Legendary Mountain climber...

People & Place

“When someone dies, everything good about them still exists — they’re just not around to remind you of that.” My mom told me this the first time I lost a close friend in a climbing accident, and it’s always stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of my friend Alex Lowe having a peak named in his honor. I’m not at all sure what he would think of about it, but I’m looking forward to seeing his name on a map because all the good abut Alex is very much worth remembering.

At the time of his death on October 5th, 1999, Lowe was considered by many to be the best climber in the world. The March 1999 issue of Outside Magazine ran a picture of Lowe on the cover that was captioned “the world’s finest climber”. Lowe’s climbing resume includes summitting Everest twice, the first ascent of the 6000 foot northwest face of Great Trango Tower in Pakistan, the first ascent of Rakekniven in Antarctica, as well as some of the hardest mixed rock and ice climbs in North America. His complete resume of significant climbing ascents would more than fill this 1200 word article.

In addition to his sheer brilliance as a climber, Lowe was a perpetual motion machine with boundless positive energy. His place in climbing mythology is cemented by his readiness to help other climbers in need. Lowe once carried a hypothermic, unconscious Spanish climber up Denali’s west rib at 19,500 feet, an elevation at which most climbers are expending all their effort just to put one foot in front of the other. A few days later, on the same trip, he helped rescue some Taiwanese climbers even though it meant giving up on his own climbing objective. The nicknames his friends gave Lowe reflect this attitude and ability. Monikers like “the white knight,” “the mutant,” “the lung with legs” and “the secret weapon” are applied freely whenever Lowe is mentioned.

In Bozeman, the climbing community remembers Lowe for his abundant goodwill. He helped everyone in the climbing community to feel they belonged, encouraging them to “get out there and have fun”. He talked enthusiastically about climbs of all difficulties, raving equally about the virtues of both easy and difficult lines. Likewise, he supported climbers of all abilities, often stating that “the best climber is the one having the most fun,” and he really believed it.

As soon as the US Geological Survey updates its maps, the Gallatin Range will have one more named mountain: Alex Lowe Peak. You can find Alex Lowe Peak on a current map a little over a mile south-southwest of Mt. Blackmore in the Hyalite mountains south of Bozeman. The mountain is at the head of the South Cottonwood Creek drainage, and on current maps it’s marked by its elevation: 10,031. 

The US Board on Geographic Names criteria for giving a mountain a commemorative name include that the honoree must have been deceased for five years, there must be community support for the name, and the honoree must have some connection to the feature being named.  Lowe easily fits these criteria. The Hyalite area was his home stomping ground. Lowe put up numerous first ascents of ice and mixed climbs in the Hyalite drainage. He also spent a lot of time skiing in the Gallatin Range. Lowe, along with Hans Saari, made an impressive ski descent down a north-facing couloir of the peak that now bears his name. The line was particularly technical and involved rappelling over a chockstone in the middle of the couloir.  Lowe and Saari named the line Hellmouth Couloir. Terry Cunningham of Bozeman, who submitted the application to the US Board on Geographic Names, says, “It is fitting that this beautiful peak would be named after a person who climbed up its slopes, skied down its most challenging feature and appreciated its silent majesty.” 

Lowe thrived in the mountains, whether he was climbing, skiing, peak-bagging or some combination thereof. An excursion didn’t have to be challenging or difficult to be worthwhile. It was typical for him to wake up at three in the morning for a “dawn patrol” to get in some activity, and be home before breakfast. On one such morning, Alex picked me up at 5:00 am with a huge cup of coffee in his hand and an even more impressive smile on his face. We were headed to ski Mount Ellis, just outside of Bozeman. There was a small amount of new snow on the ground and as we drove Alex commented with boyish enthusiasm on how beautiful everything was with the streetlights reflecting prism-like through the snow crystals that hung in the air.

The sky was just starting to lighten when we started up the trail, the stars blinking out and the slightest tinge of red on the horizon. As was typical, Alex broke trail the entire way, chatting the whole time. Our conversation was wide-ranging, jumping around from climbing to physics to math puzzles and local politics, often punctuated by exclamations of just how great it was to be out and doing something. When we arrived at the top of Mount Ellis, the sun was rising just high enough above the horizon to feel warm on our faces despite the cold air. We pulled out our thermoses (more coffee for Alex, tea for me) and basked in the sun.

Once we’d finished our drinks, and taken the skins off our skis, Alex pushed off the summit, heading down the east slope and very quickly fell on his face. “It’s death cookies,” Alex yelled at me jovially, referring to the hard, breakable crust underneath the six inches of light powder that had fallen overnight. The moment Alex down-weighted his skis to initiate a turn, the crust had broken into pieces that failed to support his weight.  I followed, attempting to stay extremely light on my feet, with slightly better results; I managed a couple of turns before I broke through and got pitched forward. The skiing was truly awful. I don’t know how many falls we took before we reached the bottom of the slope. There was snow stuffed everywhere, in our goggles, mittens, hats. Every weakness in our clothing had been infiltrated with the stuff.

Bad skiing conditions are not particularly memorable in and of themselves. I’ve skied in bad snow plenty of times. What makes this day stand out in my mind was what Alex — completely snow-covered and eternally optimistic — suggested upon reaching the bottom: “I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. Let’s do another run!” Who was I to argue?

I could easily have told a personal story about Alex “the mutant” that highlighted his supreme abilities or an anecdote about “the white knight” helping others. But the memory of Lowe that I keep close is the man that truly embraced everything life had to offer, making every outing a fun-filled adventure of discovery. When I look at my new map with Alex Lowe Peak sitting in the Gallatin Range, I’m going to remember my friend, and I’ll work at keeping that part of him alive in me and in the world. After all, everything good about Alex still exists.

 

~ HJ Schmidt is an artist, writer and photographer who lives in Bozeman in an old house on a small city lot with a large vegetable garden. When he is not in his fourth grade classroom in the former Emerson School (now his studio in the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture) he can be found skiing, climbing, kayaking, riding his bike or enjoying a glass of syrah while inventing new culinary delights.