Who is the Best Climber in the World?
“The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.” Alex Lowe said that. Saturday, October 5, 2019, was the anniversary of Alex Lowe’s and Dave Bridges’ deaths on Shishapangma, 20 years ago.
In 1993 I traveled to Bozeman, Montana, and spent several days with Alex Lowe for a magazine profile. It was a long time ago, but I still chuckle to think of it. I knew he’d earned a cult-like following, that he established the hardest, often unrepeated, ice routes in the country; that he onsighted 5.12+; that in South America he was dubbed the Lung with Legs after a speed ascent of Aconcagua. That he darted around the mountains rescuing people on Denali, Everest, etc., perhaps toting them upslope. In fact, one friend of mine, who with his partner was aided by Alex after a rockfall accident, later proposed fancifully there should be annual reunions of all the people ever rescued by Alex, “complete with picnics and little children playing on the grass.”
Alex was a gifted athlete, strong at altitude, born with the VO2 max of an Olympian—and the drive of one as well. Alex would carry rocks in hand when hiking, running or guiding. He knew places in airports to go for pull-up fests. He would do dips between twin beds in a motel, or on skis over a snow pit. Jack Tackle maintained a summer cabin by the Lowe family’s in Jackson, Wyoming, and heard the rafters creaking daily as Alex did pull-ups. “I don’t know how Jenni puts up with that shit,” Jack would say fondly of Alex’s patient wife. Alex would often wake at 3 or 4 in the morning, ski a peak or fire up an ice climb, and return by the time his family rose. When I was in Boze, Alex, a few others and I went rock climbing one day, and after we returned to his house Alex slipped out.
“Oh, he’s probably at the gym,” Jenni said mildly.
“You think so?” He’d just climbed, after all.
“I’m sure he is,” she said. (And he was.)
Saturday, October 5, was the anniversary of Alex Lowe’s and Dave Bridges’ deaths on Shishapangma, 14 years ago [this article was published in 2013]. Dave, 29, was a high-altitude videographer, another great mountain athlete, capable of moving with the fast climbers Lowe and Conrad Anker to be able to film them.
Alex was 40. None of us could believe the loss.
“I thought he was like James Bond!” I remember Mark Synnott saying. “That things could happen but he was so good and so smart, he’d always find a way out.”
In the years since, in conversations with climbers, whenever Alex’s name comes up, one line always seems to surface, too.
“The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.” Alex said that.
I knew at the time of my visit that many considered Alex the best all-arounder in the country, and indeed some of his friends liked to tease him by calling him The World’s Greatest Climber. I asked Alex, in a rather jocular tone, who he thought that person was.
“The best climber in the world,” Alex mused. I can hear his voice again, hear the pause as he thought. Then he commenced with his now-signature definition.
After several days, I flew home again, bearing thousands of words of notes, and in time wrote an overlong profile. I let it steep a bit and then started cutting words. When the article went into layout, I had to trim some more.
It’s hard cutting text: Arthur Quiller-Couch called it “murder[ing] your darlings.” I had put the “best climber” line in the story, but eventually cut it. Plenty in the article attested to Alex’s spirit and charisma, though he was also honest about his dark moods when he couldn’t climb or was out on a trip but pinned by bad weather.
I needed a caption for a cheerful, colorful shot of him climbing steep ice, and remembered the deleted line. Hmm, I liked that one. I can just put it in here.
That was the best thing I ever did in climbing and outdoor writing, though I almost missed it. Even running that sentence solely as a photo caption turned out to be better than having it as text, because anyone leafing through a publication tends to read headlines and captions, not necessarily the associated articles.
Alex Lowe’s three sons, Max, Sam and Isaac, have grown up now. His widow, Jenni, married his best friend and climbing partner, Conrad Anker, who loves the boys and has adopted them, offering love and discipline. Last year I heard a funny story from Conrad about arriving at the Bridger Bowl ski area to see that young Sam had parked his truck halfway into a handicapped spot. Conrad, who carried keys to the vehicle, said, “So I drove it to the lowest lot and parked it there.” Sam arrived to the shock of a missing truck, and was in the lodge reporting its theft when the realization dawned on him … “Dad!” —meaning Conrad. That was the last time Sam made that mistake.
Max just turned 25, Sam is 21 and Isaac is 17. Max graduated from Westminster College, in Salt Lake, three years ago and is working as a freelance writer, photographer and video editor, living in Bozeman with his brother Sam. He and Conrad climbed Denali together last spring. Sam is a sophomore at Montana State, studying filmmaking. Isaac is a senior at Bozeman High, running cross-country.
Isaac was only 3 when Alex died, and the only father he knows is Conrad. Yet in an almost compensatory way, Isaac always looked like Alex, with his square face and the lanky build of both parents; and I noticed something else once at a trade show, when I belayed as he took a spin on a climbing wall. Isaac, then about 9, climbed around easily on the overhung surface, without effort stopping in the middle to watch the shenanigans of participants in a pull-up contest. A sweet passage in Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s memoir Forget Me Not, a deeply unusual story of a climber but also a whole life and relationship, talks about how she watched Isaac sleeping on his back with his hands behind his head and elbows in the air, the way Alex had.
Jenni and Conrad together started the Khumbu Climbing School, to promote Sherpa education and safety, in Alex’s memory. Just this morning as I sat in my office, Dick Jackson, past president of the American Mountain Guides Association, walked in and mentioned having recently seen the school, now a partially completed facility with dormitory and library. “It’s an amazing thing they’ve done,” he said.
The school has been embraced by the climbing community, with instructors stepping up to teach technical climbing and belaying, anchor building, avalanche safety and medical and rescue training.
In writing this essay, I e-mailed Jenni to check that I was remembering correctly that she had called Isaac “my last gift from Alex.”
She e-mailed back right away to say, “Yes, he was the bonus baby. My last gift from Alex.”
One minute later came another e-mail: “Although in retrospect, I think that Conrad was really my last gift from Alex.”
As cutting edge problems get longer and higher, I was interested to hear what one of the foremost practitioners of the highball game had to say about the proliferation of pads, the practice of headpointing and the future of the “sport.”read more