“The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!”
By the time of his sudden, tragic death beneath an avalanche on Tibet’s forbidding Mount Shishapangma, Alex Lowe had become a mountain character larger than life. Many called him the greatest contemporary climber on earth (a title he personally eschewed), but he was far more than just a phenomenal mountaineer. He was an intellectual, a family man, a prankster, a communicator and an open-hearted soul who could make friends with almost anyone, from the president of the National Geographic Society to a barefoot Balti porter.
Alex touched the lives of almost everyone he met, and this was clearly demonstrated in the wake of his passing. Two of America’s biggest national network news programs devoted long minutes to news of the accident—more than is often earned by prominent ambassadors or senators—and virtually every major newspaper and outdoor magazine eulogized him. Thousands of people wrote condolences to his family. The mere fact that a person as talented, experienced and powerful as Alex could perish in the mountains was a wake-up call to everyone.
Ironically, Alex never set out to become famous; he just loved to climb. He was the second son of James and Dorothea Lowe and grew up in Missoula, MT, where James was a professor at the University of Montana and Dorothea taught fourth and fifth grades. “I was a nerdy kid,” Alex once told me. “I was usually the last kid chosen for basketball or baseball games.”
But Alex loved the outdoors, and his parents encouraged him. He became an Eagle Scout and started climbing seriously while still in high school, pioneering many classic routes in the Bitteroot Mountains. In 1982, Alex married Jennifer Daly, a fellow climber who is now a renowned artist and the mother of his three sons, Max, Sam and Isaac. This was a devoted partnership that brought Alex great comfort, but also dismay at the ever-extended periods of time that climbing—soon to become his career —took him away from home.
At times, Alex did try to become a workaday guy. He earned a degree in engineering mechanics from Montana State University and worked briefly doing seismic surveys in Wyoming. He also looked after quality control for Black Diamond Equipment. But always the mountains lured him away.
To readers of this journal, there is little point in trying to list Alex’s many mountaineering achievements. They’ve filled numerous pages of the AAJ. He climbed Mount Everest twice, put up some of the hardest mixed climbs ever achieved, forged the lead up some of earth’s most remote big walls and set speed records everywhere he went. He guided for Exum in the Tetons, smiled from the pages of National Geographic and lectured to audiences all over the world. No one could keep up, and often no one could follow. When it came to raw talent and energy, he was in a league of his own.
Alex did have his foibles. Notably, he was addicted to exercise. He might have been one of the first climbers to understand that fitness has something to do with alpine performance.
While working the oil rigs in Wyoming, he used to sneak away from his fellow roughnecks during lunch break and do pullups in the outhouse. In later years, he would wake at 3 a.m., climb a mountain near his home in Bozeman, MT, ski down and be home in time to wake up the kids for school. Then he’d make a few dozen phone calls and head to the health club, where he’d make muscle-bound weight lifters look like 98-pound weaklings. During one climb I shared with him on Baffin Island, he’d often spend the day hauling huge bags 1,000 feet up the wall, then return to base camp and do a pyramid of 400 pullups.
But Alex wasn’t just an athlete. He was always thinking about how things in the world worked, and, in a storm-bound tent, it was humiliating to swap books with him. In exchange for your own tawdry novel (which he was not above reading), you’d likely get some textbook on quantum mechanics or a spiritual tome by the Dalai Lama.
Given his array of talents, Alex was one of the most remarkable people I have ever had the joy to meet. But simply spending time with him was exhausting. His favorite quote, for example, was from Pascal, something along the lines that life is motion, and when you stop moving, you die. And how he could move.
Alex was a friend who led by example. He always did more than his share of the climbing and camping chores. Just watching him almost always inspired his companions to try a little harder, to be a better person, a stronger climber. I owe two of my own proudest accomplishments (my photography of Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land, and of our climb of Great Sail Peak on Baffin Island) to his intense energy and thoughtfulness to my own needs and weaknesses. With him around, how could I do anything but my best? But then again, as one climber once said, “to bring Alex along is cheating.”
What really set Alex apart, however, was his growing abilities as a communicator. Much as he never considered himself a writer, his internet messages from Great Trango Tower rank among some of the best mountaineering prose ever written. Even after a long day on the ropes, he’d come back to the portaledge and sit down with a keyboard, wiring his thoughts to the world. He did a live interview with National Public Radio that inspired tens of thousands of traffic-jammed commuters.
But these skills were honed with his characteristic energy and hard work. The first time I heard Alex lecture, for example, I thought it was the worst slide show I’d ever seen. His pictures were blurry and his narrative rambling. How that changed over the years. He found his voice and was able to articulate how he viewed life and what was most important to him. While his friends and family are only now beginning to fathom the depth of his loss, at least we have some of his writings to hold close. The following was written July 6, 1999, from high up on the northwest face of Great Trango Tower:
What to say about the climbing. You know, for me, the climbing is insignificant in relation to the moments spent reclined on a ledge watching clouds transmogrify from one ethereal form to another even more evanescent shape. (What marvelous beasts would Max and Sam identify in the mists?) And while lost in cloud reverie an old tattered gorak drifts carelessly and silently upward, cocking his hoary head at me curiously as though asking why I struggle so hard for such measured upward gain. I’d love to borrow his wings for a magical waltz through these magnificent towers.
But—the climbing: The last three leads of the day fell to me. They involved incipient and unprotectable seams and face climbing where peaceful determination, trust and a huge smiling heart gets you up pitches you would never find rational justification to lead. I love the heady climbing best of all! Stepping out, believing I’ll find a knifeblade seam somewhere in the next 50 feet and scratching out a stalwart belay at the end—ah, that’s the good stuff!
I’ll beg to take your leave now. Venus is rising over Uli Biaho and I yearn to snuggle deep in my bag here on my ledge in the starry sky and fall away into resplendent slumber.
Farewell, Alex. The world will miss you.