A Mountain of Trouble
Credit: Getty Images

Had Jeff Lowe been born a Frenchman or a German, he would be a celebrity, sought after for product endorsements, asked to write his memoirs. But in the United States, great alpinists remain as obscure as chess champions.

Lowe, moreover, is a purist. He makes a wry distinction between "expeditions" – large, highly publicized assaults conducted in the spirit of the Desert Storm campaign – and "trips with friends," on which, from one to three cronies, he can attempt brazen routes on unexplored mountains. From his only Everest expedition, a massively funded attack on an easy route involving 14 climbers, Lowe came home disenchanted. But on some of Lowe's trips with friends, he has performed splendid deeds on spectacular Himalayan mountains such as Tawoche, Kwangde, and Nameless Tower, but on his ascents of Pumori and Ama Dablam, the only friend was himself.

Climbs like Tawoche and Ama Dablam, however, do not make headlines in the U.S. Since his early 20s, Lowe had been one of the two or three best ice climbers in the world. Names such as Bridal Veil Falls, Keystone Green Steps and the Grand Central Couloir – extraordinary ice routes that Lowe was the first to master – can bring an awed hush over parties of cognoscenti, but they mean nothing to the lay public.

In the last two decades, the cutting edge of mountaineering has become "good style" – and nobody's style has been cleaner, bolder, or more prophetic than Lowe's. Says Michael Kennedy, editor of Climbing and a frequent climbing partner of Lowe's, "Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he's the most visionary American Himalayan climber who's ever lived."

In a family of eight children growing up in Ogden, Utah, Lowe and his brothers were pushed hard by their lawyer father to excel in sports. He was climbing seriously by 14, quickly developing his skills and managing to survive the usual near disasters of adolescent ambition. After he spent three years at unaccredited Tahoe Paradise College on a ski-racing scholarship, Lowe became a full-time climber; meanwhile, he scrounged up a living from the kinds of marginal jobs most American climbing addicts resort to: pounding nails, teaching at Outward Bound, and tutoring beginners in the sport.

In 1968, Lowe's older brothers Greg and Mike launched an outdoor-equipment company called Lowe Alpine Systems, which quickly gained cachet for its innovative packs and began turning a robust profit. Fifteen years later, Jeff Lowe started his own company, Latok – named for a mountain in Pakistan that was the scene of one of his most memorable climbs – which sold technical climbing gear. His first full-scale business venture, it began to collapse in 1987, and Lowe's brothers took over the company's debts to bail Jeff out.

Looking back, Lowe says: "I think part of my business problems stemmed from a feeling that I had to be more than a good climber, that I had to do something more 'meaningful.' And that may come from my father."

As if remounting the horse that had thrown him, Lowe soon joined with Texas entrepreneur Dick Bass to organize the first international climbing competition on American soil, at Snowbird, Utah. Contests on artificial walls had become one of the hottest new spectator sports in Europe, and Lowe was gambling that Americans would similarly embrace the spectacle. In the end, Snowbird '88 was an aesthetic success, but far fewer people than anticipated were willing to fork over 20 dollars to stare at the inch-by-inch progress of European climbing stars they had never heard of.

Undaunted, Lowe incorporated himself as Jeff Lowe Sport Climbing Championships Inc., attracted sponsors and investors, and laid plans for an ambitious nationwide series of climbing competitions to be held in 1989 and '90. Thus began the downward spiral that in two years sucked Lowe into a whirlpool of failure. None of the events came close to breaking even, and Lowe's debts piled up to vertiginous heights. He began borrowing from future projects to pay off past ones. By the time the final competition of 1990 approached – an event organized by the late Bill Graham, the legendary rock promoter, to be held in Berkeley, California, in August – Lowe was teetering on the brink of financial ruin.

In need of a quick infusion of cash just to pay his personal bills, Lowe concocted a trip with friends to Nameless Tower, a soaring tusk of granite in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan, to be filmed for ESPN. The big draw for European sponsors would be a summit push pairing Lowe with 31-year-old Parisian Catherine Destivelle, the most famous woman climber on the planet.

The Berkeley competition, which took place while Lowe was out of the country, turned into yet another financial fiasco plagued by dismal attendance. Lowe persuaded the North Face, a purveyor of high-end outdoor gear, to lend its name to the event as the leading sponsor. In order to keep the competition from sullying its good reputation, the company claims it was forced to cough up $78,000 to cover Lowe's bills. "We believed that when Lowe went to Pakistan, he'd secured his loans," says Ann Krcik, director of marketing operations for the North Face. "Three days before the event, it became evident that Sport Climbing Inc. didn't have the money." Bart Lewis, an entrepreneur who helped market the competition, claims that when the dust cleared, Lowe owed him $40,000. Lowe counters: "That's absolutely insane. I owe Bart not even close to $40,000." Other creditors emerged, clamoring for payment. Says Lowe: "I always emphasized the risks involved. Those who were misled, misled themselves."

