Climbing hard all day, Jeff Lowe forced the route through a wilderness of false leads and frustrating dead ends, but darkness caught him short of the ledge he had hoped to reach, stranding him in a vertical labyrinth. He was left with no choice but to carve a makeshift cave in a fan of snow plastered against a steep rock, then crawl inside. Wet, cold, and physically spent, he lit his balky stove and began the task of turning pot after pot of packed snow into drinking water.
In the middle of the night the storm hit. A heavy snowfall poured out of the black sky, and as the snow gathered, it set loose spindrift avalanches that filled Lowe’s cave and threatened to smother him. All night he lay in his sleeping bag, pashing and pounding the walls of his flimsy bivouac sack to maintain some breathing space inside the cave.
A lifelong tendency toward claustrophobia compounded Lowe’s distress. As he grew drowsy, he would be seized with panic; ripping open the door of the bivouac sack, he would gasp fresh air, allowing snow not only to spill inside the cave but to fill his sleeping bag, where it melted and soaked his clothes.
By morning, Lowe was in a perilous situation. It was February 28th, his ninth day on the north face of the Eiger. He had climbed 4,500 feet over those nine days, but in the 1,500 feet of frozen limestone that still hung over him, he was sure he would find the hardest passages of all. His food was almost gone. He could not stay warm at night. And he was on the verge of exhaustion.
This, Lowe knew, was how climbers died on the Nordwand. In just such a way the audacious Toni Kurz had come to grief, his rappel jammed on a knotted rope; or Stefano Longhi, left behind by his partner to freeze to death after a bad fall; or Max Sedlmayer, climbing hopelessly toward the avalanche that would pluck him from his life.
Getting down from so high on the north face, in the midst of a storm, would take a desperate effort, if it was indeed possible at all. At the moment, with avalanches thundering over the cliffs above and sweeping the fan of snow, descent was out of the question: Lowe could not even escape his snow cave.
Hunkered inside his claustrophobic hole, alone in a gray universe of nothingness, Lowe brooded on his predicament. During the last few days, with the weather holding, he had climbed so well; at last he had felt in perfect form, as success had dared to whisper in his ears. Now the prospect of failure loomed larger with every hour of snowfall. And if the situation got any worse, Lowe would be in a battle for his very life.
No, things were not going right – and the pattern was all too familiar. For a year now, things had been going wrong for Jeff Lowe. Major things, disastrously wrong. Bankruptcy. The failure of his marriage. Separation from his two-year-old daughter. He had scrambled to hold it all together, but his despair had peaked in late October, just after his 40th birthday, leaving him sleepless, his antic mind tormenting him with a parade of furious creditors and disapproving friends. Out of the nadir of that depression had come the decision to climb the Eiger. A new route on the north face – a clean, direct vector between the Czech and Japanese lines. Solo. In winter. Without bolts.
If he could pull it off, it would be greatest climb ever accomplished by an American in the Alps. And at a deeper, more personal level, the Eiger might somehow tame the internal voices howling of failure and loss. It would be a way for Lowe to return to his strength, to the thing he did better than almost anyone in the world.
Twenty-four hours after burrowing into the mountainside, Lowe was still stuck inside the inadequate snow cave. As he prepared to spend a second night there, shivering in a soggy sleeping bag, he got out his two-way radio and warmed the batteries against his body. Rousing his support team at the hotel far below, Lowe spoke slowly, his voice seamed with fatigue: “I’ve got a decision to make. Whether to go up or down. It’s a tough one.”
There was a long pause. “I don’t know how hard it would be to get down from here,” he said. “I figure it’ll take three days minimum to reach the summit if I go up. And that’s only if the weather’s good tomorrow and Saturday.”
Another pause: “I guess tomorrow’s going to tell. If I go for it, I’ll have to pull out all the stops.”
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.”
THE BASE CAMP
The hotel at Kleine Scheidegg near Grindelwald is a rambling Victorian masterpiece, festooned with tiny rooms supplied by elegant if quirky plumbing, with linen wallpaper and richly varnished wood wainscoting, cozy reading nooks, 18th-century engravings, and oak floors that creek and undulate like a glacier. For 56 years the hotel has been the headquarters for Eiger watching. As he prepared for his ascent, it became Lowe’s base camp.
