How Alex Lowe Shines for Us Even Now (Despite Some Dark Days)

Shishapangma’s star. (All rights reserved)

Early on the morning of May 1, 2016, I was catching up on the news I missed during a mad-dash trip to New York City with Natalie and the kids. After I got through my political and baseball news apps’ feeds, the reports of Ueli Steck’s and David Goettler’s discovery on the south face of Shishapangma was all that mattered: Alex Lowe’s and David Bridges’ remains were found after 16 years.

We knew it would happen, but I resented that Fox News, NPR and so many other mainstream sources were covering it. I prefer to keep access to climbing news through climbing sources and climbers’ personal posts. This was out there for everyone to grab. Really out there. (Except, it was already mainstream; their deaths were reported in the New York Times, but I only just learned that.)

I get anxious about this stuff. After all, Alex has a widow. She wrote a beautiful memoir. What would it mean to his best friend and now her husband? The press never cares about stuff like that.

But as a few days passed, I realized the family’s personal reaction wasn’t as interesting as the one from everyone else that had some deep rooted knowledge, and often, affection, for Alex.

The Portal

On October 5, 1999, Conrad Anker, David Bridges, and Alex Lowe were climbing Shishapangma. They were around 19,000 feet and intending to make the first American ski descent of the 8,000-meter peak. A large serac calved and started a massive avalanche down the south face. Anker was blown up into the air. Bridges and Lowe disappeared into the debris of loosened snow and enormous blocks of ice.

Conrad Anker is one of America’s best recognized mountaineers today, particularly since he discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest and even more so now that he appeared in Jimmy Chin’s award winning 2015 film Meru.

David Bridges was a climber and photographer on the rise, known for his strength and endurance. He was 29.

Alex Lowe, 40 at the time, was a living legend. He performed insane rescues on Denali, earning him he affectionate nickname “The Lung”. He rode a Goddamn giant broken icicle to the ground and lived to ice climb again. And he was Anker’s friend.

Lowe’s widow, Jennifer, knew very well that one day Alex’s body would come to the surface. She said in her memoir that she was not looking forward to it.

Turning to One Another

I reached out to some friends to see how the news affected them, some of whom hadn’t heard the news yet. They weren’t surprised; glaciers routinely turn up what they’ve taken from us. And it wasn’t particularly enlightening; it wasn’t like finding George Mallory’s and Sandy Irvine’s camera. But it made us talk not about new routes and reaching, but about Alex and our humanity.

Alex made them feel good. And he still does. Here are two examples:

Whenever Jason Cobb, who’s written a guest post here on TSM before, thinks of Alex he


Alex Lowe’s Icicle. (All rights reserved)

thinks of him grinning ear to ear, with his “crazy” hair sticking up, gripping his ice tools. Alex conjures up a sense of daring, and being gifted, while conveying enthusiasm that’s still infectious today.

Another friend, a former contractor I hired to do some data management work, didn’t know about Alex when we met. She was a big rock climber (even climbed when she was very pregnant) and worked for years at out local outfitter on weekends. I wrote my series on The Greatest Climber of All Time because of our conversations about all of the great climbers she didn’t know. Alex naturally came up, both in talks with me and her talks with her colleagues at the outfitter. She asked her colleagues for advice for a thank-you gift when her contract ended; I received Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s memoir, Forget Me Not.

She went on to recognize Alex’s influence on the stories with Conrad Anker, particularly the National Park Adventure IMAX film featuring Conrad and Alex’s son, Max. She emailed me as soon as she heard the news from Shishapangma: “It brings everything full circle.”

Finding Alex again has made us pause and reflect on his life, not unlike on a religious feast day. It’s made us look at ourselves, not just inwardly, but toward one another. I think we live in an era that is simultaneously wondrous and worrisome.

In a day and age where social structures are being “disrupted” and the craziness of a presidential election is crazy unlike ever before, and threat of terrorist attacks hangs over everyone quietly, Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges make an appearance. That’s significant, because in 1999 when they were lost, the world was was also a scary place: in January President Clinton was impeached in a partisan brawl; war broke out in Kosovo; East Timor’s vote for independence was met with uprooting; people fretted about what the Y2K bug would mean; and two students from Colombine High School in Colorado killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves in a searing mass shooting.

Alex shined to us then. Alex shines now. He did that despite the horrors of his times. And now we’ve found him again. Maybe it was just when we needed him most.

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Sources: 1) Alpinist; 2) Rock and Ice; and 3) Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Forget Me Not, (City, Publisher 2009), pages.

Alpinism is Not a Game

Nick Cienski, the creative at the sporting brand Under Armour and formerly mountaineering brand Arc’teryx, has boldly declared that he will be pursuing a record in the Himalayas, through a budget of $5.6 million, to draw attention to one of the most horrible of crimes against mankind, human trafficking. He plans to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks within the shortest timeframe ever (just 24 months).

This may excite some, and why not? It sounds like a fresh adventure. Maybe it awakens something in you. He’ll take you along every step of the way through social media, if you want.