On the other side of the glove, meanwhile, Lowe and Destivelle managed to climb a difficult route on Nameless Tower. The film was broadcast on ESPN, but several European sponsors had backed out at the last minute. The upshot was that Lowe came home from Pakistan deeper in debt than ever, owing money even to close friends and fellow climbers who had worked as his support party. For decades Lowe had been one of the most admired figures in the tight-knit fraternity of American climbers; now, around certain campfires, in various climbers' bars, his name began to elicit bitter oaths and tales of fiscal irresponsibility.

BY the fall of 1990, Lowe had been married for eight years to a woman he'd met in Telluride, Colorado, where she was a waitress. The couple settled in Boulder, where Janie Lowe became her husband's full-time business partner. In 1988 they had a daughter, whom they named Sonja.

On Nameless Tower, Lowe was deeply impressed by Destivelle's performance. As their teamwork evolved, Lowe realized that with only one or two men had he ever felt so confident climbing in the great ranges. At some point, he and Desitvelle began an affair. Because her private life is intensely scrutinized in France, and because she had a longtime partner of her own back in Paris, Destivelle urged Lowe to be discreet about their relationship.

When Lowe returned home from Nameless Tower, "he seemed very angry and distant," says Janie Lowe. "It was as if he wanted nothing to do with me. I asked him if he was having an affair with Catherine. 'No, no, no.' Finally, it came out. I asked him, 'Why did you lie to me?' That hurt me so bad. He said, 'I'd promised Catherine.' I said, 'After 12 years, you tell me your loyalty to Catherine is greater than your loyalty to me?'"

On September 30, 1990, Lowe turned 40. He was deep in a whirlpool, clutching for flotsam. At the end of October, Lowe declared bankruptcy. As his business partner, Janie took an equal brunt of the misfortune, and their relationship grew more troubled. As she tells it: "Jeff would come home and go straight into his study and close the door. Sonja would say, 'Mommy, why doesn't Daddy want to talk to me?' " In mid-December, Jeff moved out of the house, and they began the process of getting a divorce.

"I fell apart," Jeff says. "I felt hopeless. All I knew was that I couldn't stand it after a couple of weeks. I had to start dealing with things one by one."

By early February, Lowe was in Grindelwald, Switzerland, staring up at the north face of the Eiger.

Beguiled by the shape of this unfolding drama, Jon Krakauer and I had come to Switzerland as well, to serve as Lowe's support team. Lowe's business woes were common knowledge in the climbing community, and word of his Eiger project had spread far and fast. More than one observer suggested that Lowe might be on a suicide mission. Boulder writer and climber Jeff Long, a loyal friend of Lowe's, later admitted, "With all the pressure he had on him, I was afraid he was going to the Eiger as some kind of exit."

Suicidal or not, the scheme – a new route, solo, in winter, without bolts, on the most notorious face in the Alps – seemed wildly improbable to most climbers. Destivelle later told Lowe that her French friends were of a single mind: "He'll never do it. It's too cold in winter, and too hard."

Jeff Lowe does not look like a climber: an accountant, you might guess on meeting him, or maybe a viola player. He stand five feet 10, weighs about 150, and his spender physique seems more wiry than muscular. Clean-shaven, he has an open face, on which alertness struggles against natural placidity. He wears the wire-rim glasses of a professor. The long, straight blond hair conjures up the hippie he once thought himself to be. Though his hairline is receding, he combs his locks straight back, as if daring them to retreat further. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle shut, and incipient jowls shadow his jaw. To call his low, cadenced speech a drawl is to suggest a regional twang it does not possess: His voice is rather that of a tape recorder whose batteries are running low.

"For the first five years, we were extremely happy," Janie had told me. "I think our problems had a lot to do with having a daughter. When Sonja came along, things changed."

Now Jeff Lowe commented obliquely on marriage and business. "It's a lack of freedom," he said. "I'm trying to get my freedom back. I could have saved my marriage if I had chosen to. But when I was forced to take a new look, I realized, 'Hey, it's not what I really want – it's a weird thing, but climbing is still at the center."

Lowe paused. "The Eiger – even if I succeed – isn't going to make all the other shit go away. I don't expect this climb to make everything right." A grin spread across his face. "It'll just feel real good."