With nicknames such as the Lung with Legs and the Mutant, it comes as no surprise that Alex Lowe had a reputation as one of the fittest and strongest mountaineers who ever lived. Lowe’s exceptional upper body strength was developed through a fanatical exercise regime that regularly included 400 pull-ups and hundreds of dips. But Lowe’s fame arose not so much from his possession of such enviable physical attributes, but the application of them. His reputation began in his adopted state of Montana where he made numerous hard rock and ice climbs and ski descents and where his strength and fortitude became legendary.
In one famous incident a free-standing icicle he was climbing broke free, carrying him 30m down before he hit a ledge, smashing his forehead into his ice axe. Lowe, however, promptly stood up and proclaimed himself okay. But his friends could see he wasn’t: A large section of his scalp was draped over one eye, exposing his skull. Undeterred, Lowe later recalled what followed: “We…kinda taped the scalp back into place, and put a hat on, and taped around the hat, and started skiing out. [We] kinda knew it was time to go to the ER. But we also knew it was going to be a long evening there, so we stopped down at the coffee shop and got lattes. It was great. My clothes were saturated with blood. We parked in the handicap spot in front of the coffee shop, marched right in, and then headed for the hospital.”
Other notable incidents included his part in helping to rescue some Spanish climbers trapped by a storm high on Denali. He struggled up steep ice slopes at high altitude while carrying a frostbitten climber on his back, so he could be evacuated by helicopter. “He literally single-handedly saved several people,” said the chief mountaineering ranger for the National Park Service at the time.
Lowe’s climbing achievements were just as impressive: He led the first ascent of the Northwest Face of the Great Trango Tower, in the Karakoram, despite a 35m fall and injured elbow, a solo ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn, the first solo ascent in winter of the North Face of the Grand Teton in Wyoming, and no fewer than 16 routes up Yosemite’s El Capitan. Lowe also summited Everest twice, as well as climbing in Antarctica, Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, Indonesia’s Carstenz Pyramid, and the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. In this candid portrait by Gordon Wiltsie, Lowe celebrates his successful climb of Great Sail Peak by taking a shave in base camp and then washing his hair. Job done, he wanders back into his tent to open a cold beer.
“We’re all at this one level,” the top alpinist Conrad Anker once remarked, “and then there’s Alex.”
Lowe was tragically lost in an avalanche while climbing Shishapangma in 1999. Often named in magazines and by his peers as the best climber in the world, he had shrugged off the unwanted label with typical diffidence, responding: “The best climber is the one having the most fun.”
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitter check out @Polarworld.
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