Alex (right) and Max (left, age 3) in December 1991 in Zion National Park, Utah.
Alex (right) and Max (left, age 3) in December 1991 in Zion National Park, Utah. (Photo: Jennifer Lowe-Anker)
Adventures in Audio

A Father’s Death in the Mountains—and What Came After

Alex (right) and Max (left, age 3) in December 1991 in Zion National Park, Utah.

In 1999, Alex Lowe was a star climber and father to three young boys when he died on Tibet’s 26,335-foot Shishapangma along with expedition cameraman David Bridges. The lone survivor of the accident was Conrad Anker, Alex’s climbing partner and best friend. A year after the tragedy, Anker married Jennifer Lowe, Alex’s widow and mother to their three young boys, Max, Sam, and Isaac. Ever since, storytellers have been captivated by this tale, but now a powerful new documentary by Max Lowe, Torn, reveals how grief can evolve over decades—and how love can heal even the deepest emotional wounds. In this episode, Lowe shares what it’s been like to tell his family’s story and what he hopes we can all learn from it.


This episode was brought to you by Fat Tire, maker of delicious, easy-drinking beers and a company that’s taking action to address climate change. Join Fat Tire in calling on the International Olympic Committee to require all future sponsors of the Games to be be climate leaders at PointOfSnowReturn.com.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

[advertisement]

Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.

Paddy O’Connell: Has it dawned on you that something that you created is also going to share a streaming platform with Luke Skywalker and the Avengers? Because that's a thing that happens.

Max Lowe: Yeah. I have thought about that. I've thought about that for sure. 

Paddy: It's going to live next to Aladdin. It's like, what?

Michael: That's Max Lowe talking with Outside Podcast contributing producer Paddy O'Connell about his new documentary, Torn, just before it began streaming on Disney+ at the start of February. Max is a 33-year-old award-winning filmmaker and photographer. He's been to far-fetched, exotic locales for shoots, he's had his picture taken on the red carpet at film festivals like Cannes and Tribeca. But even Max can get a little slack jawed when the House that Mickey Mouse built plays his film for millions of viewers.

Max: It's wild to think that it's going to be out in the world here in a few short weeks in every country, the world across, and many languages, and touching people on that scale. It's pretty insane.

Michael: For today's episode, Max opens up to Paddy about what it's been like to tell his family's tragic and beautiful and powerful story; and what he hopes we learn from it. I'll let Paddy take it from here.

Paddy: Say that you're at a barbecue. Maybe you're like me. You're being very Midwestern and you're looking over the shoulder of whoever is cooking, saying like, ‘oh, that's a good job on those burgers there, guy.’ And somebody hears that you just made a new film. They come up to you and say, ‘hey, you made a new film. I heard it's called Torn. What's it about?’ What'd you tell him?

Max: Oh, man, it's a question I've answered quite a bit over the last few months. I've tried getting around the fact that it's about my life, but seeing as I'm kind of like the central driving force behind the whole project, I usually acquiesce to telling them it's about my life and my family.

But, usually I say it's about family and it's about trauma and grief and how my family moved through a traumatic event, both as individuals, but also as a unit and, as a reflection on how we all might process trauma or not process trauma. And how it shapes us, whether or not we acknowledge that fact. That's kind of the short and sweet elevator pitch.

Paddy: Have you had to give many short and sweet elevator pitches recently?

Max: Yeah, yeah, I've, I've given quite a few in the last few months.

Paddy: Yes, Max has been talking about this film for awhile now. It premiered at Telluride, Colorado's famed Mountainfilm festival in September 2021. He's been interviewed by the New York Times, the LA Times, Variety, the New Yorker, Outside, and many other publications. And everyone loves the film. It's been holding a 100% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes, with the most discerning critics plus lots of random Jane and Joe Schmos praising it.

Max: Fortunately a lot of what I've been doing with the film since it premiered at Telluride in September is largely just presenting the film to people and letting it speak for itself because.

