Climber Remembers the Legendary Alex Lowe

Conrad Anker and Alex Lowe, who were climbing partners and best friends, ski across Patton Glacier in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, in 1997. Photograph by Gordon Wiltse
Conrad Anker and Alex Lowe, who were climbing partners and best friends, ski across Patton Glacier in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, in 1997. Photograph by Gordon Wiltse

“We knew it was going to happen one day. We just didn’t think it would be right at this point,” says alpinist Conrad Anker about learning that the bodies of his friends Alex Lowe and David Bridges had been discovered, still frozen inside a glacier at the foot of Shisha Pangma, an 8,000-meter peak in Tibet. “You can never anticipate these things, but then the call comes, and there it is.”

On October 5, 1999, Alex Lowe and David Bridges were swept away by an avalanche on Shisha Pangma during an attempt to ski a first descent of the mountain. Lowe, 40, was arguably the finest mountaineer of his era. Bridges, 29, was also an extraordinary athlete, mountain lover, and photographer.

Anker was there with them, traversing an open snow-covered slope, when the mountain came to life and unleashed its full fury. Miraculously, Anker survived. When the dust settled, however, Lowe and Bridges were gone.

To Anker, it seemed that his friends had simply vanished into a billowing cloud of snow.

Following the tragedy, Anker stepped in to become a father to Alex’s three sons—Max, Sam, and Isaac—and support Lowe’s widow, Jenni. Conrad and Jenni fell in love and married in 2001.

Around noon on April 29, Anker and Jenni Lowe-Anker got a call that they’d perhaps always expected—just not on that day. It was two of Europe’s most accomplished mountaineers: Ueli Steck of Switzerland and David Goettler of Germany. The duo, while acclimatizing for an ascent of Shisha Pangma’s South Face, had discovered two bodies protruding from the compacted blue ice of a glacier above base camp. They described the gear to Anker—red and blue North Face packs, yellow plastic Koflach mountaineering boots. It matched his memory of what Lowe and Bridges had been wearing and confirmed their identities.

Climber Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker hang out in sleeping bags in a tent in the Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica.; Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie
Climber Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker hang out in sleeping bags in a tent in the Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica.; Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie

We reached out to Anker to hear his thoughts the recent discovery of his lost friends and climbing partners.

What a crazy call to have received this week, huh?

We’ve been expecting it. In the past, Max and I have talked about going over to Shisha Pangma to start checking it out, because of the state of the glacier, which has been rapidly moving. Given the location of where the accident happened, it was not a question of if, but when. We knew it was going to happen at some point.

How does this development make everyone feel?

I think that for the boys it brings up a lot of emotions from 16 years ago. Max knew Alex the best. He was ten at the time. Sam was seven, and Isaac was three.

On the one hand, all these emotions come up, and it’s like we have to go through all of this again. But on the other hand, at least for me, it’s like, “Wow, Alex really did die.”  Because for me, there was just this big cloud of snow dust, and then he was gone. There was never a body to verify it. So now there’s this sense of closure to it. I think this is where we all want to be with it.

What are the plans?

We will go over there and retrieve the bodies. They’re not completely out of the ice, but I think things might change in the next five or six weeks before we can get over there. We’ll put on crampons, and go up the glacier, and retrieve the bodies. Then, we’ll find a place to have a cremation, a pyre according to local customs. This is what both Alex and David’s parents want, and they believe this is the right thing to do for both of them.

Do you have a favorite memory of Alex that you could share?

Gosh … It was always those moments, right at the beginning of the day, when you’re anticipating a day out in the mountains with Alex. For me, that was always the most special time. The possibility of the day ahead was a big deal. Getting up, and just get a ton of energy going, like, “Yeah, let’s go drink coffee!”

He was also super dedicated to his family, and that was his real struggle. I mean, anyone who is in this game and has a family, it’s sort of like, How do you balance both? It was definitely a challenge for him.

Have you been back to Shisha Pangma since the accident in 1999?

No. I’ve been to Langtang, and looked over at the mountain from a distance. But this will be good to go back to that base camp and see the area.

Was there one particular climbing achievement Alex was most proud of?

There was the Great Trango Trip. That was the beginning of bringing media into the mountains, and it was a time when big-wall aid climbing was at the forefront of climbing.

You know, he always spoke about soloing Kusum Kanguru, which is a 6,000-meter peak in Nepal. He hiked up and over it after guiding Everest. It was the most amazing thing.

He was so gifted. He free-soloed the Naked Edge [a very famous 500-foot 5.11 rock climb in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado] back when it wasn’t a common, everyday thing. He climbed Supercrack when only five or ten people in the world had done it. He was such a highly motivated individual, a gifted climber, and a great person.

And now, I get to see those same traits every day in the boys. This Friday, Sam is graduating from Montana State. Alex would be psyched about that.

