Alex Lowe

An avalanche in Tibet takes the life of Alex Lowe

The Man Who Matched Our Mountains

On October 5, Alex Lowe, the 40-year-old mountaineer from Bozeman, Montana, whom this magazine called the world's finest climber, perished in an avalanche on the slopes of Shishapangma, a 26,398-foot peak in southern Tibet, along with Dave Bridges, a 29-year-old climber from Aspen, Colorado. The loss of Lowe is the most serious blow to the American climbing community since the Everest disaster of 1996, although this latest tragedy is not a tale of controversy and error, but simple happenstance—what some call an act of God.

Lowe's signature style involved seeking out challenges that balanced originality, audacity, and risk. Pure climbing, he told mountaineering writer Mark Kroese just before departing for Tibet, encompasses "the potential of being out of control while solving problems correctly and keeping things in control." His final trip, however, was an exception to the pattern. The nine-member Shishapangma expedition was not supposed to be an epic confrontation with risk; it was conceived as a raucous, high-altitude excursion, although its serious mission was to accomplish the first American ski descent of an 8,000-meter peak.

The group departed Los Angeles on September 11 for Shishapangma, the 13th-highest mountain on earth. On September 21, their first night at base camp, team leader Andrew McLean began suffering from pulmonary edema. Almost casually, Lowe performed the last in a long series of rescues by escorting his friend to a lower elevation. McLean recovered and, a few days later, rejoined the expedition.

By September 26, the team had completed its approach up Tibet's Chongdui Valley and established an advance base camp at 18,000 feet on a glacial moraine next to a shallow tarn. The centerpiece of "Advanced Beach Camp," as they called it, was a two-meter dome tent stocked with CDs, chessboards, and a makeshift espresso bar where Lowe prepared lattes each morning. When not climbing or skiing, the group used two satellite phones to send daily dispatches to Seattle-based Web site MountainZone.com, which along with The North Face was a major sponsor.

The team's Internet diary reflected the ebullience in camp. Lowe's own contributions were often eloquent and heart-felt, while the photographs conveyed whimsy and irreverence: Lowe using a piton to spoon Top Ramen soup into his mouth because someone had left the silverware at base camp; Conrad Anker, who had found Mallory's body on Everest just four months earlier, flinging a Frisbee; a recently emptied Scotch bottle. "This was one of the best cybercasts we'd ever done," says Peter Potterfield, editor and publisher of MountainZone, "because they were having such a good time and the fun was coming through. We expected it to go on for another month."

On the morning of October 5, the 25th day of the expedition, seven members of the party left advance base camp to investigate the 6,000-foot-long chute that they planned to ski down. Lowe, Bridges, and Anker had taken a route that placed them on a glacier several hundred feet above the other climbers, when more than a mile above them the mountaintop, heavy with its monsoon accumulation of snow, started to move. A sharp crack split the air as a huge swath of snow and ice began to sluice down the southern flank.

Lowe was the first to notice the massive slide, which McLean later speculated may have been triggered by leeward wind loading. Initially the avalanche appeared to pose no threat, and several climbers began snapping pictures with their cameras. Soon, however, the climbers realized that they were in its path. "The compression of time one experiences when you're a small person underneath this huge avalanche is amazing," Anker later wrote in a MountainZone posting. By the time the wave of snow tore over a hanging serac above the glacier field, it had accelerated to over 100 miles an hour and had spread across 500 feet of the slope.

The lower group, which included McLean, Hans Saari (a ski mountaineer from Bozeman), climber Kristoffer Eriksen (also from Bozeman), and Mark Holbrook (a ski mountaineer from Salt Lake City), ducked behind large rocks and braced for the impact. Lowe's group, which was completely exposed, had no choice but to run. Anker scrambled to the left. Just before the slide struck, he looked back and saw Bridges and Lowe running side by side down the slope. Anker flung himself to the ground, jammed his ice ax into the snow, and "was hit by a massive [wall] of ice and snow," he wrote.

Thirty seconds later, Anker extracted himself from beneath a foot of avalanche debris, amazed to be alive. He had a broken rib, a torn shoulder muscle, and was bleeding from gashes on his head. Lowe and Bridges were nowhere to be seen. Anker combed the slope for signs of his missing friends—a glove, a ski pole, a boot—but there was nothing.

The members of the second group had been severely buffeted by the avalanche but were unhurt. By the time McLean joined Anker, it was too late. The two men embraced. Saari and Eriksen, following, urgently asked if everyone was OK. "No," Anker said. "Dave and Alex are dead." Over the next 20 hours, the team conducted a fruitless search for the lost climbers.

That afternoon, Anker got on the satellite phone and broke the news to Lowe's wife, Jennifer. Within hours the news had spread throughout the climbing community. The arbitrary nature of the accident somehow intensified the shock; Lowe's incandescent vitality and unequalled ability had made him seem invincible in far more dangerous circumstances. The history of mountaineering, however, reveals a calculus that has claimed the lives of other prudent and skilled climbers who, like Lowe, rarely made mistakes. Instead, they succumbed to the "objective" risks, the variables that lie outside the realm of anticipation or control. "People referred to Alex as the Secret Weapon," says Alison Osius, president of the American Alpine Club. "When other climbers found out he was going along on a first ascent, the response would be, 'That's cheating.' He was so strong, and he had such good judgment, and he could be tricky if he had to be. But on Shishapangma, it's almost as if the mountain cheated."

