An Expedition at the Dawn of the Climbing ‘Gravy Train’
In his new book, Mark Synnott offers a personal history of climbing, including a tense but revealing expedition to Pakistan with legendary climber Alex Lowe
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The rope yawned alongside the knife-edge ridge like a giant smiley face. Tied to its end, one hundred feet away to my right, the world’s premier alpinist, Alex Lowe, was spreadeagled between slender pinnacles of granite. The opposing outward force of Alex’s hands and feet pressing against the grainy rock created just enough friction to hold him in place. He had been moving fast, but he now appeared stuck, stymied by a crux move harder than anything yet encountered on the nearly 6,000-foot wall we had climbed to get to this point.
A few minutes earlier, Alex had passed up a spot where I thought he could have placed a piece of protection, an anchor in the rock that would have made the fall he was now staring down a lot less dangerous. Why didn’t he place that piece? I wondered. Did he not see it? If it had been my other climbing partner, Jared Ogden, I would have yelled, “Hey, get something in,” but I hadn’t said anything because Alex and I weren’t getting along, and I was afraid he’d think, once again, that I was bossing him around. There was also a distinct possibility that he was deliberately making the pitch more dangerous because it was faster not to stop and dink around with gear. I had figured that he’d find a way to anchor his rope when the climbing got hard, but that didn’t happen; the drooping strand of orange cord between him and our belay was attached to nothing.
Jared, roosting beside me with a leg on each side of the narrow ridge, held Alex’s rope in his belay plate. He looked at me, wide-eyed, and his expression said it all: Alex is pushing it a touch too far. The ridge was like the back of a Stegosaurus, with rocky pinnacles protruding like horns from its spine. On both sides, sheer rock walls dropped almost vertically. The virgin west summit of Great Trango Tower, 20,260 feet above sea level, loomed only 75 feet above Alex’s head. I was a stone’s throw away from a place I had been dreaming about for half of my life, since that fateful day I first learned of this magnificent monolith in the Wellesley Free Library.
I willed myself not to calculate how far Alex would fall if he slipped, whether his rope would cut on the sharp spine of the ridge if he fell off the other side, or how we could possibly get him down if he was critically injured this high up on the mountain. It’s Alex Lowe out there, Mark, I said silently to myself. He won’t blow this. But the cramp in the left side of my chest clamped even tighter. I knew that Alex had already taken three big falls on the route so far, that he had been knocked unconscious by rockfall on pitch 13, that only one day earlier he had been so ill we weren’t sure if he would be joining us on this bid for the summit. Alex, despite the hype that surrounded him, was human, just like Jared and me. And if he inched too far out on that limb, and it broke off, there was a decent chance he was taking all of us with him.
Alex Lowe was a man custom-built for such superhuman feats. His upper body was triangular, bulging arms hanging from broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist. His outsize, scar-covered hands often sported “gobies” and “flappers,” climber‐speak for the cuts and flaps of skin you get from stuffing your paws into rough-sided cracks. His barrel chest housed a set of lungs that could have sped him through the Tour de France had he chosen to ride bikes instead of climb mountains. In 1993, he was invited by the Russian Mountaineering Federation to take part in a kamikaze-style climbing competition on a 23,000‐foot peak in Central Asia called Khan Tengri. The field included many of the best mountaineers in Russia. Alex didn’t just win; he crushed the previous best time by more than four hours—a record that still stands today.
In March of 1999, a few months before we left for Trango, the cover of Outside magazine featured Alex, with his craggy jaw and blue steel eyes twinkling beneath bushy brown eyebrows, standing astride a virgin spike of rock in Antarctica. The caption read: “The World’s Best Climber.” It was a moniker he scoffed at, famously saying around the same time, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.” His enthusiasm and love for climbing could be contagious—if you could keep up with him. He more or less held his climbing partners to the same standards he set for himself, so if you weren’t getting up at 4 a.m., downing a pot of jet-black coffee, and then cranking off pyramids of 400 pull-ups before breakfast, you might find climbing with him a bit intimidating.
