Climbing and talking politics with Conrad Anker

Simon Madden shoots and shoots-the-breeze with Conrad Anker

The Seymour Centre crowd stood as one, thunderous applause rung out, Conrad Anker dropped to his knees after wowing the throng for a few hours with a ranging Q&A. He did talk about climbing mountains, about the lust for and fear of the edge and about high adventure in wild places but the big finale was a piece about politics and an impersonation of Donald Trump that had them roaring. Politics.

Another world away, an overly-large group – climbers, entourage, camera wielders-come-hangers-on – stumbled over what was usually easy ground from the car park out towards the Pierces Pass lookout in the Blue Mountains. The low shrubs shook inconsolably, the taller limbs whipped and slashed with menacing violence. Walking through the mighty winds was difficult, everyone staggered. Ben Cossey came a gutsa more than once, not even my usually-anchoring large arse could keep me stable and light-as-a-feather Angie Scarth Johnson would have been spirited away on a tremendous gust were it not for Lee Cossey calmly grabbing the back of her pack as she lifted off and returning her to the trembling earth. It was proper windy and very cold and it was Conrad Anker’s introduction to the Blue Mountains.

Lee ‘Everything Will Always be Fine’ Cossey had decided the best place to take Conrad on a quick morning’s cragging was straight into Pierces Pass to have him scurry up the last few pitches of Samarkand. Easy enough access, instant exposure, immediate grandeur, a speccy-as slice of Oz climbing for a man who who is very familiar with speccy landscapes. The weather forecast was for very, very strong winds and the BOM was right. It was howling.

Conrad setting out on Samarkand, the rock might be freezing but at least he isn't stuck on the ledge. Image by Kamil Sustiak

Conrad setting out on Samarkand, the rock might be freezing but at least he isn’t stuck on the ledge. Image by Kamil Sustiak

Winter whorls of air pressure out somewhere in the Southern Ocean suck up frigid air and send it westward, blasting over WA and streaming over the barren, beautiful deserts in the middle to slam into the westerly flank of the Blue Mountains, rushing over the plateau, hurtling through the valleys, ripping at the trees whose chaos brings to mind wild-eyed hags tearing at their hair, screaming across the rock faces, thrumming, surging, as if it is trying to scour the earth clean.

It was all you could do to not topple over in that wind. You had to strain to hear above the tempest. The angry air clawing at your squinting eyes. We didn’t have much time. I am not sure that Angie had ever abseiled before, at least not into a sucking void like the valley below. Conrad had just gotten off the plane and was in Oz for a speaking tour, not a climbing trip. The climbing crew crouched into a little circle amongst the torment of shrubs.

‘What do you reckon?’ the locals asked.

‘Well,’ said Conrad, ‘we’re here to go climbing.’

‘Okay.’ said Angie.

The old and the young. A total pro and a gonna-be-total-pro.

The wind got even angrier, the rock was as cold as a witch’s tit and sucked the blood from your finger tips like a vampire at your neck. Lee sandbagged Conrad on both the grade and by giving him not enough gear. Angie scurried up without complaint as if this was what everyone did, all the time, completely natural. It wasn’t climbing Meru or boning down on a 33 but it was a pretty tough day. It was heaps of fun.

The non-climbing rest of his trip was much more convivial. Legends telling tall tales and true around a raging bonfire, a spot of abseiling with some at-risk Mountain’s kids and a talk to packed auditorium in Sydney. Though shooting and climbing in Pierces Pass was great, when I think about those few days I don’t think about that wind-bedraggled morning, I think more about Conrad’s words and about what place advocacy and politics have in climbing.

Climbing / advocacy. Images by Kamil Sustiak

Climbing / advocacy. Images by Kamil Sustiak

Conrad’s speeches were not stump speeches, they were mostly about climbing high and cold things, about suffering and loss in big mountains, but they were also about love and the need to nurture it where you find it, they were about respect for each other, for the land, for climbing as an ethical expression and they had overt dollops of politics. His message and it’s delivery were well crafted. Total pro.

At both the bushland bonfire gabfest and the keynote address to the Sydney after-work crowd, the bit that got the biggest reaction was a surprisingly good impersonation of Donald Trump blustering about how he had climbed more impressively, more dangerously and harder than Honnold’s solo Freerider. It was a classic remix of Trumps’ bombast and lies and hyperbole pitched perfectly for the current audience. It says a lot about the globalised nature of politics and the wholesale conflating of US experience with Australian that this was the rousing crescendo to both of Conrad’s set pieces. Then again, the big issues are global, global events impact us all, and so it shouldn’t be that surprising that the Australian audience was as receptive to the Trumpian caricature as a US one would be.

Conrad channelling PT Barnum as he gets into his Trump character. Image by Kamil Sustiak

Conrad channelling PT Barnum as he gets into his Trump character. Image by Kamil Sustiak

In terms of accepting Conrad’s political message it probably helps that it is not that difficult to get behind – don’t trash the earth, be good to each other, Trump is a bad egg. Still not all climbers think the same way. We are not a homogeneous group and that’s a good thing. Nowadays we are more and more isolated from opinions that contrast with ours and we need to be exposed to more views that challenge our own – though I doubt Conrad’s views jarred with too many in his crowd. Maybe the calls to keep politics out of climbing come out of that lack of consensus but the very fact that it is possible to maintain a strong relationship through the shared bond of climbing even with those with whom you have wildly differing political views means it could be seen as more important to talk politics.

Individuals are free to make political statements. Companies are too. And you are free to disagree with them, argue the opposite or spend your dollars elsewhere. You could argue that climbing is an attempt to get away from politics and the muck of modernity but if you think that politics doesn’t matter to climbing wait for what is sure to be only a short while for the coming access issues tsunami to break upon us.

Sports people and celebrities are often shouted down for exceeding their brief and straying into political commentary. Climbers, however, we think that we are different. We are not footy-playing-meatheads or reality-TV-airheads. We like to think of ourselves as more thoughtful, engaged, real, not just famous for being famous (or not even famous at all), not sports stars who have so much cash and fame they exist outside of the real world but people who climb and have to exist in the normal world, not rich or revered enough to be removed. Just regular people with very strong fingers and incredible core tension and regular people do politics.

The sort of adoration that gives you a platform. Image by Kamil Sustiak

The sort of adoration that gives you a platform. Image by Kamil Sustiak

When climbers are talking to you there is only so much you can hear that goes, ‘I pulled down on this hold and I reached up to that one.’ Or ‘The route was hard and I had to train and try hard’. Climbing is a community and communities discuss things, things that are relevant to them and that they care about. Conrad and some other climbers like him use their platforms to make bigger points about the world, not just on matters of significance to climbers but on matters that are socially, politically and environmentally important.

We say that we love and want to preserve nature and enable people to have powerful experiences in the natural world then it is only natural that we would talk about conservation and environmentalism.

We use climbing as a way to heal ourselves, as a prophylactic for our minds and spirits. Time in the wilderness, we say, is meditative and restorative. Staring at a horizon is necessary to break up our staring at screens and so it makes sense to talk about social problems, about mental health, about the political decisions that shape the world in which we live.

If climbers want to speak out on matters beyond climbing and they have reasoned and thoughtful contributions to make, they should be able to make them and not even the wind should silence them.
Simon Madden

Read more about The North Face’s Walls Are Meant For Climbing Global Climbing Day.


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