Even in photographs, Jeff Lowe’s easy grace is indelible. In one image, taken on Ama Dablam in 1979, Lowe stands casually on a rocky ridge, the Himalaya disappearing into the mist below, his blonde locks flowing from a knit cap and weight balanced perfectly, improbably, on one knee and a long leg reaching back to a flake of rock. The stance should look precarious, but in the photograph Lowe seems supremely at ease.
That athleticism was a hallmark of Lowe’s climbing style, together with his versatility and creativity. He rode those attributes to more than 1,000 first ascents around the world, including a stunning solo on Ama Dablam in Nepal, the paradigm-smashing first ascent and subsequent first solo of Bridalveil Falls, and Metanoia, his life-altering direttissima on the North Face of the Eiger. Those accomplishments cemented Lowe’s status as the finest American alpinist of his generation, but he will be best remembered for the way he carried himself after a mysterious illness stripped away his physical gifts, and challenged him in a way no climb ever did.
Jeff Lowe was born in 1950 to a family of noted climbers. His father Ralph was an early prototype of a mountain funhog who admonished his eight children to “have fun, work hard and get smart,” in that order. Lowe was just seven years old when he first summited Grand Teton with his father and brother Greg, then nine. As a teenager, he put up dozens of new routes around the family home in Ogden, Utah, and when Yvon Chouinard came through town, 14-year-old Lowe joined him for a session of bouldering and unroped climbing. At 21, he returned to Grand Teton with his cousin George H. Lowe to make the first winter ascent of the formidable West Face, in winter. (Lowe is not related to the pioneering New Zealand climber George Lowe or the late American alpinist Alex Lowe.)
After three days of climbing, the cousins reached the summit in fierce winds, and began a precarious descent. “Jeff thought it was the worst rappel he had ever done,” George Lowe wrote in the American Alpine Journal. The rest of the descent was only miserable, graduating to pleasant when we reached our skis in the trees and skied the fresh powder in lower Garnet Canyon.”
Lowe was a talented ski racer, but soon turned full-time to climbing. Skiing was more thrilling, he conceded, but the precision, focus and concentration of climbing proved irresistible. In the mountains, he could push both his physical and creative limits. “I thought of first ascents as works of art,” he said, “not competitive triumphs.”
Lowe’s climbing interests ran the gamut from rock to ice to snow, and his particular genius was combining the full spectrum of skills and techniques to accomplish climbs others had not even thought possible. “His ability to envision routes in his mind created all kinds of opportunities for him,” said his brother and frequent climbing partner, Greg Lowe. “A lot of people wanted to reproduce someone else’s routes. Jeff generally wanted to create routes.”
Lowe would make more than 1,000 first ascents around the world, from the crags behind his family home in Ogden, to the big sandstone walls of Zion National Park, and peaks throughout the Rockies, Andes, Alps and Himalaya. His 1974 first ascent of the frozen Bridalveil Falls in Colorado with Mike Weiss reinvented the sport of ice climbing. Four years later he repeated the route alone and unroped, again recalibrating the sport’s outer limit.
In 1978 Lowe began an Alpine-style ascent along the North Ridge of Latok I (23,442 feet) in the Pakistani Karakoram with George Lowe, Jim Donini and Michael Kennedy. They charted an ambitious route along a knife-like ridge of granite and ice rising 8,000 feet above the valley floor, and resolved to climb it in the purest possible style.
“It was also an exciting time of transition in Himalayan climbing,” Kennedy wrote years later “Expedition style—the tedious but time-tested method of fixing an umbilical cord of ropes and camps up a mountain—was still de rigueur for most expeditions, but a few hardy individualists had begun to embrace a variety of lighter, simpler and bolder tactics. Our collective experience and ambitions put us firmly in the latter camp.”
The party spent six days stormbound at 18,500 feet living on “half-rations and hope,” and when the weather cleared they pressed through the crux of the climb, despite a persistent virus that had sapped Lowe’s strength from the beginning. They’d planned a two-week climb, but on Day 20 they were still some 700 feet below the summit and Lowe was too sick to move. The team waited overnight, and tried for the summit the next morning. A few hundred feet short of the top, Lowe’s condition took a turn for the worse.
No one spoke a word, George Lowe recalls. The team just started down, all thought of the summit eclipsed by concern for Lowe. His tent mate Donini later confessed he didn’t think Lowe would survive the night. The descent took four days and 85 rapells.
“Latok showed me how far out I could go within a team of true friends,” Lowe said of the climb, which was not repeated for 40 years. Lowe called it the best climb of his life.
The next year he climbed Nepal’s Ama Dablam (22,349 feet) as part of a large expedition underwritten by ABC television. Lowe led a party to the summit, but as the others celebrated their success, Lowe sulked. He’d found the methodical, siege-style climb profoundly unsatisfying. At 3 a.m. the next morning, he started back up the mountain, alone and by the untried South Face. He climbed 4,000 vertical feet of mixed rock, ice and snow to the summit and returned to camp the same afternoon, his spirits soaring. “Soloing that mountain felt so pure,” he said later. “I didn’t have to deal with the expedition. I just climbed.”
