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

Ozturk spent much of the spring and summer of 2011 in a neck brace, working out on a recumbent stationary bike in a bedroom of his Boulder house. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be ready for Meru, but Conrad and Jimmy never even one time suggested anybody else going in my place.” So Ozturk bought a round-trip ticket to Delhi and set about rebuilding himself, bagging 14,000-foot peaks in the Rockies, testing his newly impaired brain’s reaction to altitude.

“It was stressing everybody out,” he admits. “My girlfriend, my family, just worrying that I was going back to the hardest experience of my life.”

Privately, Anker and Chin had their doubts — about Ozturk and even the climb itself. Anker asked Ozturk for a complete report from his trauma surgeons, just in case they found themselves in some Indian hospital, trying to explain what was wrong with their friend. (Ozturk delivered the report, omitting mention of the stent at the base of his skull.) Though Anker had climbed dozens of world-class peaks, the idea of a return to Meru still rattled him. He was 48 years old — and he’d long been cured of any delusions about his own invulnerability. He’d lost enough close friends to know better. While organizing equipment in the gear room of his basement, he found himself drenched in cold sweat.

But when they convened in the Indian village of Gangotri, where the last road runs out and it’s time to start walking, they’d put all their doubts aside.

Every year, Nepali porters come to the Garhwal for seasonal work on climbing expeditions. Anker hired 15 of them to carry about 115 pounds of supplies each on a three-day trek through misty mountains to a place called Tapovan, at 14,435 feet, where Hindu hermits called sadhus pray year-round to Meru, Mount Shivling, and the Gangotri Glacier, the source of the sacred Ganges River. Anker paid the strongest to continue on with them, almost to their advanced base camp at 16,700 feet. When the porters could go no farther, Anker paid them off in big wads of cash, and the climbers roped up for the final stretch of travel across dangerous crevasses.

Once they’d established an advanced base camp, they reviewed their climbing strategy: They would sprint up those lower snow-and-ice slopes in a single, furious, nonstop push to avoid getting trapped by weather. Second, they would try to establish their final portaledge camp much higher on the fin than they had in 2008, setting them up for a shorter final summit bid.

Then they all pulled the trigger. They rose at midnight, zipped up their down-filled climbing suits and buckled on plastic double boots. At the very toe of that gargantuan wall, they shouldered their packs, stepped into crampons, and grabbed their ice axes.

Nineteen hours later, Ozturk was speaking in tongues inside the portaledge and the team was forced to confront the crushing likelihood that they would come up empty again.

“I knew we were probably going to have to go down and that it would be all my fault,” Ozturk says. “But there was numbness in my face and in one of my arms, and out of sheer exhaustion, I couldn’t get into my sleeping bag. I passed out cold in my clothes, like a blackout drunk.”