Jeff Lowe: What I’ve Learned

JEFF LOWE: Age 65, alpinist and onetime leading American ice climber, filmmaker, Ouray Ice Fest founder

By Jeff Lowe, Interview by Michael Levy | February 6th, 2017

What I did in climbing for all those years was practice being in the moment. As soon as you resist being in the present, you can’t think, you’re not creative, you can’t solve anything, you will not make the best choice. This practice prepared me for this [unknown neurodegenerative condition]. Every day I’m still in the present, still trying to figure it all out. Doing the best I can with what I’ve got from where we are right now. If you can be in the present moment of your life, you can deal with anything that comes your way.

Jeff Lowe in 1979 during the second ascent of Ama Dablam (22,349 feet). Photo: Tom Frost.You always have to have a good base. On Latok I, I was fortunate to have three partners who shared the vision and were committed to each other. When I had a recurrence of Dengue Fever at 23,000 feet, they gave up the summit to see me safely back on flat ground. I think it set a standard that is not always adhered to for taking care of your partners and not letting the summit be the be-all, end-all.

I had always been a cautious climber—that didn’t change with [daughter] Sonja’s arrival. I always thought if I died in the mountains, it would put an asterisk on my climbs. Even objective hazards are no excuse.

If you choose to walk under a serac or climb loose rock, it’s your fault if you die. Occasionally I’ve accepted serious objective hazard, but only after observing carefully and only inserting myself at the best time into the rhythm of the mountain. No climb is worth the tip of my little finger.

The challenges of adventure, rock climbing and alpinism trained me well for dealing with the slow neurodegenerative malady I’m experiencing. More than five decades of hands grated by cracks. Whole body aching from long days of big-wall hauling. Tiny tents, bivy sacs, snow caves lashed by hurricane sleet. Frozen fingers and toes. Migraines and altitude malaise. Not knowing what’s to come. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.

I had to be roped into starting the Ouray Ice Fest. From the start, it was a collaboration between my ex-wife Teri’s and my company Arctic Wolf and the Ouray Ice Park. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the festival immediately. Ouray was a ghost town in the winters. Now there are ice festivals all over North America and ice parks too! This year [partner] Connie Self and I are hoping to screen Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia there (

I learned that the best projects grow organically at their own pace, and how terribly important all partnerships are. I have always had a ton of ideas, more than I could ever follow up on or make happen. So much of my dreaming and visioning was all in my own heart and mind. It was not that easy to share it. I have finally learned that I must communicate (try that when you can’t talk). Connie has really taught me to include her in decisions, get her perspective. I am lucky I have Connie for this last big push.

I had mastered misery. So I was well-suited for the last two decades of losing balance, coordination and sense of touch, contorting hands and drop foot. Gradual loss of strength. Whole-body spasms as painful as anything I’ve ever known. Gastrointestinal tract shutting down. Struggling hours each day to clear
phlegm and fluids from lungs. Weakened from atrophying diaphragm muscles. The agony of trying to communicate with paralyzed vocal chords [these answers all typed]. Unable to reach my granddaughter with more than a hug and a kiss. Like I said, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.

[Climbing Metanoia] on the Eiger I met my true self, at the deepest level … I discovered that who I am is enough. That I could go back to my life and do my best, and it would be O.K. That I could be a better father than I had been in the past, and be there for Sonja as she grew up. That my love for her was more important than my mistakes. I saw a way through turmoil then, just as I see a way through each day’s challenges now.

I learned in those moments that all of life is really about learning.


Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia – Official Trailer (HD):



VIDEO: First Repeat of Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia on the Eiger North Face


This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 240 (February 2017).

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