Lowe had transported the various skills of mixed climbing to the high alpine and soloed a line few others even thought possible. “Climbing that hard, that high, alone just wasn’t being done at the time,” said climbing writer Doug Robinson. The equipment didn’t even exist until Lowe and his brothers designed it. “He could see the great lines, he had the ability to climb them, and he could make the tools that would make it happen,” Robinson said.
In 1967, Greg Lowe designed the first internal-frame backpack and by 1972 he’d founded Lowe Alpine with another brother, Mike, to market the packs and other innovations that spun off from their ambitious climbs. Mike and Greg handled the business end, while Jeff contributed by designing and testing new gear, and representing the brand as his profile grew both in the climbing community and the mainstream.
Lowe would later start his own companies, Latok Mountain Gear and Cloudwalker, both of which were innovative successes and financial disasters. In the mid-1980s, Lowe made an effort to settle down, marrying and having a daughter, Sonja, born in 1988. That year he organized America’s first-ever sport climbing competition in Snowbird, Utah. Climbers loved it, but the event lost money. By 1991 Lowe was bankrupt and divorced. There was nothing left to do but climb.
“Time after time in my life, when things were going wrong I found that doing a long, hard climb would set me straight.” He chose the most iconic mountain of them all, the Eiger, plotting an improbable diretissima on the Swiss peak’s storied North Face.
“In a way I was climbing not a line on the mountain, but an idea in my mind,” he said in Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, the 2014 film produced by his life partner Connie Self and directed by filmmaker Jim Aikman. The line is delivered in voiceover, as Lowe had by then lost the ability to speak clearly. His mind, however, was as sharp and probing as ever.
“Feeling deep remorse for the mess I’d made, I needed the kind of purity that I could only find at the edge of my abilities,” he said. “I would go alone, in winter, without bolts on the hardest, most-direct unclimbed route, in a style that would honor the Eiger’s pioneers.” It was a terrifically difficult undertaking, the hardest climb ever attempted in the Alps, and it had an air of desperation around it. Lowe was so broke he had to sell much of his gear just to get to Switzerland and he hadn’t climbed at all in two months, but friends worried more about his emotional condition. “The unspoken assumption is that he was going to commit suicide,” climber Malcolm Daly said in the film.
The higher Lowe climbed, the worse conditions became. Eight days in and about 1,000 feet from the top, he waited out a storm in a shallow cave, sitting cross-legged and watching a curtain of spindrift sliding down the face and experienced the Metanoia—the spiritual transformation—for which he named the climb.
“Shivering in waves, I stared at a picture of my two-year-old daughter by the light of my headlamp. She was so far away,” Lowe says. “And then my awareness detached. I felt a low, deep vibration, a sound I hadn’t heard since Ama Dablam. I didn’t understand what I was hearing, and then I knew: I’d finally met myself, vibrating at the center of my universe.”
The next day, pushing toward the summit, fatigue dulling his technique and attention, he fell. “My left tool popped on a tiny divot,” he wrote later. “I spun into space until I could see the town of Grindelwald, two miles below. A bulge loomed directly beneath me, so I jumped away from the wall.” The rope caught him after a fall of about 40 feet, and he pendulumed into the icy face and hung there, nearly unconscious, gasping for air.
The pain helped him regain his focus. He continued higher, every move now solid and fast. Then, about 20 feet from the shoulder of the West Ridge, he reached the end of his lead rope. He’d run it out to its full length and couldn’t go any higher. It was late in the day, with another storm on the way. His ground team radioed with a radical suggestion: drop the rope and solo to the top, where a helicopter could pluck him from the mountain. “My initial reaction was ‘No way.’ But my cosmic journey in the Hermit Cave, and the image of my daughter’s angelic face, outweighed any other consideration,” Lowe wrote. He climbed the last few meters un-roped and met the helicopter at the summit.
The name Metanoia came to Lowe on the last day of the ascent. Webster’s defines the word as a transformative change of heart, especially a spiritual conversion. The climb was his masterpiece, but more than that it gave him the epiphany that put him back on track. “It was the beginning of a changed perspective that would enlighten the rest of my life,” he said.
Lowe continued to push the sport’s cutting edge into the late 1990s. Something was changing, though. Around 2000, his motor skills and sense of balance degraded rapidly. Doctors were mystified. At first they suspected Multiple Sclerosis, but as his condition worsened they recognized symptoms closer to ALS, the degenerative neurological disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lowe, who once moved with such remarkable grace in the mountains, soon couldn’t walk at all.
Michael Levy, who wrote Lowe’s obituary for Rock and Ice, recalls the last time they met, at the 2018 Outdoor Retailer trade show 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.”
The sly smile was pure Lowe, familiar to anyone who knew him. The voice, though, was computer-generated—a synthetic alter-ego Lowe called “Ryan.” Friends marveled at his poise and good humor. To people who live in the mountains, who draw such great joy from moving through and feeling wild places, the only thing more incomprehensible than his disease was the courage with which he faced it. Lowe regarded death as his final adventure. It was a perspective that grew out of a lifetime of climbing, but crystallized in that cave high on the Eiger’s North Face.
“He met himself, and he experienced infinity, experienced the universe in all its grandeur and all its expansiveness, his purpose in it and what he needed to do,” his partner Connie Self told the Denver Post’s John Meyer. “It changed everything for him.”
Top Image: Jeff Lowe on Ama Dablam in 1979. Photo by Tom Frost