 

The Height of Perfection

Alex Lowe's genius was his style and spirit

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.

Topping Out: David Bridges, 1970–1999

News accounts of Alex Lowe's death mentioned that a "cameraman" had also perished in the avalanche on Shishapangma, but the reports failed to do justice to a mountaineer who was about to join the top rank of climbers. As the expedition's designated high-altitude videographer, David Bridges, 29, had the most hypoxic job on the mountain. He would start his day far behind the frontline team, taping Tibetan vistas, and then dash ahead to shoot the other climbers as they passed by. He was the only member of the elite crew capable of performing this task in the thin atmosphere of an 8,000-meter peak while keeping pace with Lowe and Conrad Anker, two of the fastest climbers in the world. And thus the occasion of Bridges's demise offers an oddly fitting tribute: He died alongside Lowe because he was strong enough and skilled enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bridges was 11 years younger than Lowe, but his work as an expedition cameraman was only one facet of a fast-rising career that planted him firmly in his elder's bootsteps. He grew up in Lake Arrowhead, California, learned to climb at Joshua Tree and Yosemite, and summited Mount McKinley in 1989, at the age of 19. Just four years later he led a successful American expedition up the South Spur of K2 and went on to summit a string of Himalayan giants, including Annapurna IV and Makalu. Bridges didn't just climb, however: He also soared. As a winner of the national paragliding championships in 1995 and 1996, he was one of the finest paragliding pilots in the world.

Bridges lived in Aspen, Colorado, where his training routine involved sprinting from his house to the 11,212-foot top of Aspen Mountain, a 3,300-foot climb. Extreme skier Chris Davenport recalls taking part in one of these runs when Bridges was training for Baruntse, a 7,000-meter peak in Tibet. "Dave's best time to date had been 48 minutes, so he wanted to break 47," says Davenport. "But he came in at 48 minutes again. I told him we'd try again next time, thinking tomorrow or next week. Instead, Dave went down, ate lunch, and ran up again that afternoon. He succeeded." Says Joel Koury, a climber who knew Bridges since high school, "Dave led as full a life as any 70-year-old I've ever met."

The Gift of Inspiration

A photographer recalls an extraordinary friend

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.

Brightness Falls

Fellow climbers remember, and say good-bye

His presence made other people better. You didn't even have to be on the same mountain or on the same ridge or on the same rope with him. You tried harder simply because you knew that he was around. To me, that was the shining brightness of Alex Lowe.
Marc Twight
 

We had many conversations about trying to do too much in our lives. He wasn't just Alex the engineer, Alex the mathematician. Alex the family man. But when you have the energy and the drive that he did, if you don't try to do it all and live life to the fullest, then what are you doing? He wore me out whenever we were together, but never compromised that intensity of spirit.
Jack Tackle

We were on a ledge 1,700 feet up Great Sail Peak, on Baffin Island, camping out in some bad weather. We were all just sitting around, but Alex had built himself this small gym out of boulders and stuff on the other side of the ledge. He had put up a pullup bar, had bungees to do curls, and built up rocks so he could do dips. He went through camp with his gym shorts on, going tent to tent, asking if anyone wanted to work out with him. We all huddled in our bags, laughing. The way he channeled that energy, he had so much more than most people.
Mark Synnott

Alex was pure Montana in an age of Hollywood. He showed us that you can be great—even the best in the world—and not lose character or genuine passion. It takes a lot to keep the flame burning so hot. Alex kept his own burning, and at the same time, he was the one who started the fire in a lot of others.
Todd Skinner

He did everything 120 percent. When he went to the gym, he didn't just go to the gym, he did 120 percent of the gym. And then he'd drink coffee—a quadruple latte, not just a coffee. And then he'd play with his kids with intensity. He's one of the greatest climbers ever. Yet he didn't really have an ego.
Doug Chabot

I'd climb with him in Yosemite, do a big wall at El Cap, and people would recognize him going into the climbing shop. They'd come up and ask, 'Are you Alex Lowe?' And he'd go, 'Yeah.' The typical worship situation, which Alex felt real uncomfortable with. But within a few minutes, he'd always get the discussion worked around towards what that person was doing. Didn't matter what level or what they were climbing. He'd be asking them, "How was it?"
Steve Swenson

I have a hard time writing about Alex—we all loved him. I've always told friends who inquired about whether we were related, "No, he's superior genetic material." And in reality it was not a joke. I enjoyed climbing more with Alex than anyone else. His pleasure at being in the mountains and solving their puzzles added intensely to my own experience. Alex compressed more climbing into any five years than I did in my entire career.
George Lowe

We lost a great friend, but the mountains have the last word. And they always speak loudly.
Jim Williams, Senior Guide, Exum

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