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Jeff Lowe, Ice And Mixed Climbing Pioneer

One of climbing's long-time pioneers, gear inventor and out-of-the-box thinker paved the way for modern competition, mixed and ice climbing.

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This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, most notorious. 


Jeff Lowe (September 13, 1950 – August 24, 2018) was an American climber, widely considered one of the most prolific, skilled, and versatile climbers of all time. He was an early proponent of the alpine-style approach to mountaineering, and achieved over 1,000 first ascents in his lifetime, including now-iconic American rock, ice, and mixed lines including Moonlight Buttress (5.8 C1), Octopussy (WI6 M7/8), and Bridalveil Falls (WI5+), as well as a brutally difficult solo, Metanoia, on the North Face of the Eiger (13,015 feet).

In addition to numerous hard routes in Canada and the United States, Lowe completed climbs on a plethora of high-altitude summits, including Trango (Nameless) Tower (20,469 feet), Kwangde Ri (20,299 feet), Pumori (23,494 feet), Tawoche (21,309 feet), and a spectacular solo of Ama Dablam (22,349 feet).

Lowe spent most of the last two decades of his life battling a nebulous neurodegenerative disorder similar to ALS, dying from complications of the disease in 2018.

Jeff Lowe and Catherine Destivile climb Moses tower outside Moab, Utah.
French rock climber Catherine Destivelle on the Moses Tower with American alpinist Jeff Lowe. (Photo: Catherine Destivelle/Sygma via Getty Images)

Early Life and Climbing Career

Lowe was born and raised in Ogden, Utah, where he cut his teeth on local rock alongside his brothers Greg and Mike, as well as cousin and frequent climbing partner George. Lowe’s groundbreaking ascents spanned nearly 30 years, beginning with the first ascent of Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park in 1971, when Lowe was only 21 years old.

During his three decades of climbing around the world, from Peru to Alaska to the Himalaya, Lowe was known for several spectacular ascents and attempts considered ahead of their time.

Notably, he took part in the famed unsuccessful 1978 attempt on the unclimbed North Ridge of Latok I (23,442 feet), in the Karakorum, alongside legends George Lowe (his cousin), Michael Kennedy, and Jim Donini. The route lay uncompleted for another 40 years, and even then the effort ended in disaster.

In 1979, Lowe participated in the second ascent of Ama Dablam (22,349 feet) via the Southwest Ridge, alongside his brother Greg  and other notable climbers including Tom Frost. Later in the expedition, Lowe established the Lowe Route (VI AI4 M5), a solo first ascent on the peak’s South Face.

Lowe’s 1991 boltless solo of a bold new line on the North Face of the Eiger (13,015 feet), Metanoia, also lay unrepeated for over 25 years. His 1994 ascent of the Colorado mixed route Octopussy (WI6 M7/8), meanwhile, is credited as the genesis of modern dry tooling, being one of the first routes to tackle difficult, bolt-protected rock climbing leading to intermittent ice.

Among other climbs, he made a rare attempt on the West Face of Skyang Kangri (24,754 feet)with Michael Kennedy in 1980, reaching 23,200 feet, summited Kwangde Ri in the winter of 1982 via a new route on the North Face with David Breashears, Tawoche (21,309 feet) in winter 1989 via a new route on the Northeast Face with John Roskelley, and made a free ascent of Trango Tower (20,469 feet) in 1990 with Catherine Destivelle.

Three of the leading climbers of all time, Fred Beckey, Jeff Lowe and Reinhold Messner. (Photo: Nikki Smith)

Developing the Sport

In addition to his climbs, Lowe helped develop numerous avenues of the international climbing scene. He played a crucial role in bringing competition climbing to America, organizing the International Sport Climbing Championships (the world’s first international climbing competition), in Snowbird, Utah, in 1988. He later helped start the Ouray Ice Festival in 1996 and brought ice climbing to the Winter X Games.

Lowe co-founded the climbing-gear company Lowe Alpine (with brothers Greg and Mike), and also founded the brands Cloudwalker and Latok Mountain Gear.

