Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation
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written by Conrad Anker. Published in Climbing Magazine, February 2000.
Alex, David and I are walking along a glacier on a clear fall morning at the base of Shishipangma, an 8000-meter peak in the Tibetan Himalaya. A large ice and snow avalanche takes us by surprise, trapping us in its runout zone. In 30 seconds, the world as we know it is changed forever. Avalanches are very real, all too real, risks for alpinists, mountaineers, and skiers. We acknowledge them and justify being there by minimizing our exposure to them. Nothing comes for free – the risk of death is something that we accept to play in the mountains. Yet as much as we intellectually accept the risk, consequences can be as unexpected they are lethal.
Writing a tribute to a lost friend is incredibly painful. And both climbers lost on the 5th of October in the south face of Shishipangma were friends, one a very close companion for nine years and the other a friend for three weeks. With them I’d laughed, climbed, worked, and shared. Both Alex Lowe and Dave Bridges were the type of people you seldom meet, but never forget. It’s likely each person touched by Alex or David could write several pages of colorful memories. To collect all this is beyond me, so I share with you a few moments I spent with Alex.
Alex was best know to his peers in the climbing and adventure communities as a man of incredible motivation with strength to match. Being able to climb hard and fast is one thing, but the real Alex who affected me was the man who loved his family, and who cared deeply for and offered enthusiam to everyone he met.
Looking at Alex’s resume speaks volumes for the ability and drive he had for climbing. Seldom can anyone excel at the myriad of climbing disciplines. Doing two laps on the summit of Everest from high camp in a week and flashing the standard-settingSuper Crack in the Gunks are but two examples of Alex’s diversity.
The seven expeditions I shared with Alex contained some of the finest moments of my life. Being on an expedition with Alex meant running on “Alex time”. We’d wake up earlier, get going sooner, and climb harder, boosted by vast amounts of coffee products. Our favorite saying to each other as we departed camp or left from a rest stop was a Sherpa phrase, emulated with a smile “Now Going.” I remember the spring in our step it would bring – and now that Alex has left us it has a more spiritual meaning.
The second week of June, Alex and I were sharing a tent on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska. The season had been uneventful from a climbing standpoint. Alex and Steve Swensons’ plans to climb the East Face of Mount Huntington had been thwarted by nine feet of fresh snow. Alex’s and my plans to climb the Cassin on Denali sans bivy had been sidetracked two rescues, of Spanish and Taiwanese climbers, who had been trapped by the weather above 19,000 feet. We’d had some fun hanging out on Denali, but now the playtime was over and with a day to spare on the glacier we were thinking of pizza, beer and the journey home.
Around midnight, I awoke to Alex sitting bolt upright, with a wild gleam in his eyes. A gleeful smile broke out on his face.
“How about trying the Moonflower alpine style?”
It was classic Alex. The more improbable the outcome, the greater his exuberance and eagerness for the project. We piled out of the tent and began sorting gear, waking a Taiwanese guest we had invited into our spare tent, largely filled with gear and food.
“Going West Buttress?” he asked.
“no – Mount Hunter!” We exclaimed,pointing toward the 4000-foot Moonflower Buttress. He looked absolutely blank. The last time we had talked, we had discussed flying out together. The incomprehension was with us too. Feeling like two truants playing hookey from school, we skied up the glacier to Hunter’s base. “Is this normal?!” That had been another of our jokes, rallying cries during an adventure. One pack, two ropes, a stove, a bunch of gear, and smiles…who knows? It seemed logical.
We led in blocks of four pitches and joked about this being a frozen El Cap. Same mind set, different medium. The mixed pitches of each of the rock bands provided the needed dose of focused reality, while the ice aprons lent the perfect alpine feel. We climbed for 20 hours straight, sat on a ledge , brewed hot chocolate, and watched a surreal rescue of a snowboarder from Denali’s 14,000-foot medical camp. When we tried to move out in the predawn shade, we were exhausted, operating at half capacity. Regardless, we led on to the final two pitches. We were tired, and with Foraker sporting a lenticuler cloud, felt it was best to descend. Five hours of continuous rappelling got us back to our skis, with a short jaunt to the tent and then home.
We didn’t summit the climb;we didn’t even finish the last two technical pitches, but loved the climbing for what it was – one pitch at a time, a good, fun time. Alex continually amazed me by making the largest, most ambitious projects seem reasonable. Knowing the way was uncertain brought him a happiness many people spend a lifetime seeking.
What else do I remember of this climb? On the way home we had an afternoon to kill in Anchorage before our flights. Alex suggested we go to the hospital and visit the four rescued Spanish climbers. Alex brought the injured climbers smiles, laughter and the same invincible spirit that he had given me on Mount Hunter. Several years later I met one of them on a trail in the Himalaya, as one is likely to do in our family of climbers, and with tears in his eyes, he wanted me to thank Alex for his visit to that hospital. This man probably saw 20 people a day in the hospital, and the one encounter that changed his life was when Alex bounded into the room with a smile and handful of espresso beans.
In 1996 Alex and I ventured to the Annapurna Himal to try the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III (7555 meters). We optimistically set out to climb this 2,000-meter route alpine style and descend an unknown ridge. The season was wetter than normal; the afternoon buildup was depositing several inches of snow daily. We kept our eye on the route, hoping it would get in shape, and decided to “warm up” on the south face of Annapurna IV, a lower-angle face to a moderate ridge. A sucker hole of clear weather lured us to the ridge. To aid our acclimatization process we pitched camp 1100 feet below the summit. And then the weather changed. The stars turned to snow and our “warm-up” got serious.
