Before he was a world-renowned mountain climber, Conrad Anker was an undergraduate at the University of Utah. A California native, Anker was attracted to Utah by the variety of outdoor activities that the Beehive State has to offer.
“If you’re a climber or skier, [the U] is great,” he said.
Once at the U, Anker found his place in the Parks, Recreation and Tourism program. Before he graduated in 1988, Anker had started his own clothing company and climbed Gurney Peak of the Kichatna Mountains in Alaska. He also actively protested apartheid in South Africa.
Along with other students at the U, Anker was part of a worldwide student movement against the minority rule by white South Africans in the traditionally and predominantly black country. Protesting U students demanded that the U divest from its South Africa-related investments.
“South Africa was still under apartheid,” Anker said, “so that was an issue that was relevant to students while I was there.”
Attempting to publicize the issue in a way U administrators couldn’t ignore, Anker and others assembled a shantytown on campus as a visual representation of the unjust situation in South Africa.
In a statement at a hearing for the United States Student Movement Against Apartheid at the United Nations Headquarters in 1986, a student representative from the U recalled that the “shanty forced a public re-opening of the divesture issue and sparked interest and discussion from the university and community.”
The movement was met with outrage and opposition from the night the first shanty was built. Camps were repeatedly vandalized and at one point, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the protesters.
On a particularly destructive night, one activist’s apartment was broken into and upturned. “His walls, carpeting, clothing, furniture and a large collect of rare first edition books were covered with the word ‘Pinko’ in spray paint, shampoo and toilet bowl cleanser,” the U.N. statement reads.
In the end, the shanty strategy was successful and U administrators agreed to divest from any investments benefitting the South African government.
“We camped out on it,” Anker remembers. “We got the campus to divest.”
Anker said student movements today remind him of his activism in the ‘80s — like the fossil fuel divestment campaign.
Recently, U students and faculty began pressuring the U to stop investing in fossil fuel. In May 2016, the Academic Senate narrowly voted in favor of divestment. The Board of Trustees, however, later reversed the decision.
Anker is in favor of divestment and said climate change is too important an issue to ignore or marginalize.
“Climate change is real,” he said. “We should stop debating whether it is real science or not. It’s real. It’s happening. Look at the air quality in Salt Lake — it’s unbearable.”
In Anker’s view, students play an important role in encouraging change in society. They also have an obligation to look out for future generations, he said.
“Never has the opportunity been better for students who are graduating,” Anker said. “But, at the same time, the responsibilities are more immense than what they might have been.”
He believes this obligation applies particularly to those in the U.S. “Realize that, living in the United States, we are extremely privileged, and that there should be a sense of responsibility for us to be agents of positive change.”
Anker’s brand of activism is an optimistic one. His life motto is “Be kind. Be good. Be happy.” He highlighted the benefits of seeing things from “both sides of the issue” and approaching matters with a bipartisan outlook.
“We’re not going to bring about change by being bombastic and angry and divided,” he said. “We’re going to bring about change by all of us coming together and listening to the other side.”
In February, Patagonia, Peak Design and other outdoor recreation companies announced they would boycott Utah’s Outdoor Retailer show in retaliation to the state’s environmental policies. Soon after, following a sit-down with Gov. Gary Herbert, the organizers of the convention announced they would move the event altogether.
Anker disagrees with the decision to pull the show from Utah. Along with companies like REI and The North Face, Anker believes the decision will hurt small companies and Utah’s tourism market.
“Tourism drives the economy, and it’s in a sustainable way,” Anker said. “I think we can get more change done by being collaborative, keeping the show and having a discussion with the elected officials of Utah. If we pull out, for many of the conservative people, they’re like, ‘Hey, we won, we don’t care.’”
Anker admitted that he is sad to see Outdoor Retailer leave Utah, which he said is “a great place to have the trade show.”
“I like it because I’ve got Utah roots — it’s always been a part of where I’m at, and to see the trade show leave there, I feel we aren’t moving the cause of being more environmentally aware,” Anker said.
Political views aside, Anker, who will speak at the U’s commencement in May, said students should be involved with what is happening in their communities. “Care about your life and your environment,” he said.
As a climber, academic and activist, Anker has both literally and figuratively lived life on the edge. After suffering a heart attack in November 2016, he has learned to appreciate the mundane aspects of life. “I was like, damn. I could’ve died. I probably should have died,” Anker said, “but I survived. And because of that [I] approach life as every day being a gift.”