Legends: George Lowe
Started climbing: during first year of college in Southern California, 1962, but soon based out of his home area of Salt Lake City
Disciplines: rock, ice, big-wall, alpine, Himalaya
Résumé highlights: The Fin, Little Cottonwood Canyon; first winter ascent of Grand Teton’s north face; north faces of Alberta, North Twin, Geikie, Canadian Rockies; Infinite Spur, Mt. Foraker; Kangshung Face of Everest
When and where was your first road trip?
My first road trip to a foreign area was probably my trip to the Grand Teton after I’d been climbing six months or so, with my cousin Mike and my brothers John and Steve, in the sense of getting away, but I’ve never done a road trip in the sense that I think of road trips, where you drive across the country climbing at different areas. I’ve always done trips with a focused objective in one area, and try as hard as we can for as long as we’re there and then return.
Who were your first heroes?
I was so unaware of the scope of climbing when I started. I just took it up without knowing much about these crazy people in California who were going out—but at least it got me out of the city. So, I didn’t really have these models directly early on. I mean it’s been 50 years, and my memory isn’t as good as it should be, but I don’t remember anyone explicitly. There was so little communication about climbing—very little within the States. There were some books, like Rebuffat’s book, that sort of inspired me. So Rebuffat. Lionel Terray was another one. I went to Europe in summer 1965, and then it became the Christian Boningtons and the Tom Pateys. Dougald Haston and John Harlin.
What was the state of the art when you started climbing?
Soft-iron pitons. I guess Salathé was making hardened-steel pitons before that, but we were certainly unaware of it. We had the soft-iron stuff from Europe. The ropes we were using were a big step up—they were Goldline. I think we were tying swami belts at that time, but I certainly climbed a fair amount just tying in with the rope directly to my waist. And of course carrying hammers. We did have the army surplus aluminum carabiners instead of steel. Ancient times.
We were pretty isolated. I think the hardest grade was 5.9 or maybe 5.10 when I started to push things for myself in Little Cottonwood. We didn’t have climbers going from place to place, or at least I didn’t know them, so when I climbed The Fin in 1965 in Little Cottonwood, I rated it 5.9, just because we figured that was as hard as we could climb. We had absolutely no knowledge of what the standards really were. We probably had a lot of that around the country, where people didn’t know how far up they’d pushed the standard. We just knew it felt hard for us.
I remember the first time I climbed The Fin was in a tight pair of hiking shoes. There were some climbing shoes, some Kronhoffers out there, but I just bought some hiking shoes and bought them tight. They worked just fine. Little Cottonwood was a place with some very small edges, and if you could keep your foot very, very still, you could actually edge with them. And a year of two later I climbed it in mountain boots. If you could keep really still, and place them precisely, the old mountain boots would hold pretty well.
I can’t complain—I had stretchy ropes. WAY stretchy ropes.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in climbing?
I think the biggest thing is that we’re not damaging cracks. I mean we’re damaging the rock because there are just too many climbers, and you run into places where the rock is polished, but the biggest change is the environmental change. When we were driving pitons we were really damaging the rock, and that’s been a huge change, the advent of clean protection. And the fact that you can place it really rapidly is an enormous change.
And the changes in the shoes: a tremendous difference. And I’ve always earned my living totally outside of climbing, and maybe made a little bit of money off of climbing, but now the people who are leading devote their lives to it. And in some ways I feel that is a little bit of a loss, because it means you don’t get to experience as much of the other things in life.
On the other hand, just watching the standards of today, it’s really phenomenal. I just can’t believe the things that people can get up. I would have laughed at the thought, back in the ’60s, of some of these things.
The other interesting thing for me is recognizing that a lot of those limitations were in my head, and it’s really neat to be able to observe the sport and actually get a bit better myself. Not up to modern standards, but just recognizing that a lot of limitations are in your head and you can climb some big routes if you go about it the right way and do them really fast. Even if you’re old. The old-age treachery helps a little bit. With modern gear, I’m climbing just about as hard on rock, not quite, as I ever did. And I think if I wanted to devote a little more time to it, I’d probably get pretty close to how I climbed 40 years ago. Part of it is when I started I didn’t want to fall.
