Two-time Everest climber Conrad Anker told a jam-packed Kirner-Johnson Auditorium on September 25 about his experiences climbing various mountains, and his place in the history of exploration. The author of 1999’s The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest, hoped to inspire young people to follow their natural inclination to explore, yet his lecture drew audience members of all ages from the local community.
“The beauty of climbing,” according to Anker, is “that it is a very diverse sport.” From scaling massive walls of granite in Yosemite, to bouldering K7 in northern Pakistan's Karakorum, the geographic variety of Anker’s climbs reflect his statement. Aided by dozens of photographs, Anker brought these escapades to the audience in vivid color, describing his experiences with a sense of humor. “Taking to these bigger mountains means you have to be like a turtle and put everything you own in a backpack” he mused.
While climbers are always striving to push their personal limits, Anker noted that it is important to know personal limits and climb accordingly. However, climbing is not just about personal fulfillment. Anker claims climbing has actually caused him to realize how interconnected we all are. “In the Himalayas, I thought, this is great, this is all about me, me; but when I got there the mountains were big, and I felt quite insignificant.” Meeting people who lived in Himalayan communities, Anker realized that climbing really isn’t in their plan so much as just getting food on the table for their families.
For Anker, climbing is about exploration and why we explore. Looking back at the great explorations going back 500 years, Anker chronicled how motivations have changed. Back in the time of Christopher Columbus, there were economic motives, empirical motives and desires to find new people to enslave. At the turn of the 20th century, going places in order to learn about them and exploration for the sake of human expansion morphed into more idealistic, motivational type expedition.
Ninety percent of the world’s glaciers and 70 percent of the world’s store of water are found in Antarctica, the fifth largest continent. This scientific goldmine allows scientists to go back 4000 years via glaciers, and the cold, fresh water that comes out of Antarctica drives the gulf stream of the world’s various ocean currents. When Roald Amundsen and his team of Norwegian explorers first reached the South Pole in 1911, it was a classic story of inspirational accomplishment, complete with a pyramid of dogs. After displaying a picture of the successful British team at the pole, Anker showed a poignant slide of Sir Robert Falcon Scott and his British team’s look of utter dejection at arriving just 31 days later only to find a Norwegian flag. “It was a salt-tipped dart directed at Robert Falcon Scott,” Anker noted to the audience’s amusement.
In 1907, a British team of 26 men led by Sir Ernest Shackleton (“The Boss”) set out for the South Pole, only to turn back 100 miles away, realizing they did not have the resources to finish and return safely. With an engine Anker described as smaller than what most bass-fishing boats have today, the team’s ship was crushed “like a model boat” by the ice. Shackleton's goal evolved from walking across Antarctica to simply getting his men home alive. The epic journey with three lifeboats brought the team to Elephant Island, and Shackleton eventually led them to South Georgia, lining up his sextant with his chronometer at clear sky. Without GPS or any other modern supplies, Shackleton’s men survived almost solely off of the food and fuel offered by penguins and seals. Anker noted that he likes to “keep (Shackleton’s) message in my back pocket,” so he can remind people whenever they experience setbacks that "spilling mustard on your shirt is no big deal.”
Having lost at the South Pole, the British were very eager to be the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In 1921, George Leigh Mallory, a schoolteacher, began following what Anker believes to be the safest route up Mt. Everest. His team was climbing mid-monsoon, and was halted by an avalanche during its second attempt. On a lecture tour of the United States in 1923, Mallory answered the question of why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest “because it’s there.” Perhaps this answer was just a curt response to a pesky reporter, but Anker believes it had deeper philosophical significance.
The next year, Mallory assembled a topnotch team of climbers, including Sandy Irvine, a strong rower who had such strong tinkering abilities that he had been able to apply for a patent for an innovative machine gun. This ability proved to be extremely useful in engineering supplemental oxygen tanks that were accessible to the back and several pounds lighter despite their steel canisters. Despite Irvine’s innovations, the tanks were notably more cumbersome than today’s titanium adaptation. Having been at that altitude in period clothing, Anker was able to attest to the challenges Mallory's team faced. Plastics and nylons didn't come into being until after WWII, and all equipment was basically organic besides steel and iron. Anker showed a photograph of teammate Edward Norton being helped down the mountain by a Sherpa due to snow blindness.
Climber Noel Odell followed a day behind Mallory and Irvine, doing geologic work and finding fossils. On June 8, 1924, Odell found that Mallory had disappeared and sent news to England. Church bells rang throughout the country in a national day of mourning, and the disappearance quickly became a piece of climbing history. In 1975, Chinese explorer Wang Hongbao found what is assumed to be either Mallory or Irvine’s body on Everest and wrote “English dead” in the snow. This led to all sorts of speculation about whether or not Mallory and Irvine made it to the summit.
Finally, Anker was invited to join a team to solve the mysteries of Everest. Joys of the trip included getting to know the Tibetans who drive yaks up and down the mountain as “wonderful, welcoming and fragrant people,” lightheartedly observing that for them “bathing is something that happens in September.” He described one Tibetan climber, who was able to make the trip with the support of his comrades, despite being blind. This man became the American team's hero and inspiration.
On May 1, 1999, Anker and his team finally searched the area where the Chinese had found a body decades before. While his teammates searched at the base of the Yellow Band, Anker credits traversing alone a bit further down the mountain to intuition based on his knowledge of climbing. An hour into his search, Anker found the remains of Mallory. Anker recalled the emotional communal service he performed with his teammates. They read a psalm that describes life as eternal. For Anker, the moment was “a very singular moment in my life, it was a very humbling moment. It was something that will happen only once,” he said.
Whether it is Amelia Earhart disappearing into the South Pacific, or George Mallory disappearing atop Mount Everest, stories of disappearing explorers always hold an irresistible element of mystery. Having climbed Everest for three years, and experiencing serious challenges even with far more advanced equipment, Anker highly doubts Mallory and Irvine completed their expedition. To that question Anker says “admirable job, but no summit.”
“It’s a great story,” Anker concluded. “Everest is a beautiful place, but it’s pretty downright inhospitable.” In conclusion, and throughout the lecture, Anker was unabashed in expressing his deep-set love for exploration. “Why do we do it?” he finally posited. “Because it’s there…just as Mallory said.”
-- by Mariam Ballout '10