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

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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.

Kaltenbrunner Summits 8,000ers – Deserves More Celebration

Shortly after the news was official, I announced through Facebook and Twitter that Austrian alpinist Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has become the first woman to summit the world’s fourteen highest mountains (above 8,000 m./ 26,246 ft.). That feat alone is worth an accolade and a book deal these days, but Kaltenbrunner went a step further. She climbed these mountains without supplemental oxygen.

Mountaineering celebrates first the way baseball does; first pitch and first ascents; leaders in batting average and leaders in categories. Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment has been sought after by men and women alike. While nearly 30 alpinists have topped out on all fourteen 8,000ers, only about a dozen – all of them previously men – have done so without using “gas.”

Gas is essential for climbers to get to that top. At higher altitudes, particularly above 6,000 meters, but also much lower, the lack of dense air can make mountaineers feel lethargic, similar to the feeling of a bad sinus congestion with sleepiness brought on from medication. Put into a fog that slows down reflexes and thinking processes, many climbers choose to use oxygen bottles to enhance their air density. In fact, some climbers find it necessary to use gas and would not be able to summit otherwise.

Earlier in climbing history, it was thought that it would be impossible for man to attain the summits of the Himalayas without gas. However, in 1978, Reinhold Messner showed the world that it was possible – through proper acclimatization and will power – to climb 8,000ers without, as Ed Viesturs put it, “cheating.” On May 8, 1978, Messner summited Everest completely under his own lung power.

It is unclear to me at this time whether Kaltenbrunner felt she was racing against other women to be first or had the ambition to be first. Regardless the title was clearly sought after. You may recall that in August 2010, South Korean female alpinist Oh Eun-Sun claimed that she summited Kanchenchunga (28,169 ft./8,586 m.), which if that attempt was not disputed by several reputable sources, would have made her the title holder.

Kaltenbrunner also deserves more attention. In North America, outside the climbing community, there has been very little coverage of Kaltenbrunner’s accomplishment and even less about who she is and how she got there. I suspect that it is her language and nationality that separates her from my English-speaking world. But as a woman and a climber, her story should be retold more broadly. Everyone can benefit.

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Sources: 1) “Gerlinde Kalkenbrunner Summits K2!” PlanetMountain.com, August 23, 2011; 2) Viesturs, Ed, with David Roberts, No Shortcuts to the Top, Broadway Books, 2006.

Bhutan is Forbidden but Sikkim is Open

When it comes to the Himalayas, you probably think solely about Nepal and Pakistan. Well, India and China have some big peaks too, and so does the country of Bhutan. In fact, the mountains to the east of Nepal are rather interesting as I was recently reminded.

The highest unclimbed mountain may never be topped out and may remain the highest unclimbed mountain indefinitely. It seems the only way anyone will climb Gankhar Puensum (7,570 m.) on the China-Bhutan border is to cheat; it’s a sacred peak to the Bhutanese, like all Bhutanese mountains, and climbing it is forbidden by law.

Interestingly, China has helped enforce that edict once. However, that may have more to do with spiting the Japanese who were seeking approval to climb the mountain. It’s just a guess since things are not always friendly between them.

The region between Nepal and Bhutan, east of the third highest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga, is Sikkim. For all practical purposes it was shutdown to mountaineering and travel in general because it was disputed by Nepal, China and India. In 2004 China released its claim and things settled down. While there are sacred peaks in Sikkim, there are several that are designated as “alpine peaks,” which are available to be climbed with a permit.

At my last American Alpine Club section meeting (Blue Ridge Section), I was introduced to a member of the 2010 Expedition to Sikkim. Their primary aim was Jopuno (5,936 m.) for a second ascent by a new route. Anyway, I’ll tell you more about Sikkim, the expedition and the opportunities later… There is a lot to tell.

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Ueli Steck’s New Record in the Himalayas

You know Ueli Steck is a phenomenon when you get emails or Facebook posts about Ueli Steck from friends that know nothing about mountaineering. Youtube and vimeo are largely to blame because they have impressive films of Steck climbing in the Alps to some popular soundtracks. Frivolous popularity and hype aside, Steck deserves the homage.