Longs Peak now is just a crag—and that’s a huge change. How much further can it go? I’m looking forward to that.
I think maybe more than anything else would be the strides that we’re making now in the alpine environment. To be able to do things like the West Face of Gasherbrum IV, alpine style, and do it rapidly. People have already come very close to doing that. Doing that sort of thing has become more reachable, and that’s an advance you’re going to see in alpine climbing: combining all the disciplines, on very hard terrain, at very high altitudes, rapidly. It’s a matter of the fitness, the metal attitude, better equipment. That’s what I see.
What do you think about climbing entering the Olympics?
I guess I’m not very enthusiastic. The one thing that bothers me is how much of it is driven by people’s need to excel because it’s commercially necessary to do so. I worry about pushing that trend further and destroying the reason that most of us climb: just the joy of getting out and solving problems in an environment we really enjoy being in. And I think the non-amateur aspect is getting further distorted.
But don’t get me wrong, I think the Marcos and the Steve Houses or the Tommy Caldwells have got to do it because they love it, but I think they might get pushed to do things not because they love it and it’s a challenge for them personally, but because they need to do so in order to maintain their climbing.
So I’m not particularly enthusiastic, but I don’t think climbing’s going to make it there because I don’t think it’s fast enough. Maybe speed climbing might. I don’t think TV viewers are going to be willing to wait the amount of time it takes for somebody to climb a really hard route in a gym.
For me, gym climbing is fine, but it’s the smallest aspect of the sport in terms of the level of complexity. A climbing gym, for me, isn’t climbing, it’s practice to go climbing, and staying fit. And as you go from bouldering all the way up to super-alpinism on the 8,000- and 7,000-meter peaks, the level of complexity and the variety of problems that you have to solve keeps going up and up. And unfortunately so does the risk. But I think of the Olympics as not exposing what I see as climbing’s most important attributes.
What’s the biggest challenge climbing is facing?
Perhaps the crowding issue. If you’re willing to look a little further afield, it’s not as bad as we fear, but to a certain extent you guys at Climbing magazine or Rock and Ice or American Alpine Club are causing some of the problems by talking about the things that people really like, and it’s causing intense concentration in certain areas. And that’s going to hurt our access in the long term.
I’m afraid it’s going to become like the Grand Canyon boating access, where you have to know somebody who gets a permit, and the odds of doing it on your own are almost nil. I can remember when I was in late high school or early college and my dad bought us a 33-foot pontoon boat. We built a rowing rig and a motor rig and we went down the Grand Canyon. You could almost go at will. And it was a fabulous family experience. We were totally incompetent, but we sure had fun.
And I worry about the commercial aspect overtaking the sport—but I worried about that 10 years ago, and I was wrong. It hasn’t happened yet.
If you could start climbing again now, instead of when you did start, would you?
I’m glad I got to start when I did, because I got to experience a huge change. I got to explore and make my own path, in terms of deciding what I wanted to do, without being impacted as much by what the overwhelming opinion in the climbing magazines was, because things were fairly isolated. And I think that’s a more interesting environment, when you’re not constrained by what the more common thought is. I think I was very lucky. We did have nylon ropes, but I got to see climbing going from a pretty primitive approach to things, to what I regard as pretty sophisticated. Now what’s sophisticated now might be very unsophisticated in 30 years.
In the old days, I used to know almost everybody who climbed. The community is still pretty small—it’s remarkable how you run into people—but the community then was tight. You knew everybody in the whole country. When we were trying to find people to climb Everest, when we were trying the east face, there were just a limited number of people within the U.S. that you’d want to go try to get. You knew those guys.
Any advice for the next generation of climbers?
Have a good time and be safe. The essence of having a good time is living through it. It’s like Alex Lowe said: the best climber is the one who is having the most fun.