The Mutant and the Boy Scout Battle at 20,000 Feet
For the preternaturally talented Alex Lowe, world's best climber, the path to every summit passes directly through his family room. Which, he's discovering, is a tricky route to take.
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On a stone buttress high above Montana's Gallatin River, Alex Lowe picks his way up a wall of layered gneiss warmed by the sun. Flakes of his climbing chalk drift down and speckle an old pine snag at my feet. A raven drifts by and crawks. Lowe's friend Jack Tackle, belaying at the foot of the wall, adjusts his sunglasses and suppresses a yawn. I catch the virus and yawn too.
Lowe rises along his single-pitch 5.11 route up the Skyline Buttress as smoothly as a man on an escalator. To say that Lowe climbs quickly, however, might imply that he projects a sense of urgency. In fact, photographer Gordon Wiltsie, who frequently climbs with Lowe, told me that the problem with shooting the man who is arguably the best climber on the planet is that his progress appears so effortless that it's nearly impossible to capture moments of graphic drama or tension. Sure enough, when Lowe reaches the wall's crux—the trickiest section—he overcomes it with a slight traverse and then a long stretch to a thin dime of a handhold. “What a day!” he yells after topping out. “God, I love this!” He rappels down the cliff and rejoins us. “I'm a little out of practice,” Lowe announces as he clips out of the rope. Tackle snorts and rolls his eyes.
The two climbers trade places, but Tackle doesn't get six feet off the ground before the mendacity of Lowe's performance becomes apparent. Steps that seemed to be carved into the rock for Alex vanish as soon as Jack touches the wall. Cracks have closed, ledges have thinned, traverses have widened. Tackle is a superb climber, a local legend and one of Lowe's heroes, but he's simply not in the same league.
“Falling!” Tackle misses at the crux. Lowe crimps the rope and arrests the dangling climber.
“You hand-traverse left along the break, Jack,” Lowe calls up. “Couple of thin edges for your feet, but good handholds.”
After Tackle's climb, Lowe chooses a more difficult passage up the wall, and this time I see him with different eyes. For weeks I'd been asking his partners what sets Lowe above other elite climbers. Their answers often focused on his physiology—specifically, the arm strength that lets him hoist 200-pound haul bags up granite spires and hang from his ice tools for hours. But powerful guns are only part of it; he also possesses a cerebral delight in technical challenges. As a teenager growing up in Missoula, Lowe developed a passion for mathematics at the same time that he was falling in love with climbing, and neither enthusiasm has gone cold. On long expeditions, he'll pull out a copy of Differential and Integral Calculus and amuse himself by working the equations by headlamp. Watching him spider up the cliff, I can see now that the buttress isn't an objective he intends to conquer, but rather a problem he wants to enjoy. “Alex is constantly being entertained by the rock,” explains Steve Swenson, who has accompanied Lowe on expeditions to Everest and Gasherbrum IV.
Late in the afternoon, a wintry breeze sneaks upcanyon and nips our fingers. Packing up for the drive back to Bozeman, Lowe and Tackle exchange climbing gossip and small talk, and soon another realm of knotty equations and exquisitely difficult balancing maneuvers enters the conversation: Lowe talks about how great it is to be home with his wife, Jenni, and the kids, and somewhat sheepishly admits that he just cleared a climbing trip with his wife before buying the ticket.
“I thought I'd do the chivalrous thing and offer not to go,” he says.
Tackle tries not to smile. “It's called common sense, Alex.”
Although the exchange is as casual and relaxed as Lowe's climbing seems to be, it reflects a persistent identity crisis, a 20-year tug-of-war between competing tendencies. It's as if two separate entities have battled for tenancy in his body. There is the Mutant, as Lowe's climbing partners have nicknamed him, in tribute to his otherworldly talent and his astonishing drive. And there is the Boy Scout, the diligent partner in a dual-career marriage and the stalwart father who holds tight to his humility and old-fashioned values in a climbing world populated with macho egotists and vagabond stoners.