The hotel is owned and run by the legendary Frau von Almen. She is a handsome woman of 70 with an imperious manner and a constant frown of disapproval on her brow. Checking in on the three of us, I told her about Lowe’s plans. The frown deepened. “This is insane,” she announced. “It is more than insane – it is mad.” She turned and walked away. “I do not like the accidents,” she nattered. “Because they are so unnecessary.”
To stay in the hotel is to put up with Frau von Almen’s tyrannical regime. There was a lengthy codex of unwritten rules, a good portion of which we managed to break. I wore my climbing boots upstairs; Krakauer and Lowe brought sandwiches from outside and ate them in her café; I foolishly asked her to unlock the front door of the hotel before 8 a.m.; and Krakauer had the nerve to wonder if he might move and photograph a portrait of the pioneers who had made the first ascent of the Nordwand in 1938.
There was no way to get on her good side. After dinner one night, I complimented her fulsomely on the four-course repast. “And did your friend enjoy the dinner, too?” she asked ominously.
“Oh, yes.” I answered.
“Because he will not eat like this up on the mountain.”
Only Frau von Almen’s longtime guests – those who had come every winter for more than a decade and skied innocuously each afternoon – seemed to bask in her approbation. The truth was the she was down on the climbers. And this was sad, because her husband, Fritz, who died in 1974, had been the climbers’ best friend, watching them for hours through his telescope, exchanging flashlight signals with the bivouacs each night. The Frau still had the telescope but would unpack it, she said, “only for emergency.” An old-timer told us that a few years ago some climbers accidentally knocked over the telescope and broke it, then ran away.
On February 11th, Catherine Destivelle arrived from Chamonix. Five feet four inches tall, with curly brown hair, a conquering smile and a formidable physique, she is a superstar in France, yet fame has left her relatively unaffected. Though they could hardly disguise the fact that they were staying in the same room, at first Lowe and Destivelle maintained a demure propriety. Gradually the handclasps became less furtive, the kisses semipublic.
For a first-rate climber, Lowe seemed woefully disorganized. For days his gear was spread all over his hotel room, but as he inventoried it, he discovered that he was lacking essential items. From Krakauer he borrowed a headlamp, pitons, first-aid supplies, and a crucial pair of jumars for ascending ropes. Destivelle brought him foodstuffs (she swore by powdered mashed potatoes) and a two-way radio.
Destivelle was scandalized by Lowe’s preparations. “I can’t believe he is climbing with equipment he has never used before,” she told us again and again. “I would never do this.” Lowe dismissed the problem, omitting one of its causes: He was so broke he had to sell much of his climbing gear and now was dependent on the largess of European companies intrigued with his Eiger project.
On the night of February 18th, Destivelle joined Krakauer and me in the bar, where she chain-smoked half a pack of Marlboros. (Ordinarily, she goes months without a cigarette.) At breakfast the next morning, she said she had dreamed obsessively about an all-out war in which everybody was hunting Lowe. She had spent a fitful, miserable night, while beside her Lowe had slept soundly.
In the morning, Destivelle rode the cog railway up to the Eigergletscher station, where she kissed Lowe goodbye. He put on his skis and headed for the base of the wall.
On February 19th, the first day on the Nordwand, Lowe waltzed up 2,000 feet in only two hours. The going was easy but dangerous, a matter of planting the picks on his aces in a steady rhythm, of stabbing the crampon points strapped to his boot soles into brittle ice overlying steep rock. He soloed without a rope: If he slipped, he would die. But Lowe was in his element on the nerve-stretching ground. The speed and precision that had made his technique famous among a generation of American climbers spoke in every swing of his axes.
It was, however, still the heart of winter, and this was the Eiger. Over the last six decades, it was the easy start on the north face that had seduced so many alpinists. Between 50 and 60 of the best climbers of the world had died there, in a variety of gruesome ways.
