Because happy feet are more likely to summit
If Conrad Anker could be any animal, he’d be a mountain goat. “I’ve seen them climb 5.8 for sure,” he tells me over the phone, relaxing after an early fall hike in mountains near his Bozeman, Montana home. “Their hooves are just incredible.”
As it turns out, Anker knows a surprising amount about hooves; why they’re suited for climbing, what they’re made of, and so on. But I didn’t call to talk about hooves, at least not exactly—I called to talk about feet. His feet.
One of the most prolific outdoorsmen of our time, Anker has guided climbing teams to the summit of Everest (on multiple occasions) and tracked herds of rare antelope across the barren plateaus of Tibet. He’s put up first ascents from Antarctica to Alaska, Yosemite to Zion. And if you ask him how he’s managed such success over the course of his career in the mountains, instead of looking up to count his lucky stars, he’ll probably glance down toward his feet.
“Our feet take our bodies to these beautiful places that refresh our souls,” he says. “So if we’re not taking good care of them, well, we should check our priorities.”
That’s the thing about Anker: He’s damn insightful. To him, taking thoughtful care of his feet is about much more than simply feeling comfortable on the wall or trail—it’s about eliminating one possible roadblock to time spent in wild places. And while it’d be easy to write off aches, dislodged toenails and other foot-related ailments as character building side effects that come with the territory, Anker isn’t willing to settle.
“I haven’t had a blister in a decade,” he tells me confidently, before diving into the finer points of his strict foot care regimen. From a borderline Bag Balm addiction and the right footwear to self-massage and full-on pedicures, here are Anker’s top foot care tips for climbers, hikers, and anyone else who values big days in the backcountry.
Keep ‘em Clean
Whether taking a short break during a trail run, between pitches on a big wall climb or preparing to bivvy for the night, Anker takes every opportunity to ensure his feet stay clean. “When I’m hiking and it’s time for lunch, it takes me like 15 seconds before my socks and shoes are off and my feet are airing out,” he explains. In addition to allowing his skin to breathe, doing this gives him the opportunity to shake any sand, pebbles or debris from his shoes and socks. It also promotes blood flow, something Anker says is key to comfort. “When you put your shoes back on, your feet are refreshed and your socks fit well.”
Before bed on multi-day outings, Anker also washes and sanitizes his feet. For the wash cycle, he uses a dash of biodegradable soap and whatever water source is available. “If I’m at altitude, I'm washing with snow and things like that,” he explains. After allowing his skin to dry completely, he enlists the help of some hand sanitizer to make sure bacteria aren’t getting too homely between his digits. “All you need is a pea-size drop of it, so you can get by with one of those little travel bottles on a 10-day trip, easy,” he explains.
Keep ‘em Lubed
Especially in harsh, cold weather environments, Anker is a firm believer that moisturized feet are warm feet, and that warm feet are happy feet. “The main thing about keeping your skin hydrated is that it stays supple,” he explains, “and it’s my belief is that it stays warmer that way.”
Because high school science class taught you to have a healthy skepticism for theories based solely on beliefs, you’ll be happy to know that I pressed Anker for some proof. His response? “I’ve never had frostbite. Not on the Meru expedition nor the three times to Everest or to Antarctica.” A pretty convincing set of data, given the prevalence of frostbite—and even missing toes—among seasoned mountaineers.
To keep his feet (and hands) moisturized, Anker never leaves home without a small tin of good salve. While he also uses normal lotion at home, salve is the best bang for the buck in the field, he says, because it’s light, compact and it stays on your feet. “At home, I'll put a lot of lotion on my feet and then put on a pair of socks that are kind of pitted out and just let them soak,” he says. In the mountains, he’ll apply a healthy coating of salve after cleaning his feet and before pulling that day's socks back on for the night.
Keep 'em Strong and Limber
Alpine climbing is tough on the body, and with wild temperature swings and just plain keeping yourself upright for long hours, perhaps no body part takes more of a beating than your feet. Apart from the aforementioned rigors, it’s safe to say most folks probably don't work on foot strength and flexibility as much as they should. Anker, of course, treats his feet like any other muscle group when it comes to training.
“When I’m stuck behind that guy on the airport escalator who’s blocking the whole thing, I do toe stands,” he explains, “And I also take time to wiggle my toes and circle my ankles in both directions whenever I’m sitting for long periods.” At the climbing gym, Anker sets aside time to boulder in slippers (yes, slippers) because their lack of support activates key muscles, strengthening his toes and feet in the process. Strong feet can take more of the beating you throw at them without putting up a fuss, says Anker, so exercises and stretches like these make the difference at the end of long days.
“Self-massaging is also key—I massage both my hands and my feet on a regular basis,” says Anker, who often utilizes a tennis or lacrosse ball at home to roll out achy foot muscles, but he’s got another trick for fresh and revitalized feet up his sleeve: pedicures. “It’s not very lumberjack-y or macho but I’m like, hey, having healthy hands and feet at my age is something I’m proud of. I put a lot of effort into it because my hands and feet are the connection that bring me the joy of climbing which is ultimately a cerebral thing.”
Keep 'em Comfy
While light and fast is a school of thought Anker certainly ascribes to, he’s willing to compromise when it comes to his feet. On a normal expedition, he’ll rotate through three to six pairs of socks in an effort to stay warm and comfortable. “A fluffy and soft sock not only acts as a cushion, it’s your insulation. It creates dead air space,” he explains. As for material, wool is the only way to go for Anker. “You can wear them two or three days whereas a synthetic or a cotton sock feels pitted-out a bit quicker.”
“Conrad is fanatical about his feet,” says Smartwool development director John Ramsey, who worked with Anker through over 20 prototypes to create his signature PhD Mountaineer sock. “It’s not very often you meet someone who likes socks as much I do.”
When one pair of socks feels beat-down, Anker pulls out a fresh pair. But a special set—which Anker refers to as "summit socks"—stays untouched until the expedition's most important day. "Socks are such a humble piece of gear," he says, "But as you and I both know, there's nothing quite like a never-worn pair. Especially after a long push toward the summit, that treat can be exactly what you need."