Jeff Lowe: The Climber Who Refuses to Fall

 Jim Donini / Jeff Lowe Collection


This story first appeared in the June 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.

Even for a gutsy, celebrated climber like Jeff Lowe, it was an audacious attempt: a new route up Eiger’s treacherous north face, solo, in winter. “If he could pull it off, it would be the greatest climb ever accomplished by an American in the Alps,” wrote David Roberts in his 1992 article “A Mountain of Trouble.” The stakes were nothing short of life or death: “Between 50 and 60 of the best climbers in the world had died here, in a variety of gruesome ways,” Roberts wrote. The 6,000-foot climb was fraught with misfortune — a brutal snowstorm, multiple falls, sleepless nights, and several gear mishaps — but after nine days, an exhausted Lowe reached the summit, solidifying his place forever among the sport’s elite. Twenty years later, Lowe is using that same determination to battle a devastating and mysterious degenerative nerve condition.

The townsFOLK who live at the foot of the Eiger call it Mordwand, or “murder wall” — and when a people as kindly disposed as the Swiss call anything a killer, you should probably take the hint and keep your boots and ice ax off the north face of this Alp. More than 60 of the world’s most distinguished climbers have died trying to scale “the Ogre,” so named by the Germans, who know something about terror and overweening ambition. A concave monster of ice and spindrifts and pitches of sword-tipped rock, it looms so large over the Bernese highlands that it has its own weather system, throwing squalls of snow and bullwhip winds that bite deeper the higher up you go. Climb Eiger in summer, and you risk being beheaded by palings of sheared-off rock. Climb it in winter, and you can be whisked down the chute by a roaring avalanche or freeze to death in your bivouac during days-long whiteout storms. Everywhere you turn, there are ghosts on this cliff, hanging by the thread of their mistakes. One small error, one unsecured ice screw, and away you go a clean mile down, the faintest speck of red against the gray.

Jeff Lowe’s attempt, in 1991, to become the first person to solo-climb the central trunk of Mordwand was an act so brazen and besieged by risk that some of his peers assumed he meant to die. That was the gospel in the inns of Kleine Sheidegg, the high mountain pass between Eiger and Lauberhorn, where hundreds of people gathered each day to track Lowe’s progress through binoculars. Among them was Men’s Journal’s David Roberts, who knew that Lowe, the greatest alpinist of his day and perhaps the best of any age, was licking his wounds from the collapse of the pro-sport-climbing tour he’d founded and, worse, the slew of lawsuits from angry creditors and sponsors that had chased him into bankruptcy court. Lowe was also freshly divorced, having blown up his life to pursue an affair with superstar climber Catherine Destivelle. She was there, too, that week, for moral support, fetchingly French in her boy-band shag and Chrissie Hynde, kohl-dark lashes, but she was so galled by the deathwatch vibe among the onlookers that she packed her things and fled. “She knew what I’d come there to do,” says Lowe. “Yes, I had an experience there that changed my life, but I wasn’t on Eiger for redemption. I was paying homage to the men who tried before me, guys like John Harlin and Toni Kurz,” iconic mountaineers whose lives had been claimed by Mordwand. “You could say I was climbing an idea, not a mountain.”

In the course of his nine-day, one-man crab walk up the deadliest face in Europe — without anchor bolts, top ropes, or a route down the mountain if he got hurt or stuck — Lowe endured a series of falls and ran out of food and fuel days from the peak. Battered and weak, he had to ditch his pack and scale the last ice field without a rope. Somehow, he reached the summit and was plucked away by a chopper minutes before a blizzard grounded all flights and would have left him frozen solid until summer. You don’t survive such things unless you have a broad set of skills to get you through — the vision to see paths that no one else does; the brain speed to carry out load computations in windchills of 10 below; and the calm, poise, and grace to keep your head and heart rate steady when all manner of hell is breaking loose. In the end, though, the virtue most responsible for saving your life is that you badly want to live.

Lowe still has those qualities at 61, though his strength and stamina went long ago, ravaged by a brain condition so rare that it doesn’t even have a name. Today the man with more than a thousand first ascents needs help getting out of bed and has nights when the nerve endings up and down his body burn as if a torch has been taken to them. It’s been years since he could walk, even aided by canes; his hands are mostly useless for fine motor tasks; his voice is rubbed so raw by the effort needed to speak that it sounds like it’s coming through the floor. He should have been dead already, according to the doctors who misdiagnosed him with a host of dreadful conditions, including multiple sclerosis and olivopontocerebellar atrophy, or “the incredible shrinking brain,” as Lowe blithely calls it. But Lowe has no interest in dying early — he has too many things to get done.