The names of the Eiger’s most historic landmarks – the Ice Hose, the Death Bivouac, the Traverse of the Gods, the White Spider – are canonic touchstones to alpinists everywhere. Whether or not they have ever seen the notorious wall, all climbers grow up with a keen awareness of its history. Eight of the first 10 men who set out to climb the Nordwand were killed trying. The first man to attempt a solo ascent backed off prudently, only to die on a subsequent attack with a partner. The second, third and fourth solo attempts all ended in death. Early on, the wall acquired its punning German nickname, the Mordwand.
Accounts of these disasters built up the Eiger mystique. Every climber knows the tales, as visceral as tribal legends passed on around the campfire: Hintertoisser falling to his death as he tried to reverse his traverse on iced-up rock. Angerer strangled by his own rope. Toni Kurz expiring when the knot jammed in his carabiner, only a few feet above his rescuers, as he spoke his last words, “Ich kann nicht mehr” (“I can do no more”). The last words of Longhi, borne on the wind from the ledge high on the face where he froze to death: “Fame! Freddo!” (“Hungry! Cold!”)
At the foot of the sheer 350-foot rock cliff called the First Band, the climbing abruptly turned hard. As Lowe used his rope for this first time, his pace slowed to a vertical crawl. In three and a half hours, he gained only 110 feet. On the second day, a dogged and ingenious struggle over nine intense hours won Lowe a mere 80 feet more.
On other great mountain faces, clean vertical cracks, good ledges and solid rock abound. The Eiger, however, is notorious for limestone knobs that crumble as you grasp them, for down-sloping ledges covered with ice and for a scarcity of good cracks. The severity of the terrain brought out the best in Lowe, as he used tiny metal hangers and the tips of his axe blades to “hook” his way upward.
But already there were problems. Lowe had what he called fumble fingers, dropping three or four of his most valuable nuts and pitons, and the pick on one of his axes had worked loose. He climbed on anyway, adjusting his technique to the loose wobble of the pick, which meant he could never really swing the ax hard and plant the blade securely into the ice. It was a bad compromise, like driving at 30 mph on a flat tire.
Late on his third day of climbing, he had put most of the First Band beneath him, but the climbing was the most frightening yet. The storms of the last few weeks had glued snow and ice onto vertical and even overhanging rock. Lowe had to shift back and forth between rock and snow, from spidering with bulky plastic boots and gloved hands among the limestone nubbins to crabbing his way up the hollow snow with crampons and axes. When he could, he placed protection – a machined nut or piton in the rock or a screw in the ice.
At 2:50 p.m., Lowe clung to a particularly flimsy patch of rotten snow. Two thousand feet of cold, empty air fell away beneath his boots. He doubted whether he could reverse the moves he had made above his last protection eight feet below and had no idea whether he could find protection above or climb through the looming overhang, that blocked his view of the rest of the gigantic wall. For all he knew, he was creeping into a vertical cul-de-sac.
The boldness of Lowe’s choice to go without a bolt kit was now manifest. Throughout his efforts to surmount the First Band, he had been stymied right and left by blank, unclimbable rock. With bolts, it is possible to drill the rock and build a ladder through the most featureless impasse. Every other new route on the Eiger in the last 30 years had employed bolts; the Japanese who had pioneered the imposing line just to the right of Lowe’s had placed 250 of them.
Bolts also bestow a huge bonus in safety. When a climber is “running it out” – leading into uncertain terrain, with bad protection – he never knows whether he can find a reliable anchor before he reaches the end of his rope. With bolts, a solid anchor can be manufactured where nuts and pitons are useless. Without bolts, the process is like creeping farther and farther out on a lake covered in thin ice.
Lacking bolts, Lowe fiddled with a tiny nut, trying to wedge it into a crooked, quarter-inch crack that split the First Band. Suddenly the snow broke loose beneath his feet. He was falling.
In conventional climbing, with two people on a rope, one anchors himself to the precipice and feeds out the rope as the other leads above. If the leader falls, he plunges a little more than twice as far as he was above his last protection, until his partner “belays” or stops him by holding tight to the rope. For a soloist, the belayer is a mechanical apparatus. As one might suspect, solo-belaying is far less reliable than the kind afforded by a human partner.
