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Climber Conrad Anker on Suffering, Risk, Reward & The Allure of Meru

By August 23, 2015January 19th, 20248 Comments

“Enlightenment isn’t found on a full stomach, or on a soft pillow.”

Conrad Anker

Imagine bivouacking in a portaledge — you and two other guys crammed into a small mountaineering tent pitched vertically and dangling on the side of a sheer Himalayan cliff 19,000 feet above solid ground with nothing but nothing below you. Then imagine staying put for 12 days straight to weather a ferocious storm, torrential winds and temperatures that dip into twenty below territory.

That’s just one harrowing peek into the life of today’s guest, Conrad Anker – a man widely considered to be the most accomplished high altitude climber in the world and one of the most respected adventure athletes of all time.

The team leader of The North Face climbing team as well as the subject of not one but several Outside Magazine cover profiles, Conrad is renown for specializing in not just the highest mountains but the most technically challenging ascents — conquering the trickiest peaks spread across the high Himalaya, Antarctica, Alaska and the big walls of Patagonia.

Conrad has summited Everest 3 times, including a successful 2012 ascent without the aid of supplemental oxygen — a feat reserved for only the most elite mountaineers. In a 1999 Everest expedition, Conrad famously located the remains of George Mallory— the legendary British climber who disappeared in the midst of his historic 1924 attempt to be the first to summit the world’s highest peak. Last seen about 800 vertical feet from the summit, speculation as to whether Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine had reached the summit before dying has been a subject of much dispute. But Conrad’s discovery shed much light on the mystery of this and other pioneering climbs of early expeditions.

On a personal level, in 1999 Conrad survived an avalanche in Tibet — a massive wall of snow and ice that tossed his body 100 feet, beat him up badly and took the life of his best friend and climbing companion Alex Lowe. Conrad would later marry Alex’s widow Jennifer and raise his three sons, Max, Sam and Isaac.

A few years ago I had the good fortune of meeting Conrad, including the privilege of hearing him share the story of his internationally celebrated 2011 attempt to summit a peak previously thought impossible – the Shark’s Fin of Meru. Considered the most technically complicated and dangerous peak in the Himalayas, it’s an astonishing tale.

Now this expedition is the subject of a new documentary aptly named Meru, feted with the prestigious Audience Award at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival. I had an opportunity to see the film and I can say first hand that it is extraordinary. Visceral. Harrowing. And terrifying as much as it is inspiring. “A meditation on life, death and everything in between” according to Newsweek, the film works as a true character study, winning mainstream hearts previously unfamiliar with the world of climbing. A redemptive deep look into the lives and complicated pasts of Conrad and his talented climbing teammates Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk (both responsible for not only scaling the peak but also capturing the entire experience on film), it’s a contemplation on tragedy. It’s about family, friendship and risk. And it’s a film about the redemptive power of suffering nature’s harshest elements to achieve the extraordinary.

Not only a mountaineering savant, Conrad is also a passionate environmentalist. An exemplary ambassador of adventure, sport and the outdoors. A deeply grounded and humble man, mindful and profoundly connected to nature.

Today I sit down with Conrad to explore the many facets of his most remarkable life, including:

  • growing up hyperactive & hypersensitive
  • connecting to culture through the environment
  • communitarianism in Nepalese culture
  • discovering George Mallory in 1999
  • technological advances in climbing
  • acceptance of mortality & risk
  • climbing Everest as a bucket list goal
  • the primacy of mentorship
  • the meaning of Meru
  • the role of patience in climbing & life
  • acceptance of fear as self-preservation
  • reconciling modern life with climbing
  • parenting his perished friend’s children
  • human impact on climate and nature

A beautiful man, I’m proud to call Conrad friend. And I’m beyond excited to share his story with you today.

Special thanks to Jimmy Chin for graciously allowing me use of his amazing photography in today’s podcast. Check out his incredible life and work on his website & on Instagram.

I sincerely hope you enjoy the exchange.

What is your acceptable level of risk and why? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.

