322: Life Lessons from Death, Risk, and Mother Nature

This week’s conversation is with Conrad Anker, an absolute legend who has been pushing the limits of mountaineering for the last 30 years, evolving into one of America’s best alpinists.

At age 56, Conrad’s resume continues to grow, having notched the long-awaited first ascent of the Meru Shark’s Fin in India with partners Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk in 2011, which led to the Sundance-winning documentary, “Meru.”

Conrad has climbed Everest three times, including a 2012 trip with National Geographic to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of the mountain.

Though true alpine routes have been his forte, his résumé also includes big wall first ascents on El Capitan and first free ascents in Zion National Park.

In 1997 alone, he completed first ascents in Antarctica, Pakistan’s Karakorum and on Yosemite’s El Capitan.

So Conrad operates in high consequence environments – a place where – the luxury of a mistake is often not afforded. Like so many explorers of nature and human nature, he doesn’t consider himself a risk-taker, but someone who works in high risk environments. It’s a forcing function, like none other than I know – to get to the truth, the purity of thought and action.

It forces best judgment, and the rewards and consequences of such. And because of that, he’s come to have a deep relationship with life – with people and mother nature – his experience, with experience.

I hope that for all of us – to know oneself, others, to know mother nature – and to have a meaningful relationship with experience. To be able to work well with feelings, emotions, thoughts and the unfolding world outside of you.

Mark his movie right now –  you’ll definitely want to watch it – it’s called “Torn” (available on Disney+).

“We tend to celebrate making it to the summit, but the greatest lessons we have in life actually come from not making it.”

In This Episode:

Does he view himself as a serious person?

I love to have fun and seek joy in life, but life is serious. So to have things organized and prepared, to me, is a source of satisfaction. So this afternoon I’ll get out climbing, I’ll be going out with our son, Max. His life is in my hands as my life is in his hands. So we have to take care of each other. And that foundation for climbing and outdoor adventure sports is a great way for humans to communicate.

Climbing is a unique sport

If you and I set out to climb a mountain, our collective goal is to make it to the top. We realize we can’t do it as an individual, or we choose to do it as a team to have a shared experience, to move some of the work, spread it out between people, but your common goal is what unites you on that and the manner in which we communicate in that way to me is fundamentally healthy. And it’s a paradigm shift from competitive, antagonistic rules-based sports, where we set out the physical boundaries, we put a clock to it and then we put rules to it. And then we throw a ball back and forth either with a tool or without a tool. And someone’s the victor, someone’s the loser. And that for me, I was like, oh, okay. The team sports, they didn’t work for me.

What makes a good climber?

What makes a good climber is probably someone that cares about their fellow partner, as much as they care about themselves. So someone that’s really dedicated to you as a partner and giving that extra 5%, if they reciprocate, you’ll have that extra 5% and they’ll see things that you won’t see coming, they’ll take care of you. They’ll be able to say, Michael, you’re exhausted, have a sip of water. Let’s take 20 minutes and rest at this point and evaluate where we want to go and what our next decisions are, a partner helps you out with that. When we have climbing as a vehicle for that method of communication,it’s a good trajectory.

What mentorship means to him

Mentorship doesn’t necessarily need to be every Thursday afternoon at four o’clock with say the big brothers, big sisters program that we have here in Montana, where you’re helping out a child that could use some assistance and guidance and a role model with it. But it can be a single moment. It can be an inflection point where you validate someone in what they want to do. Like, yeah, you’re a great artist. You should pursue this. As long as you have food and you’re well fed, I mean, you’re covering the life goals or necessity to live and survive, then you should pursue art rather than something else, kind of in that sense. So those touch points can be a single inflection point from mentorship, it doesn’t need to be an ongoing one.

Mentorship is not coaching

In a sense, like with Alex Honnold, he’s a better climber than I’ll ever be. And for most people on this planet, there’s nothing we can mentor him in the sense of climbing, that doesn’t make any sense. But being 30 years his senior, having been where we are in life, there are life lessons that he can be receptive to learning about and understanding. And I’m keeping that open view as I age, I’m 59 today. So what are these next years going to look like, and how can I still learn from others and who is there that I can learn from? And then how can I take that knowledge I’m learning from and share it with as many people as possible.

Finding love after disaster

On the 5th of October, Alex Lowe and David Bridges were swept away in an avalanche and lost their lives. And so on my end, it was a, whew… their life just went from one gear to another and it was a very sudden point there. But within that Jenni and I found happiness with each other and the process of the grief that we’re both experiencing and on my end, the immediacy and the intensity, the violence of an avalanche, and then walking away from it with injury. And then the weight of survivor’s guilt afterwards, like I was 36, Alex was a couple years older than I am, but he was like, he had it together. He had a family and that was, and so that, how did that reflect onto me? So our relationship is unique. And our eldest son Max recently created a film titled Torn, which is through National Geographic documentary films and is available at Disney plus. And that has a very in depth look at our family and our family dynamic as told by one of us.

I have your back, you have mine

Being in situations of consequence really, that changes how humans interact with each other. And that’s one of the reasons that working with at-risk youth, taking them climbing, all of a sudden, they’re like, oh, if you don’t belay me, I could hurt my ankle. And you get three body lengths above the ground and our body, we’re like, we’re scared. And you have to train yourself to not be scared. But it’s the same way, if I paddle out to a wave that I know is, or where I shouldn’t be there. And I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m going to get swirled in the water and sand in my eyelids and, I get that sense of fear there. And so, because you have those moments with people, you’re that much, you literally have their back. So you’re like, okay, because you got me through this pinch, when we ran out of food or we had to dig a tent platform, when you’re back at home, you’re like, okay, let’s have dinner or let’s do something that you have a heightened relationship with that person.

Finding that feeling of passion, and then chasing it

I kind of think like my factory setting was like, go climbing. I was just born with that DNA chain. So I’m like, I’m damned. If I don’t follow it, I’m going to be, it’s going to be a miserable life. If I do follow it, maybe good things could happen from that. But just being in the mountains at age 10 and looking up at the peaks and climbing up to the, going up to the scrambling peaks with the family and coming back and making a campfire and floating pieces of wood down the small regulative water coming off the snow bank, little creative things like that for children were, I was like, this is where I’m happiest. And that moment came probably about age 14, as we were finishing up one of our summer pack trips. And it’d been a long time out, but it was one of those mornings where you wake up and while the birds are singing and the sun is shining the pack packs itself, it weighs less than what it does. And we were hiking out the trail. And there was this moment that is still with me to this point where I was like, this is where I’m happiest is being in nature and doing this. So whatever I do in life, this is the emotion where I want to be spending time walking in nature.

The selfish nature of pursuit

When people take on risk, we look at the police person, or we look at the fire person that they have, they’re doing it on behalf of other people. And so when their life is cut short or compromised, they then become heroes because they were protecting us from an evil entity, whether it’s another nation or a criminal or a medicine, when we look at the people that are on the forefront of medicine and they have a lot of risk. And so then society rewards them sort of like a hero. But when you take it on by your own volition, for something that’s frivolous as standing on top of a patch of snow at great risk for your family, then yes, it is selfish. And we have to kind of make peace with that and understand it. And the way in which I look at it is, we work, we are on this planet to cover our basic needs of food, shelter, clothing. And then once we have attended to those, or we don’t let those three things become who we are, that we then move on towards what we want to do in life or self actualization. And on my end, it happened to be climbing mountains.

Non-sequential death

For whatever someone’s goal in life, when they find that, whether it’s surfing, poetry, theology, science, whatever you find, and then you work towards mastering that, then there is a higher calling to it with the caveat with what I do, if I had to die in the mountains, it’s like a light bulb going “pop”, short, immediate pain, but the people that are left behind, they’re the ones that have to understand a non-sequential passing of life. So sequential life is passing – grandparents die, and then parents die. And we understand that. That’s kind of what we’re taught in kindergarten. Like eventually your pet bird’s going to die. And so, how do you work through that? But when it’s non-sequential, so when a parent loses a child or when a spouse dies, that’s when there’s lasting effect within that circle of people they communicate with, but then how do you make amends for that? How’s your head space, where you’re at, how things have changed?

Does he think about death often?

I don’t go to violent movies. I just can’t, like if it’s a movie that’s got cops and robbers and guns and all that stuff, I’m like, I just can’t do it. I don’t watch them. It’s not for me. And we think back 300 years, life was far more difficult for all humans on this planet, childbirth was major consequence. There’s infant mortality. I mean, you get through all these gauntlets of life and get to be an old person at age 40. And so, things were vastly different in that since. And so having experienced death in the vicinity, through climbing accidents, specifically the accident with Alex Lowe and David Bridges, and then coming back 16 years later and pulling their bodies out of the glacier and cremating them. It’s like, yeah, I understand death and mortality, but not in a trivialized sensational way that is used as entertainment, but rather more like, it’s something that we’re all going to face, but we have to treat it with respect.

Dealing with critical opinions of himself and his family

The first step is probably not to listen to it. So I took away the direct messaging after putting posts up about social justice, the environment, election integrity, and people that don’t see the same things. And it was too much weight. I’m like, you don’t need to yell at me. And if I’ve looked at it once, I don’t need to look at it again. And it’s just trying to limit people that are out there. And they’re just trying to get your goat, so to say, and antagonize someone with that. But then probably coming back to being centered with Jennifer and I, so we’re like, we have our family, Alex lost his life. We created a household for the children and encouraged them to be students. They’ve gone on, they finished university and they’re good people. And for us, that is what we set out to do. And if someone’s going to toss a sugar tip dart, because they see things from a different moral vantage point, then that’s that person’s choice, but it’s not going to be me. So I’m not going to, and having endured enough of that to have a very strong distaste knowing that I don’t want to be that person towards other people,

Learning from other’s mistakes, rather than successes

It’d be great to sit with his holiness the Dalai Lama and gain wisdom with that. But on the other side of it’s like, who are these people that have gone off the tracks and they’re obviously malicious people to begin with. And so to sit down with that person and be like, why did you do that? And what are your internal justifications and what can we learn to give back to society? And so in that sense, not that you’re going to get a good answer from that, but by having those real conversations for the people that have obviously done ill to society, what can we learn from them?

Lessons learned from not making it to the summit

I would title this conversation, “Lessons we’ve learned not making it to the summit.” Because it’s always like, oh, we’ve made it to the summit and it’s this great moment. And “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony”  starts playing and angels fly around and chest beating, saying “I made it to the summit.” But the greatest lessons we have in life are not making it. And so to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there are two tragedies in life, getting what you want and not getting what you want. And finding that middle path where you get what you want some of the times, but other times you’re realizing that’s not exactly what it is because on either extreme, you’ll have emotional dissonance. So when you can be at peace right there in the middle, then you’re going the right direction.

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