Summiting Everest in the Footsteps of George Mallory, Building Climbing Boulders in Bozeman and Livingston
BY LISA BARIL
A 10-year old girl puzzles out a route on the climbing boulder at Langohr Park in Bozeman, gripping the rock with determination while her father encourages her to strive for the next hold. A teenager clings to the Phoenix Boulder in Gallatin County Regional Park, sizing up a difficult section of rock before continuing his ascent, and a woman in her mid-30s swings her right leg up to a precarious hold before her final move to the top of the Bozeman Park Pond Boulder.
These metal shell and concrete structures, designed to create real bouldering adventures within city limits, are part of the Bozeman Boulder Initiative (BBI)—a collection of six climbing boulders found in five of Bozeman’s parks including one at Depot Park and another at East Gallatin Recreation Area. And, as early as this summer, Livingston will welcome its first climbing boulder at Fireman’s Park near the Sacajawea Park lagoon.
“What’s great about these boulders is that they offer unstructured free recreation that is multigener-ational. They cater to all abilities and ages unlike traditional jungle gyms that exclude adults and teenagers,” says Conrad Anker, a Bozeman resident and mountaineer famous for tackling some of the most challenging mountains in the Himalayas and Antarctic.
Anker and Dave Cooke of Bozeman first conceived of the BBI in 2005. By 2008, kids, teenagers and adults were clambering up the first boulder installed at Langohr Park. The boulder was so popular that additional funds for five more were cobbled together through a combination of private and commercial donations, fundraisers and grants.
The success of the BBI inspired Jacob Devries of Livingston, a paramedic and former firefighter, to begin fundraising earlier this year for a climbing boulder at Fireman’s Park. Anker lent his support to the project by speaking at a March 25 fundraiser hosted by Montana’s Rib and Chop House in Livingston.
The mountaineer captivated the audience with an account of his, and history’s, first ascent of Mount Meru’s Shark’s Fin—a massive white fang piercing the Himalayan clouds at 20,700 feet. The Shark’s Fin, centrally anchored among Meru’s five peaks, is considered one of the most challenging routes in the world. The expedition took Anker and teammates Jimmy Chin and Ranan Ozturk 11 days—a hard won victory built upon Anker’s two previous unsuccessful expeditions of the Shark’s Fin.
“When you have a goal—that is the overarching motivation to keep going,” Anker told the Pioneer. “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun. I like challenging things.”
To call Anker’s climb of the Shark’s Fin a challenge may be a bit of an understatement. Anker first attempted the Fin in 2003, but was two-thirds of the way to the summit before the team reluctantly backed down the mountain because of unstable snow and lack of proper equipment to safely climb the upper wall. In 2009 Anker returned with Chin and Ozturk. They made it to within 150 feet of the summit, but the Shark’s Fin would not let them pass.
The team spent several days in a portaledge suspended on the side of the Fin with nothing but thousands of feet of rarefied Himalayan air below as six feet of snow fell around them. Forced to ration seven or eight days of food over a grueling 19 days, they were so beaten by the experience that none of them thought they would ever return.
The Shark’s Fin would remain a mountaineer’s dream, despite several attempts by world-class climbers over the next two years.
But for Anker, Chin and Ozturk the passage of time eased the memory of their suffering. In 2011 they embarked on Anker’s third and his companion’s second attempt to turn a dream into reality. And on October 2 of that year the Shark’s Fin—the focus of the Hindu center of the universe and the source of the Ganges River—relented to Anker, Chin and Ozturk. Cresting the peak the trio gazed out across the Himalayas on a brutally cold but clear day eight years after Anker’s first attempt.
Their victory was hard won—gained by the knowledge of their previous expeditions and the struggles of others on the Shark’s Fin. It is this knowledge that links all explorers through time. “Each successive generation places their ability on those that have gone before,” says Anker.
The connection between generations of mountaineer’s and explorers is something of which Anker is intimately mindful. On May 1, 1999, 75 years after British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine disappeared in the clouds on June 8, 1924, less than 1,000 feet below the summit of Mount Everest, Anker discovered Mallory’s body lying face down at the bottom of a scree slope bearing a broken leg and head injury. His name was embroidered into the label of his jacket. “It was a very humbling moment,” says Anker.
On Mallory’s body, preserved by Everest’s cold thin air, was a pair of goggles tucked in his pocket and a note detailing the amounts of oxygen left in his and Irvine’s tanks, but most intriguing was what wasn’t found—a photo of Mallory’s wife, Ruth, which he promised to leave on the summit. Nor did Anker find the camera Mallory and Irvine took with them that might prove a successful summit bid—29 years before New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay’s first official summit in 1953.
What happened to Mallory and Irvine that day? Given their equipment and the technology available at the time, could they have free-climbed the challenging second step—a rock and ice wall standing between them and the summit? This is one of mountaineering’s greatest mysteries and in 2007 Anker and fellow climber, Leo Houlding, set out to solve that mystery as part of the Altitude Everest Expedition culminating in the National Geographic documentary The Wildest Dream—a quote taken from Mallory’s notes describing his Everest aspirations.
But Anker and Houlding didn’t just retrace Mallory’s and Irvine’s steps. They dressed in replicas of the clothing Mallory and Irvine wore the day they climbed into Mount Everest’s history—flannel shirts, wool sweaters, tweed jackets, gabardine knickers, and hobnailed leather boots. By wearing clothing made of the same materials Mallory and Irvine wore they hoped to shed light on whether it was possible to survive Everest without the technical clothing and equipment available today.