I think it is probably seen as something different from, from people who know what it is. I've screened it at adventure festivals where people know who my dad is, who Alex is and who Conrad is. And a little bit about our story, but a lot of the screenings that we've done, have been in places where people know nothing about the adventure world and to them, you know, it seems like maybe it's going to be a story about climbing and adventure, but it's, it's really at its core, it’s something much different than that.

Paddy: On paper, Torn is the latest chapter in the story that has dominated the mountaineering world, and the larger world of outdoor media, for over two decades. In 1999, Max's father Alex Lowe, the star climber of his generation, was killed in an avalanche on Mount Shishapangma in Tibet at age 40, along with cameraman David Bridges. The lone survivor of the accident was Conrad Anker, Alex's climbing partner and best friend. A year after the tragedy, Conrad married Jennifer Lowe, Alex's widow and mother to three young boys: Max and his little brothers Sam and Isaac.

Ever since, storytellers have been captivated by this. It has been the subject of countless magazine articles, movies, and books. Jennifer Lowe-Anker published a memoir in 2009 entitled Forget Me Not.

But Torn delivers much more than another heart wrenching addition to this tale. The entire film is an investigation of how grief never leaves us; rather, it morphs over decades. And it very often can build walls that keep people out, especially those we love the most.

I couldn't help, but feel like your father's death, Conrad and your mother getting together, the entire tragedy and family dynamic following, had not really been discussed at length or possibly even at all. Is that true?

Max: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, not direct on. I mean, we still to this day have never had family therapy.

Paddy: Really, I find that fascinating.

Max: Yeah. I couldn't say why. I mean, it's not that we didn't talk about it. We talk openly about Alex all the time. And, there wasn't any questions that necessarily they wouldn't have answered. But, the stuff that we explore in Torn isn't the kind of stuff that you're just going to bring up over breakfast, you know?

Paddy: Pass the salt and the OJ, please. Also, can we talk about dad? It doesn't happen.

Max: Yeah. And, uh, you know, I think a good chunk of me wanting to make the film was recognizing the, the space that it would give me to explore some of these things that I had observed within myself and within my family, my whole life, but just never had the gumption or the courage to ask for.

Paddy: To me, the film seems to be about a large, terribly conflicting question that you had. Can I love and honor my father and at the same time, love and feel grateful for Conrad who stepped into the role as my dad.

Max: Yeah.

Paddy: Is that true?

Max: Yeah. I think that that would be accurate for sure. And all the complexities that exist therein. I mean, along with the fact that As the eldest son, I always kind of felt this task of balancing things for my family, especially after Alex's death.

I always felt like it was my responsibility to help make sure everybody was okay. But I think definitely the bit of allowing Conrad to see how much he means to us while also honoring Alex who, you know, that's, that's part of why Conrad was compelled to step into our lives. You know, he, he wanted to honor this guy who he loves so much as a friend. And I think that Torn was my effort and attempt to try and do both of those things: honor this man who had impacted all of us and immense immeasurable ways while also making sure everybody was okay.

Generational trauma exists because people hold onto it. It's something that, it's something that you don't just move on from. It's something that sticks with you and defines you, and you're really only able to control it if you're able to face it.

Paddy: But facing trauma is much easier said than done, especially when it involves people who you love. The fear of stirring up emotions long held in solitude, the fear of having these conversations with his family weighed heavily on Max. And you can hear it in his voice at moments in the film. In one early scene, Max is literally digging through the past as he opens boxes of old photos and videos.

Max (film): Most of the slides probably haven't been looked at in like 20 years. Never really had a need to go digging through all these memories. Until your kid comes along and decides to make a documentary about your family. Definitely feel conflicted, bringing everything back up to the surface for all of you guys

Paddy: And that conflict is palpable in the interviews with his brothers, Sam and Isaac. When they sit individually for their interviews with Max, they look jaw-clenched and stone faced in one moment, and broodingly on edge the next.

Max (film): You ready? 

Film: No.

Max (film) Why not?

Film: Because I'm anxious. 

Max (film)Why are you anxious?

