OGDEN It is cruel irony that the man who once solo-climbed a 40-story pillar of ice and became a legend and a Sports Illustrated cover boy with his international climbing exploits can't walk across a room without a pair of canes.
Jeff Lowe, who has dug his crampons into the top of icy 23,000-foot peaks, set out for a run one day a few years ago and fell on his face.
He got up and tried to continue but couldn't coordinate the movements and bagged it for the day. In the coming months, similar symptoms became so pronounced that passers-by stared at him as he lurched down city sidewalks, and still he ignored the signs for a year. He was in denial, but he was busy, too. Who had time for a doctor?
When he finally did visit a doctor in 2001, he was forced to confront the one challenge he never wanted to meet: multiple sclerosis. Give him an ice-glazed mountain, and he could use his will and skill to scale it; but how do you attack MS? By 2004, he was forced to quit climbing completely, at 53.
"I may have had some symptoms as early as 1998 dizziness, vision problems, balance," he says. "Anyway, it's been a progression. It hasn't stopped since I first noticed it. Each year there is a considerable decline."
Lowe leans heavily on canes just to get around. In the climbing world, it's as if Lou Gehrig had left the game. It's like seeing Lance Armstrong on training wheels.
This is a man who made numerous climbs up sheer 8,000-foot faces in Europe, Asia and South and North America. He has climbed everything that could be climbed sheer rock walls, cliffs, frozen water falls, mountain peaks and glaciers.
He is credited with more than 1,000 first ascents, in the Alps, Dolomites, Cascades, Himalayas, Rockies, Andes. He once calculated the number of nights he had spent bivouacked in a tent on the face of a cliff; it added up to several years.
He climbed up and down the north ridge of Latok 1, a notorious 8,200-foot peak in Pakistan set at 23,000 feet above sea level, for 26 continuous days and nights, carving ledges in the ice to sleep.
He was one of the early American pioneers of alpine ice climbing (glaciers), but his biggest influence was in the frozen waterfall form of ice climbing. In the late 1960s and '70s, he made numerous landmark climbs and established new levels of technical difficulty.
One of his most famous climbs was on the 5,000-foot face of a peak in the Himalayas called Kwangde, 21,000 feet above sea level. In 1982, Lowe and famed filmmaker/mountaineer David Breashears spent four days climbing the face, which was covered with waterfall ice and had an average slope of 80 degrees. Their Kwangde summit is considered one of the greatest climbs in history.
In 1974, Lowe and his pal Mike Weiss climbed frozen Bridalveil Falls in Colorado, a 400-foot tower of solid ice. Four years later Lowe cemented his legend by making a solo ascent of Bridalveil.
Until the MS came on at age 50, Lowe was still climbing with teenagers. In 1999, two years before the onset of the most dramatic symptoms, he told Sports Illustrated, "A basketball player from 20 years ago is not still performing at the same level. I am."
But his body finally betrayed him, and his climbing days are finished."It's poetic injustice," he says. "I say that tongue in cheek. I'm not saying 'Why me?' I'm saying, 'Why not me?' A lot of people have worse disabilities than I do."
Force in climbing industry
Lowe, now 56, is little known in the general population. Almost no one in Utah where he was born and raised has heard of him. But, as Sports Illustrated's Kerry Murray wrote nine years ago, Lowe "has retained an almost mythic status among ice climbers."
Even when not climbing, Lowe has been involved in nearly every aspect of the sport for some four decades. He has made two instructional videos and written three books (he plans to release a fourth book "Many Climbs" later this year). He and his brothers, Greg and Mike, who are also accomplished climbers, have been an industry force in creating and marketing climbing equipment and clothing.
They started their own companies Lowe Alpine, Lowepro, and Latok and served as consultants for others. They created, among other things, spring-loaded cam nuts (which hold the rope), a new type of step-in crampon, and nearly every item of clothing used for climbing. Greg invented the first modern internal frame backpack in his garage in 1967, and a few years later created plastic buckles and compression straps that are now an industry standard, as well as the soft, foam-padded camera bags that are now so popular.
Jeff, who along with Greg is included on any list of most influential American climbers, has been around every stage of the climbing revolution and had some hand in its development wall climbing, rock climbing, alpine ice climbing, frozen waterfall climbing, mixed rock and ice climbing.
He organized the first World Cup climbing competition in the United States in 1988. He designed the 12-story climbing wall on the west face of Snowbird Lodge, which has been used to host America's National Sport Climbing Championships. He started and organized the annual Arctic Wolf Ouray Ice Festival, which has become a top ice-climbing rendezvous.
He brought ice climbing to the first Winter X Games in Big Bear, Calif., in 1997. To do that, he envisioned and helped design a man-made refrigerated ice tower to make the event possible in California's 60-degree temperatures.With his climbing days behind him, he is still immersed in the world of climbing. He has returned to Ogden, where, in the city's employ, he has thrown himself headlong into bringing the sport to others with an almost religious zeal.
A climbing purist
In returning to Ogden, Lowe has come full circle. He grew up here, one of eight children born to Ralph and Elgene. An avid climber, Ralph taught his children early to climb and ski. Jeff was skiing at age 4 and was making technical rope climbs in the Tetons with his father at 6.
At Ogden High School, Jeff competed on the school wrestling and gymnastic teams, placing second in the state championships on the trampoline. But his real love was in the mountains.
"It was just being outdoors," Lowe says. "I spent my life there."
