Jeff Lowe – a pioneer of ice climbing in the USA

“The climbing experience offers something that’s very hard to get in today’s society, infatuated as it is with video games and reality TV and almost divorced from the natural world and real challenge” – Jeff Lowe

If you have done any ice-climbing in the past or intend to give it a go this winter, you will no doubt have heard of Jeff Lowe.

Lowe, a Utah native who was skiing at four and was making technical rope climbs in the Tetons with his father at 6, has been ascending the tallest mountains since somewhere in the 1960’s. Back then there was no such thing as sport or trad. Jim Donini, one of Lowe’s climbing partners, says “He was an all-rounder—he did it all. Although at the time, it was just known as climbing.”

Having stood atop the Himalayas and the highest and most difficult mountains in the Alps, it was his 1978 solo climb up frozen Bridalveil Falls in the rugged San Juan Mountains near Telluride, Colorado, that put Lowe firmly into the history books. Four years earlier he, and friend Mike Weis, had been the first climbers to make it up the 40-story column of ice. In 1978 Lowe did it solo and has subsequently retained an almost mythical status amongst ice climbers.

From the beginning, he was a climbing purist. He believes in fast, light climbing — one or two climbers, possibly three, each carrying everything he needs on his back; no fixed ropes or established camps; camping on the face of the mountain; no oxygen; the most technically challenging routes, often ones that have never been attempted; the use of only one or two ropes.

“I’m not a big adrenaline junkie,” he says. “If you get that, it means things are out of control. I try to avoid that. I hate big shots of adrenaline. It means you don’t have enough margin. That’s why I didn’t kill myself in 40 years of hard-core climbing. I know there are people who think adrenaline is a big part of it. For me, it was finding out what I could do safely.”

Instead of adrenaline, Lowe sought the aesthetics of climbing — the beauty and solitude of his surroundings, the physical and mental challenges of technical climbing and self-discovery.

It was his attempt of the North Ridge of Latok 1 (7,145 m or 23,441 ft) in Pakistan that is considered to be one of the greatest alpine endeavors of all time. Jim McCarthy calls it “by far the greatest failure of American mountaineering.”

Lowe and his team, Jim Donini, Michael Kennedy and cousin George Lowe, spent 26 days on the mountain and came within 122m (400 ft) of the summit, a high point that still holds. Donini cites diminishing fuel reserves, Jeff’s illness from a near-fatal virus and horrendous weather as the main reasons for their retreat. To this day, the North Ridge of Latok 1 awaits a first ascent, despite numerous attempts.

He has accumulated in excess of 1,000 first ascents including the first ascent of the now famed Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park (V, 5.9, A3, 1971) which he climbed with Mike Weis, plus numerous others in the Alps, Dolomites, Cascades, Himalayas, Rockies, and Andes. He once calculated the number of nights he had spent bivouacked in a tent on the face of a cliff; it added up to several years.

His some-time climbing partner Jim Donini, recent past president of the AAC and a top alpinist, credits Lowe with importing ice-climbing techniques from Europe. He returned with a renewed notion of what was possible. Such first ascents as Bridalveil Falls (WI6, 1974) in Colorado, and Keystone Greensteps (WI5, 1975), Alaska, are Lowe’s ice climbing legacy.

Jim McCarthy says “He transformed ice climbing, period.”

During the late 1990s, while the ESPN Winter X-Games were still held in Big Bear, California, event organizers needed an innovative structure for the ice-climbing competition but the temperatures were too high (60 F) to create frozen waterfalls. After a few days of brainstorming, Lowe came up with the idea of a refrigerated free-standing holographic ice tower … and ice climbing went X-treme!

This tower has now been purchased by Ogden Climbing Parks, a non-profit organization which Lowe is associated with,  and will soon be erected in Ogden’s Big-D Sports Park providing reliable and easy access Ice Climbing. This will be a MAJOR contribution to Ogden as a recreation centre and will draw hundreds of ice climbers to the area.

In the late 1990s Lowe developed multiple system atrophy, a neurodegenerative disorder similar to MS. In 2004, at the age of 53 he had to give up climbing altogether. It is a cruel irony that the man who once solo-climbed a 40-story pillar of ice and became a legend and a Sports Illustrated cover boy with his international climbing exploits should contract such a cruel disease.

“It’s poetic injustice,” he says. “I say that tongue in cheek. I’m not saying ‘Why me?’ I’m saying, ‘Why not me?’ A lot of people have worse disabilities than I do.”

Jeff Lowe in Ogden Utah

But this did not signal the end of life as he knew it to him – he just took another direction and now continues his involvement and passion for climbing through Ogden Climbing Parks. His goal is to promote and develop the climbing potential around Ogden, Utah. Ogden Climbing Parks also runs programs that allow underprivileged children and those with disabilities to enjoy the climbing experience.

Ogden, with its ambition to become the sports adventure centre of America is fortunate to have someone of Jeff Lowe’s caliber on their team. He was recruited to create a climbing park and to develop Ogden’s potential as a climbing haven. With his passion for mountaineering and his experience, he intends to revolutionise climbing in Ogden, working diligently to secure and open new climbing areas throughout the region.

“I enjoyed climbing so much that I’m getting a lot of joy in passing it along,” he says.

A man to admire…


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply