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TNB: Jeff Lowe Invented the Sport

13-Jan-2014
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Ueli Steck onsighting Octopussy (M8) at Vail. The route, the first of its type, launched a new sport when it was established by Jeff Lowe in 1994. Photo by Guillaume Vallot and courtesy Petzl. Not many people can claim to have invented a sport. James Naismith can put his name on basketball, but he is on a short list. Even non-mainstream specialty activities such as traditional climbing, ice climbing and even sport climbing simply evolved growing from singular organisms to the complex animals that thrive on the cliffs today. John Gill can take credit for advancing bouldering, introducing chalk and applying a U.S. grading system, but climbers were prowling about Fontainebleau as early as 1874 and before WW II, used the blocs as training apparatus for Himalayan conquests.

Jeff Lowe is the only person I can think of who outright did something new. In 1994, he—same as the thousand or so droogs who had gone before him—climbed a sliver of ice behind the Fang at the Vail amphitheater. But, instead of lowering once the ice terminated at a rock wall capped by a 10-foot horizontal roof, he paved new ground by punching out the ceiling, tossing figure 4s in crampons and camming his ice tools in cracks and hooking them on edges. At the end of the roof, he spun around, hopped cat-like onto a free-hanging ice dagger and scampered to the top.

Octopussy (M8) wasn’t the first time anyone had dry tooled, but it was the first instance where someone had (at least on record) gone ice climbing and deliberately minimized the importance of the ice, a notion then as abstract as skiing without snow.

A sport was born.

The mind of Jeff Lowe has been a fertile field. He gave us the tuber belay device, the soft-shell jacket, then, at Vail, demonstrated what we now know as “modern mixed.” Twenty years later, routes of this ilk are as plentiful as icicles, although the latter are no longer essential to the game, annoying even.

Mixed climbing now has a World Cup circuit where Olympic-caliber athletes swing from buckets of ice (in a column last year I called these “trash buckets;” I regret the error) suspended from chains, and in a separate event they race pell-mell up ice walls, hands and feet churning as if to out swim a school of sharks.

As another sign of the sport’s acceptance, many regional events such as this past weekend’s Ouray Ice Festival hold mixed comps. Climbers from around the world train even in the summer for a chance at glory (and in the case of Ouray, for a piece of $9,000) on a plywood wall with rubber holds.

Ueli Steck begins the approach pitch to Octopussy, with the Fang in the background. Photo by Guillaume Vallot and courtesy Petzl.Although still a fledgling and struggling industry, the manufacture and sale of specialized gear such as fruit boots has taken permanent root. Surprisingly—and to the horror of certain sport climbers and boulderers—mixed climbing will even be shown off at the Sochi Olympics that begin in about a month.

So, somebody out there thinks that climbing rock with ice tools is legit, and we have Jeff Lowe to thank for that. In a nod to Lowe’s creation, this past week the Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck repeated Octopussy. This was nearly 20 years to the day after Lowe first climbed the M8. Steck says that he was 18 in 1994, and at the time it was impossible for him to comprehend ever doing the climb. The route, he says, inspired him to train hard. Now, Steck has onsighted the route. He didn’t find it difficult—this is the guy fresh back from the South Face of Annapurna—as much as visionary and “a part of history.”

Lowe, who is stricken with an unidentified degenerative disease, is back in Vail and received a visit from Steck. “When you see him,” said Steck in his post on Petzl’s website, “you think to yourself, I need to enjoy things as much as possible now, that it's all a blessing, and that the situation can change quickly. You can still feel his passion. His is a wonderful lesson in courage that inspires great respect.”

To read Steck’s full post, go here.

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