Film: I feel like it's probably just going to bring things out in the open and then we'll just see if we can recover from that.

Film: I guess I'm curious as to why you want to make this film considering it's something that we haven't really explored with just ourselves very much at all.

Paddy: And Jennifer Lowe-Anker looks simultaneously nervous and determined when she sits for her interview with Max, but deflects any tension as only a mother can.

Jennifer Lowe-Anker (film): You didn't brush your hair. 

Max (film): This is my, this is my look. 

Jennifer (film): This is the way you brush your hair.

Paddy: The idea that we benefit from confronting the things that make us want to run and hide under the covers is at the core of outdoor adventure. Max understand this. He's been held under water by waves for frighteningly long periods while surfing. He's been pinned down near the summit of Denali, with lightning striking and snow swirling all around him. Max knows scary. But still, making Torn was different.

Max: People look at free solo and these other widely acclaimed adventure movies, and the idea of climbing El Cap without a rope is horrifying to most people. But I would argue that, you know, sitting down with your family members and, and bringing up the shit that you guys avoid talking about your whole lives probably is also right up there with things that are terrifying to most people.

Paddy: Did you feel like you wanted to do this investigation publicly because the camera almost protects you in a sense and allows you to have those very difficult conversations?

Max: I definitely recognize the power that having a camera on allows you, and I recognize that and other film work that I've done in the past, but to be able to wield that personally for my own personal life was a wild experience. I think if, if I hadn't have recognized the fact that it could be a tool for other people, I don't know if I would have had the courage to make the commitment to do this as a film, like a public facing film.

You get this focus and, and fortitude for emotional content and conversation that you're just not going to be able to find anywhere else, you know? Because you're doing it with intent to do something larger than yourself. And I think that that is partially why I was able to have some of these conversations that you see in Torn, many of which are the first times I'm discussing these things with my family and my whole life. Who knows if I would've been able to have in any other way. Many times throughout the making of the film, my mom was like, ‘maybe you should have just gone to therapy making this movie.’ But as a storyteller, this is how I know how to explore this kind of stuff.

A camera's kind of, if you see it in that way, it can be a therapist.

Oftentimes the hardest questions that you might explore in therapy are the same ones that are the most compelling to allow your experience to rollover and impact someone else. You're just able to tap into this level of humanity within folks. If you hit the right vein of conversation that you can't really find, many other places in life.

The simple fact of the matter is that my family probably did this for me. And I don't think anyone else could have ever made this film because people have been looking into our lives pretty much, most of our time as a family. And, there were things that all of us hid from the outside world that, you know, they knew they couldn't hide from me.

Paddy: We'll be back after a short break.

[advertisement]

Paddy: One of the hardest moments for the audience to watch in Torn, even though you know it's coming, is Jennifer Lowe-Anker recounting the call from Tibet letting her know that Alex had died.

Jennifer (film): And the phone rang, I could hear a voice and it was totally quavering, you know? And he told me there's been a, there's been an avalanche and I'm really sorry. Alex's buried.

Newscast (film): This is the news at 6. Well, the search for mountain climber, Alex Lowe, has been called off. The body of the legendary mountain climber will remain buried beneath the Himalayan avalanche. The 40 year old Bozeman resident and cameraman David Bridges are presumed dead.

Paddy: 17 years later, Jennifer and Conrad were working at the Khumbu Climbing Center in Tibet on a foundation started in Alex's memory.

Jennifer: Conrad got a phone call and I could tell by the look on his face that it was something heavy, but you know, I got off the phone and he told me David Getler found their bodies.

Newscast: The bodies of American mountain climber, Alex Lowe and cameraman, David Bridges have been found on a mountain in Tibet

Max: When Alex, his body was discovered and I got the call from my mom. It was, it was shocking. I just didn't wrap my head around the simple fact that the glacier would melt eventually. And that people go up there often. You know, I always pictured Shishapangma as this mountain, this wild and scary mountain in the middle of literally nowhere that, you know, no one would ever go to ever again, because it was too scary. The fact that Alex's body would ever come back to us was not something on my mind.

