Conrad Anker’s journey to the Shark’s Fin began in Salt Lake City in the mid-1980s, when a climber named Mugs Stump let him in on a secret. At the time, Anker was a skinny blond country kid from the Sierra Nevada foothills who’d shown early promise on the “big walls” of Yosemite, the vast granite cliffs on which rock climbers toil for days and even weeks. Stump was one of the premiere American alpinists of the Eighties, among the first to apply Yosemite big-wall techniques to high mountains in Alaska and the Himalayas. The two got to know each other while they were living in Utah. In the soulful and free-living Mugs, Anker found a mentor and friend. Like all serious mountaineers, Stump kept a closely guarded list of unclimbed jewels he hoped to bag one day, and Shark’s Fin was chief among them. He kept a picture of it in his van, hidden behind a prayer flag, his personal jewel number one.
Anker remembers when Stump returned from his first attempt on the Shark’s Fin, in 1986. Stump had been climbing fast and light up those lower snow-and-ice slopes when a storm hit. Without a tent or a portaledge, Stump and his partners retreated, hearing an avalanche roaring down from above. Stump scrambled to one side, but he got clipped by the avalanche’s edge. One of his ice axes held, saving Stump’s life but yanking his shoulder out of the socket.
Down in base camp, Stump whiled away the next few days gazing up at the peak that had thwarted him. Back in Salt Lake City, Anker says Stump talked endlessly about the climb. “The beauty of it,” Anker recalls, “the fact that it’s this curving big wall. He talked about the spiritual connection, too, how it was one of these hidden places, and how the Hindus consider it the spiritual center of the universe.”
“You want to do the ultimate fucking climb?” Stump told his friend. “That’s it. The Shark’s Fin.”
“The Shark’s Fin became Mugs’ life dream,” Anker says. Stump tried again in 1988 and got snowed out in a massive storm. Four years later, while driving through Utah, Anker heard the news: Stump had died on Denali, in Alaska. “Every time I drive by that exact spot, I look over at these aspen trees and I remember hearing the news. Before Mugs died, I always thought we were better than that. Shit happened in the mountains, but it didn’t happen to us. That changed it.”
At 21,000 feet, Meru doesn’t qualify as a particularly high-altitude peak, and the Shark’s Fin (or central summit) isn’t even its highest summit, but elite climbers care far more about pure technical difficulty and the sheer majesty of whatever it is they’re climbing. The Shark’s Fin rings both these bells, as well as another, more elusive one known as “complexity.” Meru presents its many challenges in a difficult and baffling sequence.
Pete Takeda, a Colorado-based alpinist who has tried and failed three times on the Shark’s Fin, compares it to a femme fatale: “She’s complex, she’s alluring, she throws up all these obstacles — it’s a test of how badly you want her.”
The climb itself has four parts: the 2,500-foot wall of steep snow and ice — a deadly serious climb in its own right — with constant exposure to rock fall and avalanche; the so-called Alpine Ridge, a 500-foot section of hard mixed climbing, with rock, ice, and snow; the 1,000-foot stone prow known as Shark’s Fin proper; and finally, the summit ridge, still untouched by human hands.
“Everyone falls in love with the top half,” says Takeda. The problem, he explains, is that climbing esthetics now favor what’s called “alpine style” — or, more caustically, “disaster style” — which dictates carrying a bare minimum of gear and food, walking up to a mountain and climbing it, with little margin for error. Stump was the first to discover what many others have since confirmed: that this light-and-fast approach works fine on Meru’s snow-and-ice slopes, but once you’re on the Shark’s Fin itself, you discover that without big-wall gear and a whole lot of time, you’re grossly unprepared.
“What’s diabolical,” says Takeda, “is how technical the rock turns out to be.” The wall is so steep and so sheer — so devoid of cracks and handholds — that it simply cannot be climbed without complex equipment (such as hooks and pitons) and a portaledge to sleep in between days of painstaking climbing.
A steady procession of elite-level climbers tried to climb Meru in the 1990s and 2000s, “but it kept shutting people down,” Anker says. “Trip after trip got beat. Paul Pritchard, Johnny Dawes, Scott Backes.”
Some of these expeditions tried siege tactics — stringing fixed ropes up and down a mountain — only to fail from the exhaustion of ascending and descending those ropes and getting battered by weather. Others, refusing to learn the lessons of their predecessors, made their own hopeless alpine-style bids. Still others detoured away from the prow of the Shark’s Fin, like the great Valery Babanov, a Russian who won climbing’s highest honor, the Piolet d’Or, for ascending an easier gully to the right of the Fin.
Anker spent years distracted by other challenges. He put up pioneering routes everywhere from Yosemite to Antarctica, and he suffered further losses, including the climbing death of old friend Seth Shaw. In May of 1999, Anker found the body of George Mallory high on Everest, cementing his name in mountaineering legend and triggering a decade’s worth of books and film projects.
Five months after the Mallory discovery, Anker was climbing Mount Shishapangma with Alex Lowe, a fellow North Face team member and one of Anker’s dearest friends. The two watched in awe as a massive slab avalanche broke free higher up on the mountain — until they realized they were directly in its path. Anker survived with a lacerated scalp and broken ribs, but Lowe’s body was never found.
A year later, at age 38, Anker married Lowe’s widow, Jenni, and adopted Lowe’s sons. Just when he had reached the peak of his powers and resources as a climber, Anker married into a family that could not afford to lose another husband and father. He took on more administrative duties for the North Face, sought out expeditions that were more about exploration than risk. But he also began quietly plotting that one last great climb: the Shark’s Fin. “By then, it had become my life goal, this way to honor Mugs. When I go to Everest, it’s a gong show. It’s commercial. It’s just work. Meru is the climbing I live for.”