By Jake Daly
UM News Service
MISSOULA – Renowned mountaineer, alpine athlete and author Conrad Anker was at the University of Montana this week as a guest of the National Museum of Forest Service History. He presented a lecture about the relationship between America’s national forests and the outdoor recreation industry.
The leader of The North Face climbing team for 26 years, Anker advocates for positive climate action with the outdoor sports community. He and his wife, Missoula native Jennifer Lowe-Anker, provide social and economic assistance to remote Himalayan communities through the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation and the American Himalayan Foundation. Anker also is active in the national advocacy organization the Access Fund, which keeps U.S. climbing areas open and works to conserve the climbing environment.
After his lecture, Anker sat down with UM News for a Griz Chat about climate change, the pressures of social media on young athletes and the irreplaceable connection humans have with the outdoors.
UM News: You’re at UM this week to give a presentation on our national forests. What got you interested in this topic?
Anker: Alex Philp, he’s a friend of mine. He got his Ph.D. in Geographic Information Systems from UM, and he’s part of that connection to the history museum. The climbers are sort of the charismatic megafauna of the outdoor industry. They come up with great ideas, they start businesses, and it’s in that capacity that Alex invited me over here.
You’re known for your achievements as a climber and explorer, but you’re also very active in advocating for environmental preservation and other causes. Why use your influence this way?
Anker: I was introduced to advocacy by my parents. My father attended the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. I grew up with that ̶ my parents’ ‘60s advocacy ̶ but also developed my own responsibility as a citizen of the United States.
My mother was an immigrant from East Germany and had seen the ravages of the Second World War. We had it good here, and she didn’t want me to forget that. She helped my family develop a responsibility to ensure that people everywhere have as good a quality of life as we have here in this day and age.
What are today’s causes that you’re most concerned with?
Anker: The most pressing issue is climate change. If I get another 20 or 30 years out of my life, I’ll be able to go climbing and fly in jets and all that. But ̶ what kind of planet will it be in one generation or seven generations? That prism of how you base your decisions is sort of the key thing.
The U.S. represents 3% of the world’s population, but we consume somewhere between 14 and 20% of the world’s resources and produce a corresponding amount of pollution. We are the go-to nation for cultural ideas. The rest of the world is looking to us, so we need to be leaders on this and in the past few years we haven’t.
Young people spend increasing time indoors looking at screens. What are we losing when we stop going outside?
Anker: Live interaction with someone. There are nuances in the unwritten word. You can pick some of that up in broadcast, but you don’t have that same level of communication. Humans evolved to where we are by understanding in-person communication. If a child starts out with a handheld computer, it’s really different.
As for not going outdoors, if you want to sit in a building and run on a treadmill yeah, you’re getting your exercise in, but you could go run up Rattlesnake and you could smell the leaves decomposing and maybe be concerned that a bear is around the corner. Or you could interact with another hiker. Participatory and experiential outdoor activities help us become better people in this super-heavy-duty crazy society we’re in. It’s a good antidote. A lot of people are better off if they can get out and recreate.
Speaking of screens, today’s young athletes are expected to be influencers and role models on social media in a way that wasn’t expected of previous generations. What do you make of that pressure?
Anker: It is new. I mean Facebook’s only what, a dozen years old? It only started to get traction in 2008 or so, and then Instagram happened in 2011, and now we’re understanding that social media is depressing. Everyone’s going presenting perfect vacations with perfect dogs in a very curated lifestyle.
Then you have these “influencers” who are serving as economic models for things like yoga mats. But the reality is they’re mining your data and they’re selling you advertisements. When people post, the platform automatically triggers a certain neural pathways, which may be an unintended outcome of the formula. Still, people keep going to back to look at likes, comments and following.
At The North Face, we think critically about the marketing and branding pressure on athletes. We have a lot of conversations about how to protect sponsored athletes from social pressure and depression, but still be authentic and use social channels for a positive force.
You make expeditions into remote parts of the world. What’s on your mind when you’re out there?
Anker: If I’m climbing it’s high consequence, so I have to really focus. For someone that’s hyper-situationally aware, that puts you in the zone. You can’t afford to make a mistake, and you have to really see where you’re going and what you’re doing with. That is my way of rejuvenation. My credit card bills and all the noise of an oversubscribed society are still there. I’m not a monk sitting in a monastery meditating all day long with no stimuli coming in shouting for my attention. When I’m on expedition, I’ll try to immerse myself in the culture that’s there. If I’m climbing in the Himalayas or Antarctica, I’m thinking about the area’s natural environment.
What’s your favorite book you’ve read recently?
Anker: Oddly enough, when I go on expedition is when I read a long-form book. I reread James Clavell’s “Shogun” last year, which is this massive tome of classic storytelling. My day to day is The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic and Harpers, and I layer-up National Geographic and long-form journalism. I finished one last night about salmon in this part of the United States. We want preservation of wilderness, and we want economic might, and they used the Columbia River as an example that you can’t have both. It’s a fascinating story.