The crucial question was whether Mallory and Irvine could have free-climbed the short but nearly vertical second step. Although Anker and Houlding wore modern clothing for this portion of the expedition, they removed the Chinese ladder, a metal rung structure placed there in 1975 by the Chinese to assist climbers. Anker and Houlding successfully free-climbed this last piece of Everest as Mallory and Irvine would have had to do in 1924, and for the second time in Anker’s career he summited Mount Everest.
Although Anker and Houlding free-climbed the second step, Anker believes this final part of the ascent may have been a formidable challenge for Mallory and Irvine—one they may not have been able to overcome.
“Mallory and Irvine probably didn’t make it,” contends Anker. “With their gear and without the techniques we have now it would have been a phenomenal achievement, and having been there and done it myself, it just seems improbable. In this case equipment is really significant.”
“But,” says Anker, “we’ll never really know if they made it to the top. It’s always great to have mysteries in life and more importantly it’s their dedication and determin-ation to travel there in that environment at that time that captures the imagination regardless of whether they reached the summit.”
It’s hard not to feel admiration for Mallory and Irvine. Although the technology of the time may have prevented their success, they possessed a key ingredient inherent in all explorers—obsessive determination and resolve to push the human body to its limits. Technology has always, and probably always will, continue to push those limits further, but technology alone does not climb mountains—explorers do.
Explorers like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay still hold the honor of the first ascent and safe descent of Everest on May 29, 1953. They may not have succeeded had it not been for the unsuccessful attempt of Tom Bordillion and Charles Evans, who turned around just 330 feet below the summit a few days before. Bordillion’s and Evans’ route finding, trail breaking, and oxygen caches were essential to Mallory’s and Norgay’s success.
Mountaineering is one of the most dangerous endeavors one can undertake and one that few attempt. In 1999, just a few months after finding Mallory’s body on Everest, Anker survived an avalanche that killed his best friend Alex Lowe and fellow climber David Bridges. Their plan was to ski down the summit of 26,398 foot Shishapangma Peak in southern Tibet. Anker went one way, while Lowe and Bridges went another. Anker survived, but Lowe and Bridges are still buried somewhere in a 20-foot deep debris field on the flanks of Shishipangma.
Anker says he suffered deep survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress from the death of his companions. “When you lose someone close to you it’s a transformative experience. You realize that you have to make peace with death,” says Anker.
In the aftermath of Lowe’s death Anker developed a strong bond with Jenni Lowe, Alex Lowe’s widow, and the two eventually fell in love. Anker and Jenni were married in 2001 and soon after Anker adopted her three children Isaac, Sam and Max.
“There were two things that came from Alex and David’s deaths. The first is that it’s not about me in this world, it’s about other people, and second—live in the moment. Today is the best day of your life— make it happen. A lot of times people are living in the past or future,” says Anker.
The Khumbu Climbing School, in Phortse, Nepal, embodies the first of Anker’s insights following Lowe’s death. Created by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation in 2003, the Khumbu School provides Nepalese guides with a foundational set of climbing and mountaineering skills that many otherwise lack. Unlike western mountaineers who arrive in the Himalayas equipped with the expertise necessary for a safe expedition, many Nepalese, climbing without these same skills, die on the mountain. The Khumbu Schools makes Nepalese guides safer. Since the Khumbu School’s first class in 2003, nearly 800 Nepalese guides have been educated there, says Anker.
The program has been so successful that the school expanded with the help of architectural students at Montana State University in Bozeman who designed the new additions. This isn’t the first time Anker teamed up with MSU. In 2012, Anker initiated the Everest Education Expedition with MSU and the Mayo clinic.
The expedition commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Mount Everest via the difficult West Ridge. In 1963, Americans Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld climbed up the West Ridge and down the Southeast Ridge thereby traversing the entire mountain—a feat yet to be repeated. Unfortunately, in 2012, poor weather prevented the team from retracing Hornbein’s and Unsoeld’s steps, so the team summited Everest via the Southeast Ridge on May 26.
But the expedition had a much more ambitious agenda than a summit bid. Although summiting Everest is an extraordinary feat itself, the team was also interested in the geology of the region and studying human functioning at high altitudes. The expedition included MSU professor of geology, David Lageson, and scientists from the Mayo Clinic.
The extreme environment of Everest has prevented much research on the mountain, particularly in what’s called the death zone—26,000 feet and higher where conditions are so extreme it takes climbers 12 hours to traverse a one mile stretch.
Being able to withstand the low atmo-spheric pressure at that altitude requires prolonged acclimatization, which takes 40 to 60 days for a typical expedition. Preparation for mountaineers is crucial to survival. The key, says Anker, is to maintain a good base of cardiovascular endurance.
“Living in Montana is perfect,” says Anker. “There are many opportunities here to get in shape, like going ice-climbing and even climbing hills with a heavy pack,” but, prepare all you want, it takes extraordinary mental drive to continue on expeditions like the those on Anker’s resume—expeditions where he pushed himself to the limits of his endurance.
Some say the age of exploration is over. It’s true that most, if not all, mountain ranges have been explored and there are few places on earth left untrammeled or ungazed upon by an explorer’s curious eye. Some might say this is disappointing, but for explorers like Anker all that is required is a shift in focus to see a world that is full of novelty and possibility. When asked, why climb everest?, just a few months before his disappearance, George Mallory famously responded, because it is there —an answer that gives us a glimpse into that shift in focus, as the human spirit, with extraordinary resolve, and at all costs, reaches for its greatest heights.