Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jeff Lowe – The Legend

'Thank you.' I concluded and stepped down from the dais. My audience, the crème-de-la-crème of the mountaineering world and climbing enthusiasts from across the globe broke into an applause. I said a silent thank you to the mountains. A thousand sharp and knowing minds...and I had not disappointed them.

Year 2003, month November; I just delivered my slide-presentation on the Unknown Himalaya at the world's largest and one of the most prestigious mountaineering festivals, the Kendal Mountaineering Film Festival (KMFF), Kendal, the Lake Districts, UK.

As I joined the crowd gathered at the bottom, my buddy Jim came forward, 'Hey, Satya, that was awesome, mate; here's someone who would like to say hello.' And then I noticed the pair of girls covering his flanks. Soon, more people shook my hands and extended their notebooks for me to sign. I noticed several of my climbing friends too, waving from afar. Immersed as I was I didn't notice, when the crowd around me had thinned and I was standing alone with a pretty girl from Netherlands who wanted to invite me to her country to give a talk. I of course had no intention of visiting her country, flat and below sea level as it was but I enjoyed the sparkle in her eyes and did not interrupt the conversation.

Suddenly a hand brushed my back. 'That was a very good presentation, congratulations.' A steady voice said. I whirled around to face the person whom I have literally worshiped and idolized since the day I could walk in my crampons. Jeff Lowe smiled through his glasses with a little wink on his forehead. At that instant, the pretty girl from Netherlands or all the pretty girls in the world ceased to exist. My usually loquacious tongue totally failed me. He was grasping my right hand and I could only gape. 'Can we sit somewhere and talk!' Jeff said. I tossed my head disbelievingly. This could not be happening this was just impossible.

If Jeff Lowe did not invent ice climbing then he certainly reinvented it. He took it from its pristine form and transformed it into an art a ballet and something spiritual. He is most certainly the father of modern ice climbing. Jeff's lists of accomplishment are too many and far too well known for me to highlight here. Beginning in the sixties, over the next 40 years, Jeff chalked up more than 1000 first ascents each more audacious than the other. His attempt (they came within 400 m of the summit) on North Ridge of Latok 1 remains perhaps the greatest feat of alpinism of all time. He invented waterfall ice climbing and mixed climbing. The modern day rucksack that we carry today owes its design to Jeff. But for him, we wouldn't be wearing the soft shell jackets that today are the standard for any decent climber. His 'monkey hang' technique is taught to every advanced level mix climber. I can go on forever and yet wouldn't have scratched the surface of the legend, Jeff Lowe. His book, Ice World is my Bible. He was a purist and the summit did not hold much attraction to him. What really mattered to him was how he got to the top. From his climbs I learned that the journey was equally important and enjoyable, if not more, as the destination. He has been named as the best alpinist of his era, or in the world ever, by many eminent climbers and mountain lovers. In 1999, at the age of 48 Jeff's body begin to feel chronic pain, loss of coordination and fatigue that was finally confirmed as a severe form of Multiple sclerosis in 2001. MS does not have any cure. He would never climb again. The God of ice climbing would never don his crampons or ice axe.

I walked slowly towards the indoor cafeteria while Jeff shuffled alongside leaning heavily onto his cane. We found an empty corner table and I ordered a plate of snacks and a round of drinks. I was still in a tizzy. Composing myself, I finally looked full and fair at Jeff. His bright eyes smiled back. His agony of living each moment knowing that he will soon lose his ability to walk and perhaps be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his painful and difficult life did not show on his face. I tried to think what I could say; I shouldn't have bothered.

'Satya, your pictures were amazing! I didn't know we still had such elegant unclimbed lines in the Himalaya.' Jeff said. With that we launched into one of the most exhilarating conversations of my entire life. It lasted whole of a half hour and a little more. He told me of the opening of his ice climbing parks in Ogden and how he was encouraging more and more young climbers to seek out the unknown routes and the unclimbed lines rather than heading for the big well known mountains. His eyes sparkled as he shared his dreams and visions. I asked him once, how he handled his failures, to which he gave a hearty laugh and said, 'if I wasn't failing then I just wasn't trying anything hard enough.' I told him my stories and travels and climbs. Never once did I feel that I was in the company of my hero. 'I would love to come with you to one of the mountains you showed us today.' He remarked in between. If my heart could swell with pride anymore then it would have at that moment. I would have wanted our conversation to go on forever but Jeff, being Jeff, had other engagements. There were three TV crews waiting for him and more than thousand others who wanted to be photographed with him. I took the customary picture, autograph and bid him goodbye. As he stood up on his cane, I asked my final question, 'What's the hardest thing you ever did?' He looked at me for a while before answering, 'Learning to walk…' and after a brief pause added, '…again.'

I watched Jeff Lowe limp away and soon was engulfed by the crowd waiting outside. I never met him again. His conditions deteriorated over the years. He had lived a full life doing exactly what he loved and he did not need our pity or sympathy but only our reassurance that we would continue his legacy from where he left it and the coming generations would follow the path that he pioneered.

In 2008, I read his interview in the Outside magazine where he said, 'I now realize that I don't need anything that I haven't already got. That's a great aspect about being physically stopped dead in your tracks. But I would still trade everything I've learned in these past years just for the chance to climb again — even a little.'

Undoubtedly that thought must be shared by each one of us, who love ice climbing and worship Jeff; for I would gladly trade anything under the sky for a chance to climb alongside Jeff and witness the legend zip up an impossible ice.


  1. Thanks Satya for introducing me to Jeff Lowe. He will be an inspiration now not just for ice climbers. I went off on a trail that told me more about the man who has learnt how to walk again. Awesome is the word... and I know now precisely why you adore the man so much.

  2. Thanks for writing this. Jeff Lowe is the best and I am glad that others know it.

  3. Am so glad you finally did meet up with your hero, S and he does sound like an amazing person and would like to hear more about him in person :-) xxoooxxxx