Alex wasn’t going to back down, so he pushed off with his right arm and leg, unhitching himself from the crucifix-like stem and falling toward the pinnacle on his left. His body swung through the thin air, and just as gravity began to exert its inexorable pull, his right hand slapped onto a crystalline knob. At the same moment, he threw his right leg around the backside of the pinnacle. His body sagged, but Alex dug in with his right heel, straightened up, and stayed stuck on.
With no actual holds on which to stand or pull himself up this arête, he began a complex dance of intricate oppositional movement: one hand gripped the edge while the other slapped around the corner, fingertips groping blindly for the tiniest crease or edge. He smeared his toes against any slight depressions or nubs, countering the pulling forces of his arms. A well-placed heel hooked around the arête gained him enough purchase to reposition his hands a few feet higher. He scummed whatever square inch of his body he could—calf, hip, forearm—against the rock. Alex had simian intuition and this “body English,” as climbers call it, allowed him to grip a smidge less forcefully, thus saving precious kilojoules of energy. In any setting this would have ranked among one of the more impressive pieces of climbing I had ever seen. Here, at 20,000 feet, in cold, wintry conditions, after weeks of strenuous climbing, I was witnessing a masterpiece. He was now less than a body length away from easy ground, and I allowed myself to exhale. But then, on what would have been his last flurry of sublimely played notes, a string broke.
Alex Lowe was a man custom-built for such superhuman feats.
A tiny trickle of water, dripping from a dollop of snow sitting atop the pinnacle, had soaked the last few feet of the arête. Alex kept reaching over his head, but his fingers couldn’t find a grip on the wet rock. He shot a quick glance between his legs, and all he could see was a bulging rock 20 feet below. It stuck out enough that he’d hit it, but it wasn’t big enough to stop him. He’d bounce and then fly off the back side of the ridge. “I’m downclimbing,” he yelled, his body quivering as he slid down the arête. In place of the precision he normally employed while dancing up his pitches was a desperate, uncontrolled, all-out grovel to keep himself from falling. The world’s best climber was coming unglued.
Jared braced a leg against the block in front of him to catch the fall that now appeared imminent, as Alex, clutching a golf ball-size crystal of quartz with his left hand, looked backward over his right shoulder, gauging the distance to the other pinnacle. “Watch me,” he yelled, swinging his right leg backward like a martial artist winding up for a roundhouse kick. Gravity took over as his body hinged outward like a barn door. His leg found nothing but air. For a split second he was facing outward, away from the rock, looking right at us. Then he peeled off and went airborne.
Six months earlier, I had been reminiscing with a buddy from college about our few triumphs and far more numerous mishaps as fledgling alpinists, in the front lobby of a warehouse turned corporate headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission District. John Climaco and I had met at Middlebury College in Vermont after my brightly colored climbing rope—conspicuously displayed in the doorway of my dorm room—caught his eye. Climaco, a far more experienced climber, took me under his wing and introduced me to ice climbing and mountaineering.
Climaco had called me a few weeks earlier with the news that he had just scored his dream job producing websites for an Internet startup called Quokka that was hoping to be a Bloomberg-type terminal for sports. Quokka, he said, had deep pockets and was seeking other trips to feature on its website. “Perhaps you have an expedition you’d like to pitch?” he had said.
Climaco brought me to a glass-walled conference room with exposed pipes crisscrossing the ceiling and introduced me to his boss, Brian Terkelsen. In 1993 Terkelsen had co-founded the Eco-Challenge with Survivor mastermind Mark Burnett. The two had spent years developing reality-TV formulas that centered on relationship dynamics. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Terkelsen was sizing me up as a potential character in what he deemed essentially another type of reality TV show. But that’s not what he told me at the time. Quokka, as Terkelsen explained, was aiming to use the Internet to cover sports in a whole new way. Instead of turning on the TV and digesting whatever the producers had decided to show you, Quokka would put viewers in the driver’s seat, allowing them to feel as though they were inside that NASCAR or aboard the sailboat voyaging nonstop around the world. Gail Bronson, an analyst with IPO Monitor in nearby Palo Alto, called Quokka “sports on steroids.”
