For three decades, Conrad Anker quietly obsessed about climbing Shark’s Fin, a slab of virgin Himalayan rock that had vexed him twice before. Last fall, his team set out again, battling falling ice and mental breakdown to get to the top.
Credit: Photograph by Jimmy Chin

Anker’s first trip to Meru, in 2003 — self-funded, with a couple friends — failed like every other. In the years that followed: a 2004 Japanese expedition that retreated after one team member broke both legs; a 2006 attempt by the same team, reaching the summit but only by skirting away from the Fin; a 2006 Czech team that did the same thing.

Anker went back in 2008, bringing Ozturk and Chin, and trying a different approach: “capsule-style” climbing, using a portaledge as a mobile base camp. But even that wasn’t enough: a 100-year storm trapped them inside the portaledge for 96 straight hours, and when they emerged onto the upper wall, they found the climbing vastly more technical than anyone had guessed. Chin led up an 80-foot section so blank and steep he had to set holes with a hand drill, climbing for six mentally crushing hours in constant fear of blowing one out.

On the 15th day, with all three men borderline hypothermic, Anker led a go-for-broke summit bid: up at midnight, one last energy bar for each man, and then 15 hours of extreme climbing on ice, rock, and snow to the summit ridge. When they finally got there, they faced a colossal disappointment: a setting sun, bitter cold, and terrain nearly as sheer and steep as those hooking sections.

“We would’ve summited in the dark,” Anker says. “Someone, if not me, would’ve gotten frostbite. Those guys are artists. They use their fingers. My fingers are expendable, but you don’t want that under your watch.”

Sitting together in stunned exhaustion, cold to the bone and having already pushed way beyond their safety margin, they accepted defeat.

"SHE'S COMPLEX, SHE'S ALLURING, SHE THROWS UP ALL THESE OBSTACLES - IT'S A TEST OF HOW BADLY YOU WANT HER."

Anker claims that he felt content in that moment: “We’d given it our best shot and that’s just the way it is,” he says. But Anker also told the others — right there on the mountain — that he was not done with Meru. “You guys get right of first refusal,” he said, referring to slots on his next team. “But I’m coming back.”

“I’m never fucking coming back,” Chin said. “I don’t know, man. Maybe some things aren’t meant to be climbed.”

Chin’s feet were so close to frostbite that he couldn’t feel his toes for months. More crushing was what he noticed when he looked at his photo back home: They’d retreated a little more than 100 yards from the summit.

In the days and weeks that followed, the three men largely went their separate ways: Chin headed to his house in Sayulita, Mexico, to spend a few months surfing in warm water. Anker rededicated himself to family life in Montana and the less dangerous elements of his job, like grooming new North Face athletes. Ozturk made a film from the video he’d shot on Meru, called Samsara, which would go on to win multiple awards.

The following summer, in 2009, Anker got an email from Silvo Karo, a Slovenian climber deeply revered among extreme alpinists. “They’re so badass,” Anker says of Karo’s Eastern European crew. “They eat cold gravel for breakfast.” Karo had heard about Anker’s retreat on Shark’s Fin, but because Anker had gotten nearly to the summit, climbing etiquette dictated that Karo should ask Anker’s permission before tackling the line himself. Anker and Chin were flattered: “Karo’s tastes are very refined,” Chin says. “It really reinforced that this is one of the last plum lines.”

Anker even offered a little advice to Karo, telling him to bring a portaledge and big-wall hardware, like hooks. “He was like, ‘No, we’re going to go alpine style.’ So they went up with the same gear I took back in 2003.” They had the same result, too: failure.

In December 2010, the North Face gave Anker the green light for a third Shark’s Fin expedition, and he set the date for September 2011. A few months later, Ozturk flew out to Jackson, Wyoming, to shoot an extreme-­skiing film. High in the Tetons, Ozturk followed Chin, backcountry snowboarder Jeremy Jones, and others down a steep gully. “Renan got thrown off balance going pretty fast, and he flipped around backward, went over a cliff band, and basically landed on his head,” Chin recalls. “I skied down to him. He was totally unconscious face down in the snow.”

Chin rolled his friend over. “I could see into what looked like his brain,” he says, “exposed by this huge bloody flap that got ripped back.” Chin put Ozturk’s scalp back into place, took off his shirt and put it over the flap, and covered that with Ozturk’s hat. A Life Flight helicopter sped them to a nearby trauma center, where they learned that Ozturk had fractured his skull and broken two vertebrae, slicing his vertebral artery, one of the two main suppliers of blood to the brain.

Five days later, with Ozturk still in the ICU, Chin was skiing in the same film project when the snow slab beneath him broke free. “The whole mountainside snapped,” he says. “I watched this first section of trees bend and snap out in front of me, like 25 trees all at once.” Chin got sucked deep inside the avalanche, rolling toward certain death. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’m dead.’ ” Chin felt himself being crushed by the weight. “I kind of left my body, like I always wondered how I was going to die, and now I know. But then I was like, ‘Fuck this, you got to fight.’ But you’re not really able to do anything. You can feel the velocity and hear the roar, and it’s just black. It made me think about surfing. I was like, ‘OK, there’s no way you can fight. You have to relax and let it take you and maintain as much oxygen as you can.’ ”

Chin popped up to the surface and quickly rolled onto his back. “It was an ocean. You couldn’t see either end of it and you’re sitting on top of five 747s, and I could see the valley another couple thousand feet below. I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I’m going to the bottom.’ ”

The avalanche poured off another cliff and plunged Chin under the moving debris again. “All of a sudden, a surge from underneath shoved me out the tongue of the debris pile, and I popped out feet first in snow up to my chest. I couldn’t believe I was in one piece,” he says. “There’s no way I was supposed to live.”

Chin managed to walk out on his own, but he woke up the next day convinced that he’d broken his back. “It really unscrewed my head. I definitely suffered some post-­traumatic shit,” Chin says.

Not two weeks after that, Chin was up in Alaska, skiing down Denali and, for the very first time, questioning his métier. He wondered if his endless flirtations with death had gone far enough.