The Believers

Conrad Anker: High-Altitude Altruist

HIGHER CALLING: Anker in Bozeman, Montana, where he does work on behalf of the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation (www.alexlowe.org).     Photo: Jim Wright

MISSION // IMPROVING THE ODDS FOR SHERPAS

Kicking off our all-stars pantheon, CONRAD ANKER writes that it took the death of his best friend to show him what really counts

ON OCTOBER 5, 1999, THE WORLD AS I PERCEIVED IT CHANGED. I was one of a group of Americans who had traveled to Tibet to ski the immense south face of Shishapangma. As I was traversing a glacier below the 26,289-foot peak with mountaineers David Bridges and Alex Lowe, an enormous avalanche cut loose thousands of feet above us. The churning mass of ice, accompanied by a blast of supersonic wind, swept David and Alex to their deaths. I was thrown 90 feet across the glacier, but by some freak of nature I survived. As I sank into a miasma of guilt, I began to wrestle with the question: Why?

That quickly changed from an analytical evaluation of the avalanche and my actions during the moments before it hit to a more metaphysical line of inquiry. Why had I been given a second chance? And what was I going to do with it? In the wake of the avalanche's devastation, I realized that I was a different person. I began to ask myself, Who can I help in this new life, and how can I best help them?

These are questions we all need to ask of ourselves—and then turn our answers into action.

Alex had been my closest friend, my climbing partner, my spiritual brother. When he perished he left behind his wife of nearly 18 years, Jennifer, and three young boys: Max, ten; Sam, seven; and Isaac, three. As the five of us mourned our loss, we grew closer. From the ashes of our shared grief emerged an unexpected bond of love like nothing I had ever experienced. In April 2001, Jenni and I were married, and Max, Sam, and Isaac became my sons.

When Alex was alive, he climbed often in the Himalayas, building a special rapport with the Sherpas and other mountain tribes. Inspired by the connections Alex had established in Nepal, and during his other expeditions to Pakistan and Baffin Island, Jenni created the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation (ALCF) as a way to help indigenous mountain people around the globe. In the spring of 2002, on a trekking trip I'd been hired to guide to Everest Base Camp, Jenni and I would rig top ropes and climb with the Sherpas on nearby boulders and frozen waterfalls. Sherpas have a reputation for being the strongest climbers on Everest—and in fact they almost always are far stronger than any of the foreign climbers who hire them. But most Sherpas have been taught little or nothing about avalanche forecasting, crevasse rescue, or even such rudimentary skills as how to tie into a rope properly. And as a consequence, too many Sherpas die in easily preventable accidents. It occurred to us that one way to make their work less dangerous would be to create a climbing school funded by the ALCF and taught by American mountaineers. Thus the Khumbu Climbing School was conceived.

For two years, our vision guided us through countless hours of planning and fundraising. The passionate commitment of our Bozeman, Montana, community and the outdoor industry came through. In February 2004, Jenni, the boys, and I trekked with fellow ALCF board member and friend Jon Krakauer and six volunteer mountain guides to the Nepalese village of Phortse, a day's walk above Namche Bazaar, for the inaugural session of the Khumbu Climbing School. We taught our students—many of them high-altitude porters who had completed multiple ascents of Everest and other 8,000-meter peaks—how to inspect equipment, tie knots, place protection, manage ropes, administer first aid, and belay. When that first session concluded a week later, graduating 35 students, our dream was realized.

In the winter of 2005 we held the school again, this time adding an English class to the curriculum; 55 students graduated. In January we expect to graduate more than 100. We anticipate that within a few years we Americans will be able to stay home and let the Sherpas run the school themselves.

Looking back on the avalanche that took Alex from us six years ago, nobody can say for certain why he died and I was spared. The "why" is unknowable. What is important is that out of the tragedy on Shishapangma, I found new purpose. And if one of its results is that fewer Sherpas are likely to perish on the peaks of their homeland—well, for that I would be exceedingly grateful.

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