Scenic image of Hyalite Canyon in Bozeman Montana; Max Lowe at his apartment in Edenton, North Carolina
Jordan Siemens/Getty (mountain); Jack Fox (Lowe)
Scenic image of Hyalite Canyon in Bozeman Montana; Max Lowe at his apartment in Edenton, North Carolina
Max Lowe at his apartment in Edenton, North Carolina (Photo: Jordan Siemens/Getty (mountain); Jack Fox (Lowe))

The Kid Stays in the Picture

Max Lowe made a big splash in 2021 with ‘Torn,’ a documentary about the death of his famous father, alpinist Alex Lowe, and how it shook and shaped his family. These days, he’s forging ahead with ambitious projects—including a new film about the restorative power of climbing—in the next stage of his career.

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Max Lowe has overcooked the short ribs. He announces this before I’ve taken my first bite. “Sorry, I forgot to turn the oven down,” he says glumly. I’m sitting at a table in Max’s backyard in Bozeman, Montana, at the house he shares with his fiancée, a sunshiny nurse named Lia Argyrakis. Max’s mom, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, has arrived for dinner carrying salad in a wooden bowl.

Jenni, now in her late sixties, is an artist with a long, gray braid and a thing for wildflowers. She lives across the street in the same craftsman where Max grew up. The room where she paints bright, textured canvases of bears and honeybees was Max’s childhood bedroom. It has robin’s-egg blue walls and a tiny twin bed that’s hard to believe could ever have fit Max, who at six feet five inches is towering over the table.

Max and Lia’s yard is leafy and lush, dotted with flowers and wooden fairy houses left over from the previous owner. Jenni points out bleeding hearts, catmint, and lupines, while Max serves us heaping plates of mushroom larb with fresh mint, steamed rice flecked with sesame seeds, sautéed Broccolini, and those slow-cooked short ribs, a touch on the tough side but soaked in a pleasing gingery soy marinade. Max loves to cook, but I’m not here to talk about food.

Max, who’s 34, works as a freelance filmmaker, mostly directing documentaries that sit either squarely in or adjacent to the adventure world. He has directed shorts on polar bears in the Arctic, migratory raptors in the West, U.S. Army vets going back to Iraq for a ski expedition, and the quirky culture of slacklining.

In fall 2021, Max debuted his biggest and most personal project to date: Torn, a feature-length documentary about his family’s legendary past and his place in it. As the story goes, Max’s father, Alex Lowe, was one of the most decorated climbers of his era, with notable first ascents from the Himalayas to Antarctica. On October 5, 1999, Alex, then 40, died, along with cameraman David Bridges, in an avalanche on the south face of 26,335-foot Shishapangma in Tibet. Their bodies were not recovered at the time of the accident.

Alex left behind his wife, Jenni, and their three boys: Max, then ten, Sam, seven, and Isaac, three. After his death, Jenni grew close to Alex’s best friend and climbing partner, alpinist Conrad Anker, who had narrowly survived the Shishapangma avalanche. Jenni and Anker married two years later, and Anker later adopted her three sons as his own. Anker and Jenni have been married for 22 years now. These days, when Max and his brothers talk about their dad, it’s not Alex they’re referring to, it’s Anker.

This oft repeated tale of love and loss in the mountains has shaped Max’s life. Torn told the story from a new vantage: that of a son. It is to date his most significant work, a defining project that introduced Max Lowe to the world.

Torn was brilliantly crafted and critically acclaimed. National Geographic commissioned the film with a $1.4 million budget, and it received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. It won an award for best feature at Canada’s Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival, and grand prize at the Kendal Mountain Festival in England.

But Max doesn’t want to hang his hat on Torn. He’s not going to let this singular drama define him any longer. The real question is: Can he apply the raw talent on display in that film to stories other than his own?

This fall, Max is finishing up a 38-minute documentary called Camp Courage, about a Ukrainian woman in her sixties named Olga who accompanies her 13-year-old granddaughter, Milana, to a rock-climbing camp in the Austrian Alps after they were made refugees by the war. It was acquired by Netflix as a stand-alone short, and is set for release in 2024. Max is also in the process of directing a new feature-length film about nurses and the health care industry, a project that stars Lia.

At dinner, Jenni talks proudly of her three sons, now men in their twenties and thirties, all of them lanky as basketball players. (Anker has gone for dinner at Sam and his wife’s house down the street.)

“Do you worry that Max won’t find another story like Torn?” I ask Jenni.

“No,” she says flatly. “If you watch his other films, you can see he has this capacity to connect in a real way with people that a lot of directors don’t. That’s his superpower. Max can get into people’s heads and hearts. It takes an introspective person to do that.”

