There is a story in the world of climbing and mountaineering that stands out among all the rest. It is the stuff of legend; a tale of love and loss for the ages. One for the history books. A half-whispered myth which, once heard, lodges itself in the furrows of your mind so irrevocably as to become part of your very being. It is a story that informs who we are, how we behave, and what we believe about life, death, and everything between.
It is, of course, the story of Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker, and Jenni Lowe-Anker – the woman who would love them both.
Alex Lowe was, in 1999, among the most highly regarded climbers in the world. From first ascents in Antarctica, Baffin Island, and the Himalaya, to first ski descents all over Wyoming and Montana – his mark upon the climbing world was made in permanent ink. Everest, Gasherbrum IV, Great Sail Peak, Mount Hunter, Great Trango Tower, Annapurna – the places he visited, climbed, and often established new lines of ascent reads like a Cliffs Notes of alpine climbing history. He was, as fellow climber David Hahn called him, “just really that much better than everybody else.” And Hahn was not alone in this sentiment – it was widely regarded, among Lowe’s peers, to be true.
What made Lowe a cut above the rest was his discipline, and commitment to all styles of climbing. From rock climbing, to ice and mixed climbing, to snow trudging, and alpine skiing – his was the fullest repertoire of any climber of his generation. His physical prowess earned him nicknames such as “The Mutant”, and “Lung on Legs” – but it was also a well-known and undisputed fact that Lowe was much more than merely an athlete. He was also a father, a husband, and a deep thinker who is still often-quoted today. Though best-known for his adage, “the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun”, Lowe’s belief that “inspiring passion in family and friends has more enduring value than just staying alive for them” may have been the most telling of his philosophical bent.
If Alex Lowe was the king of climbing, then Conrad Anker was surely the heir apparent. By 1999, he had climbed new routes in the Greater Ranges with some of the finest climbers of the time, including Seth Shaw, Mugs Stump, Jay Smith, and the Huber brothers. Like Lowe, Anker was widely renowned for the breadth of his skillset. Few others before or since have possessed the diversity of talents necessary to establish new routes on features as markedly different as Yosemite’s El Cap, and Latok II in the Pakistani Karakoram. Anker was the full package, and one of the only people in the world who could keep up with Lowe.
Lowe and Anker were teammates on The North Face squad, so it was fated that they should eventually climb together. It wasn’t fated that they should become close friends. They could as easily have been competitors, or enemies, as two different athletes at the top of their field often are. But what developed between them over the course of seven expeditions together (often sharing a tent through inclement weather) was not just mutual respect, or a casual acquaintanceship, but something deeper. Anker and Lowe, by 1999, had become best friends in the way that only people who repeatedly put their lives on the line together can begin to comprehend. As much as friends, they were brothers.
On October 5, 1999, Lowe and Anker were pretty much on top of the world – literally and figuratively. Along with seven other climbers, they had embarked on an expedition to climb Tibet’s Shishapangma (8,027 m), and then become the first Americans to successfully descend the peak by skis. Given their history, their prowess, their experiences together in such hostile environs, it should come as no surprise that Lowe and Anker successfully reached Shishapangma’s summit; that they surveyed a scene there which few humans ever have; that they were well en route to achieving their goal, skiing neck and neck down the glaciated flanks of the enormous mountain. None of that should come as a surprise in the least.
The surprise is the catastrophe that came next.
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Read Part 2 of Unimaginable: The Story of Alex Lowe, Climber.
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