Local Hero

Posted on: March 1, 2008


Conrad Anker on Doug Chabot

Anker's hero, Doug Chabot, at his Bozeman, Montana, home. Though one of America's best climbers, the mountain guide and avalanche forecaster funds most of his own trips. "Doug goes after the big game and he does it by fair means," says Anker of his friend. [Photo] Gordon Wiltsie

NOW THAT HE HAS APPEARED on the cover of Outside Magazine three times, Conrad Anker may be one of the most easily recognized alpine climbers in the country. Given such media prominence, perhaps one of his greatest challenges is keeping it real. In recent years, Anker has found himself seeking help and inspiration from a climbing partner and a Bozeman, Montana, neighbor whose amateur spirit reminds him of his own baseline values: Doug Chabot.

Looked at from one angle, Chabot's resume reads like an assault on the improbable. The kitty-litter-granite, 3,800-foot east buttress of Alaska's Mt. Johnson? 1999. The gleaming sail of Meru Peak's Shark's Fin? 2003. The perpetual challenge of Latok I's north ridge? 2007. But alongside such near-misses sit some staggering successes: The Elevator Shaft on Mt. Johnson in 1995; the ten-kilometer-long Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat in 2004; the first alpine-style ascent of Latok II and the first ascent of Latok V, in Pakistan’s Karakoram, in 2006. While he still finds time for one-day big-wall climbs in Yosemite and Zion, Chabot's focus remains on the remote, the cold and the dire. During a recent trip to Devils Tower with Chabot, Anker found time to reflect on the no-holds-barred climbing and the subtler acts of friendship that make Chabot a heroic presence in his life.

I'VE CLIMBED WITH DOUG for seven years—ever since our late friend Alex Lowe introduced us—but one of my favorite Doug stories happened during a climb I didn't participate in: the Mazeno Ridge. At 7000-plus meters, with technical terrain and no possibility of retreat other than down climbing, it's an exhausting and committing route. Doug and Steve Swenson had nonetheless managed to follow it up and down eight peaks, all the way to the Mazeno Col. After Steve started coughing up blood, Doug took all the final leads. By the time they woke from their bivy at the Mazeno Col, they agreed Nanga Parbat's summit was not an option. They decided to descend the Schell Route in the hope of finding fixed ropes and the proverbial well-stocked, abandoned camps.

Conrad Anker. [Photo] Gordon Wiltsie

All began well, until the route steepened and the fixed lines and camps proved imaginary. As their own food, water and fuel supplies grew thin, they found seventy feet of cotton line abandoned from another expedition, fourteen years before. With a fair amount of creativity, they made it back to camp. Although they hadn't linked the Mazeno Ridge to the summit, the completion of the ridge itself solved one of alpinism's great riddles. That same season Doug managed to fit in an alpine-style ascent of K7, as well as the first ascent of Kapura.

On the surface, Doug seems like the other rugged athletes in trail shoes and fleece jackets in mountain towns like ours. As you begin to talk to him, though, you notice a difference: he doesn't pose, and he doesn't act all hyped up on four cans of energy drinks. Instead he looks you right in the eye and takes the time to learn about you. You have to drag his own stories out of him.

I joke about how Doug doesn't wear "kneepads"—he never crawls around asking for money; he saves up to pay for most of his trips himself. When I ask him why he doesn't try to get sponsored, he says, "I'm not good enough." That's ridiculous, but it's also part of what makes Doug so refreshing: he just wants to have fun with his climbing and his friends, "in control of [his] own destiny."

In these days of hyper-consumption and overstimulation, the simplicity of just being with Doug is a gift. When a day of swinging tools in a nearby canyon is over, we'll sit and drink black coffee. He'll tease me about my latest "kneepad" incident, perhaps pointing at a glossy magazine cover on the kitchen table: "Conrad Anker saves the world—oh my god!" And as the comment ignites Doug's laugh, we'll both joke about how absurd and lucky our lives are—that we're living in Montana and that we get to go climbing all the time. A shadow in Doug's eyes might make me realize he's thinking about his disabled brother in New Jersey or about the people he's met in the Karakoram, struggling to survive, but somehow I'm always happier after coffee with him. And anyone who brings that kind of happiness to life is worth having around.

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