If you wanted to write the story of the rise in climbing in this country over the past 40 years, you wouldn’t get more than a sentence or two in without tripping over the works of Jeff Lowe. He’s the DiMaggio of mountaineering, and its Bill Veeck, too, the rare athlete-seer who reboots his sport even while he’s busy taking part. As a teen in the 1960s, when the “climbing community” was a couple thousand guys in lug-soled shoes, Lowe pioneered the art of big-wall climbing on the great sandstone faces of the American West, opening routes in the northern Rockies and drawing countless followers to the national parks. In the 1970s, he fathered American ice climbing and drew thousands more to the sport by scuttling up a 40-story frozen waterfall for a path-breaking feature in Sports ­Illustrated (Lowe is one of only two climbers ever to make its cover). He then designed and helped produce much of the new equipment used by the ensuing hordes of ice converts. Later that decade and on through the 1980s, he trailblazed the towers of the Himalayas, staging first ascents without porters or bottled oxygen on four-mile-high Nepalese monsters like Ama Dablam, Kwangde, and Tawoche.

His most legendary feat, though — at least until Eiger — was his near-fatal shortfall on the impassable north ridge of Latok 1 in Pakistan. One of the last of the planet’s great unclimbed routes, its chain-mail ice and end-of-the-world storms have stopped dozens of heavily equipped, Sherpa-led crews dead in their frozen tracks. Lowe’s four-man party, traveling Alpine-style with just the tools and provisions in their packs, spent 26 days battling gales and malnutrition, having brought food for only two weeks. Just a hundred or so meters from making the summit, they were forced back down by Lowe’s condition, a particularly vicious bout of dengue fever. Beset for days by a 105-degree fever and sledgehammer pain behind the eyes, Lowe was so weak that “we thought we’d have to leave him; we were each too wasted to carry him,” says Jim Donini, a master of winter climbs and the past president of the American Alpine Club. “He was going in and out of consciousness and covered head to foot in snow, but somehow found the strength to rappel down.” In the decades since, no one has come within 2,000 feet of the high-point set by Lowe’s team.

It’s been a grand pioneering career, in short, a template for the high-risk sports that followed. But if you want to talk to Lowe about any of it, you’ll have to do so between noon and two. He has, at most, a couple of hours’ strength on any given day. After that, he’s racked by convulsive coughing, the product of frayed nerves in his throat and chest and intense fatigue from answering questions. Twelve years ago, before the onset of what doctors now call his “unknown neurodegenerative process,” Lowe was a 5-foot-10 coil of forward motion, with powerful arms, pincers for hands, and pliant, rubber-band legs. Now his legs are numb below the knee, his fingers shake badly when raising a spoon, and he’s lost a lot of weight and can’t eat enough to stop shrinking. He recently returned from a harrowing week at a new-age wellness spa, where the cleansing diet of grains and seeds seemed to rev, not reduce, his symptoms: the shooting pain in his thighs and feet that wakes him up, screaming, at night; the board-stiff rigidity in his hips and spine that no muscle relaxer can unwind. “He was so tight the other day, I had to lift him out of bed and put him in the tub to unlock,” says Connie Self, Lowe’s live-in girlfriend, who, since moving to Ogden, Utah, from Idaho last year, has taken charge of his care. “Yeah, that was a bad morning,” Lowe concedes. “Sometimes pot helps, but this went waaay beyond grass.”

Lowe and Self have known each other since the 1980s, when she was running a trail-gear store in California and brought him in to address her staff. His day job at the time was repping products for Lowe Alpine, the company in Colorado founded by his brothers. “The stuff they sold was the best you could buy, but Jeff was frankly awful at selling it,” Self says as she fixes him a lunch of cold muesli. “That’s the reason I was broke,” he grunts, laughing. “I was great at testing products at 20,000 feet, but talking them up to buyers? No, not really.”

At the moment, Lowe is sitting on a length of ground wire that feeds a steady current to his thighs. Earlier, while braced by a bar on the wall, he stood on a vibrating mat for minutes, trying to fire the nerves in his core muscles. These treatments are self-prescribed, and there’s no indication that they will slow or reverse his decline. But since no one knows what caused the inch-by-inch brownout of his central nervous system, and since none of the medications he’s taken over the years has been of lasting use, he and Self feel they are on their own. In any case, Lowe isn’t one to sit around and wait out the bitter end. He’s always had three things going at once, even while hanging upside down from an ice screw two miles up. “What set my brother apart, besides his smoothness on the rock, is he was just relentless,” says Greg Lowe, one of the founders of Lowe Alpine and himself a former world-class climber. “No matter the conditions, he kept going up and finding a way through or around them.”