Mountaineer Alex Lowe stands atop a granite pinnacle on Mount Bearskin. Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica; Photograph by Gordon WIltsie
Mountaineer Alex Lowe stands atop a granite pinnacle
on Mount Bearskin. Ellsworth Mountains,
Antarctica; Photograph by Gordon WIltsie

More About Alex Lowe

Though more than 16 years have passed, the memory of Alex, who inspired a whole generation of climbers and explorers with his uncontainable enthusiasm, legendary training routines, and significant ascents of rock climbs, ice climbs, and mountains all over the world, live on through many of Lowe’s more famous quips.

“The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun,” he routinely declared.

He also once said, “There are two kinds of climbers: Those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest.”

As mountaineering’s era of exploration and first-ascent peak bagging came to a close, climbers became much more specialized: pushing limits on the rock or on technical ice climbs or in the mountains. But they weren’t often so adept at all three. Lowe was the consummate all-arounder. No matter what the climb’s medium, no matter how difficult or dangerous it was, it seemed that if there was one person in the world who could get up that climb, it was Alex Lowe.

“”We’re all at this one level,” Anker once observed. “And then there’s Alex.”

In the 1980s, he flashed (meaning, he climbed it on his first try) the Supercrack of the Shawangunks in New York at a time when the route was still considered one of the hardest in the U.S. In Colorado, he nabbed the first ascent of the Fang, a perilous 120-foot free-standing column of ice in Vail, Colorado.

He was a true exploratory climber, who completed significant first ascents of two important, technical mountains: Rakekniven Peak in Antarctica (1997) and Great Sail Peak in Baffin Island (1998), considered the most remote big-wall on Earth. In 1999, he joined Jared Ogden and Mark Synnott on a first ascent on the northwest face of Great Trango Tower, in Pakistan. This expedition was in part significant in that it was broadcast on this new thing called the Internet using emerging satellite technology—a precursor to expeditions today.

Lowe was a compulsive exercise fiend. His friends confirmed that he would do between 400 and 1,000 strict pull-ups every day, usually in sets of 50 at a time, no matter where he was, even at airports. During an expedition to Antarctica, he dug out a snow pit, placed his ski across the top of the pit, and used the ski to perform his daily pull-up ritual, all during a full-blown storm.

He was nicknamed the “Lungs With Legs” and “The Mutant” for his unstoppable endurance and stamina at altitude. In June 1995, he aided the National Park Service with a high-altitude rescue on Denali. Four Spanish climbers had been trapped for four days at 19,200 feet and were dangerously hypothermic. One of the climbers, in fact, tumbled to his death before help could arrive. A military helicopter airlifted Lowe and several other climbers to a plateau just above the Spaniards. Lowe kicked into high gear, single handedly carrying one of the climbers on his back, as the climber was too frostbitten to move. It was the speed with which he was able to carry the climber, and at such an altitude, that gave Lowe this aura of being a real-life superhero.

Yet he never bragged, never boasted, and often never even fully revealed the mind-blowing magnitude of his daily solo missions in the mountains. He might say something casual, like how he had a “fun day of climbing,” and only when he was pressed would he reveal that, in fact, he had done something truly significant, such as completing the Grand Traverse of the entire Teton range in under 9 hours when the former record was 20. In sneakers too.

According to Anker, one of Lowe’s proudest achievements was never really given its due.

After guiding some clients on Mount Everest in 1990—Lowe spent a brief stint working as one of the first commercial guides on Everest, under the tutelage of Todd Burleson at Alpine Ascents International—Lowe headed over to an adjacent 6,000-meter peak in Nepal called Kusum Kanguru. Climbing in full alpine style, he soloed a first ascent on the north face of the mountain, descended via the south side, and then had to hike up and over a high-mountain pass in order to return to the village of Lukla.

“It was never reported because he didn’t have a permit,” says Anker. “But it seemed like this was a significant climb for him.”

Beyond all these legendary stories, beyond all the first ascents, the real gift of Alex Lowe was his indomitable spirit and his true passion for just being in the mountains and having fun, even in dire circumstances. For example, during an ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, he blew out his climbing shoe. But instead of going down, he simply smiled and completed the climb by wearing the shoe backwards.

Another time, Lowe was ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon, outside of his home in Bozeman, Montana, when the icicle snapped, causing Lowe to fall 40 feet. During the fall, his ice axe gouged a pancake-size flap of skin in his scalp, revealing his skull.

“We kinda taped the scalp back into place,” said Lowe in a subsequent interview, “and put a hat on, and taped around the hat, and started skiing out. We 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.”

More than 16 years after the climbing world lost two greats, after Conrad Anker saw his friends vanish in a cloud of snow, they’ve finally reappeared. For the families, this discovery has been a chance for closure. For the rest of us, it’s been an opportunity to celebrate, once again, two legends.

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