And so when we were facing that reality and, and, and trying to each in our own way, wrap our head around the fact that we were going to go have this experience and face Alex's remains, it was an upturning of my reality for sure. And it just brought back everything that I had stuffed away back when I was 10, 11 years old and experienced this trauma and made me realize very acutely that it was something that still impacted me, you know, almost 20 years later as an adult and that facing it was gonna open up a whole new chapter to, to my relationship to Alex and my relationship to how his death had impacted me and me and my family.

Paddy:  When the news came that Alex's body had been discovered, Conrad and Jennifer called their boys, and Max, Sam, and Isaac joined them immediately to help retrieve Alex. Though Max was already an emerging filmmaker, at the time he had no plans to create a project about his family. But at the urging of his friend and mentor, the filmmaker David Holbrook, Max brought his camera to Tibet. What he captured is raw and deeply moving.

Max: The scene that always gets me and continues to haunt me is that scene where they bring the stretchers down. And I sit in front of the camera because it's like a, it's like a time warp. You know, I'm suddenly back in my head and wondering like, wondering what I was thinking at that moment, you know? Kind of like what I was trying to explore poking around at that moment when Alex died, when I was a kid, you know, wondering what I was thinking. Because I think in those moments of immense duress and chaos, as the world seems to shift around you in an inordinate manner, it's hard to know what to think. It's hard to make sense of things. And I think that making Torn was for me a way by which I tried to do that a little bit for myself.

Paddy: Making Torn helped Max gain a deeper understanding of what he'd been through and how he needed to heal. But Max also saw the film as an opportunity to help his entire family.

Max: I saw that Conrad especially was just tortured still 17 years later by this. The weight of survivor's guilt, the experience of going back to this exact same place that he had last been with Alex, his best friend and climbing partner, but now as the father to Alex's sons and the husband to Alex’s wife, you know, it was something that I can't even imagine. I wanted to explore that for him because it seemed like from my perspective as this son of both him and Alex, you know, I wanted to give him the stage to talk about some of the stuff and let my mom see how he actually felt, and how each person has their own ideas and understanding of the narrative, the collective narrative that defines you as a family.

And I wanted to give Conrad, as well as my mom and my brothers, the chance to look at how each of us has interacted with the story of our lives and with the trauma of Alex's death in different ways. So that we could maybe better understand each other and how we might move forward as a family.

Paddy: Saying and thinking that you want to do something is very different than actually doing it. When Max returned home to Montana, he was asked to make a presentation about his trip to Tibet at a leadership summit in Bozeman called Hatch. It was the first time he publicly discussed Alex's death.

Max: I think when I got up on that stage, at Hatch and broke down in front of, you know, this crowd of people talking about the experience in Tibet, that was this moment where I recognized I was not okay. Seeing how that compelled people to come up to me afterwards and open up about their own traumas and their own experiences in life, that was really the moment where I was like, ‘okay, This is something I want to do.’

Paddy: Max had hours of footage from his trip to Tibet and he conducted many hours more of interviews with his family and friends. That would make up the bulk of Torn. But he also had literal pounds of archival footage of Alex and his family to wade through, which makes for some of the most emotionally gripping scenes in Torn.

Max (film): Ooh, that looks familiar. 

Film: This is it right here. Yeah. This is the stuff, buddy. So this is, this is brutal, but this is, um, Conrad's interview, this one's intense.

Max (film): Yeah. I'm curious to see what, if there's anything else beyond what we already know?

Film: This isn't going to be very fun, Max.

Max: We had a couple of hundred hours of archival film, probably including all of the expeditions that Alex and Conrad had gone on as well as our personal family archive of home footage that Alex and Conrad and my mom had shot of us as kids. That was a huge haul. And I digitized most of that myself.

So I watched, watched through all of that as it digitized because still to this day, the way you digitize most forms of film is basically just letting it play as it is recorded onto the computer.

Paddy: Was the archival footage a gift? Was it a burden? Was it painful? Was it beautiful? Was it all those things?

