Alex Lowe

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For other uses, see Alex Lowe (disambiguation).
Alex Lowe
Alex Lowe.jpg
Alex Lowe on Annapurna III in 1996.
Born (1958-12-24)December 24, 1958
Died October 5, 1999(1999-10-05) (aged 40)
Shishapangma, Tibet
Nationality American
Occupation Mountaineer, Climber

Stuart Alexander "Alex" Lowe (December 24, 1958, Frederick, Maryland – October 5, 1999, Shishapangma, Tibet), was widely considered one of his generation's finest all-around mountaineers. Lowe died in a massive slab avalanche in Tibet.

"The White Knight"[edit]

Lowe gained iconic status within the climbing community for his courage, humility, grace and supreme athleticism. Numerous first ascents and heroic feats earned him a cult-like following, and a host of colorful nicknames: "The White Knight," "The Mutant," and "The Lung with Legs," this last moniker bestowed by an astonished climber who witnessed Lowe — carrying a heavy load, no less — effortlessly ascend Argentina's 22,841-foot (6,962 m) Aconcagua (highest peak in the Western Hemisphere) in a two-day lightning assault[citation needed].

Referring to Lowe, Dave Hahn — a twelve-time Everest summiter — once remarked with a gesture of his hand, "There's Alex Lowe up here, and then there's the rest of us down here. The guy's just really that much better than everybody else." In its obituary on Lowe, the New York Times quoted Conrad Anker as saying, "We're all at this one level, and then there's Alex."

I sort of steer clear of the whole 'World's Best Climber' stuff, it's a sort of hype, really, and climbing just doesn't lend itself to that. There might be a fastest runner, or a highest jumper—you can measure that, quantify that. But climbing is different. It's just too subjective. And it's a lifestyle, not a sport. So I don't really think there is such a thing as a 'best climber.' There are certainly talented climbers, and there are persistent, sort of anal climbers, you know? They just can't give up. And those are the ones that sort of go on and do lots of climbs, and harder climbs. Those are the people who just can't shake it off. That's what I am.

Interview on MountainZone.com (1999)

Lowe's obituary continued, "He was widely admired for excelling in every aspect of mountaineering, from rock- and ice-climbing to ski descents." It quoted the late climber-photographer Galen Rowell as saying, "[Lowe] was a renaissance mountain man in all regards." The obituary added, "Climbing light, fast and often alone, Mr. Lowe pulled off feats that left other climbers in awe." Despite widespread praise, Lowe remained humble and discounted the notion of any "best climber." He was later quoted in the American Alpine Journal (AAJ) as saying, "The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!"[1]

Climbing lore is replete with stories of Lowe's exceptional upper body strength, developed through a fanatical exercise regimen that regularly included 400 chin-ups and hundreds of dips. In December 1999, Outside Magazine commented of Lowe: "That sweetness and utter normality made the lore that went around about Lowe all the more enchanting. He lugged calculus texts on remote expeditions to amuse himself while tentbound. Pullups were a compulsion; he'd do 1,000 at an airport, or dig a snowpit in an Antarctic storm and start hoisting himself on a ski. He took coffee like a diabetic takes insulin. All true." During his climb of the Great Trango Tower, The Times noted, Lowe "was ill at the time, fell 50 feet (15 m) and injured his elbow, but pushed on to the west summit at 20,410 feet (6,220 m)." The December 1999, Outside Magazine article quoted Al Read, Lowe's boss at Exum Mountain Guides, as saying, "It was astonishing what he was able to do. And do safely. And do alone, without bragging. He wouldn't even tell you about it."

