Jeff Lowe, pathfinder up the face of mountains, dies at 67
It was February 1991, and for nine days Jeff Lowe had been climbing alone up the punishing, nearly 6,000-foot north face of the Eiger, a notoriously dangerous mountain in the Swiss Alps that had claimed the lives of more than 50 climbers over the years.
His food and strength were nearly depleted, and he had ascended higher than the length of his lead rope, his only lifeline if he fell. Now a winter storm was whipping toward the mountain, it was getting dark, and he faced a difficult choice.
He could rappel back down the rock face to his bivouac, then hunker down and try to survive the storm. Or, without a lead rope, knowing that one slip would send him tumbling into the void, he could climb the roughly 20 feet to the summit, where, with luck, a helicopter could reach him before the storm did.
He chose to radio for a helicopter, drop his lead line, and clamber up the cliff face. A helicopter picked him up moments before the storm swept in.
Still, despite having to be rescued, he had conquered a new route up Eiger, doing so without bolts — climbing equipment that would have anchored him in areas without natural handholds. He named the route Metanoia, a Greek word for spiritual transformation. No alpinist has since climbed it alone.
That first ascent — the focus of a 2014 documentary, “Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia” — was one of more than 1,000 Mr. Lowe made in a career that began when he was a boy, and it was not his last. He would continue to challenge the world’s tallest peaks and trickiest ascents as one of the most renowned climbers of his generation, until illness in the last few years made climbing impossible.
Mr. Lowe died on Aug. 24 at a care facility in Fort Collins, Colo. He was 67 and would have turned 68 today. His daughter, Sonja, said the causes were pneumonia and a degenerative disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
In the world of alpinists Mr. Lowe was a celebrity, tackling routes that seemed impossible to other climbers and with as little equipment as he could. Rather than go on large expeditions, he favored climbing solo or with small groups of friends.
“He was always looking for something that would push his personal boundaries, and also push what people thought of as possible in climbing,” Michael Kennedy, former editor of Climbing magazine, said.
Mr. Lowe helped improve climbing technology by designing and testing gear for Lowe Alpine Systems, founded by his brothers, Greg and Mike, who are also mountain climbers.
Mr. Lowe was also something of a legend for his ice climbing. He was the author of “Ice World: Techniques and Experiences of Modern Ice Climbing” (1996), one of several books he wrote on the subject that continue to be consulted by climbers today.
In 1974 he and Mike Weis became the first to reach the summit of the approximately 400-foot Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colo., which freezes into a bulging column of ice.
Mr. Lowe climbed Bridal Veil again, alone, in 1978. About halfway up he decided to forgo his rope and free-solo dozens of feet up the rippling ice. The feat inspired journalist William Oscar Johnson to write about it in Sports Illustrated, which made Mr. Lowe one of only a handful of climbers to appear on the magazine’s cover.
His brother Greg told The Denver Post in 1996 that such nonchalant courage was characteristic of Mr. Lowe, who “always has this ability to dissociate from his body.”
“I can’t count the number of times that, rather than freaking out, he becomes pragmatic,” Greg Lowe continued. “What’s extreme and threatening for someone else is just interesting to him.”
Mr. Lowe tempered his boldness with caution. He told the magazine Rock and Ice in 2017 that “no climb is worth the tip of my little finger.”
“I always thought if I died in the mountains,” he said, “it would put an asterisk on my climbs.”
Jeffery George Lowe was born in Ogden, Utah, to Ralph and Elgene Lowe. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a lawyer who introduced Mr. Lowe and his seven siblings to climbing when they were young. At 7, Jeff climbed Grand Teton in northwestern Wyoming with his father.
In addition to being a full-time climber, he worked with the nonprofit outdoor educational organization Outward Bound and gave climbing lessons to support himself when he was young.
Mr. Lowe founded Latok Mountain Gear, an apparel and equipment company, in the 1980s, but his brothers took control when he was struggling to repay its debts. He also helped introduce climbing competitions to the United States, including the first Sport Climbing Championships in Snowbird, Utah, in 1988. The event was popular with climbers but earned little money.
He declared bankruptcy in 1990, and in 1991 he and his wife divorced shortly before he began his climb up the Eiger.
“I’m trying to get my freedom back,” he was quoted as saying in an article about the climb in Men’s Journal. “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.”
A second marriage ended in divorce.