Steck, the Swiss alpinist that turns 35 years old in October, climbed Shishapangma (26,289 ft./8,013 m.) on Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011 in an astounding ten-and-a-half hours. That is ten-and-a-half hours from advanced base camp to summit and back again on the world’s fourteenth highest mountain. According to PlanetMountain.com, Steck combined three routes to achieve this record, including the original southwest face route, Krzysztof Wielicki’s 1993 solo route and the 1995 Spanish route.

While the appreciation by non-climbers is a tribute to his inspiring courage and accomplishments, mountaineers and even non-technical hikers can appreciate his lifelong commitment to the mountains and his chosen approach to his craft. After all, climbing as Steck does is thanks to his experience and skill that he started accumulating when he was a teenager. He learned the fundamentals and elevated what he was comfortable with in the mountains — essentially raising the bar for what was considered comfortable and what required courage.

Steck also embraced alpine style climbing wholeheartedly, used the “fast and light” approach that I associate with Steve House, Barry Blanchard and Mark Twight, and transformed “fast” into “acceleration.” In this way, he takes just what he needs in his pack, doesn’t use fixed ropes or camps (often not using ropes or camps at all), has a minimalist mentality in terms of gear in order to travel quickly, and then he runs… kicks steps, swings the axe and repeats, probably forgetting the last move as soon as he starts the next one.

Steck’s style is admirable and has some pros and cons. For slow pokes like me, I would argue that Steck climbs his routes so quickly he barely notices that he is in a beautiful location; the experience is hardly a memorable one since he probably doesn’t forgets placing his crampons or axe as soon as he kicks or swings for the next hold. He doesn’t ever pause to enjoy the roses, if any grew up there.

However, Steck’s approach appears to be a balancing act of safety and risk, not unlike other more traditional climbing styles, but has it’s own rewards and dangers. He often climbs unroped, with minimal gear, and moves at a rapid pace through dangerous places. As Peter Bernstein says in Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, the chances something will go wrong are related to how many opportunities for failure can occur during the given time. In other words, the less time Steck takes to climb, the less can go wrong.

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Meru: One Persistent Mountaineering Problem

I’m about to make the monthly payments for the mortgage and the loan for my beloved 2010 Subaru Outback, and like every so often I ask some serious questions, if only half-heartedly.  So where might I go if these debts weren’t begging for steady income?  Well, this mountain daydream takes us the northern edge of India:

Alpinist Conrad Anker said to The Outsider that there are far fewer challenges today in mountaineering, but one such place that he has attempted and would like to return to is Meru (21,850 ft./6,660 m.) in the Gangontri Region of the Himalayas.  Specifically, he is interested in conquering the Shark’s Fin route.   

The Shark’s Fin route is the central prow of Meru’s middle peak.  It involves alpine rock, ice and snow.  The crux of the challenge has been beating the weather, supplies, and the bare Shark’s Fin above 19,029 ft./5,800 m.  Russian Valery Babanov soloed the route in 2001, but circumvented the fin proper to reach the summit – the Shangri La route.  Regardless, he rightfully won the Piolet d’Or for this route. 

  • Location: Gangotri National Park, Garhwal Indian Himalayas
  • Summit Elevation: 21,850 ft./6,660 m.
  • Climbing Routes: Meru is irregular shaped massif and includes several peaks and several routes, however the Shark’s Fin, also known as Meru Central, has turned numerous alpinists away at the fin itself; alternate routes have lead to the summit. 
  • Hiking Trails: Unmarked routes are throughout Gangotri National Park, some of which require general mountaineering skills.  See this link for someone’s take: http://www.bhramanti.com/badriga.html
  • Getting There: Flying from the states to Delhi (DEL) should run approximately $1,200 per passenger.  From there it is a two day journey to Gangotri National Park in the Indian state/province of Uttarakhand.  The nearest town is Uttarkashi. 
  • Outfitting: Outfitters and guides will be best acquired in Delhi as many Himalayan expeditions originate there. 
  • Recommended Viewing: Dispatch Videos by Renan Ozturk: http://vimeo.com/channels/34832

Well, if you go send me a note at SuburbanMountaineer@yahoo.com, leave a comment, and don’t forget that you can follow this site through Facebook and even Twitter (@SuburbanMtnr).  Happy exploring!