Jeff Lowe took high-end technical rock and ice climbing to high altitude—and an unprecedented level.
If you are a climber, you’ll know at least three things about Jeff Lowe. First, you’ve probably looked to one of his books or films for instruction or inspiration. Second, you may have used gear he has either designed, developed, inspired or marketed. Third, you’ve surely scared yourself (or at least dreamed of scaring yourself) on one of his classic first ascents. These facts alone are enough to elicit the type of hero worship doled out to the likes of Lance Armstrong or Michael Jordan. But there’s more.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of American climbers, Jeff Lowe’s face would easily rate Jefferson’s spot. Lowe is perhaps best known by the general outdoor public for pioneering a paradigm shift in ice climbing—not once, but twice. He and Gunks legend Jim McCarthy are the only climbers ever to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. That was nearly three decades ago. His career reputation among the climbing cognoscenti is as a consummate all-arounder and pioneer of new routes—numbering in the thousands—of which Lowe claims only 500 are “significant.” These routes encompass cutting-edge rock climbs, big walls, ice routes and alpine faces from boyhood crags near Ogden, Utah, to the Canadian Rockies and the French Alps.
But what has sealed Lowe’s everlasting membership into climbing’s Hall of Fame are his major first ascents in the greatest mountain ranges in the world. In a world full of good climbers, Lowe took high-end technical rock and ice climbing to high altitude and a new level, sometimes in a team, sometimes alone on climbs like Tawoche, Kwangde and Kangtega—peaks unheard-of by all but insiders, and of legendary difficulty and abrupt, breathtaking beauty. His free climb of Trango Tower with Catherine Destivelle in 1990 points to an early application of free climbing to the Himalaya.
Lowe’s attempt, at age 28, on the epochal North Ridge of Latok I ended with a tropical virus 400 feet below the summit, but is a Beamonesque legend in the alpine world. Where Bob Beamon made sports history for a 23-year long-jump record, Lowe’s 1978 effort with his cousin George Lowe, Jim Donini and Michael Kennedy was a near miss that still remains unmatched going on 30 years—despite dozens of attempts.
Beyond climbing, in the world of gear design, Lowe’s fingerprints can still be found from Skardu to Boulder. You might take it for granted these days, but every time you heft an internal frame pack, adjust the compression straps, clip Fastex buckles, stuff your tele-compression stuff sacks or whip your Nikon out of a rugged camera bag, you can thank the brothers Jeff, Greg and Mike Lowe at Lowe Alpine Systems. The Lowe Hummingbird and Big Bird were the first modular ice tools. Step-in crampons, anti-snow plates and replaceable crampon points were all invented by Lowe Alpine, for which Jeff was the gear tester.
In his own company, Latok, Lowe continued to innovate in both climbing hardware and clothing.
Says Steve House, “I remember design meetings at Patagonia where we would bring in samples of our favorite clothing. I’d bring a Latok pullover—designed by Lowe Alpine in the mid-1980s. It was so far ahead of its time … and what they now call ‘softshell.’”
Besides penning numerous articles and publishing countless images, Lowe wrote the seminal how-to books The Ice Experience (1979) and Ice World (1996), which ushered in respective new eras in the ice and then the mixed-climbing games. Other media, including televised events under Lowe’s guiding hand such as the ESPN X-Games ice competitions in the late 1990s, drove the sport further. The Ouray Ice Festival, which Lowe founded in
1996, is to this day an extraordinary success.
In the late 1980s, Lowe even nudged the budding plastic movement into the mainstream spotlight with his Sport Climbing Championships, including an inaugural international event at Snowbird in 1988. Though they ultimately fizzled, Michael Kennedy says, “The Sport Climbing Championships were really ahead of the curve by a decade or more. Jeff had a vision that encompassed an emerging style of climbing, media coverage, education, promotion, development of training and gear. If he had pulled it off it could have changed the way comps developed and climbing developed in this country.”
Few, if any, can lay claim to such a broad and influential career, one that spans every genre from free climbing to Himalayan alpinism. Says Steve House, “His biggest contribution might be his creativity. He’s not afraid to scrap everything and start from scratch. That’s why he’s so successful as a thinker. Not all his ideas were practical at the time, but they all seem to carry through and work as time passes. That’s the mark of genius.”
— Pete Takeda