This longstanding tension has produced an oddly patterned life. Lowe rode a prestigious scholarship to college but dropped out to climb in Yosemite and beyond. When his first son was born a decade ago, he buckled down and yoked himself to a family-man job as an oil-industry engineer. The nine-to-five life lasted until the day a chance to climb Everest suddenly materialized. The pattern, then, is that the Boy Scout holds a good job for a few months or years, and then the Mutant starts climbing the walls, erupts, and heads off for first-ascent nectar. Licking this contradiction may become his greatest maneuver yet. The two halves of Alex Lowe may never live in perfect harmony, but lately he has edged ever closer to the balance that has eluded him: composing outbursts of Mozartian climbing while tending a soul devoted to hearth and home. In short, he's figuring out how to set the Mutant free to bankroll the Boy Scout's cozy life.
Stewart Alexander Lowe is a terminally optimistic man of 40 years whose dark hair and geometric jaw give him a slight resemblance to Prince Valiant. Off the mountain, most of his friends have never seen him in anything more formal than a T-shirt, tennis shoes, and twill sports pants. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, with Jennifer Leigh Lowe, a painter, and their three sons (10-year-old Max, 6-year-old Sam, and 2-year-old Isaac) in a 1920s craftsman-style house that Norman Rockwell would dismiss as a greeting-card clich‰. He often employs the word “gosh” without irony, and his only vice is strong coffee—preferably lattes. With his lank, muscular physique and chronically sunny disposition, he walks and talks like a poster boy for climbing, which in fact he is. After rising from humble beginnings as an early-80s big-wall rat, Lowe has become the unofficial captain of The North Face's so-called “dream team” of top climbers, which the outdoor company has put under full Nike-style contract. When climbing veterans like George Lowe (no relation) or fellow dream team member Conrad Anker hear of some young hotshot, their first reaction is: How does he stack up to Alex? “We're all at this one level of competition,” says Anker, “and then there's Alex.”
His r‰sum‰, though impressive, does not tell the complete story. He has climbed Everest twice. During K2's notoriously deadly season of 1986, he came within a thousand feet of the summit before being beaten back by the storm that claimed five lives. After posting the first winter ascent of the north face of the Grand Teton with Jack Tackle in 1984, he returned a few years later and did it again, solo, in a single day. He has put new routes up some of the toughest mountains in the world: the Himalayan 20,000-footers Kwangde Nup and Kusum Kanguru, the Peruvian peaks Taulliraju and Huandoy Este. He and Lynn Hill, also a member of The North Face's team, free-climbed (roped, but without mechanical aid) the Bastion, an immense 4,000-foot wall in a remote corner of Kyrgyzstan. Two years ago he teamed up with Anker to record the highly publicized first ascent of Rakekniven, a deadly-smooth granite knife that juts 2,000 feet straight out of the Antarctic ice cap. Last spring, with team member Greg Child, he paced Mark Synnott and Jared Ogden, a pair of young turks 10 years his junior, up Great Sail Peak, a 3,750-foot virgin wall on the coast of Canada's remote Baffin Island.
Those are fine, but not world-beating, accomplishments. Among American climbers, Carlos Buhler has a more impressive Himalayan record, and Ed Viesturs boasts more experience at high altitude. But sheer loftiness and Seven Summits-style peak-bagging bore Lowe. “Alex could be much more famous if he'd spend more time climbing Everest or K2,” says one of his partners, “but he'd rather spend his time climbing this unbelievable stuff out there.”
It's the difficulty of that “unbelievable stuff” that drops his colleagues' jaws. At the tender age of 22 he cramponed his way up Hot Doggies, a radical new line of rock and ice in Rocky Mountain National Park—a feat that inspired climber Jeff Lowe (another example of the weird plenitude of mountaineering Lowes; also no relation to Alex) to introduce a new “M” (for mixed) difficulty rating. He laid the first spikes up Vail's fearsome Fang; recorded the first one-day ascent of Andromeda Strain, a perverse mixed rock-and-ice route on Mount Andromeda, in Canada's Columbia Icefields; and posted solos of Root Canal (at the time, the toughest ice climb in the Tetons), and Mont Blanc du Tocul's Supercouloir. He has pioneered so many mixed-climbing ascents that he no longer keeps track. “The thing about Alex is, when he gets to these places, he doesn't look at the regular routes,” says Synnott, who watched Lowe “do a bunch of sick stuff” in Synnott's Vermont stomping grounds before they shared the rope on Baffin Island in 1998. “He looks in between the routes and asks, 'Has anyone done that?'”