As he started up the wall three days before, Lowe carried a new kind of self-belay device he had never used. Before his first hard pitch, he had not even taken the contraption out of the plastic bag it was sold in. The question now, as he fell through the air, was whether the device would work.
An abrupt jolt gave him his answer: The rig had done its job. Lowe was unhurt. He had not even had time to be scared, but now the delayed adrenaline rush started to surge. In response, he edged his way back to his high point, where he found another plate of snow to try. Gingerly he moved up it, anticipating another fall with each step, until he stood beneath the rock overhang.
The only way to proceed was to angle left through a weakness in the browing cliff. Lowe made a series of delicate moves on rock, until he could plant the picks of his axes on snow above, the left pick wobbling in its disturbing fashion. But here the snow was worthless, sloughing loose under the slightest touch. For a full hour he struggled in place, patiently probing the terrain for its arcane secrets. At last he found a small patch of more reliable snow. He planted both axes, moved his feet up and stabbed the front points. The snow held. He moved a few feet higher, then surged upward.
He was over the First Band, but by now it was getting dark. Lowe placed three ice screws at his high point, then rappelled back down to the snow cave he had slept in the night before. He crawled into his thin sleeping bag and pulled the frosty bivouac sack over him. Tired though he was, sleep escaped him. His problems danced mockingly in his mind, their shadows darting from wall to wall inside the cave of unhappiness in which he’d lived for a year. The loose pick on his ax nagged at him, and at the rate he was burning stove fuel, he would run out of gas canisters long before he could reach the summit. And he needed those nuts and pitons he had dropped.
In the morning Lowe turned on his walkie-talkie and called down to Krakauer and me at the hotel. “Guys,” he said in his slow, gravelly voice, “I’m thinking about a slight change of plans.” He had decided, he told us, to leave his rope in place over the most difficult part of the First Band and, while he was still low enough on the wall to do so, descend briefly to Kleine Scheidegg, where he might fix his malfunctioning ice ax, replenish his supply of food and fuel, and replace the hardware he’d dropped. Then, in a day or two, he could go back up the wall.
Lowe reached the hotel before noon. “Why did you not tell me before the weekend that you were coming down?” Frau von Almen complained, fingering her room charts. It happened to be Friday. “Now I have to put you in 88, way up on the fourth floor.”
“That’s fine with me,” said Lowe.
“I know,” said the Frau as she walked away. “But you are very simple.”
A stack of faxes was waiting for Lowe at the hotel, most of which were from furious creditors demanding payment. These did not appear to rattle his composure, but a long missive from Janie seemed to trouble him deeply.
Having come to admire and like Lowe, I was puzzling over the vehemence of his detractors. Jim Bridwell, who claims Lowe still owes him $3,000 for Nameless Tower, had said: “I think of Jeff as a climber and what that used to mean. You used to be able to trust climbers. But Jeff’ll say one thing and do another. I just think he’s disturbed. Either he doesn’t know he’s lying, or …”
Janie Lowe thought Jeff’s problems had been compounded by his pride. “He can’t say he’s sorry,” she told me. “‘Hey, I really fucked up.’ Just a few sentences would resolve his debt with his friends.”
One voice in Lowe’s defense, however, was that of Jeff Long, who insisted: “These people want Jeff’s professional corpse swinging in the wind. I think what they did in investing in Jeff was to invest in his vision. What collapsed, they thought, was a whole vision they shared. The brotherhood of the rope. But what was going on was really just business.”
For all her sorrow, in any case, Janie was determined to keep the channels open. “We’ll always be parents,” she said. “We have a wonderful little daughter. For Sonja’s sake, I hope we can keep our own bullshit in the background.”
One night in the hotel, Lowe had watched the three-year-old daughter of a guest carrying her plate heaped with food from the salad bar. The sight had brought tears to his eyes. “Yeah, I really miss my daughter,” he admitted.
As Janie had pointed out, though: “Yes, he totally loves Sonja. But you know what? He doesn’t love her enough to be with her.”