Max: Yeah, I think it was all of those things. I mean, there was footage in there of me and my brothers that Alex had shot that probably no one had ever seen. After he passed away, it just sat in our basement and collected dust for 17 years. So to be able to go back in time and experience him as he interacted with us, you know, especially being a filmmaker myself now and interacting with my world from behind the camera, it was a pretty wild experience. 

Not to mention for my brothers who, you know, Isaac was three when Alex was killed. So he really has no memory at all of him.

This is a lot of footage that I had avoided watching most of my life, because it was still raw and painful to hear Alex's voice, let alone see video footage of him just doing his thing.

It's wild to just see how powerful that sort of stuff can be when seen through the frame of the kids, of someone who's long, long gone from this world.

Paddy: In addition to the emotional lift of creating the film, there was the physical endurance. Max shot on and off for three years. Editing Torn took 19 months in total and Max says the first cut of the film was nearly three hours long. Once it was finalized at a 92 minute run time, the pandemic hit and Max sat with the final version of the film for an excruciatingly long year.

But once it premiered, once people watched it, Max realized that the story he had told could be incredibly impactful to people outside his family. Torn is of course about the Lowe-Ankers, about their grief, and how grief has shaped their family. But it is also very much about love and its power to heal. And in that, Torn has morphed into something bigger than a film.

Max: It definitely felt like a huge gift. And I hope it feels like that to people who watched the film too. Cause I think, sharing vulnerability is one of,, one of the biggest gifts that you can give to people. And stories that access that level of personal vulnerability are the ones that have impacted me most so that's what I aspired to do in the making of Torn as well.

Alex's death changed my life more so than probably any other moment that I'll experience or that I've experienced at this point at very least. 

And so to be able to build that out from multiple different, different angles, and not only learn more about who Alex was in life, but see what it means for my mom to lose her soulmate and reconcile, moving on to love again and hear from Conrad what it has been like to step up and into Alex's shoes as this young man who had never had a family before. To build out that pivotal moment in all of our lives, not only for myself, but for each of them as well. 

Um, yeah, I mean, it was a huge gift that they gave to me.

Paddy: Do you think, you know, grief better? Do you think, you know, love better?

Max: I hope so. Yeah.

I think it's something that I'll probably continue to reconcile for the rest of my life. But making this film gave me an opportunity to step back and get a little bit higher perspective on the things that are important in life and why it's important to trust and love, even if it is a scary, scary prospect that you might eventually lose that person.

Trusting and loving someone is way scarier than any immense climb or huge adventure that anyone could think about doing in our world. 

My hope is that people will come away from this film maybe seeing more value in love and seeing more value in the love they have. And the love that maybe they're trying to attain or hold on to.

Paddy: When it comes to the heart, to loving someone, do you have advice for folks who are scared to love and risk loss?

Max: I mean, I'm not an expert, but, uh, from what I've learned and Torn, you know, looking at the value that all parties experienced, whether it was my mom or Conrad or my brothers, and choosing to love again. And even for myself, you know, trying to step out of my own id here, but, it’s worth it

It's like my mom says in the film, it's worth it. It's worth it to risk losing it all, you know? Cause it's better to love and lose that than never love at all. I don't know. That’s a tough one to answer. 

But, just go watch the movie. You’ll probably understand more.

Paddy: That's a good plug. That's a good plug right there.

Michael Roberts: Max Lowe's film Torn is streaming now on Disney+. And you can follow Max on Instagram. He's @max.lowe. Lowe is L-O-W-E

This episode was produced by Paddy O'Connel and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Original music by Robbie Carver.

This episode was brought to you by Fat Tire, maker of delicious, easy-drinking beer, and a company that’s taking real action to address climate change. Join Fat Tire in calling on the International Olympic Committee to require all future sponsors of the Games to be be climate leaders at PointOfSnowReturn.com

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. Also, we're offering new members a 25% discount. Just enter the code pod25 at checkout.

Follow the Outside Podcast

Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.