The Gift of Inspiration

A photographer recalls an extraordinary friend

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
The sudden, unexpected death of Alex Lowe hit me nearly as hard, emotionally, as the random, capricious avalanche that buried him. Alex was one of my best friends, and we shared powerful experiences, both in the mountains and the wider world, that gave us a special bond.

I first met Alex six years ago at a slide show he gave in Bozeman. My family had just relocated there and his had just moved back. My wife, Meredith, had already met Jennifer, and our kids played together. I wanted to meet this character, who was just starting to become a legend. What ensued, however, was likely the worst lecture I had ever suffered through. Despite the underexposed, out-of-focus pictures and disjointed narration, I knew instantly that he was a unique and gifted soul. It left me awestruck to see how much he changed in ensuing years.

Alex was a tremendously fun guy to be around. We'd laugh at his superhuman fitness and the intense energy that just buzzed from his persona. You might call him the greatest climber in the world—much as he publicly hated that moniker, he probably knew it was true, and was honored—but he was also just Alex, a practical joker and a raconteur who could make almost anyone seem like a special friend, from the president of the National Geographic Society to a yak driver in Tibet.

Alex inspired almost everyone who encountered him to try just a little harder, to take that extra step. Some of my own life's proudest accomplishments would have been impossible without him. Consider our climbing expedition to Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, which became my first cover story for National Geographic. It's a long tale, hatched in a bar in Bozeman, but it shaped both of our lives irrevocably. I put together the dream and the logistics, Jon Krakauer wrote the words, but Alex and Conrad Anker did the climbing. Every morning I awoke scared to death, wondering if I would survive the day. But as Alex brewed the daily ration of coffee and exuded optimism, the overwhelming power of his presence gave all of us the confidence we needed to follow him up the ropes. On that expedition—and others to follow—he forced me to create the best work of my life. In the months before his death, Alex was just spreading his own wings as a communicator. He returned home from his most recent, astonishingly difficult, ascent of Pakistan's Great Trango, radiating excitement—not just about the climbing, but also about the reaction to his words on the Internet. He had found a voice he never knew he had, and mountaineering has suffered a huge loss for not being able to hear what he was about to say.

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