There’s a scene in Torn where Max interrogates his mom about falling in love with Anker so soon after Alex died. It’s tense to watch, and it strips away any sense that Max is going to be delicate or easy on his subjects. “I was surprised, and thought, How dare you ask me that?” Jenni says. “But I was able to answer because I’m just as forthright as he is.”

Max isn’t making traditional, big-action adventure films, the kind where a climber is dangling off a cliff set to suspenseful music and you’re not sure if he’ll live or die. His films are the opposite. They’re set in the outdoors, but the action isn’t outside: it’s within.

Jennifer Lowe-Anker filming an interview for Torn
Jennifer Lowe-Anker filming an interview for Torn (Courtesy Michael Jones)

Jenni and I are on a steep trail up Drinking Horse Mountain, outside Bozeman, and she stops now and then to admire the wildflowers—shooting stars, arrowleaf balsamroot, forget-me-not. We’re out, just the two of us, the morning after our backyard dinner at Max’s house. She points up Bridger Canyon, where she’ll ride a young quarter horse named Redwing later this afternoon, and then out toward the Gallatin Range, where a peak named after her late husband juts above 10,000 feet.

A day earlier, Jenni saw nine grizzly bears while hiking in Yellowstone National Park—the most she’d ever seen on one visit. She relates to the animal; she calls herself a mama grizzly. She is fiercely and unapologetically protective of the men in her life: Alex and his legacy, Anker, and of course her three sons.

The October night Max was born, the northern lights flickered outside the hospital room in Bozeman. Alex said to his newborn child, “You have the whole world in front of you, my son—a clean slate.” They named him James Maxwell Lowe, and called him Max.

As a child, Max was a precocious violinist who loved Harry Potter books and fishing. Growing up in Montana, he climbed and skied alongside his younger brothers, but those activities never became obsessions like they were for Alex or Anker. “After Alex died, we would take the boys climbing, but only if they requested it,” Jenni recalls. “Conrad was sensitive to how they might feel and didn’t want to force climbing on them.”

None of her boys have pursued expedition climbing. “All three are fast hikers, though,” Jenni says. “It’s those long legs and big lungs. If any of them wanted to be high-altitude climbers, they would be excellent at it.”

“I assume you’re OK that they’re not?”

“Yes,” she says. “I’ve seen enough people die in the mountains.”

Jenni gave Max his first camera when he was a freshman in high school. At 15, he was invited to help lead kids with visual impairment on climbing trips spearheaded by blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, along the Inca Trail in Peru and later up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He brought his camera along. Though he was passionate about photography, it didn’t seem like a viable career option. So, at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Max made what he thought was a practical choice and studied business instead. But he continued avidly shooting photos.

The real question is: Can he apply the raw talent on display in Torn to stories other than his own?

In 2012, at 23, Max received a Young Explorers Grant from National Geographic, a $5,000 stipend he used to study and photograph how the cultural and social geography of the Khumbu region of Nepal had changed since the influx of Western climbers. That project opened doors for him; undoubtedly, so did his name and connections. He was soon hired as a photo assistant on Mount Everest, as part of an expedition Anker was leading. Other film and photography jobs followed.

“I grew up with parents who both made a living doing what they loved, and I knew that was something I wanted to do, too,” Max says. “I never knew it was going to be film or photography until it was.”

When he decided to make Torn, it wasn’t because he wanted to. “For me as a kid, not being able to talk very much about that whole experience left me feeling like I never dealt with it,” Max says. “Like I had this black hole in my life.” In 2016, after Alex’s body was uncovered from the ice, more than 16 years after the avalanche, the Lowe-Anker family traveled to Tibet on a sorrowful recovery trip. Max’s brothers, Sam and Isaac, were reluctant when Max suggested making the film. “They agreed to do interviews and sit with me for the film because they saw it was something I needed to do for myself, and because they love me,” Max says.

Max asked Sam, a film-school grad who does camera-crew work on documentaries and commercials, to codirect, but Sam said no. “I was apprehensive about diving into a subject that I hadn’t really explored for myself,” Sam told me. “Being so young at the time it happened, those feelings had been stuffed away for many years. The last place I wanted to unpack that was in the public eye.”

Torn caused some divisions in the family. Max felt that it led to conversations that needed to be had; Sam wondered if there might have been a more private and constructive path to them. “I know the process helped Max a lot, and I was happy for that,” Sam says. “But personally, I would have been OK if Torn had never been made. I didn’t really have the courage to tell him that.”