Inside the Lowes' downtown Bozeman home, Jenni's western folk paintings hang on the walls of the living room, which is otherwise rife with signs of three boys underfoot. There are no tools of the climbing trade in sight; the only hints of Lowe's profession are the Tibetan prayer flags fading in a backyard tree and a dog named Anna (short for Annapurna). Essentially, upstairs is all Jenni and the boys; downstairs, in a basement apartment the Lowes used to rent out in leaner times, is an office-warehouse littered with haul bags, harnesses, ropes, and hardware—the Mutant's lair.
On the day I arrived, Lowe had just returned from a long road trip, and he was busy reacquainting himself with his family. It was Max's 10h birthday. When Lowe and I walked into the kitchen, Jenni was cooking seafood stew (Max's favorite), and Isaac, the toddler, began tugging at my arm, wanting to introduce me to his rocking horse, while six-year-old Sam beckoned me to a chair draped suspiciously with a towel. “Why don't you sit down right here?” he said.
After admiring Isaac's horse, I played the stooge, sat, and deflated the hidden whoopee cushion.
“BAH-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Sam exulted. “You had beans for dinner!”
“And what relative can we thank for bringing this treasure into our lives?” asked Alex, shaking his head and laughing.
“The boys talked me into buying it at Safeway the other day,” Jenni said.
“How long was I gone?” Alex ventured quietly. “21 days?”
“I think it was more like a month,” Jenni said.
“Wow. Long time.”
“Too long,” Jenni replied, gently, firmly.
Clearly, the reentry process has not yet been rendered seamless. In the previous weeks, Lowe had been fulfilling a commitment to visit The North Face shops around the country, show the new fall line, and give employees a chance to crag with the master. But the traveling poster boy had been restive. “I'm not spending enough time with Jenni and the kids,” he kept telling his climbing mates.
The tug-of-war can become intense. If a climb isn't going to work, Lowe starts weighing days spent in a foul, damp tent against hours spent with his family. “Every cell down to the molecular level starts to twitch to get back to Bozeman,” says Anker.
Less easy to know are the ways that the Mutant begins to make his demands after a long spell at home. In any case, Lowe was on his best behavior during Max's birthday dinner. Trying to instill some of his love of numbers in his eldest son, Alex coaxed Max into calculating how many children are born in the United States every day.
“So if a child is born every 10 seconds, how many are born every minute?” Alex asked.
“Uh … six.”
“And how many in an hour?”
“Gosh, that's great work, Max. How many in a day, do you think?”
This took some guessing, but eventually Alex guided him to 8,640.
After dinner Sam appeared with a violin and squelched out “Happy Birthday to You” for his older brother. Not to be outdone, Max put the fiddle to his chin and honored us with a tear-jerking rendition of “I'll FlyAway.” Alex took it all in from the couch, sitting there smiling with his long legs splayed, his fingers knitted in back of his head.
“Maybe you should open your gifts now, Max,” Jenni suggested.
Max ripped into the ribbons and wrapping and unveiled a graphite fly rod and reel, followed by scale models of the USS Constitution and Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria, and finally a copy of the Macmillan Dictionary for Children.
“Wow, that's pretty neat, Max!” Alex exclaimed when he saw the book.
“That one's from you, dear,” Jenni said.
“Oh! Happy birthday, Max,” he said sheepishly. “Boy. Guess I have been gone a while.”
Sitting amid wrinkled and torn paper on his living room floor, the Alex Lowe who wants to be home and wants to be away examined the rigging of the Santa Maria. “Look at this, Max,” he said, holding up both models. “Look at the difference in size.”