Terkelsen said they would send us to San Francisco State to get our VO2 max and body fat index measured. Up on Great Trango, we’d wear heart rate and oxygen-saturation monitors. This data, along with anything else they could think of, would be a click away on the site. I nodded as he tossed out terms I’d never heard before, like “biometrics,” “digital-media assets,” and “real-time data.” As we worked our way up the wall, he said, we’d document the action with pictures and videos and “dispatches” we’d write on tiny laptops in the portaledge at night. All this “content” would be beamed down to technicians in base camp who would collate it and upload it via satellite to the World Wide Web. We would show, in the most visceral way, in “near real time” what it feels like to climb one of the biggest cliffs on earth. Most important, Quokka would foot most of the bill for the expedition and pay the climbing team a talent fee.
San Francisco in the late nineties was a heady place, the center of the dot-com bubble. Climaco, who had passed up law school to get in on the action, was offered a stake in the company in the form of shares he could cash in at Quokka’s IPO. He was hoping to follow in the footsteps of a classmate from Middlebury who had gotten in on the ground floor at Yahoo. When Yahoo went public in April of 1996, James became a twenty-something-year-old instant multimillionaire. Many young bucks wanted to get the IPO done and cash out. There were plenty of dot-coms in that sense like Quokka, but Quokka was a signal of something else, too. This dot-com whirlwind would play a part in transforming the way climbers engaged, not only with one another but also with the pursuit itself.
It wasn’t only the tech sector booming in the midnineties. By 1996 the North Face had grown into the world’s largest outdoor clothing and equipment company.
Within two years of founding the North Face, the Tompkinses sold their interest in the company for $50,000. It was then bought and sold a dozen times before it was acquired by an investment group in 1994 for $62 million. It fell to the new CEO, Bill Simon, to prep the North Face to go public, and he had a radical idea. Typically, when a clothing company needed photos for an ad campaign, it hired models, went somewhere scenic, and did a photo shoot. Instead Simon used a substantial portion of the company’s marketing budget to fund a team of professional climbers and skiers. He recruited a dozen of the world’s leading rock climbers, alpinists, and extreme skiers, including Alex Lowe. Greg Child, an Australian expat who climbed the North Ridge of K2 in 1990, was offered a contract worth $75,000 a year, plus benefits and stock options. “For the first time in my life, I had a real salary, and my job description was to climb my ass off and travel the world putting up first ascents,” says Greg.
The North Face had just made professional climbing a plausible career—one that allowed this handful of “athletes” (a then novel term for people living on the fringes of respectability) to earn a decent living. Almost immediately after its inception, Simon sent the Dream Team—Lowe, Child, Californians Conrad Anker and Lynn Hill, plus a handful of others—accompanied by outdoor photographer Chris Noble, on expedition to an alpine version of Yosemite Valley in Kyrgyzstan called the Aksu.
While the Dream Team made headlines, I was living the more traditional climber’s existence—squatting illegally in a cave in Yosemite National Park. I loosely associated with the ragtag community of Chongo Nation climbers who bridged the Stonemasters and Stone Monkeys eras. When we weren’t out climbing, we’d congregate to drink malt liquor and swap spray at a worn-out fiberglass picnic table outside the deli in Yosemite Village. In the late fall of 1995, a few of us huddled around a dog-eared copy of Climbing magazine. We took out our frustration of being nobodies on the “sellouts” who graced the magazine’s pages.
“How the heck do you get in on this gravy train?” one friend asked, after turning the page to a story about the North Face Dream Team and their recent expedition to the Aksu.
“No idea,” I replied. I had no job, and the 24-ounce container of Old English in my hand had been purchased with the proceeds from collecting nickel refund soda cans that morning. My day had started with a half-eaten “lodge breakfast”—some scrambled eggs and crusts of toast—that some tourists had forgotten to bus from their table in the cafeteria.
The North Face climbing team would probably have remained nothing more than a pipe dream for me were it not for the one guy sitting at the table that day who actually had the balls to step up and shout that he was worthy of being sponsored. Warren Hollinger was a disciple of the self-help guru Tony Robbins, and he was the most charismatic and unapologetic self-promoter I’d ever met. While I was sitting in my cave plotting where I could find my next 24 cans—a case was the maximum they’d take at the recycling center—Warren was on the phone selling Conrad Anker, one of the founders of the Dream Team, on the idea of the North Face supporting our upcoming expedition to Polar Sun Spire on Baffin Island.