That’s precisely what makes this all so wrenching: No one in memory has made better use of his innate physical freedoms than Lowe. Since the age of six, he’s been following his nose up the wildest places on Earth, beginning with the boulders of the Wasatch Mountains behind his childhood home in Ogden. The fourth of eight children born to Ralph and Elgene Lowe, he was steeped by his father, a lawyer and rabid outdoorsman, in the alpine ethos of adventure: minimal gear, fast ascents, and self-reliance. Eight months a year, the boys chased Ralph up hills, and then spent the other four bombing the black-diamond slopes at Snowbasin and Powder Mountain. At seven, Jeff became the youngest person ever to summit the Grand Teton, in Wyoming. By 14, he was climbing with Yvon Chouinard, the visionary who opened big-wall climbing in Yosemite and the Canadian Rockies and then started Patagonia with a line of shirts, growing it into an outdoor giant. Through his twenties, Lowe slept in a VW bus, working just enough to scrape a couple thousand dollars together so he could go scale the Andes or Himalayas. He climbed as he lived, pure and free, taking only what fit in his pack. “Eight-man teams drilling expansion bolts in rocks? Sorry, that’s not climbing — that’s engineering,” he scoffs.

By the 1980s, his exploits half the world over had made him the face of his sport, and in Europe, where climbers are properly honored, he could have made himself a capital living shilling for trail-gear makers. But Lowe was perfectly happy earning 15 grand a year and spending months at a time in hellish conditions on an ice chute in Alaska. He climbed for one thing and one thing only: the obsessive joy it gave him going up a hill and finding the route untaken. Though he got married in 1982 and went to work at Lowe Alpine, designing and testing products for his brothers, he carried on largely as he had since his teens, chasing his bliss on the world’s biggest rocks, even after the birth of his daughter, Sonja.

In 1988, after his brothers sold the company, Lowe made an ambitious and ill-timed bet. He sank his share of the proceeds from the sale (as well as the equity in his house in Colorado) into the creation of the Sport Climbing Championships, a European-style pro tour in the U.S. He signed up major sponsors and attracted elite climbers here and abroad. The events, staged in places like Snowbird and Berkeley, were glorious exhibitions of speed and skill, a beta test for the X Games seven years later. They were also a money pit, drew threadbare crowds, and put Lowe hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Just as the tour was caving in on itself, he went to Pakistan to film a special for ESPN, climbing Nameless Tower, a brutally steep spire of overhanging pitches, with one other person in his party. That person, as it happened, was Destivelle, with whom he fell in love in their hanging tent. “I’d never met another climber like him,” says Destivelle, 51, via email from her home in France, where she’s raising a teenage son (not Lowe’s) and tending her legend in a series of books. “Jeff was the master: very strong, very calm, with so much self-control in delicate situations.” Except, it seemed, with her. Lowe started the affair in full view of the crew. “I was going for this big, bright vision of life with a woman who was made for me,” he says.

Lowe returned home in 1990 to a marriage in shambles and a siege of creditors, many of them longtime friends. Barraged by lawsuits and the pending loss of his house, Lowe holed up in his attic study, trying to think his way out of the fix. “I felt horrible about the things I’d done to my wife, Janie, and the pain I’d inflicted on other people,” he says. The worst of it was the blow to his toddler, Sonja, whom he so cherished that he lugged her photos on climbs, keeping them in a stormproof case against his chest. It was in the thick of this morass that he got a call from Men’s Journal, asking if he had plans for a landmark climb. Instantly, a thought flashed through: Eiger. The scuff marks on his name, the cloud of litigation — climbing Mordwand wouldn’t undo that or change the facts. But if he could pull off the impossible and chart a new route to the top, maybe it would open a clearing for him, give him the strength and space to start afresh.

In the spring of 2010, and then again a year later, Lowe and Self flew a crew to Switzerland, to shoot a film about his epic climb of Eiger. The project, both the capstone on his grand career and a chance to pull off one last big endeavor, would re-create the rigors Lowe faced going up, using world-class climbers as stand-ins on Lowe’s route. (Unable to work, Lowe raises funds for the project through JeffLoweClimber.com.) They interviewed a number of Europe’s best alpinists, including Destivelle, with whom he’d maintained a warm friendship after their three-year affair ran its course. “It didn’t peter out: She dumped me during a climb,” Lowe says with a damp laugh. Destivelle, the first woman to scale the Eiger alone (her route in 1992 was far simpler than Lowe’s), called his path up Mordwand a “classic” achievement that only “the best of all” climbers could repeat.

