The Height of Perfection

Alex Lowe's genius was his style and spirit

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
The death of a mountaineer tends to elicit two distinct reactions. From the general public, a shrugging incomprehension of the "What did you expect?" school. From fellow climbers, sadness tinged with pride, accompanied by mutterings about good men going out with their boots on. Yet it's difficult to think about the life, now ended, of Alex Lowe without experiencing the tingling afterglow that comes when the curtain falls on an astonishing performance. He never approached the mythic status of a George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, or Reinhold Messner, but by the end of the 1990s Lowe had become the most admired and emulated climber of the post-Messner era.

That status derived partly from his elegant solution to mountaineering's millennial problem. In the 1950s and 1960s, climbers gathered first ascent trophies by the bushel. In the 1970s and 1980s, Messner led the new Alpine-style (small expeditions, fast summit runs, light equipment) assault on the Himalayas and created his own corner of immortality by pioneering Everest without oxygen, then solo, then topping all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. By the time Alex Lowe's generation entered the game, most of the obvious trophies had vanished from the table.

Armed with unrivaled talent and a metabolic drive that verged on the bizarre, Lowe showed that a first ascent—and he had a few of his own—was merely one of a mountain's myriad challenges, and often not the most interesting. The Everest-mad public has heard that he summited twice, but to Lowe that was the least of his accomplishments. Everest bored him; it held none of the riddles he delighted in solving on remote walls and unnamed ice smears, places that offered (in the preferred euphemism) "serious consequences" and little in the way of record-book glory. In the past three years he led a number of high-profile ascents—Antarctica's Rakekniven; Baffin Island's Great Sail Peak; the northwest face of the Karakoram's Great Trango Tower, possibly the biggest wall on earth—but he took just as much delight in creating a hairy, and often unrepeated, mixed climb in his own Hyalite Canyon backyard. "When Alex goes to these local spots he doesn't look at the regular routes," said Mark Synnott, who shared the rope with Lowe on their epic climb up Great Trango Tower earlier this year. "He looks in between the routes and asks, 'Has anyone done that?' "

No matter how jaw-dropping his routes, Lowe's real genius grew out of the way he combined physical accomplishments with an indomitable spirit. "There are two kinds of climbers," he once said. "Those who climb because their heart sings when they're in the mountains, and all the rest." He could be like a kid on the porch coaxing his friends to come out and play. "It was like Michael Jordan calling you up to shoot hoops," recalled Doug Chabot, a frequent recipient of Lowe's let's-go-climbing pitches. "He loved the game so much it didn't matter how good or bad you were, only that you were playing with him." Expedition organizers recruited his chronic optimism and humility as much as his climbing strength. In his earlier years guiding the Tetons, Lowe would tackle near-impossible routes on his days off. Like doing the Grand Traverse, a multi-day, multi-peak climb, in a single day, in sneakers. When asked where he'd been, he'd say, "Climbing."

"It was astonishing what he was able to do. And do safely. And do alone, without bragging," recalled Al Read, Lowe's boss at Exum Mountain Guides. "He wouldn't even tell you about it." Praise comes cheaply to the dead, but Lowe's colleagues were singing his praises long before the snow let loose on Shishapangma. His own standards were different: "The best climber," Lowe often declared, "is the one who has the most fun."

That sweetness and utter normality made the lore that went around about Lowe all the more enchanting. He lugged calculus texts on remote expeditions to amuse himself while tentbound. Pullups were a compulsion; he'd do 1,000 at an airport, or dig a snowpit in an Antarctic storm and start hoisting himself on a ski. He took coffee like a diabetic takes insulin. All true.

Also true was the internal struggle between his drive to climb and his love for his wife and three sons. At times Lowe seemed the perfect idol for our late twentieth-century outdoor adventure culture, the übermensch of the fleece-vested, SUV-driving, wilderness-loving society. He carried the mantle of mountaineering greatness and it weighed lightly on his shoulders. Yet privately he talked with his closest friends about the intractable problem: You can't hug your kids when hanging in a portaledge. He knew that to his boys, even a climbing god is simply Dad, and when he's not there he's just gone.

Almost exactly a year before his death, Lowe relaxed on the bank of the Gallatin River with his longtime friend Jack Tackle. They talked of friends they'd lost, shared a postclimb beer, and reminisced about Mugs Stump, the late American mountaineer whose visionary ascents inspired Lowe, Tackle, Lowe's friend Conrad Anker, and an entire generation of climbers. Stump was killed on Denali in 1992.

"I wonder," said Lowe, "if it's a function of the fact that they went off the deep end that we look back and say, 'Yeah, they were pushing it maybe a little too hard.' I don't know."

"I never felt that way about Mugs," replied Tackle.

His friends and colleagues rarely felt that way about Lowe, either. If he pushed higher, faster, and harder than those around him it was because his body and mind, always in calculated control, allowed it. The climbing world, amazed at the climbs he was doing at age 40, anticipated watching him for the next ten years. Lowe, typically, was looking further. "When I'm 70 or 80 I'm still going to be doing good climbs," he said last year. "It's going to be fun to the bitter end." And it was.

R O C K   S T A R 
"We're all at this one level," conrad anker once told Outside. "And then there's Alex." Lowe, who came of age after the classic peaks had been summited, devoted himself to first ascents and speed climbs of the world's most difficult routes. His greatness, say mountaineers, lies not so much in getting to the top as in getting up in ways that were once considered impossible (and at a speed that may never be equaled). A partial résumé:

Great Trango Tower, Pakistan (July 1999) First ascent of the northwest face of this 20,500-foot peak, the largest big wall on earth (with Jared Ogden and Mark Synnott).

Great Sail Peak, Baffin Island (May 1998) First ascent of the most remote big wall on earth. Entailed sustained A4+ aid climbing.

Rakekniven, Antarctica (January 1997) First ascent of this 2,500-foot blade in sub-40 degree temperatures (with Anker, Jon Krakauer, Rick Ridgeway, Michael Graber, and Gordon Wiltsie).

Troubled Dreams, Mount Rundle (Spring 1996) First free ascent of one of the most difficult mixed climbs in the Canadian Rockies.

Ak-Su, Kyrgyzstan (June 1995) First free ascent of this 4,000-foot face. Entailed sustained 5.12 climbing (with Lynn Hill).

Khan Tengri, Kyrgyzstan (August 1993) Solo ascent of a 22,950-foot mountain in 10 hours and 8 minutes. Broke the world speed climbing record by four hours.

Everest, Nepal (1993, 1994) Summited twice, from the South Col and the Kangshung Face.

Grand Teton, North Face (December 1992) First midwinter solo ascent on this classic mixed climb. Climbers say that Lowe's time (20 hours) may never be beaten.

Kwangde Nup, Nepal (April 1989) A new, Grade VI mixed route on the north face, topping out at 19,544 feet (with Steve Swenson).

The Grand Traverse , Tetons (August 1988) The previous record for this 11-peak route was 20 hours. Lowe did it in less than nine.

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