Milana and Olga Abdurashytova atop the Kitzsteinhorn on the last day of the climbing camp
Milana and Olga Abdurashytova atop the Kitzsteinhorn on the last day of the climbing camp (Courtesy Axel Stasny)
Milana and Olga at the train station as they prepare to return to Slovakia, where they’ve been living as refugees since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022
Milana and Olga at the train station as they prepare to return to Slovakia, where they’ve been living as refugees since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 (Courtesy Axel Stasny)

Bozeman’s main street still has shops stocking cowboy boots, whiskey, and guidebooks, but these days you’ll also find a wax bar, brunch spots, and a Lululemon store. As Max, Lia, and I stroll downtown one morning, Max stops on every block to chat with someone he knows. The family is famous here, and people know what they’ve been through. Jenni’s 2008 memoir Forget Me Not has been required reading for Montana State University freshmen in the past.

For Max, it can be hard to separate his own identity from his family’s lore. If the men who raised you are icons, what does that make you? “When your story is as big as ours was, sometimes it changes the way you look at yourself, the way you compare yourself to who you should be,” he says. He felt that he could never stack up to Alex or Anker. Then he realized he should stop trying.

Lia says he struggles with self-doubt. “I’m not an artist, but it seems to me you work and work and work, and then it’s done,” she says. “There’s this part of you that goes, Was it worth it? Is it good enough? Am I good enough?” She looks at Max to make sure it’s OK that she shares this, then adds: “I started doing this thing when he doubts himself. I make him look me in the eyes and say, ‘I am great.’ ”

Though Max knows it’s a fault, he is acutely aware of how others perceive him and his work. He read and internalized every review of Torn. “As an artist, you’re constantly critiquing your work,” he says. “Art is something you create for yourself, but then it becomes something that belongs to other people, and you have to learn to let it go.”

The easiest way to let go? Turn to something new.

Having the nursing documentary and the Ukrainian film to focus on has been good for Max. “Coming out of any big project where you’ve put your heart and soul into it, there’s a depression,” Max says. After Torn came out, he went into a slump, feeling lost and aimless. Then, in August 2022, he was invited to screen the film in the Austrian Alps, at a camp hosted by the Mountain Seed Foundation, a Virginia nonprofit run by former U.S. Marine Nathan Schmidt and his wife, Dana, also a veteran, that offers outdoor retreats for families from countries affected by war. The camp brought women and children who were refugees from Ukraine to the mountains outside Salzburg for a week of rock climbing.

Max decided to film while he was there. As the children learned to climb, the women met with a psychologist from the Yale School of Medicine, who taught them coping skills for living through turbulent times. The camp’s participants included 17 children, 11 mothers, and one grandmother. It was the grandmother, Olga, who Max connected to most. Olga and her granddaughter, Milana, would become the subjects of Camp Courage. The movie celebrates discomfort—Milana on the wall, Olga working with a therapist. And it tracks them as they find solace through shared trauma and the healing effects of community.

At the end of the camp, Max screened Torn, and as the credits rolled Milana came up to him. “She doesn’t speak much English, but she just hugged me for a whole minute,” Max recalls. “It was like she understood what I had been through.”

Lia Argyrakis at ECU Health Chowan Hospital, in Edenton, North Carolina
Lia Argyrakis at ECU Health Chowan Hospital, in Edenton, North Carolina (Jack Fox)
A patient at the hospital
A patient at the hospital (Jack Fox)

“Nurses are the ace of health care,” Max says over coffee at a local café. “They’re the ones interacting with patients, making them feel cared for, making them feel human. Nurses don’t get nearly enough credit for what they do.”

He’s drinking a cortado in a tiny mug, which looks even smaller inside his massive grip. Lia—one of those unsung nurses—sits next to him. The two met at a Fourth of July party in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when she was in the trenches of hospital work and he was deep in rubble with Torn, a film he hoped would put his heart back together. Turns out she did that instead. As Jenni said to me earlier, “Those two are deeply in love.” They recently got engaged over dinner during a trip to Italy, where he showed Torn at the Trento Film Festival.

Lia, who has spent much of her career as a traveling nurse, working in departments ranging from emergency to oncology, knows firsthand how harsh the pandemic was. She was sometimes assigned seven or eight patients at a time, working 12-plus-hour shifts without a break. When a patient dies, the nurse is the one who’s been in closest quarters with them, and that loss can hit hard. Once, Lia came home from an overtime shift and collapsed on the couch, realizing that she hadn’t eaten, drunk a sip of water, or taken off her N95 mask all day. “What do you need?” Max asked before cooking her a meal.

For Max, it can be hard to separate his own identity from his family’s lore. If the men who raised you are icons, what does that make you?

This summer, Max and Lia spent eight weeks filming at a rural hospital near the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in the small bayfront town of Edenton, where Lia was working at the time. Max and his crew intended to spotlight the intricacies of nursing and the grind of health care work in America right now. Lia will be a main character in the film, titled The Kind Ones, though she’s a reluctant subject.

