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Famed mountaineer Conrad Anker, star of ‘Meru,’ shows U.S. national parks' importance in new film

American mountaineer Conrad Anker is a surprisingly laid-back guy for someone who led the three-person team to the first-ever summit of the formidable Shark's Fin of Meru Peak (also starring in the doc that won a prestigious Audience Award at Sundance last year). He was also the man who found the body of climber George Mallory on his first summit of Mt. Everest.

He's climbed everywhere from Antarctica to Patagonia but is also a major advocate for national parks, setting renowned climbing routes at Denali and Zion. He's one of the stars of "National Parks Adventure," which opened last month at Omnimax theatres across the country and at the Saint Louis Science Center.

What’s it like to shoot an Omnimax movie while hanging off of a cliff face?

The film showcases some of the most awe-inspiring national parks in the United States as the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. While there are vistas from mainstays like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the film also takes viewers inside lesser known parks like the Devil’s Tower Monument set to the narration of Robert Redford.

Anker, who has worked with production company MacGillivray Freeman before, is one of three people featured in the film alongside adventure photographer Max Lowe and artist Rachel Pohl. The process of climbing for film adds an extra layer of pressure that isn’t there when you’re climbing for yourself, Anker said.

“You have to be on point when the camera is running,” Anker said on “St. Louis on the Air.” “You’re on your game.”

The camera for Imax film is about 300 pounds and takes three people to move it, costing $1000 per minute to shoot alone (let alone edit and produce). The result is better resolution and color than digital movies.

“I like that pressure, for me that’s what climbing is,” Anker said. “When you’re on the edge of the cliff, you can’t afford to make a mistake. I focus and I do well. That’s my nature. Rather than the pressure making me slip up, it makes me perform better. That’s why I like climbing because I can’t make a mistake …  I’ll break my ankle, I’ll get injured. I’m lucky I haven’t had any mishaps in the time I’ve been climbing.

“Having a big camera and helicopter above me, it is like ‘Yeah, let’s.’”

Conrad Anker got his climbing start in national parks

Anker started climbing in national parks, which is part of why they hold a special place in his heart. He grew up in central California, about 20 minutes from the park gate of Yosemite National Park. His family, going back five generations to 1853, went to the park often and that’s where he started climbing with his father.

“We would take mules and horses into the high country every summer for two weeks and hike around,” Anker said. “As a kid I would float sticks down the creek and we’d catch trout. That was my foundation.

“My climbing started with my father and his buddies, going up mountains. Then, I ventured on to steeper terrain using rope and hardware. That was at age 14 and I’m 53 now. I think this is all I know how to do.”

For Anker, his world-class climbing career would not have been possible without the use of national parks.

“Climbing is done on public lands,” Anker said. “If I wanted to be a bowler, I would go to a bowling alley and I’d pay $4.95 and I’d bowl. If you want to go climbing or hiking in the forest, if you want to be an ornithologist, enjoy sunsets, we do that on public land. Twenty percent of the U.S. is public land which is overseen by the Department of Interior and part of that is our national park system.

“We can see this as the crown jewels of our public property that is shared by everyone.”

Anker recalled a particularly harrowing experience climbing on Denali in Alaska, where he hung in a portaledge for seven days, slowly running out of food during a snowstorm. He also said he was surprised to find a new park to climb in while shooting “National Parks Adventure,” in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where ice climbing is quite popular. Its name is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Anker said that the U.S. national parks system was “our greatest idea and could also be our greatest export.” Through his climbing travels around the world, he’s seen places like China, Vietnam, Nepal and India begin to build national parks to preserve ecosystems, create spaces for citizens to relax and rejuvenate and drive tourism to economic benefit.

Issues facing the U.S. National Park system

There are 410 national park units in the U.S. and 59 of those are nature parks, which are depicted in the film. Anker said the film was an introduction meant to inspire people to get out to the parks…not necessarily to substitute their existence.

Currently, the national park system is facing an $11.5 billion backlog in maintenance and finds itself regularly in the middle of budget cut discussions. Anker said that he would like to see more people advocate for the parks by writing to their elected officials asking for the budget to still support them.

Another issue facing America’s national parks is climate change. Anker said that Glacier National Park, known for its huge ice formations, has thirty fewer glaciers than 100 years ago. He has also seen animal migrations change and trees changing shape to adapt to shorter winters. He says it is the responsibility off those who visit the parks and, in his case, climb in them, to spread the word about what is happening.

Related: St. Louis experts highlight the impacts of climate change, immediate need for adjustment

“There’s this silly old Bazooka gum wrapper that I got many years ago that read ‘How do mountains hear us?’ ‘Mountain-ears,” Anker said. “We are the ears and the eyes of the mountains. They can’t speak but what we can see, change happening up there, we can share with other people.”

“For those listening to this radio show, it will be okay,” Anker said. “But what will be it be like 200 years from now? That’s a big challenge because our generation knows things are changing. We can either further ignore the facts or we can try to work collectively to bring about change.”

Watch a clip from “National Parks Adventure” here:

You can catch the movie at the Saint Louis Science Center through Labor Day. More information available here.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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