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Climber Jeff Lowe started out as one of the world’s youngest mountaineers, and grew into the most talented technical climber of his generation. He was one of the greatest alpinists to come out of North America with over 1,000 first ascents to his name, as well as countless ascents, gear innovations, and other major accomplishments. He lived on the cutting edge, and is widely credited as the foremost pioneer of mixed climbing and modern ice climbing. He brought European-style ice climbing to the states and always preferred fast and light alpine style climbing either solo or with only 1-2 partners.
He designed and promoted clothing and equipment for big companies like REI, Latok Mountain Gear, Lowe Alpine, La Sportiva, Trango, and many more. He’s published multiple books and his instructional videos have taught generations of climbers safe techniques. He’s been inducted into the Mountaineering Hall of Excellence and received an Honorary Lifetime Membership to the American Alpine Club and in the Alpine Club of the United Kingdom. To this day, he is still revered as an icon in the climbing community.
In 2000, his climbing career approached a new kind of challenge. Jeff began to experience health issues that slowly took away his ability to climb, walk, and eventually talk. He was diagnosed in 2009 with an unknown neurodegenerative disorder and in 2012 doctors said it was most similar to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
He was on Hospice starting in 2012, and continued to outlive any predictions. He said: “My journey with an extremely rare unknown neurodenerative disease has radically changed my life. As my physical abilities have diminished, my inner life has expanded. Love is clearly the most important thing on the planet. Love for people, nature, the environement, writing – whatever you have passion for. Though I have lost the ability to walk, talk, eat or care for myself – I find joy every day. My climbing life prepared me to accept the reality of my disability and to do the best I can, with I’ve got from where I am each day, each hour, each moment.”
On August 24th, 2018, at the age of 67 years old, Jeff Lowe passed peacefully into the great unknown, outdoors and surrounded by family. This day was a fateful day for the climbing world, as another legend and icon also passed away: Tom Frost.
Jeff was born on September 13, 1950, in Ogden, Utah. He started skiing when he was four years old and climbing when he was six. His family, which included his parents and seven other children, was adventurous and athletic, regularly climbing, skiing, hiking, and camping both locally and in the Tetons. When he was only seven years old, Jeff became the youngest person to climb the Grand Teton when his father, Ralph Lowe, took him up Exum Ridge with his brothers Greg Lowe and Mike Lowe.
When Jeff was fourteen years old, Yvon Chouinard (founder of the company Patagonia) visited Ogden to present a seminar on aid-climbing. Afterwards Yvon let Jeff tag along a bouldering and unroped climbing session. This experience was a pivotal moment for young Jeff, and soon afterwards he did his first overnight solo.
Professional Climber & Modern Ice Climbing
After high school, Jeff spent a few years skiing professionally, but walked away and chose to climb full time. In 1969, while driving from Yosemite to Ogden, Jeff discovered big wall climbing in Zion National Park. He had heard about it before, but stopped to take a look, and this started a 3-4 year span of climbing in Zion. In the following years, Jeff moved to Colorado for work in the winters and climbed in the Canadian Rockies in the summers. He would make his way to Ventura, California as well, working for Yvon Chouinard.
During this time frame (around 1968), he started Lowe Alpine in the garage of his family home. In the early 1970’s, he moved the business with him to Colorado and hired his brother Greg and Mike Lowe. They made technical climbing gear and backpacks, and the company quickly made a name for itself.
In 1989, Jeff invited Catherine Destivelle to join him on a trip to Pakistan to free climb the Namelss Tower of Trango. Their relationship deepened while on this trip, which led to an affair and painful divorce for Jeff. His daughter, Sonja, was estranged from him, and the following months brought financial troubles for Jeff. It was his experience on the Eiger (see below) where he came to terms with what he needed to do in order to become the best father he could be.
Jeff and Catherine split by 1993 and Jeff married Teri Ebel in 1994. Together they started the Ouray Ice Festival to support the Ouray Ice Park – to this day, it’s one of the most attended climber rendezvous in the world. Jeff and Terri divorced in 2001. His last few years were spent with partner Connie Self, who also worked on the Metanoia movie.
Jeffloweclimber.com was a one stop shop for all things Jeff Lowe climber. It had recent updates and news, as well as a biography about Jeff Lowe and information about his publications, interviews, film, accolades, and accomplishments. In 2019, the website was acquired by dpmclimbing.com, which was a leading magazine in the climbing community.
In 1974, Jeff Lowe and Mike Weis claimed the first ascent of Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colorado. He would return in 1978 to climb it alone, but halfway up the route he decided to forgo his rope and free-solo. This feat got a mention in Sports Illustrated, making him one of the few climbers to have ever appeared on the cover of the magazine.
Jeff Lowe, Jim Donini, George Lowe, and Michael Kennedy claimed the high point on the north ridge of Pakistan’s Latok 1 in 1978. They were only 400-500 vertical feet from the summit when the team decided it was best to descend. They spent a total off 26 days on the face of Latok and their commitment to safety and team solidarity immortalized this climb forever.
More notable climbs:
- First winter ascent of Long’s Peak, a 14er in Colorado (1976)
- First solo, first ascent of a major route on the south face of Ama Dablam in Nepal (1979)
- First ascent of a pioneering mixed climb called Octopussy in Vail, Colorado- it was the first M8 (1994)
- First ascent of Moonlight Buttress (5.12c) in Zion National Park with Mike Weiss (1971). This route would later be climbed by the best climbers of each generation, such as Peter Croft and Johnny Woodward (first free ascents), as well as Alex Honnold and Ethan Pringle.
Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia
Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia is a documentary about the story of one man’s journey from the top of the world to the end of the line. It’s narrated by Jon Krakauer, who was the photographer for the Metanoia ascent, and is about love, survival, and a “pathological optimist” (according to close friend Malcolm Daly) with an indomitable spirit.
In 1991, Jeff Lowe climbed a line straight up the North Face of the Eiger, alone and without bolts – it took him 9 days. It was the first ascent on what is considered to be the most formidable route on the Eiger. “Metanoia” is a Greek term that means fundamental change of thinking, a new view of the world. He experienced a spiritual transformation on this climb, hence the name of the route. After years of hitting rock bottom, he found his way back to himself.
While the movie does focus around this specific climb in his career, it’s really about Jeff’s incredible life and his journey into his later years in a wheelchair. It highlights his high adventure lifestyle and his resilience through countless challenges on and off the mountain. It’s about how over time, his priorities shifted and his purpose in life was clarified; he was filled with acceptance, peace and joy, and his life became even more inspiring, affecting people around the world.
Here’s the trailer for the Metanoia film.
You can watch the whole documentary here. The film is 1 hour and 18 minutes long and documents the life and accomplishments of alpinist Jeff Lowe.
At the end of his ascent, Jeff was forced to abandon his pack and ropes when he ran out of time before a 3rd storm would prohibit a safe return from the mountain after his ascent. Twenty years later, it was recovered and he was able to unpack it for the first time.