As soon as he graduated from high school, he moved to California to attend school and climb, not necessarily in that order. He dropped out of school and moved to Colorado to pursue his sport full time, and during the next 30 years he climbed, guided, instructed, designed gear and clothing, lectured, wrote and opened an international climbing school.
From the beginning, he was a climbing purist. Traditional climbing expeditions consist of large groups of climbers, with a guide to prepare the way with fixed ropes from the bottom to the top of the mountain, following the easiest routes and often augmented with bottled oxygen.
"It's not very sporting," Lowe says. "And it allows unskilled people to get up there who shouldn't be up there. That's where you get into trouble."
Lowe believes in fast, light climbing one or two climbers, possibly three, each carrying everything he needs on his back; no fixed ropes or established camps; camping on the face of the mountain; no oxygen; the most technically challenging routes, often ones that have never been attempted; the use of only one or two ropes.
Essentially, the two or three climbers play leapfrog up the mountain. The first climber free climbs 10 feet to anchor a rope in the rock, the next climber follows and sets the next rope 10 feet higher and so forth. If the first climber loses his grip, he falls 20 to 30 feet before the rope brings him to a complete stop.
It's slow and physically and mentally demanding work.
They climb sheer vertical cliffs and take routes that can require them to climb upside-down, under and over overhanging shelves of ice and rock. For the night, they find ledges of rock or anchor a rigid-floor tent that hangs on the side of the cliff, thousands of feet above ground level. Lowe climbed year-round because "each season offers different challenges."
All this notwithstanding, Lowe is no risk taker or a death-defying acrobat. He passed up chances to skydive, and when many of his climbing buddies took up paragliding for a time, he passed on that, too, calling it "too risky." He's equally cautious behind the wheel. Lowe's girlfriend chastises him because he drives so slowly that he tends to back up traffic.
"I'm not a big adrenaline junkie," he says. "If you get that, it means things are out of control. I try to avoid that. I hate big shots of adrenaline. It means you don't have enough margin. That's why I didn't kill myself in 40 years of hard-core climbing. I know there are people who think adrenaline is a big part of it. For me, it was finding out what I could do safely."
Before setting foot on the mountain, he researched his climbs meticulously, studying aerial photos and reports, talking to those who were familiar with the area and making on-site observations through binoculars to select a route to the top and formulate a game plan.
"Sometimes I spent more time planning a climb than doing it," he says.
Instead of adrenaline, Lowe sought the aesthetics of climbing the beauty and solitude of his surroundings, the physical and mental challenges of technical climbing and self-discovery."It forces a concentration that leads you inward, so that you're actually tapping into who you are physically and mentally and emotionally," he says. "It's hard to do when there's nothing pushing you. It's hard to get that focused. I am doing meditation now, but it's not the same thing. As a place of self-knowledge, you get to that as a climber."
Return to Ogden
Lowe returned to Ogden a few years ago to be with his ailing mom. It was about this time that his own illness began to manifest itself, although he didn't recognize it immediately for what it was. It not only took its toll on his body but on his marriage as well.
"It was not my ex's fault," he says. "The marriage problems might have some things to do with the MS and financial problems. I wasn't that pleasant. I didn't really understand that verbal abuse yelling is just as bad as physical abuse. It was my decline, and me being very frustrated, and her not being able to deal with that. I wasn't extremely abusive, but she was someone who wouldn't stand for any of that, and she shouldn't."
He has come to accept his physical decline and has made peace with it. "I had 50 years of nothing but playing," he says. "I had no serious job. Everything I did had to do with what I love to do. I had jobs, but they were all doing what I wanted to be doing."
The return to Ogden proved to be fortuitous and timely. Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey was reinventing Ogden as an outdoor Mecca, and climbing certainly fit the theme and the scene. Lowe was recruited to create a climbing park and to develop Ogden's potential as a climbing haven.
As director of the Ogden Climbing Park, Lowe has started an annual climbing festival Climbfest-Ogden which features clinics and mountain-related arts and literature. He is preparing to launch a program that gives the disabled opportunities for outdoor experiences and other programs that will expose locals, especially kids, to the world of climbing and lure climbing enthusiasts from around the world.
Lowe is working with the U.S. Forest Service to develop and improve access to favorite climbing haunts around Ogden, including doing some "ice farming," in which creek water is sprayed onto cliffs to develop ice fields.
The hallmark of Lowe's work is the construction of an ice tower in Ogden, which will be open to year-round climbing. Ogden has purchased and upgraded the ice tower that Lowe designed for ESPN's X-Games. The ice will be enclosed in 50-foot-high "garage doors," which can be closed to refreeze the ice. On the exterior side of the three-sided tower, there will be an 80-degree ice slope and a 90-degree wall. On the inside of the tower, there will be a 10-degree overhang of mixed rock and ice, complete with icicles, and another gently sloping overhang of ice. In the middle of the structure, there will be a free-standing 50-foot pillar of ice, 4 feet in diameter.
It is a massive amount of ice after the contraption was closed following the X Games, it took six weeks to melt; it will take a month just to build up the ice once the tower is constructed.
"This will be actual ice climbing, the same stuff as you climb on in the mountains," Lowe says. "I'm convinced it's a great thing to have as something for kids to do rather than video games."
This is pretty much all that is left for Lowe and his yen for climbing bringing it to others.
"I enjoyed climbing so much that I'm getting a lot of joy in passing it along," he says."I do miss climbing immensely. I sure wish I could still climb. About the best I can do is enjoy the memories of the climbs I've had. In the end that's all we've got anyway. At some point there are only memories."
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