Lowe seemed to be calculating the 1492 odds: open ocean, unknown destination, only 128 feet of Spanish hardwood between the crew and oblivion. “Wow. They didn't even know what was out there.” His tone was oddly intimate, as if he were admiring the new route a colleague had put up on Cerro Torre. “Pretty bold. Pretty audacious.”
More than his new routes, first ascents, and pioneering mixed climbs, it's the way he climbs that has made Alex Lowe's legend.
“Alex's Grand Traverse is one of those stories that's taken on a life of its own in the Tetons,” reports Doug Chabot, a guide with Exum Mountain Guides, where Lowe worked off and on for 10 years. Most mountaineers hope to do the Grand Traverse once in their lives; many of the strongest climbers require at least 24 hours to complete it. Lowe squeezed it in between breakfast and dinner. “He came in one morning at Exum,” Chabot recalls, “and when he found there wasn't any work that day, he took off in his tennis shoes and did the whole traverse by himself, climbing 10 peaks. He was back by four that afternoon.”
There are stories about ice climbs Lowe put up in Montana and Wyoming that nobody has ever repeated. There are tales of his showing up at walls all around the world and on-sighting routes the locals have been trying to solve for years. (A climber “on-sights” a route by climbing it with no prior knowledge.) There's the old yarn—confirmed—about the time he blew out the toe in his rock shoe halfway up Yosemite's El Capitan and completed the climb wearing it backward.
Part of his mystique derives from the perception that he has tapped into some inexhaustible life force. Climbers trade intelligence about his pull-up obsession—he gets itchy if he can't do 400 a day—as if they want to be assured it's nothing but hype. (It isn't.) On an expedition in Queen Maud Land, a stir-crazy Lowe dove into an Antarctic whiteout equipped with only a shovel and a pair of skis. An hour later his companions stumbled out to find Lowe down in a freshly-dug, eight-foot-deep pit, chinning himself on the skis. “Hey guys!” he said. “How about a pull-up contest?”
When Lowe tells some of his own favorite stories, he tends to use the word “epic” a lot. To a climber, the word means something like “near total disaster.” An epic is usually bad (as opposed to a “sufferfest,” which refers to an expedition during which inhuman conditions were happily endured). Perhaps the granddaddy epic of them all was Lowe's June 1995 expedition to Mount McKinley, which gave the Mutant full license to express himself.
Lowe and Conrad Anker had planned an excursion up the Cassin Ridge, one of McKinley's most difficult routes. Lowe flew in to base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier a couple of days before Anker, and trekked up to the 14,000 foot camp to acclimatize. That night, for fun, he ran up to the summit with veteran American climbers Marc Twight and Scott Backes and McKinley's high-altitude doctor, Colin Grissom. Along the way, they passed three Spanish climbers bivouacked on the ice. “They'd sort of quit moving,” Lowe recalls, “but they were still trying to climb up.” The next day, with their tent shredded by the wind, the Spaniards radioed for help. “They were talking to somebody out in the Gulf of Alaska,” says Lowe's friend Andrew McLean, who happened to be on McKinley at the same time. “All they could say was 'Rescue, rescue.'” Somebody got word to the Park Service, which called in an Army Chinook helicopter and asked Lowe, Twight, and Backes if they'd help out. Although a storm had struck the mountain, they agreed to try, and the helicopter pilot control-crashed the climbers onto McKinley's 19,500-foot-high “football field,” the highest landing ever in a Chinook. “It was really scary,” the not-easily-scared Lowe admits.
“They told us we had two hours to climb down the West Rib and get these guys back up,” Lowe continues. The West Rib is a technical climb down a 50-degree slope of ice and rock. “By the time we got to them, one of the Spaniards had already fallen to his death. The other two weren't wearing gloves or hats. They were in the last stages of hypothermia—they were delirious—and their hands were frozen way up past the wrist.” Twight and Backes went back up with the first climber, who could still walk, with the idea they'd return to help Lowe carry up the second man, who was in much worse shape. Lowe decided there wasn't time to wait.