Conrad threw us a bone. They couldn’t give us any cash, but the North Face would supply us with state-of-the-art Gore-Tex jackets and bibs for our climb. Thanks to Warren, I now had my foot in the door with one of the biggest sponsors in the outdoor industry.
I applied for a permit to climb the northwest face of Great Trango in the fall of 1998. Jared and I had talked about inviting Greg and Alex but decided we’d have more fun if it was just the two of us. I took point on the application, and in the blank where it asked for the expedition leader, I put my name.
In the past four years, Jared and I had both been successful on every big climb we had attempted. The North Face had promoted us to the A Team. We were now pulling down a modest salary from “the firm,” and between other small sponsorships, writing gigs for Climbing magazine, and slideshow tours, I was making a modest living as a “pro” climber. I had “sold out,” but after years of dirtbagging and banging nails in Colorado, I was deeply in love with my new job. I had no boss, I made my own hours, and I climbed all the time.
So I was crushed when the North Face rejected my first official expedition proposal as a member of the A Team—to give Jared and me $12,000 so we could attempt the unclimbed northwest face of Great Trango Tower. We had thought it was a sure thing.
We sat quietly—Alex and I sharing the top bunk, Jared down below—letting the magic of life in the vertical realm wash over us.
“What do you think about inviting Alex?” I asked Jared one day. It went without saying that our sponsorship prospects would be significantly improved if we added the Mutant to our team. Jared agreed we might as well, since the trip evidently wasn’t happening otherwise.
I called Alex, and he signed on without hesitation. “I’ve always wanted to go to Trango,” he said. What he didn’t say, but I knew he was thinking, was What took you guys so long to invite me? With Alex Lowe on the roster, we refloated our sponsorship proposal to the North Face. This time the answer was a resounding yes. Then Climaco called to tell me about Quokka.
We arrived in base camp on June 22, 1999, following a train of 148 Balti porters who carried close to five tons of food and equipment. Our team included two climber-cinematographers, Mike Graber and his assistant, Jim Surette. These guys had been hired by NBC Sports to make an hour-long documentary about our climb for a new expedition television series sponsored by the North Face and hosted by Sting.
Our camp was situated on the back side of a lateral moraine bordering the eastern edge of the Trango Glacier. In every direction, our camp was surrounded with towering granite walls, which had the effect of making us feel like tiny specks of dust in a grand, unforgiving universe. Of all the walls that surrounded us, the northwest face of Great Trango, the one we had come to climb, was by far the most intimidating.
The entire bottom half of the wall, roughly the same height as El Capitan, was a crackless, homogenous, water-polished slab. We stared at it for hours with a pair of high-powered binoculars but saw no obvious line of weakness. The slab, we soon realized, was a bowling alley for loose rock, a kind of gutter that collected every errant stone that came loose from the acres of storm-lashed wall that hung above it.
Shortly after arriving in base camp, I awoke in the middle of the night to a roar that sounded like a 747 taking off nearby. Seconds later, a hurricane-strength blast of wind flattened my tent, pressing me facedown into my sleeping pad. I knew it was an avalanche, and that if I stayed where I was, I’d be buried alive. So I desperately fought my way out of the flapping nylon. The rushing air was laden with slush, which shellacked me from head to toe. I couldn’t see anything and there was nowhere to run, so I crawled back into my tent and huddled in the fetal position. A minute later, an eerie silence fell over camp. The debris—television, refrigerator, and car-size chunks of ice that had peeled off a hanging glacier—had stopped five hundred yards short of camp. Trango was saying hello.
With our ropes finally fixed to the top of the slab, it was time to launch our bid for the summit. We packed 20 days’ worth of provisions into six urethane-coated haul bags. After a soul-destroying, hernia-inducing day of hauling the six “pigs” up the El Cap-size slab, we collapsed on the ledge at the base of the headwall.
We had been working on the upper headwall for a few days when Alex opened up the minicomputer one evening and it was dead. “Thank god,” I said. “Now we don’t have to type dispatches anymore.” That little computer had come to embody everything I hated about Quokka, and I had dreamed about smashing it to smithereens with my wall hammer.