Our tent caved in after the first day so we tried to descend the storm. The conditions had deteriorated to blowing snow, 30-foot visibility, and cold temperatures. Of greater concern was the condition of the slopes we were trying to climb down loaded with tons of snow. We stood on the top, stalled, waiting for a break in the clouds to see the next bit of ridge. To generate some warmth, I took off my pack and began digging a wind shelter. The wind shelter turned into a small cave as we decided it was best to sit this one out.
By the first evening we had a nice platform, by the second evening we had built a chess set out of salmon wrapper, the third we figured out it was warmer to zip our bags together, the fourth we tried melting water without a stove, and on the morning of the fifth day the slope was stable enough for the descent.
The lull allowed us to walk to basecamp and then the weather locked down for a week. The route, when it finally reappeared from under the clouds, was coated in snow. It never came into shape and we left early. Again, no success if the yardstick for success is the summit, but we came away closer friends and with a new appreciation of our own limits.
Our plane tickets were the unchangeable type and we had to enjoy a week in Katmandu before flying home. For Alex, the wait in Katmandu was the hardest part of the trip. Alex longed for his family while climbing, but when he was stuck and unable to do anything about it, the love and yearning grew. My respect for Alex the climber is great – tales of his feats are shared around campfires throughout the world. My true admiration for Alex, though, was his ability to raise a family and do these amazing climbs. Alex’s most important piece of gear on any climb was a recent snapshot of his wife Jenni and three sons, Max, Sam and Isaac. This photo, always folded and reinforced with duct tape, was his source of motivation and ultimate card when decisions were to be made. The strength of Alex, I believe, came not from his famous appetite for training, but from home and the intense love in his life.
On the morning of October 5, David Bridges, the high-altitude cameraman for the expedition, Alex and I were on a quick hike from our advance basecamp to the base of our intended route on the south face of Shishapangma. We left a few minutes after 8 and decided to take a slightly longer approach than the rest of the crew to the base of the wall, one that involved hiking up a gradual glacier. Andrew McLean chose to hike up the glacier’s edge, taking a more direct route through jumbled moraine. This was a rest day, without a specific goal. We had set out for a bit of exercise, to get the blood circulating before the afternoon clouds streamed in from the south.
At 9:10 David, Alex and I crested a small ridge, from which we had a nice vantage to the south. Not far away we spotted Andrew,standing where a small rock promontory met the glacier. We waved at him and decided to hike over and descend the way he had come up. We were hiking along with joy in our step, feeling simple happiness just because we were in the mountains. And then it happened. A slab of wind-loaded snow cut loose from the col between Shishapangma and Pungpa Ri, 6,000 feet above us. Alex noticed the avalanche, a mass of snow, ice and wind moving as us faster than we could comprehend.
“Holy Shit,” he yelled. The avalanche grew as it descended the 6000 feet toward the low-angle glacier below the south face of Shishapangma. Within 30 seconds, it took on a new dimension. There was something amiss. This was the type of avalanche we had seen many times in the Himalaya, but fortunately never been caught in, the type we would watch and comment on how beautiful it was, this force of nature and how it would not be a good thing to be in its path. This time we were.
Instinct took over. We all ran in different directions. My synapses were firing on a very basic level and I had no time to evaluate the options,no time to confer. We simply acted. David and Alex ran down the slope – I ran across it. The avalanche hit us with a great, sudden intensity. For the few seconds it passed over and tumbled me 70 feet down the slope I thought of nothing. Only that death had finally come. Then the pressure and pounding lessened and it dawned on me that I was alive.
The first thing I thought of was Alex and Dave – where were they? I walked around scanning the slope that scant seconds earlier I had been traversing with my best friends. The worst of my fears started as a silent scream and then hammered into a deafening roar. I was looking for them, holding my watch, which had been torn off, in my hand, watching the seconds tick into minutes, knowing the hope of finding my comrades was waning with each step. I knew they were buried, yet it felt to me as if they had vanished into the sky, lifted by a force far greater than humans and carried to a place we can only imagine.
The old questions we ask ourselves about climbing took on new meaning. We knew the risk, Should we have done something different? Are the risks worth the rewards they bring? What drives us to climb? The exploration of the unknown has led humanity to where we are today. The quest for knowledge, the willingness to accept risk for an unknown outcome, has allowed people to progress spiritually and intellectually. The thrill of discovering new reaches remains with many of us, in all walks of life. Those of us who find this calling and pursue it in the mountains are fortunate. For Alex this is what climbing was about, the exploration of the soul, the trust and learning gained from attempting something difficult and improbable.
I believe that Alex would not have been the caring person and shining spirit if he had not climbed. He found his calling in the wild places. When I ask myself if this tragedy is worth the reward climbing brings, I answer “No”. Yet on a larger scale, when I think of the billions of people on our planet and how only a few of them can inspire and motivate others to realize their potential, then the question and answers aren’t as black and white. It doesn’t lessen the pain of loss, yet it brings a small bit of solace to think so many of us have benefitted from knowing and being inspired by someone who was able to use climbing as a vehicle towards human realization.
“Thinking back to yesterday, I appreciate why I come to the mountains; not to conquer them but to immerse myself in their incomprehensible immensity – so much bigger than [we are]; to better comprehend humility and patience balanced in harmony, with the desire to push hard; to share what the hills offer and to share it in the long term with good friends and ultimately my own sons.” -Alex’s last dispatch for the MountainZone.com website