“I stood him up, leaned him against me, and started up, but he just passed out, so I cut a chunk of rope, tied him directly into my harness—he was 20 feet below me—and just started climbing up this thing, dragging the guy. It was fully epic. When I reached the fixed ropes, I couldn't keep dragging him, but he wouldn't get up. So I finally picked him up, piggyback, and staggered uphill to 19,500 feet and carried him on to the football field. It was one of those things you do because you have to do it, one of those Herculean things where you get a lot of adrenaline going and you just do it.” They all flew off to Talkeetna in the Chinook.
With the Spaniards safely thawing, Lowe returned to McKinley. Anker arrived at base camp the next day and was making purposefully slow progress to 14,000 feet, in order to acclimatize before their Cassin Ridge attempt. Lowe, who already had his high-altitude lungs, was antsy to get after something, anything. What to do, what to do? He decided to see if he could climb McKinley in a day.
“So I took off at midnight, got all the way up to the football field, about 500 feet below the summit, but the weather got really bad and I couldn't see anything, so I didn't quite make the summit.” On his way down, Lowe passed a party of nine Taiwanese climbers at 17,000 feet. Soon afterward, despite whiteout conditions, the Taiwanese group tried to summit and became separated. Only six made it back to their camp. “The Park Service was like, 'D‰j€ vu,'” says Lowe. Once again, he was drafted, and he and Anker found one climber dead and towed two other half-frozen survivors down to safety. Apparently refreshed by their exertions, but without enough time left for their Cassin Ridge climb, Lowe and Anker attempted a single-day dash up nearby Mount Hunter, getting most of the way up its north buttress before running out of daylight. “That was kind of it,” Lowe says, winding up the story with a shrug.
Sometimes the stories aren't so much epic as bizarrely comic. As Lowe climbed that summer on McKinley, his forehead bore the scar of a near-fatal fall the previous winter. The problem was an icicle in Hyalite Canyon, a few miles outside of Bozeman. Lowe, Tackle, and two others attacked it with ice tools, crampons, and screws. One pitch up (a pitch is half the length of a standard climbing rope, or about 100 feet), with Lowe swinging the lead and Tackle belaying, Lowe's entire section of ice broke free. With Tackle looking on, Lowe rode the ice 40 feet before crashing onto a ledge. Upon impact, Lowe's forehead whiplashed into the adze of his ice ax. He stood up, ecstatic at having survived, and shouted, “Fuck, man, I'm OK!” In fact, Lowe looked like a mangled victim in a Wes Craven movie; his companions could see that a broad section of his scalp was draped over one eye, exposing a section of skull. “Oh, man, you're not OK!” Tackle yelled back. “You're fucked up. Sit down!”
“We rappelled off and kinda taped the scalp back into place, and put a hat on, and taped around the hat, and started skiing out,” Lowe recalls. “Kinda knew it was time to go to the ER. But we also knew it was going to be a long evening there, so we stopped down at the coffee shop and got lattes. It was great. My clothes were saturated with blood. We parked in the handicap spot in front of the coffee shop, marched right in, and then headed for the hospital.”
“Alex was one of those little kids who never felt tame,” says his mother, Dottie, a retired schoolteacher. She and her husband, Jim, raised Alex and his two brothers, Andy (older) and Ted (younger) in Missoula. “He always had trouble sitting still, was always the first one down the trail, always climbed the highest.”
Jim, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Montana, often took the boys scrambling in Kootenai Canyon, and by the time Alex was in the fifth grade he started going off on his own. Several years later, Lowe hooked up with a U of M student named Marvin McDonald who, desperate for a partner to belay him on the walls of Blodgett Canyon, taught the 16-year-old the rudiments of climbing, using a sink-or-swim pedagogical technique. Soon Lowe was doing advanced multipitch routes with McDonald and starting to climb on his own with friends, using a ridiculously unsafe nylon rope he bought at a hardware store. He finished high school in 1976 with only one clear idea of the future: “All I knew was that I wanted to climb some more.”
A chemical engineering scholarship took him to Montana State University in Bozeman, but Lowe's college career was geographically doomed from the start. Too many mountains beckoned through the classroom window. At the end of his sophomore year he dropped out, gathered his rack, and headed for the Sierra Nevada. Before he left, Dottie—who would spend the next 20 years praying for the safety of her son—anointed his VW bug with holy oil.