In his own way, Lowe acknowledged that stricture. “I think I know now,” he said in a reflective moment, “that you can’t do this sort of climbing and have a domestic side. You’re not a practicing father if you’re not there. You’re maybe a visiting father.”
There had been a snowstorm on the morning of Lowe’s descent, but by the following day the precipitation had ceased and the weather had stabilized. The temperatures were strangely warm, however – well above freezing at the 6,000-foot elevation of the hotel. That was better than brutal cold, except it meant bad avalanche conditions. In the weekend prior to his start on the Nordwand, 31 people had died in avalanches across the Alps.
There were, in short, plenty of reasons to give up the climb, excuses lying ready to be seized. But Lowe spent the evening in room 88, sorting his gear in his slow, fastidious fashion. Early in the next morning he returned to the foot of the wall, and by noon he was back at his bivouac cave, at the lower end of the ropes he had left in place. By the time the evening fell, he had reascended the ropes and wrestled his 100 pounds of gear up to his previous high point.
Then, boldly, he led on into the dusk. It was not until three hours after dark that he suspended a hanging tent from a pair of ice screws and crawled into his sleeping bag. He was halfway up the Nordwand.
“Good morning, Vietnam,” he radioed us in the morning. “I just woke up from one of the best sleeps I’ve had in a long time.” When he started climbing again, his route coincided for a few hundred feet with the classic 1938 line. This section of the route, known as the Ice Hose, had been a formidable test to most of the expert climbers who had attempted the Nordwand over the years. For Lowe, with his impeccable ice technique, it was almost like hiking. He raced up the Ice Hose and across the Second Icefield and at day’s end was bivouacked at the base of the summit head wall.
Only a little more than 200 feet of climbing remained, but it promised to be severe and unrelenting. And as he inched his way up into the dark, concave head wall, it would be increasingly difficult to retreat. Somewhere on that precipice, he would reach a point of no return, after which descent might well be impossible, and the only escape would be up and over the summit.
It was Monday, February 25th. The forecast from Zurich was for continued good weather though Wednesday; then a warm front bearing heavy snow was predicted to move into the area. A fiendish scenario began to propose itself. With two days’ steady climbing, Lowe might well find himself near or at that point of no return, only to get hammered by a major snowstorm.
Krakauer and I were using the coin-operated telescope at the gift shop next to the hotel to follow Lowe’s progress, but he was so high now that we could tell little about his individual moves. On Tuesday night we took a walk. There was a full moon directly behind the Eiger. We caught sight of a pinpoint, impossibly far above us, three fifths of the way up the wall: Lowe’s headlamp, as he dug his bivouac site, a lonely beacon of purpose in the mindless night.
Later, his voice came in on the radio, raspy with lassitude. “Watch that forecast real carefully,” he said. “It’s going to be a strategy-type thing. If it comes in hard and I’m not in a good place, it’s not going to be good.”
On Wednesday night, the storm indeed came in hard, forcing Lowe to hole up in the claustrophobic snow cave he’d dug in the vertical fan of snow. It was from the pathetic shelter that he’d wondered aloud over the radio “whether to go up or down.” After a long, pregnant silenced, he confessed: “I don’t know how hard it would be to get down from here. I figure it’ll take three days minimum to reach the summit if I go up … if I go for it, I’ll have to pull out all the stops.”
Lowe’s miserable snow burrow proved to be a poor place to ride out the tempest. On Thursday morning, he remarked over the radio: “I’ve never been so pummeled in my life. There’s a big avalanche coming down every five minutes. I couldn’t move if I wanted to.”
At noon Lowe radioed again. He had managed to get out of his snow hole, but a search for a better bivouac site had been fruitless. The avalanches were still rumbling down, his clothes were soaking wet, and he was cold. It seemed that Lowe had little choice but to descend, and even that would be exceedingly sketchy. Much to our surprise, however, he declared, “I’m going to sign off now and try to get something done.” He had resolved to push for the summit.
More than a week before, I had probed Lowe’s motives by alluding to the suggestions I had heard of a suicidal impulse. “I think everybody has had thoughts about checking out early,” he said. “But I wouldn’t do it this way. I’d do it a lot simpler.”
