Shortly after the film Metanoia starts rolling, we learn the defining moment of Jeff Lowe’s life. Nine days into a solo first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland in 1991, Lowe was huddled in a grotto far from the summit, soaking wet, shivering, and hungry. As a storm rattled the angry cliffs, swirling spindrift into every crevice, the haunting past unleashed its fury. Lowe faced the spirits of all the climbers who had died here before him, and his innermost demons that chewed at his guts and heart.
The North Face of the Eiger—1,800 meters of rotten limestone—is considered one of the most dangerous and difficult climbs in the world. Lowe was tackling this daunting route alone, in the middle of winter, as if to protest the chaos that had engulfed his life. Some billed the climb as an intentional suicide mission. Dealing with the fallout from an affair that ended his marriage, guilt over not being present for his two-year-old daughter, and failing businesses that had creditors pounding at his door, Lowe no longer knew who he was or what he represented. His world was crumbling.
Up against this unprecedented adversity, Lowe’s awareness detached from his thoughts. He heard a resonating sound that reverberated through the rock wall and into the depths of his soul, like the sound of his own DNA amplifying on the mountain. And there he confronted his true self, vibrating at the frequency of the universe.
“I experienced what I think was an opening of my consciousness to a reality deeper than one I had known before,” he said. Staring into his daughter’s pleading eyes in a wrinkled photograph, Lowe resolved to be a better father. A better person.
He managed to claw his way up the rest of the route—something no one has replicated since—and named it Metanoia, which means a fundamental change of thinking or a transformative change of heart.
This mesmerizing tale is the center thread of Metanoia, a film that chronicles Jeff Lowe’s extraordinary life. Dry eyes were scarce at the U.S. premiere, which screened to a packed house at the Boulder International Film Festival on March 7. Directed by Boulder filmmaker Jim Aikman and narrated by Jon Krakauer, it has already won Best of the Fest Award at the International Film Festival Domzale in Slovenia, the Jury’s Award at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, and Best Mountaineering Film at the Kendal Mountain Festival in the United Kingdom.
This film is Lowe’s swan song, a fitting exclamation point to an incredible career. Lowe is one of the most iconic American climbers, with thousands of first ascents and countless gear innovations to his name. He now faces the toughest climb of his life—a losing battle with a neurodegenerative disorder similar to ALS, which has been slowly eroding his faculties for 15 years. The Eiger prepared him to cope with this debilitating disease.
“The idea of metanoia returns again and again in my life,” recounts Lowe in the film. “The purpose of life is to see what you do when challenges come your way, and the value in that experience is seeing how you handle those challenges.”
Lowe has proven that he handles challenge with grace. Metanoia takes us along on his journey, including a Utah upbringing alongside seven siblings, his mind-blowing string of climbing feats, the Eiger transformation, and his now daily struggle to accomplish the simplest tasks. Using a combination of historical footage and photographs, stunning images transformed to 3D, interviews with friends and colleagues, and scenes of Lowe in his present life, the story comes alive in captivating detail.
Scenes of the Eiger are woven throughout the film, with Josh Wharton reenacting Lowe’s legendary climb, allowing us to marvel in amazement at what it took for Lowe to successfully solo this route. Lowe tackled the North Face like a man with nothing to lose, and in the process, he found himself. He easily could have died on that mountain, but the universe said, “No, you have more to give.”
Upon his return, Lowe infused his life with altruism, finding ways to give back to the community and spread the joy of climbing. He wrote articles and books, created instructional videos, and started the Ouray Ice Festival—one of his proudest accomplishments.
Metanoia is an inspiring account of a visionary climber’s life, yet it is so much more than a climbing film. It is a tale of heroism and redemption, set against the colorful canvas of mountains. The story is more powerful for allowing us to see the vulnerable, flawed Lowe. This glimpse into his once troubled psyche helps us relate to him as a fellow human, and offers hope. Within all of us is the capacity to face adversity and inner demons, and harness our true potential.
The lessons of climbing continue to power Lowe through this final chapter of his life. Tethered to a sheer face, you can give in to fear, or you can accept the situation and dig deep for courage. Adversity strips away everything but your true self. Lowe’s disease, according to his partner, Connie Self, has forced him to let go of his attachment to his identity and learn how to gracefully live his life.
Now he lives with a sense of contentment we can all aspire to achieve: “I’m happy and at peace with myself, taking each moment for what it is.”
Metanoia is a triumphant film that the audience absorbed in collective awe. Before the closing credits had finished, the crowd leapt to its feet in a standing ovation, expressing gratitude for this film and all it represents—visionary thinking, courage, tenacity, inspiration, acceptance, and grace.
As Self answered questions after the film, Lowe furiously tapped at his iPad on stage, composing remarks that his daughter read: “You can base your life in fear or you can base your life in love. Fear leads to negative results even in times that are basically good. On the other hand, love powers the universe. I’ve chosen to live my life in love and that has made even the most trying times beautiful experiences. I thank all of you for being supportive along the way.”
Once again, Lowe amazes with his visionary approach. This film is a heart-opening gift. Metanoia will soon be screening across the country as well as at the Piolet d’Or in Europe. Follow Metanoia on Facebook to learn how to host a showing near you.
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo., who has traveled to more than 40 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @averystonich.