For Lowe, Yosemite in 1979 was “a place of dreams.” The free-climbing revolution, in which young climbers eschewed the traditional hammered-in pitons for a purer, hands-and-feet-only esthetic, was taking place daily on El Capitan. Camp Four buzzed with climbing-mad kids like Lowe pitching their grubby tents alongside free-climbing masters like Ron Kauk, Jim Bridwell, and Dale Bard. He was the quintessential dirtbag. When his money ran out, Lowe engaged in the hallowed Camp Four tradition of scarfing: hanging out in the tourist cafeteria waiting for someone to leave a half-eaten stack of pancakes or sandwich behind.
He was “wandering aimlessly forward,” as he recalls it, following a path that blossomed into a five-year climber's pilgrimage. When he had money he used it to get to Yosemite, the Canadian Rockies, New York's Shawangunks, Wales, the sea cliffs of Penzance, the Mediterranean Coast, and the French Alps. When he didn't have money—usually after a long spring, summer, and fall of climbing—he earned it roughnecking in the subfreezing Wyoming oil fields. In the winter of 1981-82, he and Jenni, whom he'd met a year earlier through a climbing buddy, hired on with a seismic exploration crew. “It was the perfect job for a climber,” Lowe recalls. “Every day they'd fly us into high mountain areas in Colorado, Montana, Utah, and drop us off with cable, dynamite, and recording equipment. We were the flunkies there to roll the cable ahead of the geophysicist. We did that for about three months, saved another wad of cash, and bought plane tickets to London.”
A Montana native and avid climber, Jenni was as hooked on vagabonding as Alex. Together they practiced the art of living cheap in mountain towns in England and France. “I really didn't think it would last,” she says today, sounding bemused that she fell for this “kid”—Lowe is three years younger—who eventually won her heart with his “pretty boundless energy” and “unstoppable spirit.”
For a while at least, the two climbers enjoyed an existence as carefree as anything Rimbaud or Kerouac tasted. “It's amazing how vivid those memories are,” says Lowe. “Climbing was so vibrant and new, plus I was falling in love with Jennifer. I remember climbing all day on the granite sea cliffs near Penzance. The wild appeal: surf crashing at the base of the cliffs, seagulls crying around you. Jenni and I climbed a whole bunch of routes in the Alps. Most of these places have their climbers' haunts, and Chamonix had this foul place called Snell's Field. You could live in Chamonix and it didn't cost you anything. And most of the time you were out climbing—the North Face of Les Courtes, the Aiguille du Midi, classic alpine rock climbs.”
When it was over, Alex and Jenni returned to the States so broke they had to hitchhike across North Dakota in a December blizzard to get home. The next spring they married, reality kicked in, and the new husband set about trying to find a steady career. He went back to Montana State University, finished his degree in applied mathematics, and in 1988 entered a graduate program in mechanical engineering. Meanwhile Jenni, who wanted to have kids and start a career as an artist, had given up climbing. Instead of finishing graduate school, Alex took a well-paying engineering job with Schlumberger Oilfield Services, the first solid career move of his life. “We thought our ship had come in,” recalls Jenni, and none too soon. By this time their first son, Max, had arrived.
Lowe gave it his best shot, but he lasted barely a year. “It was just work all the time, which was cool,” he says, “but then I realized I only got two weeks' vacation a year. That wasn't going to work.” In the fall of 1990, when Hooman Aprin, a climbing buddy from Exum, offered him a slot on what turned out to be one of the first guided trips on Everest, Lowe bolted to Nepal and helped lead three of five clients to the summit. He celebrated Max's second birthday, jobless, on top of the world.
Lowe's subsequent stabs at a nonclimbing career followed a similar pattern: He'd stick with it for a year or two, then quit to climb or try something else. Quality-control engineer for Black Diamond, the climbing gear manufacturer. Snow avalanche forecaster. Exum mountain guide. In the early 1990s, after Sam arrived, Lowe was spending most of the year working as a private guide, and dashing overseas to tackle ambitious expeditions and climbs when the opportunity would arise. He was seeing less and less of his family, and spending more time guiding than climbing. Neither the Mutant nor the Boy Scout was getting what he needed.