Even if Lowe could complete his route, what lasting difference would it make in his life? Magnificent though the climb might be, was it little more than a superstitious gesture, a way of lashing back at the furies that bedeviled his path? The finest climb ever accomplished by an American in the Alps could indeed bring with it a huge bestowal of self-esteem. And in the chaos that his personal affairs had become, self-esteem might what Lowe needed most.
He had said: “For me there’s no future. All I’m interested in is now.” In the hotel, that had sounded like wishful thinking. Divorce and bankruptcy turned now into a crumbling wall between the flash floods of the past and the future. But up on the Eiger, all that changed. The past was the piton 10 feet below, the future was that handhold three feet above and to the left. Now was what held him to the world, and the trance of grasping its ledges and cracks gave it a glorious breadth. It expanded and became the ocean of all that was.
Friday, March 1st, marked the sixth day of Lowe’s second attempt on the Nordwand, his 10th day of climbing overall. A south wind sent hazy wreaths of fog sailing over the mountain, but the favorable weather that had blessed the first week of the climb had returned, although another storm was forecast to arrive by Sunday. If he didn’t reach the top before it hit, his prospects for survival might be grim. By noon, Lowe had hauled all his gear up to a distinctive ledge called the Central Band. Only 1,200 feet remained.
Here the wall was scored with ice-glazed ramps leading up and to the left, most of which led nowhere. The protection was minimal, the climbing nasty. Lowe was aiming for the Fly, a small ice field 500 feet above. But now, when he needed to move fast, with the threat of the next storm hanging over him, he was slowed drastically by what turned out to be the most difficult climbing yet.
Watching through the telescope, I could gauge how steep the cliff was when I saw him knock loose chunks of snow that fell 40 feet before striking rock again. At one point it took him more than an hour to gain 25 feet. The rock had turned loose and crumbly; stone towers, teetering like gargoyles, sat waiting to collapse at the touch of a boot, and pitons, instead of ringing home as he pounded them, splintered the flaky limestone and refused to hold. Bolts would have been a godsend.
Yet on those pitches, Lowe’s brilliance came to the fore. He thought of one particular stretch of 50 feet as a kind of never-never land: it was the crux of the whole route to this point. A more driven, impatient alpinist might succumb to dizzy panic at this point, where the slightest misjudgment could rip protection loose and send him hurtling into the void. With his phlegmatic disposition, Lowe inched his way through his never-never land in a cloud of Buddhist calm.
On Saturday, Krakauer started up the west ridge – the easiest route on the Eiger and the path by which Lowe would descend. Krakauer wanted to camp near the top to greet Lowe and, if need be, help him down. As soon as he skied above the Eigergletscher station, however, Krakauer realized the venture was a mistake. A few days before, he had cruised halfway up the ridge in only two hours; but in the interim, the conditions had completely changed. The storm had blanketed the slope with steep, unstable snow; without skis, Krakauer sank in to his waist, and even with skis on he plowed a knee-deep furrow as he zigzagged laboriously upward.
At the fastest pace Krakauer could sustain, it would take days to get to the summit. What was worse, the slopes were dangerously close to avalanching; indeed, as he climbed slowly up the ridge, his skis periodically set off small slides.
At two o’clock Krakauer came over the radio. “I’m getting the hell down,” he said in a jumpy voice. “The hundred feet just below me is ready to avalanche. Watch me carefully. If it releases, it’s going to be massive.” With a series of slow, deliberate turns, he skied down as delicately as he could. The slope held.
When Lowe next radioed, I had to tell him about Krakauer’s retreat from the west ridge. He took the news calmly, even though it raised a specter of serious danger for his own descent. For the first time we talked about the possibility of a helicopter picking him up on the summit.
Lowe climbed on. By early afternoon clouds had gathered around the upper face, where it was snowing lightly, even though the hotel still baked in sunshine. Pushing himself beyond fatigue, again well into the night, he managed to set up an uncomfortable bivouac just below the Fly. His two-day push from the Central Band had been a brilliant piece of work, but the Sunday storm was coming in early, and 700 feet still lay between him and the summit. He was well past the point of no return.
