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The Gravity Of Grief And Pressure In Extreme Outdoor Sports

Pondering the toll, Bozeman climbing legend Conrad Anker and psychotherapist Timothy Tate featured In latest New Yorker Magazine profile

Legendary Bozeman climber Conrad Anker and his friend, Bozeman psychotherapist and Mountain Journal columnist Timothy Tate profiled in latest New Yorker. The topic: How to deal with the grief and pressure that accompanies extreme athletes.  Graphic by August O'Keefe
Legendary Bozeman climber Conrad Anker and his friend, Bozeman psychotherapist and Mountain Journal columnist Timothy Tate profiled in latest New Yorker. The topic: How to deal with the grief and pressure that accompanies extreme athletes. Graphic by August O'Keefe
What drives extreme athletes or, sometimes, any outdoor-oriented person to court the perilous edge? 

What ethical and moral obligations do people have to loved ones should they be rendered widowed survivors? 

How much pressure are sponsored athletes under to keep pushing the envelope by outdoor gear manufacturers, and what kind of toll does it take on them psychologically? 

Why does our society seem to have such a weird voyeuristic fascination with desiring to witness people doing extraordinary things that could result in them perishing right in front of us? 

How do maturity and ego evolve over time?

When does self-centered yen give way to self-effacing zen?

These are not obtuse existential questions. They are examined in a March 2020 New Yorker profile of two Bozeman friends. 

The piece is titled "Survivor’s Guilt in the Mountains: Alpinists are intimately familiar with death and grief. A therapist thinks he can address the unique needs of these elite athletes."  It is written by New Yorker staff writer Nick Paumgarten, a former Bozeman resident. The story could just as well be featuring heroes and tragic figures in any mountain community where extreme sports are venerated.

Paumgarten tracks the career of famed mountaineer Conrad Anker and his pal, the local Bozeman psychotherapist Timothy Tate. Tate, who relates to the world as a sort of modern mystic, has been bestowed with a nickname by Anker. That moniker is “Gandalf”—as in the fictional wizard from J. R. R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings

Fascinating is that part of the background for Paumgarten’s investigation began with a series of pieces Tate had written for Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and his column, "Community Psyche." Some of Tate’s writings deal with the trauma of athletes being lost to the mountains and the grief that settles in hard as people search for meaning. He often invites readers to reflect on the ultimate personal inquiry: for what purpose are we here? When we head into the wilderness is it to lose ourselves or find ourselves? 

Amid communities where the social persona is all about being “forever young,"  with  perpetual streams of twentysomethings arriving to sow their wild oats and with a higher than normal percentage of middle aged Peter Pans, public discourse and introspection, Tate asserts, is often pushed aside. Be the best, the fastest, the most death-defying performer possible; do it for catharsis, for ego or death wish; do it because you think it’s important or for legacy or shattering limits and boundaries, or for an impetus only you can understand and appreciate.

Paumgarten has not produced his long riff to judge. He delves into the topes of adventure as seen or interpreted through the eyes of globally-iconic alpinist Anker and Tate, whose writings in Mountain Journal helped helped earn him a gig as a counselor to some of the most talented people in outdoor sport sponsored by The North Face. 

In one his columns, titled "A Tragedy In The Mountains Highlights Pain Facing The Young," Tate wrote: "Many young people feel intense pressure to live up to the mantle—burden—of seeking exceptionalism imposed upon them by their elders. Based on what I've witnessed, it has created overwhelming despair involving a fear of somehow being left behind. It is accompanied by sensations of profound loneliness and episodes of acute anxiety and depression. If this description resonates, know that you are not alone."

This piece caught the attention of Anker and via social media it generated hundreds of thousands of views around the world in a couple of weeks. He thought Tate was hitting upon something that no one else was really raising. 