Still, his reputation kept building, and Lowe capped off this period with a virtuoso display of sheer mountain steel. In 1993 he and Anker became the first westerners to compete in the Khan Tengri International Speed Climbing Competition, an annual race held on Kyrgyzstan's 22,950-foot Khan Tengri. The idea is simple, if suicidal. Thirty climbers start at the 13,000-foot base camp. Each is given a numbered padlock, which the racers lock onto a tripod at the summit to make sure nobody pulls a Rosie Ruiz. The fastest climber back to base wins. The only way to win is to go all out. “It's totally sketchy—I mean, people die doing this thing,” Lowe says.
Lowe took the lead early and never looked back. Though unacclimatized and unfamiliar with the route, he smoked the field with a time of 10 hours and eight minutes. In a competition in which climbers are usually separated by minutes, Lowe destroyed the previous Khan Tengri record by more than four hours.
The speed climb confirmed his stature among climbers but earned him little more than a plane ticket and all the vodka his Russian hosts could manage to pour down his throat. The big problem remained: Only a fool becomes a mountain climber to make money, at least in this country. Homebodies with mortgages, children, and fantasies of middle-class security are not often found among the rarefied upper echelons of the climbing profession.
Four years ago this picture changed for a lucky handful of marquee climbers. In 1995 William Simon, then president of The North Face, decided it was time for his company to back climbers the way other companies back baseball and basketball stars. Lowe, Anker, Greg Child, and Lynn Hill all became employees with travel budgets and full benefits. Lowe is expected to put in a certain number of days with sales reps and the R&D department, but the rest of the year he is free to climb.
After leeching off the Boy Scout for all those years, the Mutant finally got a job.
I meet him one morning in his basement office. It's 6 a.m. Jenni and the boys are still asleep upstairs, but he's been up working for three hours, which is standard operating procedure. When he's home in Bozeman he tries to devote the daylight hours to the boys, so he'll often rise at 3 a.m. for a “dawn patrol” run or ski up nearby Bridger Bowl, and be back at the house in time for breakfast. “It's hard to fit this many lives into one lifetime,” he says.
I take the only chair in a spartan and tidy bachelor pad, furnished with a bookshelf, a Macintosh, a poster of Pakistan's Trango Towers, and a file cabinet stuffed with dossiers on mountains yet to be climbed. “Alex always has 15 things planned for the future,” Jenni told me a few days earlier, so I thought I'd see if I could pry Lowe's to-do list out of him. After all, climbing's true icons—the names that resonate beyond the climbing shop—all have a single crowning achievement attached to their names. Heinrich Harrer had the Eiger. Hermann Buhl had Nanga Parbat. Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary had Everest. Reinhold Messner had his 14 8,000-meter peaks. Alex Lowe has a hundred mind-blowing ascents, but no One Big Thing that sticks in the public's mind.
If Lowe is plotting some paramount accomplishment to lift his reputation to that higher level, however, he's not saying. The Boy Scout keeps the file cabinet locked. He's just out to have a good time in the mountains, he insists. Anyone who climbs to make his name is climbing for the wrong reasons—and won't continue for long. “There are people who can't bear to fail,” he says. “Those people are on the short track, as far as their careers go. You have to push hard, do hard things. But you also have to be able to say, 'OK, today's not the day.'”
Lowe is stimulated by danger, but he knows how to factor in fear as an element of the equation. “What I value is the soul-searching head game of getting a little out there,” he says. The serious consequences integral to climbing only deepen his tie to the mountain and intensify the bond with his rope partner. “You go into a multipitch natural route, get a little scared, and the name sears itself into your mind.” Given the high cost of a mistake, he says, a mountain apprenticeship should be long and slow, and it demands as much humility as strength and will. And acceptance, too: Together with the warmth and abundant affection in their marriage, Alex and Jenni share a kind of detachment—an understanding that his livelihood derives from calculated risk-taking—and a philosophical equanimity in the face of what could happen. She has spoken forthrightly of her ability to carry on alone if necessary. Meanwhile, Lowe sticks to the principle that has taken him this far: Let the Mutant race up the mountain, but make your crux decisions in light of the long view. Hard-core ambition is something you deal with down on the flats.