That evening he slithered into his dank bivouac sack and tried to sleep. Lowe had two gas cartridges left to melt snow, but his food supply was down to a couple of candy bars. His hands were in terrible shape – the incessant pounding, grasping, and soaking had bruised his fingertips until they had swelled into tender blobs, and the nails had begun to crack away from the cuticles. Each morning, his fingers were so sore and puffy that merely tying his boot laces was an ordeal.
Worse, his sleeping bag, thin to begin with, was soaked like a dishrag: It provided almost no warmth at all. That night Lowe got not a wink of sleep. For 14 hours he shivered, waiting for dawn, as the snow fell outside his cave.
On Sunday morning it was still snowing. “Where I am,” he radioed, “it’s hard to even peek out of the bivy tent without dislodging everything. I’m going to sit here and hydrate.” He faced an acute dilemma. If he hunkered down and waited for the storm to end, he could run out of food and gas and succumb to hypothermia. If he pushed upward prematurely, on the other hand, the storm itself could finish him.
By noon he had not moved. At two o’clock, through a break in the clouds, we saw him climbing slowly above the Fly. As he started to climb, however, he grew deeply alarmed. Something was wrong. He felt week all over, weaker than he should have from fatigue alone. He had been going on too little food, not enough liquids, insufficient sleep. This was how climbers died on the Eiger. This was too much like what had happened to Longhi and Kurz. After stringing out 300 feet of rope, Lowe returned to his bivouac hole of the night before and spent the rest of the day resting and hydrating and trying in vain to get warm.
Once more, sleep was impossible. Lowe shivered through another night, even though he lit the stove and burned precious fuel in an effort to heat his frigid cavern. The weather had cleared late Sunday afternoon, and the sky was now sown with stars. There was odd acoustic clarity: Toward morning he could plainly hear dogs barking in Grindelwald, miles away and 10,000 feet below. And he thought he heard something else: a humming, crystalline, harmonic music in the air. Was it an aural hallucination? Was he beginning to lose his grip?
Monday dawned luminous and clear, a perfect day, of which he would need every minute. Good weather had been forecast to last through the evening, but a major storm was due on the morrow. We called REGA, the government run rescue service, and alerted it to a possible need for summit pickup. Then we watched Lowe climb. At 9:15, he turned a corner and disappeared into a couloir we could not see. Two hours later, there was still no sign of him, no murmur over the radio. Though we did not admit it to each other at the time, Krakauer and I each separately trained the telescope on the base of the wall, where we swept the lower slopes. In just such a way over the decades, the fate of several Eiger victims had been discovered.
Lowe had hoped that once he was above the Fly the going would get easier. But in icy chimneys broken by bands of brittle rock, he was forced to perform some of the hardest climbing yet. Normally he never let himself be rushed on a climb: It was one of the secrets of his sangfroid and his safety. Now, however, he kept looking at his watch, and his brain hectored, Oh, no, hurry! Ever so slightly, his technique lost some of its famous precision. He felt less weak than he had the day before, but the sense of struggling to meet a terrible deadline oppressed his efforts.
It was hard to place good protection anywhere. Lowe found himself hooking with front points and ax picks on rounded rock wrinkles that he had to stab blindly through the snow to locate. His balance was precarious, and then, just before it happened, he knew he was going to fall.
The picks scraped loose: He was in midair, turning. Twenty-five feet lower, he crashed back into the rock. The self-belay had held, but he was hurt. He felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat and slammed it into his kidneys.
Oddly, instead of panicking him, the long fall calmed him down. Okay, he said to himself, you’ve done that. Don’t do it again.
He pulled himself together, starting up again and found a way through the dicey hooking sequences despite the pain pounding in his back. At last he surmounted the buttress and reached a good ledge, only 400 feet below the summit.
But here he faced a problem. The warm sun has loosened the summit snowfields. Every chute and depression became an avalanche track. One swept right over Lowe, filing his goggles with powder snow, buffeting his body as it tried to knock him from the wall.
