News from the Field, January 1997
Jeff Lowe is an idea man. when he's not scaling mammoth, ice-draped peaks--and sometimes when he is--the 46-year-old climber and entrepreneur can be found pondering his next pioneering route in the Himalayas or that new technical outerwear design he's working the kinks out of. But his attempts to market his creations haven't always turned out well. Take his plan almost a decade ago to bring World Cup sport climbing to the United States. That idea lost Lowe more than $300,000, left investors disgruntled, and had sport climbers clamoring for prize money that Lowe owed them. Or his clothing company, named Latok after a Himalayan spire he twice tried to climb. As debt mounted, his two older brothers wound up buying him out.
Perhaps all this explains why some in the climbing community are eyeing Lowe's latest invention--a 67-foot-high refrigerated ice-climbing tower, which will be unveiled at the end of this month during ESPN's Winter X Games at California's Snow Summit resort--a bit warily. "People tend to shake their heads when they hear one of his new ideas," says Malcolm Daly, founder of climbing-gear supplier Trango: USA Ltd. and a longtime friend of Lowe's. "You just can't help it."
In theory, at least, the invention is impressive. Hose it down with spray nozzles and ice begins to cake on the tower's steel chain-link surface, which is cooled by liquid nitrogen. "One side has overhanging ice," says Lowe, with obvious delight. "The other, a sheer face."
Certainly Lowe's tower has a clear advantage over existing artificial-icefall technology, which relies on old-fashioned arctic cold fronts for refrigeration: It can be plopped down just about anywhere. Which, the thinking goes, means ice climbing's ever-growing corps of devotees will have a convenient new place to practice, while the uninitiated will have an easier, less threatening way to give the sport a try. "Sometimes Jeff's ideas are too far ahead of their time," says Mark Wilford, a top climber who will compete on the new tower at the X Games. "But this could turn out to be really big for the sport."
Not to say that you should expect icefalls to sprout up like parking-lot bungee towers did in the late eighties. The cost, approximately $500,000 each, is prohibitive. Lowe has licensed ESPN to create the first tower (the construction is being handled by Oregon-based Entre Prises USA, the world's largest manufacturer of artificial climbing walls). Beyond that, however, the market doesn't look particularly bullish. At press time only two other potential customers, both of them ski resorts, had expressed interest.
But Lowe, who can often be found skulking about his second-story office in Nederland, Colorado, is downplaying the importance of marketing his new invention. "I'm not a promoter. My plan right now is to see how the interest among ski areas goes," he says. "If there's demand, I'll have a few more built." As you might expect, his friends are hoping he sticks with such a
conservative attitude since Lowe himself--not ESPN or Entre Prises--will have to cover the cost of building more towers. "People in the business have a lot of respect for him, but he's had as many misfires as successes," says Daly. "You know how it is: Sometimes the curve is going left while you're going right."
Copyright 1997, Outside magazine
Filed To: Snow Sports