I hated Quokka and everything it represented—the voyeurism, the posing, the hype. Most of all, I hated them for driving a wedge between us. It had all sounded great back in San Francisco, but I had been naive about how it would feel to climb with this many strings attached. It was time to pull the plug on this puppet show.
“Hey, guys,” I finally said. “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”
“Me too,” said Alex, without hesitation.
We were about to call down to base camp to tell them we were bailing, when the rainfly stopped flapping for a few seconds. “Did you hear that?” I asked. Auditory hallucinations are common when you’re stuck in a tent for days on end, so I figured it was just my imagination. Then a voice became distinct. Alex unzipped the door, and about a hundred feet away stood a man wearing a blue warm-up suit and an old-fashioned orange helmet. A Russian team had arrived to attempt the same face, but we had a two-week head start, so we never thought we’d see them up on the wall.
That night, we all sat in a circle on a flat spot outside our portaledge, passing around a small tin cup, which the Russians kept filling with grain alcohol. The mood was warm and jovial, like a bunch of old friends telling stories at their local pub. I looked across the circle at Alex and Jared, both of whom were beaming—it didn’t take much grain alcohol to get a buzz at this altitude.
The plan to bail was never mentioned again.
On July 24, we set off up the ropes we had fixed on the upper headwall. It felt good to be committing to the final leg of the climb after festering on the ledge for the past 11 days. If all went according to plan, we’d be on the summit in a week.
Later that evening, we set up our first hanging portaledge camp at 18,450 feet. As the sun set, we stared out the door of the rainfly at the towers lining the west side of the Trango Glacier—Uli Biaho, the Cat’s Ears, Shipton Spire, and the Mystery Phallus—while they slowly darkened into jagged silhouettes haloed by a rising moon. We sat quietly—Alex and I sharing the top bunk, Jared down below— letting the magic of life in the vertical realm wash over us.
“You know, I want to spend more time at home with the family,” said Alex. His sons, Max, Sam, and Isaac, were ten, seven, and three. I knew how he was feeling because I now had a six‐month‐old son of my own. Alex loved his family, and he felt guilty about spending so much time away from them. And so did I. We wanted it all—to climb big first ascents and be stand-up family men in the gaps between expeditions.
“I’ve been thinking about a new career, one that doesn’t require so much travel,” he continued. “It’s one of the reasons I’m so psyched about this project. I think this could really be a good opportunity for all of us. I love writing, and I see this website as a way to showcase what I’m capable of outside of climbing.” The Trango website had given Alex a powerful new conduit through which to connect with his legions of fans. He knew the Internet offered a whole new platform from which to inspire his followers to pursue their own dreams, and he was working hard to make sure he was leveraging this opportunity for all it was worth.
When I poked my head out the door of the ledge one morning, I saw long wispy mares’ tails blowing in from the south. We all knew, from hard experience, that these clouds were the leading edge of a storm front that was blowing in from the Indian Ocean. So while Alex made coffee, Jared and I loaded our packs with the essentials for a fast and light push for the summit—stove, sleeping bags, bivy sacks, pads, and a light rack of climbing gear. It was time to leave the portaledge, the pigs, and all the other detritus behind, and go full out for the summit.
Nine hours later, on a knife-edge ridge 75 feet below the summit, Alex missed the karate kick and barn-doored off the side of the mountain. He bounced once and then disappeared over the far side of the ridge.
The force of the fall jerked Jared violently, but he held on, and a few seconds later all was still and we couldn’t hear anything but wind and our own ragged breathing. Terrified, fearing the worst, Jared and I yelled Alex’s name into the void. There was no response. “What are we gonna do?” asked Jared, reaching down and plucking the rope, which was jammed between two rocks and as taut as a bowstring. As I contemplated how I could traverse across the tensioned rope, I felt it come slack in my hand. “He’s alive!” yelled Jared, as he quickly reeled in rope. A few minutes later, Alex popped back up onto the ridge, threw both arms over his head, gave us a double thumbs‐up, and yelled, “Yeah, boyzz!!” at the top of his lungs.