While I love a good linkup, I’m sincerely worried that Cienski is a courageous ego with too much money and not enough independent alpine experience to take on this mission.

Until the 1960s, the most historic mountaineering and alpine climbs were lead by Europeans and those empowered by money. As Phil Powers of the American Alpine Club recently wrote, their access within places like the Explorers Club was as much about their “pedigree” as it was on skill and talent.

Today, the most historic climbs seem to come from climbers with skill and talent rewarded financially with grants and other financial awards. They’re encouraged by others to pursue their latest ambition. The awards are votes of confidence.

Cienski hasn’t earned such broad support, and those that have thousands of hours of experience climbing 8,000-meter peaks I doubt would want to pursue such an endeavor like the one Cienski is pursing. While he has some support from knowledgeable friends and those with financial resources, he’s promoting this adventure as his alone. So I wonder, does Cienski’s resources, without validation from the climbing community, matter?

For his goal, the effort, at altitude sustained the way he would experience it, would be exhausting. The dangers of climbing would mount on each successive ascent, mainly because of the time limit Cienski has placed on himself. What choices would be acceptable, which weren’t acceptable before, when he falls behind schedule due to weather or a permit issue. And in those situations, what kinds of dangers would he place his support team and would-be rescuers in if he ran into trouble. (I have a horrible feeling that he wouldn’t accept the responsibility of getting himself out of a jam, though I really don’t know for certain.)

Based what I’ve seen and heard from friends more familiar with Cienski’s project and his limited experience in the Himalayas, the quest he’s embarking on appears to be as much, if not more, about his reputation and ego than it does for his cause. Alpine mountaineering is the most deadly form of climbing and Cienski will pursue it on its biggest stage, the Himayas, and very publically on social media.

I seriously admire his audacity but I cringe at his style. I wish him well, hope for his success, and pray he makes wise judgments in the mountains even if that means turning around and his goal is unsuccessful. If it’s about raising awareness for human trafficking, then he would have been a victory regardless.

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Climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

Messner and Kukuczka: Two of the Greatest Climbers of All Time


The Himalayas. (All rights reserved)

REINHOLD MESSNER — b. 1944. Italian.

JERZY KUKUCZKA — 1948-1989. Polish.

No. 2

They weren’t partners. They were rivals. And they are still tied for two on this list of the Greatest Climbers of All Time.

In one of only a few instances of climbing being a race to be first, Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka pursued the summits of all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks.

Who was first was clear. Messner completed the circuit a year ahead of Kukuczka. But who was greater?

With flair, Messner initiated the quest to be the first man atop the fourteen peaks in 1983. At that time he had nine summits ticked on his ice axe.

Kukuczka took it as a challenge and threw himself into it without reservation, even though he had only climbed three of the 8,000ers to date. While Messner racked up his remaining ascents, Kukuczka got to the top of the mountains at a faster rate.

While Messner was a visionary and had a flamboyant way with the public, Kukuczka was the starving artist. Messner sought the summits over 16 years to complete the quest and used established routes. Kukuczka on the other hand finished a year after Messner but after starting his quest only eight years earlier. Messner had modern equipment. Much of Kukuczka’s was used or handmade.

Nine of Kukuczka’s bagged summits were by new routes. Four of his overall ascents were in winter.

Messner climbed two peaks alone, including Mount Everest, and climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen.

Kukuczka needed oxygen on Everest.

I have my favorite, but such a side-by-side comparison makes it a photo finish when being objective. And the lens was smudged.

Now that I’ve exhausted three of the best men, and a woman that some of you don’t think was the best among women, are wondering who in hell will I tell you is No. 1. For that, come back tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. US Eastern Time.

This post is part a culmination of a series of posts that considered Who Are the Greatest Climbers of All Time. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook.

To find out who was ranked at number one, click here.

Four Winter Attempts Set for Karakorum

Here is an update in case you hadn’t heard. Climbing magazine’s website is reporting that not only is a Russian Team attempting K2 this winter but that Italian alpinist Simone Moro and Kazakhstan climber Denis Urubko will leave on Boxing Day (December 26th) to attempt Nanga Parbat via the Diamir Face. Another small Polish team, led by Piotr Strzezysz, will also attempt Nanga Parbat. Lastly, an international team will try to summit Gasherbrum I. This leaves, at last news, only Broad Peak not to be addressed this season.

Why does this matter? Because only four of the 14 Himalayan mountains over 8,000 meters have not yet been summited in winter. It’s particularly significant in the scope of mountaineering challenges. For instance, these record firsts are not trivial firsts or firsts that interests only a nationality (like the first American to climb Annapurna,) or a gender (first woman to climb the the 8,000ers without supplemental oxygen, for instance.)

Too many qualifiers means it’s not universally important. The important firsts are those of the challenge of first ascent, first alpine style ascent and often the first ascent in winter — regardless or who accomplishes the climb in terms of nationality, race or gender. While the qualifiers matter, the unqualified accomplishment is broadly significant.

So that’s something to live vicariously with. I’ll keep you posted… I hope you will do me the same favor…

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