The Man Who Matched Our Mountains

An avalanche in Tibet takes the life of Alex Lowe

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

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, 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."