“I've definitely got lists of things I'd love to accomplish as a climber,” he acknowledges, after I prod him further. “But let's face it: The world's full of climbers, and the realm of unexplored, unclimbed peaks is shrinking rapidly.” In other words, he who blurts out his dream ascent is only inviting the world to spoil the party. It's no secret, however, that Lowe's attention for the past two years has been drawn to the Antarctic. The trip to Queen Maud Land in the winter of 1996-97 opened his eyes to the possibilities: an entire continent of mostly unclimbed—even unseen and unmapped—mountains. The main focus of his obsession is the Transantarctic Range, a spine of mountains as long as the Rockies that runs up the opposite side of the continent—a forbidding and insanely cold setting for the last big collection of first ascents on the planet. “The place is totally unexplored,” he says excitedly, and he pulls out an article that includes the notes of a geologist-climber who was one of the first to set eyes on these mountains: “During the austral summer, the sun never sets, and mountaineering is limited only by your endurance and need for sleep.”
And by a third factor: cash. Only one outfit, Adventure Network International, can get you there, and a round-trip ticket in their C-130 Hercules will set you back $30,000. The North Face and the National Geographic Society ponied up for the Queen Maud Land trip, but further expeditions may require Lowe to tolerate some odd collaborations. This winter he was planning to climb in the Transantarctics with Conrad Anker and the president of Adventure Network, Mike McDowell, a raffish Australian entrepreneur who made headlines last year by offering deep-sea tours of the Titanic. McDowell was waiving the price of the ticket so he could climb with Lowe. “He's kind of like your dad,” Lowe told me. “He's got the keys to the car.”
It's easy to see how irresistible Antarctica must be to Lowe. The challenge of the “great game” of climbing, he'll tell you, is pushing right up to the line where boldness and wisdom part ways, but “the ultimate attraction is the unknown. I want to climb routes that are remote and technically difficult. Climbing for me is all about solving the magnitude of the problem. The best projects are the ones with big question marks hanging over them.”
He calls back in early December and leaves a message. “The rumors are true,” Lowe says. He's just undergone reconstructive knee surgery. “I tore my ACL an hour before I left for the airport to head to South America. Had to bag the Transantarctic climb and come home.” Irony ahoy: He tore it playing soccer with the boys.
He'd mentioned his knee problems before, but this time he confessed, “Actually, I first tore it six years ago jumping off some cliffs at Alta.” His doctor had recommended immediate surgery, but Lowe had plans to climb Gasherbrum IV. He flew to Pakistan with his knee in a brace. Over the next six years his knee popped out a half-dozen times, and he'd coped. After the soccer incident, it didn't heal. He made it only partway to Antarctica before a Chilean doctor ordered him back home to the hospital.
Add a footnote to the library of Alex Lowe stories: He has done all this stuff—Rakekniven, Khan Tengri race, the dawn patrols—absent his left anterior cruciate ligament.
For now at least, the never-ending problem has been solved. The torn ACL has given him six months of quality rehab time with Jenni and the boys, with no nagging exploration itch. But when the knee heals, the Mutant plans to run wild. Lowe's 1999 datebook includes an expedition to the Great Trango Tower and a run up Tibet's Shishapangma, the 13th-highest mountain in the world. He and Andrew McLean plan to ski off the summit, making them the first Americans to schuss off an 8,000-meter peak. After that, it's back to Antarctica to enjoy his own personal sufferfest on some remote wall thousands of feet above the ice cap.
“It's really a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Last time I did Trango, I had to walk up the Baltoro Glacier with a brace. I'll be able to dance up it this time.”
Bruce Barcott is the author of The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier.
Photographs by Andrew Eccles