The crew also captured heart-thumping shots of Eiger’s traps and snares: the Death Bivouac, where in 1935, two Germans hunkered down and froze to death; the White Spider ice field, where, in 1966, John Harlin, Lowe’s hero, snapped his thin rope and plunged thousands of feet to Earth. But what the filmmakers didn’t get was the thing they wanted most: live footage of someone doing Lowe’s route. They’d enlisted Ueli Steck, the Swiss speed climber who’s widely deemed the world’s best mountaineer. In unintended homage to Lowe’s greatness, however, he failed to climb even the first steep headwall and surrendered after two attempts. “Jeff’s route is mythic, a part of history,” says Steck. “What he did was unreachable for me.” Mark Wilford, another mixed-climbing master, was blown away by Lowe’s route. “Jeff’s climb was, and is, the heart of darkness,” he says. “Extreme difficulty, extreme commitment, substantial dangers.”

Absent the shots of his restaged climb, Lowe’s film had a hole he couldn’t patch. Worse, he paid dearly for the travel, losing the last of his ebbing strength to get around. In 2001, when his symptoms set in, he managed for several years using a cane. Then it was two canes and eventually a walker, trudging to specialists for EEGs and nerve-conduction tests. Nothing definitive turned up, though — no lesions on the dura or stenosis of the neuropathways — and at some point, he stopped looking for causes. Or looking outward, at least: He began to rehearse the notion that he’d created the illness himself. “I’ve always pushed my body way too hard, gone days without eating at 20,000 feet, and caught every exotic bug that didn’t kill me,” he says. “I put those things in me and now I’m taking them out, like anchors on a rock that I’m climbing. It hurts like fucking hell, but it’s OK because I’m going somewhere. I’m doing the first ascent on this disorder.” Alas, he’s now doing it in a motorized chair.

Since his triumph on Eiger, Lowe had been going full steam on the expansion of his life and sport. Through Destivelle’s connections, he cashed in, finally, on overseas endorsements and gear designs, and managed to earn his way clear of debt. He moved back to Boulder full-time, remarried, and invested himself fully in raising Sonja, who, now 24, finished business school this spring. Meanwhile, Lowe continued the American build-out of his sport. He created the ice-climbing course for the first Winter X Games; founded the world’s first man-made ice park in Colorado, reviving the fortunes of an old mining town called Ouray with an influx of tourist dollars; and head-manned the boom in modern mixed climbing, in which climbers scale walls of hanging ice and rock using tools that Lowe invented or perfected. He did all this while making three films, appearing in countless features and TV specials, and traveling the country every winter to open waterfall and mixed-climb routes.

Lowe drove himself for so long, in fact, that he barely bothered to notice when his health flagged. He started falling a lot, not while climbing but while jogging; he couldn’t seem to time his stride right. Then he lost feeling in his hands and feet but wrote it off to the remnants of whiplash from a spill he’d taken while skating. And instead of easing off, Lowe worked harder, using the hours he gained not climbing to take on other projects. He finally collapsed of exhaustion in the fall of 2008 and, convinced he had months to live, quietly retired.

But around that time, Lowe, who’d moved to Ogden after his second marriage ended, got a phone call from Self, who was passing through Utah on a trip. They’d dated twice, for years-long spells, but she’d chafed at his endless comings and goings and moved to Del Mar, California, to work as a doula, helping postpartum mothers tend to their newborns. Self hadn’t seen Lowe in almost a decade and was stunned to find him so ravaged. Still, she was touched by his quiet grace: “Even in sickness, he had this calm that settled me down,” she says. She prodded him to see a new neurologist, who ruled out the previous diagnoses and weaned him from useless medications. She cleaned up his diet, got him to take care of himself, and put him on a modest training plan. Now, on mornings when Lowe has the strength for it, he pulls himself up by an exercise bar and does knee bends braced by a wall, or gets out of his wheelchair and forces himself to move, pushing his old walker around a room. His energy comes and goes, and he’s prone to chest infections that lay him up for weeks at a time; he had a particularly rugged episode this winter, when a cold grew into acute bronchitis that resisted five rounds of antibiotics.

But having long since outlived his doctors’ prognoses, he’s bent on staging one last grand ascent. He plans to complete his film and present it at the Sundance Film Festival next year — and walk to the podium unaided. Next, he means to build his signature project, an outdoor-adventure learning complex a few miles from the Great Salt Lake. Set in the center of a Euro-style walking village in Ogden, the Jeff Lowe Outdoor Adventure Center will feature a year-round climbing tower, a kayak park with Class II rapids, and a full sheaf of mountaineering courses. “Everything’s in place, the land grant, the builders; we’re just awaiting word on the final sponsor,” says Lowe. It’s a notoriously tough time to get things of scale done, but Lowe has seen worse conditions. What others call barriers, he calls routes, hidden pathways snaking to the top. “I used to think aging was a scam,” he says, “a total abdication of your self. Well, aging’s not a scam, but quitting is. It ain’t over till the fat lady dies.”