Jeff Lowe, Best Alpinist of a Generation, Dies at 67
Widely regarded as the finest American alpinist of his generation, Jeff Lowe died on the evening of August 24. He was 67 years old.
The last time I saw Jeff Lowe, at the 2018 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver, I asked how his summer was going. An intervening minute of silence, then: “Not doing much climbing,” he said with a cheeky grin.
That was a given. Beginning in 2000, Lowe suffered from an unknown neurodegenerative condition akin to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that left him wheelchair bound and stripped away nearly all of his motor skills. But that comment was Jeff: always a joker, still a character, even if the jokes took a bit longer to type into the text-to-speech program (the voice of which he referred to as his alter ego, Ryan) than they used to.
Widely regarded as the finest American alpinist of his generation, Jeff Lowe died on the evening of August 24. He was 67 years old. His daughter, Sonja, announced the death on Facebook, writing, “My father, Jeff Lowe, to put it in his words, ‘moved on from this material plane to the next.’
“The last few days were a beautiful whirlwind of laughter, tears, sadness and new friendships … We laughed, cried and honored his life and the many climbs and many lessons he experienced, and had a three-day celebratory party with him as the guest of honor and the one bringing us all together.” His young granddaughter picked flowers for him at the hospital.
Connie Self, Lowe’s former longtime partner, wrote on Facebook: “I am very sorry to share that Jeff Lowe took his final journey into the great unknown, peacefully last evening with his family. Jeff was the love of my life, my best friend, my business partner and the most amazing human being I have ever known, with all the flaws and foibles that beset those with extreme talent and brilliance. Jeff always made the best of any situation by living in the present moment. He had an incredible sense of humor, was a visionary climber and inspiring writer. I was blessed to know Jeff for 37 years, to live with and care for him for 8 years … RIP, dear Jeff.”
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It’s hard to overstate Lowe’s influence on modern-day climbing. As American climber Pete Takeda put it for an article in Rock and Ice, “If there was a Mount Rushmore of American climbers, Jeff Lowe’s face would easily rate Jefferson’s spot. Lowe is perhaps best known by the general outdoor public for pioneering a paradigm shift in ice climbing—not once, but twice.”
But those shifts were later in the Jeff Lowe story. Before the big mountains and gear inventions of his prime decades, Lowe was a blindingly blonde little outdoorsman in Ogden, Utah. Born on September 13, 1950, to Elgene and Ralph Lowe, Jeff was a precocious athlete and adventurer. He cut his teeth in the Wasatch Range and the Tetons, and did his first first ascents there. He was more enamored with skiing—at which he was also gifted—during his teenage years, and had dreams of professional racing.
He turned his attention solidly to climbing in the early 1970s, when he did some of his earliest noteworthy ascents. In 1971, with Mike Weis, Lowe made the first ascent of the iconic Moonlight Buttress, in Zion, Utah.
In 1974, Lowe and Weis teamed up for an even more notable ascent: Bridalveil Falls, the climb Takeda called the first time Lowe reinvented the sport of ice climbing. Rising 125 meters bottom to top, the overhanging mushroom and cauliflower ice formations looked unscalable to even the leading climbers of the day, but Lowe saw only possibility.
In 1978, Lowe climbed Bridalveil again, this time solo. Sixty meters up he unroped and soloed to the top. Sports Illustrated ran a cover story about Lowe and the solo, in which he was quoted saying, “This is the hardest solo I’ve ever done—and I was well aware of that, too. But once I left the rope, I actually felt better. There was less uncertainty. There wasn’t any possibility for retreat, and that made me feel sharper. More lucid. Now I could concentrate everything on going ahead, with no thought at all of going back. That’s a great feeling.”
Earlier in 1978, the 27-year-old Lowe—with his cousin George, a leading alpinist; Jim Donini, a future president of the American Alpine Club; and Michael Kennedy, then editor in chief of Climbing magazine—traveled to the Karakoram, Pakistan, for what would become one of each climber’s most lauded climbs, an attempt of the North Ridge of the 7,145-meter Latok I. The spine of rock rising above the Choktoi Glacier was bigger than anything they had anticipated. They spent 19 days in July forging a new line up the steep terrain in alpine style. On the 20th day, at around 23,000 feet—just under 450 feet shy of the summit—Lowe awoke feeling terribly ill. After climbing one more pitch, his partners decided they had to descend to save their friend’s life. On the 26th day after setting off, they returned to Base Camp, emaciated and two weeks overdue.
In a 2016 interview with Rock and Ice, Donini said, “I remember walking towards Base Camp, and everything looked different. I started yelling, and the cook came around the corner and saw me. He started crying. And I started crying. It was like re-entering the world of the living.”
Their climb up the North Ridge, though unfinished, became one of the greatest stories in alpine climbing—not least because it was tried dozens of times in the subsequent 40 years. The full North Ridge was finally climbed in July 2018, by the Russians Alexander Gukov and Sergey Glazunov, but the climb ended in tragedy when the latter fell to his death and the former required a rescue.
In a 2016 interview, Lowe told me, “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.”
Lowe went on to leave his mark in the the Himalaya with other lines that were destined to become classics. In 1979, mere days after guiding a commercial expedition to the top of Ama Dablam (6,812 meters), Nepal, Lowe departed Base Camp alone and soloed a new line on the mountain’s south face. The 1980s saw Lowe continue his exploration of Nepal, with notable first ascents on Kwangdi Ri (6,187 meters), with David Breashears, in 1982; Kangtega (6,782 meters), with Alison Hargreaves (who was later to die on K2 in 1995), in 1986; and Taboche (6,495 meters), with John Roskelley, in 1991.
