Robert Mads Anderson '81: To the heights

By Sandra Sarr

The day after he climbed the platform steps to collect his Puget Sound diploma at commencement in 1981, Robert Mads Anderson flew south to the Peruvian Andes, where he made a different kind of ascent, this one solo, up a 22,200-foot peak called Huascaran. He’d already conquered some of North America’s toughest climbs: the Diamond, El Capitan, and Half Dome. Today, at age 46, the advertising executive, husband, and father of two has no plans to stop.

“I will climb as long as I’m alive, though probably not Everest when I’m 80,” says Anderson, who set out in 1991 to conquer the so-called Seven Summits, the tallest peak on each continent, an adventure he chronicled in two books, Summits and To Everest Via Antarctica.

These days, you’ll find Anderson in New York City, where he is senior vice president/group creative director at the international advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding and his clients include Hewlett-Packard and the IRS. But sitting in his office one block from Madison Square Garden, Anderson dreams of Antarctica. Asia too. In coming years, he’ll return to Mount Everest, as group expedition leader with Jagged Globe, a mountaineering company based in the U.K.

Balancing a business career with the mountains’ call poses an ongoing challenge, but he’s been fortunate to work with companies—including Ogilvy & Mather in New Zealand and Australia—who value his skills and support his outdoor adventures.

“It is never easy. When an opportunity presents itself, I’ll think, ‘it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.’ So I have to go, and I work the rest out.”

He’s noticed that “the opportunity of a lifetime” seems to come along about every year or two. But that has its advantages: An ongoing curiosity and a lot of self-confidence are what he takes off the mountain and back to his office. He says living through tough situations puts things in perspective.

“When I go into the mountains, I am part of those mountains. When I work in New York City, I am a part of that world, too,” says Anderson, who has made his home at one time or another on four continents.

After 30 years of climbing, with more in store, Anderson continues to challenge himself.

“Human beings need challenges, and in America, we lack them. We’re not exactly being chased by saber-toothed tigers these days. Most of the stress and strain in this country and other Western countries is manufactured. Climbing challenges me, particularly when the physical, the mental, and the spiritual all come together. Climbing leads me to the point that’s as close to the essence of my being as I can possibly get. You’re never more alive than when you’re facing death,” says Anderson, who has encountered climbers who remain frozen forever on a mountain.

Climbers talk about pushing past fear, but Anderson isn’t afraid to acknowledge fear as a familiar friend in the mountains. He says it’s important to understand what’s creating the fear, because there is a reason for it.

“It’s telling you something is not right. You learn to trust your instincts. You get used to listening and figuring out what’s at the root of the fear and then managing that, which sometimes means turning around.” Like the time on Everest in ’88 when Anderson, blinded by snow and wind, was a mere one hour and 300 vertical feet from the top. He considered pushing on, but knew he’d die trying to get down. So he retreated. In 2003, Anderson reached the top of the world.

The level of danger he accepts now is far less than when he was younger, his style evolving from one of speed and risk to a more measured, interactive experience. Soloing suited him when he was younger. He still goes off and climbs mountains alone, but now he mostly takes groups and says experience counts for more than physical fitness.

“I probably wouldn’t have been a very good guide when I was younger. I was very impatient and driven to get up some of the mountains I did. The danger level I’d accept then is far greater than I’d ever accept now. As I get older, much of the joy comes from transferring my knowledge to others and seeing them succeed.”

With the Seven Summits and about 100 first-ascents achieved, including the 1988 Everest Kangshung face expedition, Antarctica called to him strongly. In 2003 he returned there, to forge a new route up Vinson Massif at midnight, on the eve of a new year. On the continent of ice, all distractions disappeared, and a quiet peace settled into Anderson’s soul.

“It’s as far removed as you can possibly get from everything on Earth and still be here. It’s not a continent where one can live for long periods without support. To go into that environment and to climb in it, you realize a lot about yourself, whether you want to or not,” he says.

Anderson believes that “everything you learn is important. No matter how obscure or varied a subject, particularly at a place like Puget Sound.” Follow your intuition and your dreams instead of listening to what you think should be done or what someone else thinks you should do, he’d advise young people.

“I tried everything from scriptwriting to pottery to marketing—my education provided such a good background so that I could do anything—it was exactly what I needed. The varied classes I took helped because advertisers write about so many different things. A liberal arts degree serves you well.

“Quite a few of us who ended up at Puget Sound could have gone to Ivy League colleges back east or to Stanford. I wanted to go somewhere that offered a great education that wasn’t considered ‘the scene’ or have a reputation like that. If you’re a climber, you’re more counterculture. If I’d been in college 10 years earlier I probably would’ve been a hippie, but I was a bit late for that.”

He fell in love with the Northwest while visiting his sister, Karla Schaefer, who went to PLU. “My father, Mads Anderson, a banker, was very supportive. He said, ‘You can go wherever you want,’ and he had the means to help me do that,” says Anderson, who has lived the motto on the UPS seal: “To the Heights.”