“The best subjects always are,” Max quips. Then he adds, “Her stories from the interactions she had with patients are what inspired me to care about this subject in the first place.” It’s not lost on him that many of his films involve people very close to him: his family, his fiancée, close friends. “I’m looking for stories that are adjacent to my experience and don’t feel too far out of my purview,” he says. He believes that a connection to the narrative is what allows him to tell it properly.

“At first I said no to being in the film,” Lia says with a smile. “Then we talked. At every Torn screening, viewers had this deep human connection because of how close Max was to the story.”

In The Kind Ones, viewers are privy to intimate interactions between Max and Lia as she returns from a tough shift and unpacks the weight of her job. Yet again, Max, as the director, will be in a film of his own making. It’s not that he wants to put himself on screen; it’s that he knows if he’s there with her, Lia will open up more.

Getting personal with his subjects is a specialty for Max. In an opening scene from the 2018 short Adventure Not War, about combat veterans returning to Iraq for a mountaineering expedition, former Army captain Stacy Bare shouts in mock anger at the camera. “You want to know what it was like going to war, Max Lowe?” he says. “Is that what you’re asking me now? It was intense, it was real.”

Max and Bare were friends long before the film was made, so trust had already been established. “I asked Max to direct the film because I felt like it needed someone who had experienced trauma, but different from my own,” Bare says. “We went into it with the goal of making something that required us to be honest with each other on and off camera.”

There is no fourth wall in the films Max directs. “I’m not watching someone in a terrarium, totally separate from their experiences,” Max says. “For them to trust that they can really let go and expose things that are scary, I need to be there with them. I never want to walk away from a project knowing there was distance between me and my subject.” If he doesn’t already have a relationship, he’ll spend days with someone, inside their home, with their families, before turning the camera on.

Michael Brown, a longtime adventure cinematographer who was a cameraman on the fatal 1999 Shishapangma expedition, describes Max as a filmmaker with a big heart who’s not afraid to dig into discomfort. “It takes courage to show these moments when characters are a little squirmy, a little vulnerable,” Brown says. “I’m like, are you really going to show that? But it’s the right thing to do, because you see much more deeply into who someone is.”

Max and Lia at their apartment in Edenton
Max and Lia at their apartment in Edenton (Jack Fox)

At one point during my visit, Max and I stop at a group of food trucks sitting in a gravel lot in Bozeman’s burgeoning Midtown district. Max goes with enchiladas; I opt for noodles. Lunch is served on a picnic table in the sun. Within minutes, Max runs into a friend. They make plans to play pickleball later in the day.

Max tells me about his future goals, that he’d like to try directing feature films someday. He’s been talking to skier Gus Kenworthy about a biopic. They discussed a documentary—featuring Kenworthy’s traumatic loss of a close friend in childhood, and later his experience coming out as gay—but there isn’t much archival footage, so they’re considering something scripted instead. It would be a big leap for Max, but with the right team of people, he knows it’s possible.

Kenworthy contacted Max after Torn came out. The two had mutual friends and bonded over shared grief. “He pushed himself as a skier because his friend who died didn’t have the chance to, and there’s all the messy exploration of his personal life that came in the wake of that trauma,” Max says. “That feels very similar in some ways to my experience.”

In 2022, Max premiered a short film called Malik alongside Chris Murphy, starring Anker and urban climber Malik Martin, who works for Memphis Rox, a Tennessee climbing gym and community center located in a low-income neighborhood. The two men go climbing and find common ground. It’s a touching film that illustrates a simple fact: great climbing films aren’t really about climbing, they’re about what people go through and overcome. And yes, it’s another Max film starring one of his family members. Go figure.

While following Martin around for Malik, Max met director and producer Tom Shadyac, the founder of Memphis Rox. Shadyac is best known for directing 1990s comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Nutty Professor, but in 2010 he wrote and directed I Am, a documentary about his life after a bicycle accident.

Shadyac became a mentor of sorts. He and Max recently got together on Zoom to look over Max’s pitch deck for The Kind Ones. Shadyac told Max, essentially, “What is a nursing job but a great adventure into life and death? You approach it from that angle and you’ll find your story.”

I ask Shadyac if he thinks Max’s career will be earmarked by Torn. “It will always be a very poignant part of Max’s story, but he can have a signature outside of that,” he says. “He’s so acquainted with grief—that will always inform his work. But he has a lot more to say.”

The story of Max’s past is exactly that—the past. He’s moving on, to find connections elsewhere in the world. As Alex put it: he’s got a clean slate, the whole world in front of him.

Megan Michelson (@meganmichelson) wrote about comedian and filmmaker Katie Burrell in the March/April issue.

From September/October 2023 Lead Photo: Jordan Siemens/Getty (mountain); Jack Fox (Lowe)