Almost two decades after his tragic demise, Alex Lowe’s body was finally discovered on the slopes of Shishapangma.
Ranking among the most prominent American mountaineers of the 20th century, Alex Lowe has been an inspiration for generations of climbers with his resolve and vigour, as well as impeccable technique and love for alpine exploration.
Who was Alex Lowe?
Stewart Alexander Lowe was born on 24 December 1958.
His incredible stamina, amazing strength (especially in his upper body) and excellent climbing techniques allowed him to excel at almost every type of mountaineering.
His winning personality and hard training earned him a multitude of admirers worldwide, not just among his peers, but also among amateur climbers, who gave him the nickname “Lungs with Legs”.
In the summer of 1995, Lowe participated in a rescue operation at Denali, Alaska, where, at an altitude of around 6,000 metres, a group of Spanish climbers were trapped for four days and in need of immediate assistance.
Whilst one of the group had already met his demise, the remaining, all suffering from hypothermia and extremely weak, were in no position to help themselves.
Lowe and two other rescuers were helicopter lifted above the climbers, they then descended a 130-meters down ice and rock, all while under heavy snowfall.
Once they reached the climbers, they carried one of them who had been severely wounded back up the same slope!
Returning and eventually all remaining climbers were brought to safety.
His exceptional feats were crowned in 1995 with the American Alpine Club’s Underhill Award for outstanding mountaineering achievement – by far the prestigious honour an American mountaineer can receive.
The Fateful Shishapangma Expedition
Shishapangma in Tibet is the 14th highest peak in the world, with an altitude of just over 8000 meters.
In early autumn 1999, Lowe and his long-time fellow climbers Conrad Anker and David Bridges decided to conquer this feat.
Lowe and Anker were to ski down the mountain and be the first Americans to do so.
As Lowe himself said, it has been his lifelong dream to ski down from an 8,000-meter peak.
Shishapangma had, according to him, the best ski line of all mountains of such a height.
On the 5th of October, the expedition divided into two teams to map a route towards the summit.
During this search, Lowe’s team, comprised of himself, Anker and Bridges, were crossing a glacier, when suddenly a huge section of ice roughly 2,000 meters above broke away causing an unstoppable avalanche.
Upon seeing the masses of snow heading towards them, Anker started running to the left and Lowe and Bridges headed fast downhill to the right.
Anker only scarcely avoiding death, ending up with a wound to the head, broken ribs, and a dislocated shoulder.
Unfortunately Lowe and Bridges hadn’t fared so well.
Despite Anker’s severe injuries, he insisted in taking part in the large-scale rescue operation with the other climbers who were lucky enough to avoid the avalanche.
He and the other rescuers searched for more than 48 hours in an effort to locate his friends under meters of snow.
Sadly, they were unable find a single trace of them, days later they were officially declared dead by authorities.
Anker dedicated his life to helping his friend’s family overcome the tragic event, he was eventually to marry Lowe’s widow Jenni, and help raise his sons, Max, Isaac, and Sam.
Their relationship, forged through the agonies of a shared loss, was the theme of a memoir written by Jenni entitled “Forget Me Not”, as well as the critically acclaimed documentary ‘Meru’.
In time, the couple lost hope of Alex’s remains every being discovered – at least in their lifetime.
The Discovery of the Bodies
Anker and Jenni worked at the Khumbu Climbing Centre during the spring of 2016, for a project called the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, created in his memory.
While packing away their things and getting ready to head home, Goettler (David Goettler, along with Ueli Steck, were to discover the the bodies whilst attempting a new route up Shishapangma’s south face) phoned them and astounded them with the news of having found the remains of two climbers partially exposed in the melting glacier, identifiable by the matching equipment worn by Lowe and Bridges.
Even before seeing any photos, Anker and Jenni were so confident in the identity of the unfortunate climbers, they were to start making plans to transfer the bodies to a nearby cemetery where official funerals could be held.
Notwithstanding the sorrow and grief of such an occasion, Lowe’s widow confessed finding the body’s will help conclude the healing process for the whole family, especially his children.
(Alex Lowe and David Anker)
Alex Lowe’s Legacy
The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, has offered guidance and financial support to humanitarian programs in mountain regions across the globe, especially in Nepal.
The authoritative magazine ‘Outside’ declared him “the world’s best climber,” not just for his incredible routes and overall career, but also for combining extraordinary physical accomplishments with an unwavering spirit.
In Autumn of 2005, the Peak 10,031 south of Bozeman (Montana, USA) in the Gallatin National Forest, named up until then after its height in feet, was renamed ‘Alex Lowe Peak’.
Undeniably, during his restless life, Alex Lowe managed to lay the foundation of an undying heritage.
Images from BBC.co.uk, mountainsoftravel.com and outsideonline.com