Anker’s feats are legendary, exhilarating and they’ve led him to attend more memorials for fallen comrades than most could bear.  He was the best friend of the late Bozeman mountaineer Alex Lowe and was on the mountain Shishapangma in Tibet with Lowe when he died in an avalanche in October 1999. Anker is married to Lowe's widow Jenni and step-father to the couple's three sons. Definitely worth reading is Jenni Lowe-Anker's moving memoir Forget Me Not

Conrad Anker's own story is the kind of stuff ready made for a Hollywood biopic. He, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk were featured in the thrilling award-winning climbing documentary Meru, he's recorded a number of prestigious first ascents, he discovered the body of lost British climber George Mallory on Everest (the world's tallest peak that Anker has summited several times), and, among other accomplishments, he was leader of The North Face Climbing Team for 26 years. In 2016, he suffered a heart attack while attempting to ascend Lunag Ri in the Himalayas.

If I may acknowledge a bias here, Conrad is fundamentally a good caring person; a consummate introvert; a valued neighbor; a person who thinks deep about the problems of the world. And, as a physical specimen, he’s reached the highest rafters of the planet with skill and grit.  Now he's trying to make sense of it all.

Tate has been his confidante and blood brother. He’s had a therapy practice in downtown Bozeman for decades and he admits to being a “shamanistic seeker.” He is rapt with Carl Jungian’s theory of the archetype, and tales of the quest to find the holy grail and ancient religions, be they indigenous or druid. He is, in the truest sense, a character. 

His columns in Mountain Journal are popular with readers if not interpreted by some as Quixotic musings. They call attention to not only the bright lights of illumination that come with living in outdoor-oriented towns where a premium is placed on spectacular gestures of athletic hedonism, but there are downsides, the dark sides, the shadows and sometimes wailing pain of self-destruction. 

Paumgarten's New Yorker piece should be read as a companion to another he penned in 2016 about Yvon Chouinard titled “Patagonia’s Philosopher-King.” It’s a profile not only about Chouinard’s evolution as a business leader in promoting sustainability, but it features his reflections as one of the original fun hogs known for his prowess in climbing, paddling and angling.

“Eco-conscious fun-hoggery, as an ethos, a culture, a life style, and an industry, spans the world, and even rules some corners of it. Chouinard is its best-known avatar and entrepreneur, its principal originator and philosopher-king, and is as responsible as anyone for guiding it from the primitive tin-can and hobnail aesthetic of the mid-twentieth century to the slackline and dome-tent attitude of today,” Paumgarten wrote. 

He added: “He [Chouinard] has made it more comfortable, and more glamorous, to be outside, in harsh conditions. His influence is way out of proportion to his revenue footprint. He has mixed feelings about all this—some apprehension about the world he has made. He celebrates the spread of an ecological consciousness but laments the disappearance of danger and novelty, and the way that the wilderness has become a hobby, or even a vocation. He disdains ski areas ('They’re golf courses'), the idea of professional climbing ('I just don’t like the whole paid-climber thing'), and the proliferation of extreme sports as programming and marketing ('Red Bull’s in the snuff-film business'). 

Paumgarten went on, “When I ventured to mention how the catalogue sometimes irked me, he was quiet for a while, and then said, ‘When you see the guides on the Bighorn, they’re all out of central casting. Beard, bill cap, Buff around the neck, dog in the bow. Oh, my God, it’s so predictable. That’s what magazines like Outside are promoting. Everyone doing this ‘outdoor life style’ thing. It’s the death of the outdoors.’” 

I don’t want to give too much away about the Paumgarten piece on Anker and Tate except to say his goal wasn’t to perpetuate a cult a hero worship. He lays threadbare the human trajectory of soaring high and falling back again to earth. For some, it will be a hard and cursing read, viewed as an attack on fun hog culture. For others, an insightful glimpse into the compulsions of outdoor rock stars who seem larger than life. 

Paumgarten seems to explore the issue with equal measures awe and bewilderment. With Anker and friends, he has protagonists who are wrestling with the big questions, with the same ones we do—of how do we confront our own mortality, what’s the value of love and leaving behind more than we’ve taken or squandered? 

Tate has his own interpretations. Is he really Bozeman’s version of Gandalf?
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the summer 2022 book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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