Despite the apparent danger in an endeavor like his solo of Ama Dablam, or free soloing much of Bridalveil Falls, or pushing so close to the edge on Latok, Lowe felt strongly that climbing beautiful and hard routes should not be needlessly dangerous. “No climb is worth the tip of my little finger,” he said in a 2016 interview.
The trip to Ama Dablam also sparked his interest in the spiritual and mystical in ways that would inform the rest of his life. In conversations he often alluded to life-changing epiphanies that revealed deeper truths than we can perceive in normal frequencies or everyday life. He would spend minutes in silence as he sought the perfect, precise words. The zeal with which he believed in such things—and his reverence for the way in which they shaped his life—virtually wafted off him in those still, silent moments; at such times, it felt an uncommon privilege to share his company, regardless of one’s personal feelings on such.
The purpose and success Lowe found in the mountains didn’t always translate to his personal and professional life, which was often a rockier affair. He enjoyed success working as a gear developer and tester, helping develop revolutionary gear like the Snarg and the tube-style belay device for Lowe Alpine, the company founded by his brother Greg, but was unable to duplicate it with a company of his own founding called Latok. In 1988, he introduced competition climbing to the USA with the first Sport Climbing Championships in Snowbird, Utah, which, while a critical success, was a financial failure for Lowe.
That same year, he and his wife had a daughter, Sonja.
In 1991, Lowe made a seminal ascent, in climbing and the rest of his life: of Metanoia, a direttissima up the North Face of the Eiger. He established the line solo, over the course of nine days. Near the top of the wall and pushed to his limit, he holed up in a snow cave to escape a worsening storm—and experienced a spiritual moment, an epiphany that, to the end, remained one of the critical junctures in his life. “My awareness left my body and ego and went on a grand tour of the cosmos,” he told me in an interview. “I visited ancestral grounds and saw the way DNA works to project each entity into material reality. I also experienced black holes, dark matter, the bending of space time into itself. I suddenly found myself back in the cave staring out at dwindling spindrift and glimpses of blue sky.”
On the ninth day, at the end of his rope, but tantalizingly close to the top and with another storm moving in, Lowe untied and soloed to the summit ridge, where a helicopter, organized by friends and observers Jon Krakauer and David Roberts below, retrieved him.
Metanoia was finally repeated for the first time in late December 2016, by the German climber Thomas Huber and the Swiss climbers Roger Shaeli and Stephan Siegrist, after numerous attempts by top climbers, Ueli Steck among them.
The year 1994 saw the second of the two times that Takeda says Lowe reinvented the sport of ice climbing. In the Vail Amphitheater, Vail, Colorado, Lowe did the first ascent of Octopussy, ushering in the rise of modern-day mixed climbing as we know it today, replete with figure-fours and and gymnastic movement.
Lowe’s best-known ascents ended here, but he continued putting up new lines the world over throughout the 1990s, and explored new arenas, like helping to found the Ouray Ice Fest, still going strong and a benchmark for participation, in 1996.
The latest chapter in Lowe’s life began in earnest in 2000 with the onset of his disease. Over the past 18 years, the disease progressed from the days Lowe merely tripped more often, to his being wheelchair bound as he gradually lost his fine motor skills. In his final years, Lowe required round-the-clock medical care. All the while, Lowe remained an active member of the climbing community, traveling to events to promote his 2014 film, Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, which he produced with Connie Self. Of late, he was working on his memoirs and spending more time with his daughter, Sonja, his granddaughter, Valentina (“Val”), and friends old and new.
The late Ueli Steck, after visiting Lowe in Vail in 2014, said, “When you see him, you think to yourself, I need to enjoy things as much as possible now, that it’s all a blessing, and that the situation can change quickly. You can still feel his passion. His is a wonderful lesson in courage that inspires great respect.”
Lowe’s approach to his condition throughout his final years was as graceful as it was brave. “The challenges of adventure, rock climbing and alpinism trained me well for dealing with the slow neurodegenerative malady I’m experiencing,” Lowe told me the first time I interviewed him, in 2016. “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.” He was fond of saying that he was doing just “one more first ascent” with his undiagnosed disease, adding to the more than 1,000 he already had to his name.
That first time I met Lowe I was nervous: I was an aspiring journalist come to interview a lion in 20th century alpinism. Would he be dismissive, show me the door after a half-hour of canned, rote answers? Instead, over two lengthy afternoons, Jeff told me about his philosophies on climbing and life. There would be long silences—10, 15 minutes; more even—as he closed his eyes, ruminated on the lessons learned on Latok, the Eiger, Bridalveil and Ama Dablam, and painstakingly typed them, letter by letter, with a stylus into the iPad propped in front of him. At first I felt awkward in those silences. Should I fill them myself? But as time went on they became comfortable, welcome.
Time spent with Jeff was full of humor and silences. I recall Connie Self asking him one time to maneuver his automatic wheelchair leftward, to which he responded, “I swing both ways,” followed by a raspy laugh, turned full-body-wracking cough, turned raspy laugh again. Those who knew Jeff Lowe will miss his abiding humor and ability to take everything in stride.
I for one will miss the silences, which will feel less profound without him.
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