By DILLON TABISH of the Flathead Beacon
An estimated 500 million people around the world watched Neil Armstrong’s legendary stride onto the moon on July 20, 1969.
That one small step triggered a giant leap in modern space exploration and scientific innovation. It also inspired wonderment in the imagination of a 6-year-old boy from Colorado.
Forty-three years later, only days after Armstrong passed away at the age of 82, Conrad Anker can still recall every vivid moment from that crowning achievement.
“That was huge,” Anker said of Armstrong’s Apollo 11 moon landing. “I remember waking up late at night and watching it on TV. After it happened I ran around the room totally motivated.”
That single event, which proved man’s reach could match and even exceed his imagination, set Anker’s life on the course he would eventually follow, to the highest, most monumental places on Earth.
Over the last 30 years, the Bozeman resident has explored the world as one of its most renowned climbers and mountaineers.
In 1998, he and Peter Croft made the first ascent of Spansar Peak in Pakistan, climbing the 7,000-foot ridge in one day.
He’s on the short list of people who have bagged the three towers of the Cerro Torre Massif in South America, a jagged, technically-challenging lithic that became legend in 1782 after Spanish explorer Antonio de Viedma noted its astounding presence.
In 1999, he helped solve one of climbing’s great mysteries after he discovered the body of George Mallory, the pioneering Everest explorer who disappeared on the world’s tallest mountain in 1924.
This November, Anker turns 50, but there are no signs of slowing down for Montana’s great explorer.
In just the last year, Anker reached three major summits that would top most people’s lifetime achievement lists. As captain of the North Face Athlete Team, Anker led an expedition last summer through the Alaskan Range to the top of Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America.
A few months later, on October 2, 2011, he successfully breached the previously unclimbed Shark’s Fin on the northwest face of Meru in the Himalayas, along with two other American alpinists, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk. Ten other previous expeditions had attempted the technically challenging feat but failed.
Then came Everest in April. National Geographic and North Face organized an expedition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 journey, when the first Americans summited Everest from the rarely climbed West Ridge.
And who better to lead the trek than Anker?
He had reached the highest point on Earth twice before, and his prowess came in handy during this third attempt. A massive avalanche swept through base camp. No one was killed but a Sherpa was seriously injured. Unsafe conditions hampered the team’s attempt up the West Ridge, but thanks to guidance from Anker, the group navigated another route and still reached the summit on May 24. Anker himself waited behind to help those descending.
Once that was accomplished, he turned and climbed alone, without oxygen, into the clouds, almost 30,000 feet high.
These recent crowning achievements earned Anker a rightful place among Outside magazine’s latest “Adventurers of the Year,” described as the “men and women remapping exploration’s outer edge.”
When this latest prestigious distinction was brought up in a phone interview with the Beacon, he expressed gratitude for the honor. But it’s not why he’s out there.
“My friends will give me a hard time about it,” he said, laughing. “It will make my mom happy. So that’s good.”
For someone who has reached the highest points in the world, Anker is down-to-earth. One step, every step, can determine life or death, which makes every step precious. In 1999, on an expedition in Tibet, an avalanche killed two people, including his best friend, Alex Lowe.
Anker barely escaped alive. It changed his perspective.
Why climb? Mallory’s famous quote in 1923, a mountaineering mantra ever since — “Because it’s there” — sounds irrelevant in the face of tragedy.
Lowe’s death became a truly life-changing experience. Anker refocused his motivations and priorities, thinking more about those he could help and inspire. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since.
For example, the recent Everest expedition was much more than a thrill-seeking celebration. Geologists from Montana State University gathered information on climate change around Everest — a high-priority concern of Anker’s.
At the same time, researchers from the Mayo Clinic gathered medical data that will be used to study, among other subjects, pulmonary functions and ways to improve breathing-related medical issues. Elementary school classrooms across Montana, including some at St. Matthew’s in Kalispell, were awarded kits that let students follow the Everest expedition and learn about geology, biodiversity, and mountaineering.
“The most beneficial thing for me was to create something that had a further reach,” Anker said. “Kids at that age are so curious. That was a really neat part of (the Everest climb).”
He’s become an outspoken proponent of healthy living, using himself as a prime example of its benefits.
“For someone who is approaching 50 I feel like I’m 30 years old still,” he said.
Two weeks ago, he led a group of veterans recently back from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan through Glacier National Park. They traveled to Grinnell Glacier and hiked the Blackfoot Basin and its vast geological features. The experience, as Anker would hope to make it, became more than just a climbing expedition.
The experience reminded him how someone can inspire others. He knows how important and life-changing that can be. After all, he was once just a young boy who loved the outdoors. Then he saw Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon, and the realm of possibilities seemed endless.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to hopefully be a role model,” he said. “We need to have those for our children. They need to look up to good things.”