During his years working with his brands Lowe Alpine and Latok, Jeff Lowe helped design the first rigid, step-in crampons, the Footfangs, and a variety of ice screws (notably the R.A.T.S. and Snarg), among other pivotal pieces of climbing gear.

Lowe also penned a handful of books on climbing technique and practice, including the now-seminal works The Ice Experience (1979) and Ice World: Techniques and Experiences of Modern Ice Climbing (1996).

Climbing icon and soloist Henry Barber with Jeff Lowe during the Ouroy Ice Park Road Show event in 2014. (Photo: Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Later Life, Illness, and Death

In 2000, Lowe began to develop symptoms associated with neurodegeneration. He slowly lost balance, coordination, and sense of touch, eventually becoming unable to climb and later even to walk. He was wheelchair-bound, and later hardly able to talk, often communicating via written note, as in a 2014 interview with then Rock & Ice executive editor Alison Osius.

Lowe’s condition was never clearly diagnosed, though symptoms and progression seemed to mimic Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He died of complications from the disease in 2018, at the age of 67.

Lowe’s epic solo line on the Eiger, Metanoia, and battle against his illness became the subject of an award-winning documentary Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia (2014). He was also awarded the Piolets D’or Lifetime Achievement Award a year before his death.

Climbing Accomplishments

Lowe’s climbs are too numerous to count, but below is a listing of the most well-known.

 

  • Moonlight Buttress (5.8 C1), Utah. First ascent with Mike Weis (1971).
  • West Face, Grand Teton (13,775 feet), Wyoming. First winter ascent with George Lowe (1972).
  • North Face, Wetterhorn Peak (14,021 feet), Colorado. First ascent with Paul Hogan (1973).
  • Northeast Corner, Keeler Needle (14,260 feet), California. First ascent with John Weiland (1973).
  • Bridalveil Falls (WI5+), Colorado. First ascent with Mike Weis (1974).
  • West Face Dihedral and East Face Left, Squaretop Mountain (11,695 feet), Wyoming. First ascent with Greg Lowe and Kent Christensen (former, 1974) and first ascent with Renato Casarotto (latter, 1984).
  • Grand Central Couloir, Mount Kitchener (11,499 feet). First ascent with Mike Weis (1975).
  • Ama Dablam (22,349 feet) second ascent, with team, and subsequent first solo ascent via Lowe Route, (1979).
  • North Face, Kwangde Ri (20,299 feet), Nepal. First ascent of new route with David Breashears in winter (1982).
  • French South Pillar, Pumori (23,494 feet), Nepal. Second ascent, solo, and in winter (1983).
  • Bird Brain Boulevard (WI5 M5), Colorado. First ascent with Charlie Fowler and Mark Wilford, (1985).
  • East Face, Lobuje East (20,075 feet). First ascent of new route with Henry Kendall, (1986).
  • Northwest Ridge on Kangtega (22,251 feet), Nepal. First ascent of new route with Tom Frost, Alison Hargreaves, and Mark Twight (1986).
  • Northeast Face, Tawoche (21,309 feet), Nepal. First ascent of new route with John Roskelley, (1989).
  • Yugoslav Route, Trango (Nameless) Tower. Climbed with Catherine Destivelle (1990).
  • Wind, Sand and Stars (5.12c) Utah. First ascent with Catherine Destivelle, later first free ascent with Lisa Gnade and Steve Petro (1991).
  • Metanoia, North Face, Eiger (13,015 feet). First ascent, solo, and in winter (1991).
  • Blind Faith (WI6+ A2). First ascent of new route on Tête de Gramusat (7,969 feet) with Thierry Renault (1992).
  • Super Couloir Direct, Mt. Blanc du Tacul (13,937 feet). Solo speed ascent in two hours (1993).
  • Octopussy (WI6 M7/8), Colorado. First ascent (1994).
  • Piolets D’or Lifetime Achievement Award (2017).