Survivor’s Guilt in the Mountains – The New Yorker

Survivor’s Guilt in the Mountains – The New Yorker

“Whatever I’m into, I go deep,” he went on. “But it became clear that it was becoming a little culty, and so I excused myself.”

Tate also became involved in the nascent men’s mythopoetic movement led by the poet Robert Bly. An article about Bly and the Grimms’ coming-of-age fairy tale “Iron John” (which would become the title of Bly’s 1990 best-seller) piqued Tate’s interest, and he attended a Bly retreat on Lake Hubert, in Minnesota. “There were more than a hundred men there,” he said. “It got pretty Western. At one point, they had set up maybe six sweat lodges. The guy who did it was way past his skill set, and at that time I was three years into my work with the Crow medicine man, and I intervened. I got it back on track.” At the men’s gatherings, you were expected to discover your animal totem. Tate’s was a moose. Bly’s was a bear. “I would do a moose strut, and then Bly and I would wrestle,” he said.

“I love big men,” Tate told me. “I’m a big guy. I like being around big guys. Big personalities, big stature. That’s really why Conrad and I get along so well. I feel most comfortable with accomplished men who don’t have huge egos.”

That evening, we met up with Anker and the writer David Quammen for a drink. These three are among the regulars in informal meetings of Bozeman men who call themselves the Scotch Club: occasional well-oiled nights in backcountry cabins. Stories, verities, the shedding of masks. At this mini-session, as at other gatherings in town, I kept hearing references to regular people (that is, those who are not world-famous alpinists) who’d lost loved ones to climbing and skiing accidents; in this cohort, it seemed almost as common as cancer. Anker and Lowe-Anker, as the mahatmas of the mountain scene, seemed to have connections to all of them.

Anker is sandy-haired, strong-jawed, intense, and introverted; people in Montana have urged him to run for office, but he is certain that he is too thin-skinned. He grew up in central California, just outside Yosemite National Park, on land that had been in his father’s family since the gold rush. His mother, from outside Dresden, met his father, a serviceman, in Germany, just after the war. Anker got his start as a climber on California granite, then gravitated toward the icy amplitude of the Himalayas, before becoming a pioneer of a new kind of challenge: high-altitude big walls. He made the first ascent, with Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, in 2011, of Meru, a tower of rock and ice in India that Mugs Stump had attempted twice in the eighties. It became the basis for a documentary film. Anker has a knack for dramatic story lines. He first made a name for himself outside climbing circles in 1999, when he found the body of the early British alpinist George Mallory, not far from the summit of Mt. Everest, where he’d perished seventy-five years before. Anker, whether by fate or by his own design, was caught up in a cycle of disappearance and reappearance, of death and its aftermath.

Anker had inherited Alex Lowe’s celebrity mantle in Bozeman. After drinks that evening, he took a curious route on the walk home, opting for back alleys instead of Main Street, slouch-darting along an archipelago of shadows. “Hungry eyes,” he said. He explained that people around town often looked at him in a way that indicated they wanted his time or attention. Fame was part of the deal—he’d chosen it, as a high achiever and the well-compensated face of a sport and a big sporting-goods brand—but he was uncomfortable under the public’s imploring gaze. He found greater ease at the planet’s harsh, unpopulated extremes, in the company of another superhuman or two, whose hungry eyes were invariably trained upward. Happiness is a cold bivy sack. Recently, Anker met a fan in an airport: “My hoodie’s up. I’m disappearing. And now here comes this guy, super hungry eyes, and so I talk to him. He’s, like, ‘I named my company Meru.’ He was your classic business dude, a bankruptcy guy. And then I was pissed.”

We went in the back door of his house: garden, garage, toys and tools, dogs. Lowe-Anker met us in the kitchen. She asked about our plan to spend the next night in the mountains above Hyalite Canyon. “Who’s going?” she asked me, in her mordant high-country drawl.

“Just Conrad, Tim, and me.”

Anker, right, with Alex Lowe, two years before Lowe died in the Himalayas, in an avalanche that Anker survived.Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie

“The poor sad men,” she said, with a mocking sigh. Lowe-Anker is sometimes reluctant to indulge the climbers in their sorrow. Later, she elaborated: “We have so many friends here, including young women whose husbands have died. Certainly, there are some women who are the ones who die, in this arena, but it’s mostly men. And there’s a lot of brokenhearted women and families left behind.” She cited a remark she’d heard decades ago that comes up all the time, in reference to mountaineering: “It’s not that different from young men going off to war. Women like me, it’s not new. How many women are there in war-torn areas who have lost their husbands and a raft of sons and family members?”

Anker said, “A fundamental difference, and why people are critical of this, is that we do this by our own volition, whereas if you’re a firefighter, a soldier, or a police person, you’re a hero, you did that on behalf of other people in society, or because you had to.”

Mountain climbing is a modern curiosity, a bourgeois indulgence. It consists mostly of relatively well-to-do white people manufacturing danger for themselves. Having been spared war, starvation, mass violence, and oppression, its practitioners travel great distances and endure great sacrifices to test their bodies and minds, encounter beauty, and experience the precariousness of existence and the terror and whatever revelations, fleeting or otherwise, may come of it. Though the whole enterprise may seem crazy or stupid or pointless, to many people it represents a necessary extreme of human endeavor, that combination of excellence and aberrance which propels a sliver of the population to set about going to the moon or writing symphonies, or dropping out entirely, as latter-day hermits and monks.

Each climbing season, there is a new tale to baffle the flatlanders. Last year, a climber named Daniele Nardi left behind a wife and their six-month-old son to make a fourth attempt on one of the most dangerous routes in the world, the Mummery Rib, on Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan. His partner, Tom Ballard, had lost his mother on K2. What a story the two men made: the obsessive and the undaunted son. Nardi and Ballard died, of course.

Max Lowe, who is thirty-one, is finishing a film about his family. “They aren’t so sure about the whole thing,” he told me recently. “They’re, like, ‘Why do you need to do this? Why do you need to stir up all this grief?’ Maybe I should’ve just gone to therapy.” Some people compare climbing to heroin: addictive, selfish, deadly. And yet, while society tends to condemn people who abandon their families for opiates and die of an overdose, we often treat fallen climbers, including Max’s father, as heroes. “It’s a lot to ask someone to give up something they love for you,” Max said. “But if you can’t expect your parents to give that up for you, what can you expect in this life?”

Anker had proposed a night of camping—three sad men, one small tent—at his go-to getaway in Hyalite Canyon. The Perch, as he called it, was a recurring location in his dreams, but it was also, I soon learned, a narrow ledge on a cliff, requiring some exposed scrambling on a rock face, which was well above my pay grade, and, besides, the forecast was calling for a blizzard and temperatures in the teens. “It’s going to get nasty,” Anker said, grinning.