Mountaineer and multitasker Conrad Anker spoke about climbing Mount Everest and his experiences as an alpinist, explorer and humanitarian at a Silliman College Master’s Tea on Tuesday afternoon.
Anker, who is best known for finding legendary mountaineer George Leigh Mallory’s body during his 1999 ascent of Mount Everest, discussed before an audience of about 40 students and faculty the history of mountain climbing and the personal impact the sport has had on his life. Anker said that when he first considered mountaineering as a career option, it was viewed as a less serious profession than it is today.
“People would ask me what I was doing with my life,” Anker said. “Even my grandmother used to ask me why I was in the frivolous pursuit of climbing mountains and when I was going to get a real job.”
Anker, a graduate of the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, said he chose mountain climbing for various reasons, including the interesting people he had the opportunity to meet while climbing.
“I view mountain climbing as a vehicle for visiting different places,” he said. “I can learn about different cultures, I can come into close contact with the wilderness, and climbing just gets me away from modern civilization.”
Anker discussed his fascination with human exploration, both on land and in space, touching on the ascent of Mount Everest and humankind’s first steps on the moon. Mount Everest was first scaled in 1953 by Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, or indigenous person, from the high regions of Nepal. Less than one generation later, on July 20, 1969, the first man landed on the moon. This entry of the United States into space, Anker said, jump-started exploration on a larger scale.
Anker said terrestrial exploration helped him become aware of the diversity of both animals and humans, including different cultures and languages. His experiences have been both fun and challenging, he said.
“One of the great moments was when I got to try Tibetan butter tea,” he said. “The butter was a bit rancid at first, but you get used to it. A lot of times, [when] you’re in a tough situation or you’re confronted by something challenging, you just look at it in a different way or in a positive light, and it becomes easier. I’ve had Tibetan tea a lot of times since.”
Anker said he feels connected to the people he visits, especially to those in the Himalayas.
“I feel like I owe something to the people I visit in these indigenous areas,” he said. “We should move around the disparity of wealth our planet has and give it to the poor people. It could supplement their subsistence.”
During his travels, Anker said, he observed a large number of Sherpa and Nepali casualties due to the two groups’ performance of arduous tasks with little technical training. Anker founded the Khumbu Climbing School in 2003 to teach Nepalis safe climbing practices, and the school has grown from 35 students at its inception to 72 students this year. Anker attributed this growth to his having begun teaching in the winter, when he said many Nepalese people have more free time.
Anker said he thinks Nepal, which is perennially one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, is benefiting from the school, since the training the Sherpas receive may enable them to earn higher wages.
“The Nepalis are physically strong, extremely strong-footed and agile people,” he said. “Just getting their technical skills up to par with their climbing skills made them great climbers.”
Anker also organized an expedition of American doctors to the Himalayas to perform cataract surgery on native Sherpas.
Anker ended with some inspiring words for his audience: “Be good, be kind, and be happy,” he said, noting that we should all remember how fleeting life is and should try to help others.
Several audience members said they found Anker’s talk inspiring.
Alison Hoyt ’09, who attended the talk, said she admired Anker’s commitment to helping others.
“Hearing about his school makes me want to go to Nepal,” Hoyt said. “He’s really engaged and dedicated to his cause.”
Audience member Karen Stamieszkin ’06 said she was impressed with the turnout, which she attributed to Yalies’ interest in climbing. Silliman College, the only residential college with an indoor climbing wall, will lose the wall after forthcoming renovations. A group of students are trying to get the University to build to a gymnasium for climbing at Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
Stamieszkin said she thought this was one of the best master’s teas she had attended at Yale.
“I was impressed that he made an effort to come and talk to us,” she said. “He had some really wonderful ideas to create communities for climbing. Climbing had emerged as an elitist sport, but the projects he is working on are making it accessible to many different types of people.”