In an article for Active Lifestyle, Gordon Wiltsie, a photographer who climbed with Lowe in Antarctica and Canada's Baffin Island, said, "He was one of the most driven people I've ever met, but he could slow down and talk with anyone. He didn't suffer fools easily, but if you approached the mountains sensibly and with a good spirit, he was great." The article continued, "He did have his quirks, though. A self-admitted exercise addict, he often stormed through the door at 7 a.m. after getting up four hours earlier to ski fresh powder. Later, it was off to the gym, where he'd hog the pull-up bar to knock out 400 pull-ups in sets of 40 and 45. He abhorred downtime. He knew where to do pull-ups in many airports. Even on expeditions, when rest is hard to come by and much appreciated, Lowe was an oddball. He'd cop pull-ups on a ship's rigging en route to Antarctica, or do dips in a snow pit he dug at base camp." In that article, Wiltsie said, "At Baffin Island, after hauling supplies to a high point on a climb, we went back to camp beat and tired, but Alex proceeded to do pull-up after pull-up. He even brought an exercise device on climbs."

In 1995 Lowe climbed a massive "icicle" in Hyalite Canyon, near Bozeman, Montana. While climbing in the lead, Lowe's section of ice snapped free. He rode the ice 40 feet (12 m) down, crashed into a ledge, smashed his forehead into his ice ax, then stood and proclaimed himself okay. His friends saw something else, Outside recalls. "Lowe looked like a mangled victim in a Wes Craven movie; his companions could see that a broad section of his scalp was draped over one eye, exposing a section of skull." 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."

Another climbing episode saw Lowe blow out the toe box on his climbing shoe halfway up Yosemite's massive El Capitan, a 3,000-foot (910m) vertical rock. Instead of quitting, he completed the climb, friends later recalled, by wearing his shoe backward.

Lowe's philosophy was expressed in a Helen Keller quotation that he posted on his office wall: "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all."

In the December 1999 article in Outside Magazine, Lowe was quoted as saying: "When I'm 70 or 80 I'm still going to be doing good climbs. It's going to be fun to the bitter end."

Rescue on Denali[edit]

In June 1995, Lowe helped the National Park Service rescue several Spanish climbers on 20,320-foot (6,190 m) Mount Denali in Alaska. The date, June 9, found the men clinging to life inside their tents, after enduring four nights of frigid, ferocious winds at 19,200 feet (5,900 m). Before a rescue team could assemble, one of the climbers (Albert Puig) was seen plummeting 4,200 feet (1,300 m) to his death from the mountain's Upper West Rib. Lowe and two fellow climbers were immediately lifted by military helicopter to a plateau above the Spaniards, scaled down a 400-vertical foot, 50-degree slope of ice and rock, to reach them, and determined that one needed immediate evacuation. The March 1999 issue of Outside (Magazine) Online quotes Lowe as recalling, "By the time we got to them, one of the Spaniards had already fallen to his death. The other two weren't wearing gloves or hats. They were in the last stages of hypothermia -- they were delirious -- and their hands were frozen way up past the wrist." While Lowe's climbing partners assisted one man up the steep slope, Lowe determined that the other man had to be evacuated immediately. Amid snowy conditions, he at first dragged, then carried him on his back up the steep slope at high altitude, in an incident that was photographically documented. Observing the dramatic rescue in adverse conditions, a Park ranger commented, "[Lowe] literally, single-handedly, saved several people. He picked one guy up who had frozen hands and feet and couldn't move and was literally inches from death."

Shishapangma accident[edit]

In September 1999 Lowe, Anker and David Bridges (a two-time US national paragliding champion) traveled to the 26,291-foot (8,013 m) Himalayan giant Shishapangma, the fourteenth highest peak in the world, as part of the 1999 American Shishapangma Ski Expedition. Plans called for the elite trio to become the first Americans to ski down from the summit of an 8,000-meter peak, in this case via the Swiss-Polish route on the South Face. Bridges was part of a three-man film team that was to shoot an NBC documentary of the expedition for The North Face.