He was moving faster now, as slides shot down all around him. For two hours he climbed doggedly on. During that time, three more avalanches engulfed him. One of them knocked his feet loose, but he managed to hang on with his axes. At 3:20 he called.
“God, Jeff, those avalanches looked bad,” I said.
“Yeah, they were pretty horrendous.” His voice was ragged with strain. “I got really douched. I’m totally wet. Am I about a pitch from the west ridge?”
“A pitch and a half, maybe.”
“I’m going to call for a pickup. I just want to get up this thing.”
We signed off and called REGA. They were waiting in Grindelwald, ready to fly the moment Lowe emerged from the west ridge, a few feet below the top. But a stiff wind had begun to blow a steady plume off the summit. The wind could prevent the helicopter from approaching close enough to execute a pickup or even cause it to crash.
To our dismay, Lowe disappeared once more into a couloir. The minutes ticked by. At 4:15 he emerged, fighting his way through out of the top of the gully, spindrift hosing him at every step. He was only 40 feet below the crest of the ridge.
We prepared to call REGA, then watched in distress as Lowe stopped at a mottled band of rock and snow, only 20 feet below the ridge. For 10 minutes he thrashed in place; we saw him grabbing chunks of black limestone and tossing them into the void below.
In the hidden couloir, Lowe had found it impossible to get in any protection. He had dashed upward, aiming at the mottled band, but when he got there, he found only a skin of ice holding together rocks that were as loose as a pile of children’s blocks. When he flung stones aside and dug beneath, he found only more of the same. He could engineer no kind of anchor – neither piton, nut nor ice screw would hold.
Only 20 feet short of safety, he had run out of rope. His own anchor, 300 feet below, was imprisoning him. In despair, he realized he would have to climb down at least 40 feet to the previous rock band, try to get some kind of anchor there, rappel for his gear and jumar back up. He was not sure he could make that down-climb without falling. What was more, he was running out of daylight.
Lowe got on the radio. Krakauer said what we were both thinking.
“Jeff, if you just dropped your rope and went for it, could you free solo the last 20 feet?”
“No problem,” said Lowe. “But are you sure the helicopter can get me?”
If we urged Lowe to abandon his gear and the helicopter failed, he would be stranded near the summit without ropes, sleeping bag, food, stove, or even his parka. He was soaked to the skin. The wind was whipping hard, and the sky had grayed to the color of lead. Tuesday’s storm was arriving early.
Krakauer said, “I’m almost positive they can pick you up.”
“Let’s do it,” said Lowe.
He untied his rope and draped the end over a loose rock. He was abandoning all the gear that he had fought for nine days to haul up to the 6,000-foot precipice and, with it, deserting his own last refuge.
We called REGA, and the helicopter took off from Grindelwald. To be picked up on the summit of the mountain was not a true rescue; more than one previous Eiger climbers had resorted to flying from the top when he was far less strung out than Lowe was. It would, however, be a kind of asterisk attached to his great deed. It would not be the best style, and that would bother Lowe. But it was survival.
He sprinted up the last 20 feet. All at once, Lowe had escaped the north face. He stood on a broad shelf of snow on the west ridge, just below the summit. The helicopter spiraled upward toward him.
Still talking to us on the radio, Lowe couldn’t keep the shivering out of his voice. Krakauer instructed him: The helicopter would lower a cable, which he was to clip on to his waist harness.
Now the chopper was just above him, hovering in the stiff wind. Suddenly it peeled off and flew away toward the Jungfraujoch. For the first time, Lowe seemed to lose it. He wailed, “What the hell’s going on?” Nervous about the strong winds, the helicopter pilot, we later learned, decided to drop off a doctor and a copilot who had been on board, so he could fly as light as possible when he made the pickup.
The helicopter reappeared and hovered above the summit, its rotors straining against the wind. The steel cable dangled from its belly. We saw Lowe swipe for its lower end, miss once, then seize it. He clipped in, and the helicopter swept him into the sky. Down at the hotel, the guests and skiers cheered wildly all around us. Lowe was off the Eiger.
The cable wound upward as he rode it toward the open door. The winch man reached out his hand. Lowe climbed through the door and crawled back into the conundrum of his life.