Unimaginable: The Story of Alex Lowe, Climber | Part 2

Out of the darkness of climber Alex Lowe's untimely death, the light of love connects the pieces in a way few could imagine.

21st February 2020 | Words by Chris Kalman

Editor's note: This is Part 2 of Unimaginable: The Story of Alex Lowe, Climber. If you haven't already, catch up with Part 1 first.

Imagine the coldest, darkest place you’ve ever been. Now, imagine it colder. Darker.

Now, imagine you are wrapped up so tight in this cold, dark place, that you can’t move, can barely breathe, and that – in spite of your paralysis – you are in a race against time; and that time is not on your side.

Now, imagine your spouse and children are back home, and you can’t tell them goodbye.

Unless you’ve been buried in an avalanche before, you can’t. For the vast majority of us, the cold dark place I’ve described is terra incognita. A blank spot on the map. A sombre unknown.

Alex Lowe, Troll's Castle, Filchner Mountains, Antarctica.
Alex Lowe bivouacs near the summit of Troll's Castle in the Filchner Mountains, Antarctica
We cannot begin to comprehend what thoughts passed through Lowe’s mind as the oxygen slowly ran out upon him.

And so it is that we cannot know what thoughts passed through Alex Lowe’s mind on October 5, 1999, when an enormous avalanche cut loose above him, Conrad Anker, and the late photographer, David Bridges. We cannot hazard a guess as to why Bridges and Lowe cut right, and Anker went left. We cannot fathom why the avalanche buried Bridges and Lowe completely, or how Anker managed to fight his way partially to the surface. We cannot begin to comprehend what thoughts passed through Lowe’s mind as the oxygen slowly ran out upon him; or what Anker may have experienced in the days to follow as they searched everywhere for sign of his best friend; or what Jenni Lowe may have felt when she received the news by satellite phone that her husband of 18 years was gone.

Alex Lowe and family picnicking in Montana.
Alex Lowe and family picnicking in Montana
What we see says more about us, than about the image our mind’s eye beholds.

Even those closest to Lowe must have been nagged by a distinct vagary, a clear nebulousness, a certain uncertainty about the events that transpired. For the rest of us, all we can imagine amounts to little more than a blurry Rorschach test. What we see says more about us, than about the image our mind’s eye beholds.

Radiating outwards from Lowe’s disappearance on Shishapangma is an endless stretch of terra incognita. And yet, as the landscape we survey – as voyeuristic outsiders – comes closer and closer to home, we tend to forget just how beyond us the experiences of the survivors are. In a warm home, among children and parents, husbands and wives, we think we might understand something about how people should behave. We judge extraordinary circumstances by ordinary values. And sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we miss the mark.

Alex Lowe, Troll's Castle, Filchner Mountains, Antarctica.
Alex Lowe hikes below the Troll's Castle in the Filchner Mountains

In the aftermath of Alex Lowe’s death, Conrad Anker and Jenni Lowe began to fall in love. It started with long phone calls, visits from Conrad to the family in Bozeman, Montana, a tenuous time of what must have been psychological doubts and emotional uncertainties – not just within their close circle of friends, but among Conrad and Jenni themselves. Who can begin to guess at the storm clouds of doubt that passed between and among these two, as they felt from the darkness grow a new love they had never before anticipated, or prepared to explore?

Two years later, in 2001, Jenni and Conrad were married. And there was talk. Even today, there still is. Sometimes in hushed circles, sometimes in ugly internet forums. ‘Two years,’ one might scoff, ‘what is that next to 18?’ ‘And this best friend,’ some have intimated, ‘what kind of best friend is he who moves in to the life his friend left before the dust has even settled?

Conrad Anker and Reinhold Messner, Shackleton Glacier
Conrad Anker and Reinhold Messner are blasted by morning wind on Shackleton Glacier, Antarctica

And when Anker would go on to continually raise the bar in elite climbing – when he would go not once, but twice to Meru in the Indian Himalaya, to attempt to climb one of the most challenging and remote alpine peaks in the world – there would be talk again. ‘How can he leave Jenni in the lurch like that,’ some would ask. ‘He doesn’t care about her or her children as much as a stupid sport,’ others would answer.

Of course, none of it is any of our business. But even if it were – even if we had the right to know anything about any of this – I have my doubts about whether or not we could. Only Anker could possibly know how to remain true to his friend’s vision of how to raise a family. Only Lowe-Anker can begin to imagine how best to honor her husband’s life, following his untimely death. Only Anker and Lowe-Anker have the faintest clue, in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, how best to pick up the pieces and continue to live the way their beloved friend and husband would have wanted them to. For anyone else, what we may imagine is an uneducated guess at best.

Alex Lowe and Mark Synnott, Great Sail Peak, Baffin Island, Canada
Alex Lowe and Mark Synnott relax on a month-long, big-wall climb of Great Sail Peak, on Baffin Island, Nunavut territory, Canada

We cannot know anything about the emotional landscape of another’s losses and longings, because we have not been there before. The only heart we can know is our own. To all others, we’d do well to extend a sympathetic heartstring, assuming all hearts sing – to some degree – a resonating, and common chord.

On 27th April 2016, two mountain climbers, David Goettler and the late Ueli Steck, found Alex Lowe’s remains as they scouted out a new line to climb on Shishapangma. Of course, there was an enormous media fanfare to follow, countless interviews, rehashings of the old story, and various intrusions from the public sphere into the previously placid life of the Lowe-Anker family.

Alex Lowe, portaledge camp, Rakekniven spire, Filchner Mountains, Antarctica
Alex Lowe in portaledge camp up Rakekniven spire, Filchner Mountains, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica

And while I am tempted to quote Jenni on her suppositions about what Alex might be thinking about all of this if he were looking down from above, or one of his son’s heartfelt remembrances about his time with Alex, to conclude this story, I feel compelled, instead, to take a different tack.

For me, the story is about a cold, dark place; and the warmth and light that grew out of it.

For me, the story is not in the facts of the event: the figures, dates, names, obituaries, memories, and characters. It is not about Alex Lowe, Jenni Lowe-Anker, or Conrad Anker at all. It is not about celebrities, mountain climbers, or what any of us think about anyone else.

For me, the story is about a cold, dark place; and the warmth and light that grew out of it. Nothing more, nothing less. That spark in the darkness, that lone kelvin of radiating something nestled in among the nothing – that is what this story is about to me.

Alex Lowe glimpses Queen Maud Land from a C-130 Hercules
Alex Lowe glimpses Antarctica's Queen Maud Land for the first time from the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules aircraft, en route to a big wall climbing expedition

In the end, I cannot imagine the individual emotions of the characters involved. I cannot put myself in their shoes. I cannot presume to understand their experiences. But the ability they showed to manifest love from loss – that I can imagine. I believe almost anyone who has suffered a tragic loss can.

Because, in the end, what other option is there? Difficult though their story may be, the alternative – to remain alone in the cold, and the darkness – is utterly unimaginable.

Chris Kalman is a writer, climber, and traveler, currently living in Colorado.

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Images: 1: Galen Rowell/Alamy; 2, 3, 7, 8: Gordon Wiltsie; 4, 6: Gordon Wiltsie/Alamy; 5: Stephen Venables/Alamy

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