I vowed to myself that this would be my last big climb. By the time we finally stumbled into base camp 24 hours later, I was already reconsidering the vow.
To our amazement, Alex then proceeded to put himself back into the same exact position from which he had just fallen. Jared shot me a worried look but didn’t say anything. Seconds later, Alex was back on the arête. He slapped his way up to the wet hold, snagged it with his right hand, and pulled down on it with everything he had. This time, shakily, he pulled through.
“That was fucking insane,” I said to Jared, who just shook his head in disbelief. It was the boldest bit of climbing I’d ever seen.
These thoughts were quickly forgotten 30 minutes later, when the three of us were hugging and high-fiving on the summit in the twilight. “Uh, guys,” I said, interrupting the reverie, “isn’t that the actual summit up there?” The 15-foot-tall block was coated in a thin layer of ice, which meant it wasn’t possible for us to scale those last couple of body lengths.
“I think we’re close enough,” said Alex. “Let’s get out of here.”
I vowed to myself that this would be my last big climb. By the time we finally stumbled into base camp 24 hours later, I was already reconsidering the vow.
I’d been home from Pakistan for about a week when I called Chris Eng at the North Face. We exchanged a few pleasantries, but I couldn’t get him to open up and bro down like we always did. “So what trips are you working on?” I asked. Another long, awkward silence. “Well,” he said, “looks like our next big one is an expedition to the north face of Jannu.”
“Uh . . . yeah,” I replied. “I know all about it, obviously, because it’s my trip. Jared and I have been planning it for years.”
“Well, actually, it’s going to be Jared and Alex,” he said.
I called Jared, who sheepishly admitted that he and Alex had been talking. They had decided to team up, and I was out. “No hard feelings, right?” he said. I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe this was more serious than just being uninvited on a trip. I couldn’t call Alex because he had already left for his next expedition to the South Face of Shishapangma, an 8,000-meter peak in Tibet. When we had parted ways at the airport, he had given me a hug. “We’re good, right?” I had said. “Totally,” he replied.
The news broke about a month later on a website called MountainZone, a competitor of Quokka’s that was covering the Shishapangma expedition. Alex and a cameraman named Dave Bridges were missing.
It was October 5, 1999—a month and a half since we had returned from Great Trango. They had been acclimatizing on the lower apron of the South Face with Conrad Anker when they spotted a small avalanche break loose about 6,000 feet above them. It appeared benign at first, but the face was loaded with snow from a recent storm, and the avalanche quickly propagated. As it barreled toward them, Conrad ran sideways. Alex ran down. Bridges followed Alex. Right before the avalanche struck, Conrad dove onto his chest, burying the pick of his ice ax as deeply as he could into the snow. When the blast hit, the lights went out. Conrad doesn’t know what happened next, but when he came to, he was only lightly buried about a hundred feet from where he had self-arrested. Blood dripped from a wound on his head. The snow, warmed from the kinetic energy of its particles colliding on its slide down the mountain, instantly set up like quick-set cement. Conrad walked across its surface looking for his friends—but there was no trace of them.
I was with my wife and nine-month-old son when we got the call. I said to Lauren, “Okay, he’s missing. But it’s Alex Lowe. He’s probably stuck in a crevasse or wandering around dazed and confused on some glacier. He’ll be back.” But as the days stretched into weeks and then into months, and the call that he’d been found never came, it slowly sank in that Alex was gone.
Looking back almost two decades, it’s hard for me to separate the drama with Alex from the experience as a whole of working for Quokka. The intent was to let people experience, in a whole new way, what it’s like to pioneer a first ascent in the Karakoram. It was a worthy goal, I suppose, one we all believed in at the beginning. But in the end, the expedition turned into something more like an episode of Survivor. We banded together when necessary, but we weren’t a team. And for this reason, among many others, the Quokka experiment was a failure—and a mistake.
I can’t speak for the others, but I know that my own awareness of being on a stage—a stage on which I was competing for the limelight with “the world’s best climber” (whether I wanted to or not)—precluded the Zen I had always found in climbing. The act of trying to share what makes climbing such a singular experience had robbed it of its essence and sucked all the joy out of a climb I had dreamed about.
From The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott, to be published on March 5th by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Synnott