana State University followed the travels of the trio of men. National Geographic magazine helped pay for and publish “media deliverables” that were shot by cell phones with remarkable clarity. But this year's endeavors at Everest were also followed by researchers from the Mayo Clinic. They measured baseline sleep and cardiopulmonary physiology at the Rochester campus and traveled to compare results from base camp activities during the climb.

When asked how he managed to make the summit without supplemental oxygen, Conrad said that he had always been a runner and not a hunter; he ran in track and avoided football. He said he has “large lungs,” with a diffusion capacity that carries extra oxygen in his bloodstream. To another question about breathing patterns, variable and then absent, Conrad told of how he had corrections to poor breathing when he shifted to his side while sleeping. High altitudes can mimic heart disease and apnea of the central nervous system; the Mayo Clinic research team is sorting the data to find correlations.

Conrad Anker said that he will not ascend the summit of Everest again. Recovering Mallory's body is out of the question. He complained that he suffered some loss of cognitive abilities after the trip. The Mayo research group will publish a number of papers on the physiological data collected throughout the trip. “Life is linear; you can't go back,” he said.

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