Peace + Plants,


Listen & Subscribe on iTunes | Soundcloud | Stitcher


Connect With Conrad: Website | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

Background, Context & Reference:

Notable People Discussed in today’s podcast:

Related Podcasts You Might Enjoy:

Production, music & sound design by Tyler Piatt. Additional production by Chris Swan. Graphic art by Shawn Patterson.

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  • Sue Miller says:

    What a lovely man. Rich, your questions are getting better and better as you grow. Can’t wait to see Meru the film.

  • Tommy F says:

    Conrad’s journey through the impossible, has uncovered some nice gems.. good job Rich, polishing them off during a great conversation.

    Reducing snap judgment in the moment to overcome the emotion of fear. With a gap of breathful mindfulness, we don’t send our minds into a frenzy and can remain calm and focused in the present. Patience and courtesy for others and everything around us, keeps negative emotions from surfacing. The importance of gratitude and compassion.


  • Jennifer Charpentier says:

    Rich! Thank you once more for a compelling interview! I was
    fascinated by your discussions with Conrad centering on his mountaineering
    experiences and am planning to drive 2 hours to see “Meru” this weekend!
    However, as a parent I truly appreciated Conrad’s transparency about his own experiences as a child with hyperactivity and his near advocacy stance for understanding and redirecting these characteristics in children instead of [implied] labeling, vilifying and suppressing with medication. I really don’t want to start a whole
    tangent “discussion” on this incendiary subject, but just needed to say I was
    personally encouraged by his candid assessment and unique solution. I also
    agree with Conrad’s take on contemporary youth team sports, after making many
    parenting mistakes myself in this realm. I am the mother of 4 sons, 1 daughter
    and stepmom to 1 son. It took a while for me to let go of my earnest but
    misguided perception of the importance of participation in team sports for
    children in character building. It took nearly screwing up my oldest son, then hitting
    the wall that was my intractable, precious, hyperactive, creative, adventurous,
    fearless and unstoppable second son who, although talented and capable, refused
    to continue to play high school football, before I was willing to look at this
    issue with new eyes. It sounds so simplistic, but learning to understand and
    nurture the uniqueness in each of my children has taught me to nurture the same
    in myself and has been a catalyst to many other healthier family decisions, one
    of which led me to your book, “Finding Ultra” and from there to your podcast.
    Again, thank you and keep up the good work. In keeping with the tone of this
    particular podcast, I consider you and Julie as mentors….

  • Maureen Burke says:

    Your guests are amazing and your style of interviewing is well received. The amount of pre-interview preparation you always put into each podcast shines bright, thank you.

  • Rich, you have done a great interview. Most climbers are difficult to interview (we climbers have our own language), many are not used to or like microphones (climbing attracts a lot of introverted folks), and most climbers have some association with things that freak people out and have no personal experience in their lives (fear and death). Aside from the Enomorocast, which is a climber specific podcast most climber interviews are “climb a mountain”, blah, blah… It gets boring and on script real quick. Hell, Joe Rogan did a poor job of interviewing Alex Honnald IMHO. SO, you had my attention. It is really difficult to talk about subjects that the general public jumps on and misunderstands. It was with a keen ear that I listened to how you talked to a climber about the deeper subjects. Suffering, pain, fear, risk. Anker is no spring chicken about interviews and when someone asks him the more personal questions, climbers usually shut up or give some vauge answer for the media (like the death of a partner). I really liked his assessment of the Everest situation, his story of mentorship for the next group of outdoor professionals, and our fear based society, how we create our own limitations.
    ps. I also really enjoyed the Wude interview. And Ryan Holiday. Mixing the alpine with tea and the “Obstacle is the Way” is a strong combination. Thanks!

  • Karen says:

    I just listened today and wanted to write a comment, but Sue you wrote exactly what I wanted to write 😊

  • JasonRH says:

    I saw Meru a couple of days after listening to this episode. It was incredible, at points I could barely believe what I was watching.

  • Grant Allen says:

    Just finished watching the movie. So incredible, inspiring, awesome! Couldn’t wait to see it after another amazing podcast. Took my wife without her having any idea where we were going. She new nothing about the movie and LOVED it. Cheers.

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