During the roughly three-week trek to base camp, the group chronicled their deeds through photographic and written essays at MountainZone.com. On October 5, they split into two teams as they searched for a route up the mountain. Lowe's group (Lowe, Anker and Bridges) were crossing a flat glacier when a large serac broke loose 6,000 feet (1,800 m) above and tumbled downhill. Lowe's team at first thought the slide posed no threat, and actually snapped photographs of it. But as the thundering mass grew in size and speed—ultimately reaching an estimated 100+ miles per hour—the three men realized it was headed straight at them. Lowe yelled a warning to his team, all of whom ran. According to Anker, Lowe and Bridges may have attempted to escape by diving into a crevasse. Regardless, the 500-foot (150 m)-wide avalanche swept over the three men. Anker—despite being thrown a reported 100 feet (30 m) by the windblast, and having a lacerated head, two broken ribs, and dislocated shoulder—emerged from the snow, and led a frantic, ultimately futile, rescue-recovery attempt that spanned a reported 20 hours in a large debris field measuring up to 20 feet (6.1 m) deep. Neither Lowe nor Bridges were wearing an emergency location transponder, which might have helped rescuers pinpoint their bodies. Neither body was found.

Prior to his death, Lowe — an expert skier — commented on his upcoming Shishapangma climb to MountainZone.com. "It's been a passionate goal of mine to ski off an 8,000 meter peak. I guess there's a lot of people sort of looking to do this and try to ski off Everest. But for me, it's got to be an aesthetic and quality run. And Shishapangma has the best ski line of any of the 8,000 meter peaks. It's just an absolutely straight shot right down the Southwest Face. That's going to be a good one."[citation needed]

Memorial fund[edit]

Lowe left behind in Bozeman a wife (painter Jennifer Leigh Lowe, who later married Anker) and three sons, Max, Sam, and Isaac. A memorial fund was established in his honor (Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation – ALCF)[2] and thanks to this fund three years later the Khumbu Climbing School was conceived.[2]

Climbing achievements and recognition[edit]

In 1995, the American Alpine Club honored Lowe with the Underhill Award for outstanding mountaineering achievement, the highest honor in U.S. mountaineering. The Montana State University mathematics graduate's climbing achievements at altitude, on rock, ice and mixed terrain are legendary. He climbed for nearly 10 years with The North Face professional climbing team, which included in the later years mountaineer Jon Krakauer, author of the bestseller Into Thin Air. After Lowe's death, Outside Magazine posthumously declared him "the world's best climber," adding, "No matter how jaw-dropping his routes, Lowe's real genius grew out of the way he combined physical accomplishments with an indomitable spirit."

Alex Lowe Peak[edit]

Formerly known by its elevation as Peak 10,031, Alex Lowe Peak, south of Bozeman, Montana in the Gallatin National Forest was officially named after him in September 2005.[3][4] In spring of 1997 Alex Lowe climbed the northern couloir with friend Hans Saari. Upon reaching the summit the two made a first ski-descent down what they named "Hellmouth Couloir." In step with Montana's word-of-mouth, non-publicized ascents and descents, the couloir has been done a number of times in recent years by local parties.

Climbing and skiing resumé[edit]

Notable climbs[edit]

Skiing[edit]

  • First Descents
    • Hellmouth Couloir, Alex Lowe Peak (formerly Peak 10,031), Montana, 1997
    • Northwest Couloir, Middle Teton, Wyoming, 1992
    • Enclosure Couloir, Grand Teton, Wyoming, 1994

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ americanalpineclub.org, pdf version of AAJ 2000, p. 441 (the motto of In memoriam: Alex Lowe 1958-1999, pp. 441-443, by Gordon Wiltsie)
  2. ^ a b Outside Magazine, December 2005, All-Stars, The Believers, Conrad Anker: High-Altitude Altruist, Mission // Improving the odds for Sherpas, (Retrieved 27 March 2010)
  3. ^ everestnews.com "Alex Lowe Peak": A Mountain Honoring a Mountaineer [with photograph, localization and the climbing history of the peak] (Retrieved 27 March 2010)
  4. ^ alexlowe.org/peak.shtml "Alex Lowe Peak": A Mountain Honoring a Mountaineer. (Retrieved 27 March 2010)

External links[edit]