The opportunity to once again celebrate the lives of two of the greatest mountaineers who ever lived has presented itself under the most incredible circumstances.
The remains of American mountaineers Alex Lowe and David Bridges, who were swept away in an avalanche on Shisha Pangma (8,027 meters/26,335 feet) in Tibet on October 5, 1999, were discovered on April 27. Ueli Steck of Switzerland and David Goettler of Germany, two top-notch mountaineers, made the discovery while acclimatizing for their own ascent of the South Face.
Just before noon on April 29, Lowe’s climbing partner Conrad Anker and widow, Jennifer, received a call from Goettler and Steck, who described the bodies of two climbers completely encased in blue glacial ice. They described the attire and gear: blue and red North Face backpacks, yellow Koflach plastic mountaineering boots. Without a doubt, Anker knew that they had discovered the remains of his friends. (Read an interview with Anker on learning that Lowe and Bridges’ bodies had been found.)
Lowe, 40, was a climbing hero and legend, considered by many to be the best mountaineer of his time and lauded for his mythic feats of endurance, heroic mountain rescues, and infectious zeal for being in the mountains every day. Bridges, 29, was a photographer and paragliding champion whose promising career as a mountaineer was just beginning. The two were part of an expedition to Shisha Pangma to try to ski the 8,000-meter giant. The other teammates included such mountaineering stars as Andrew McLean, Hans Saari, Kris Erickson, and Anker.
Anker was Lowe’s best friend and longtime climbing partner. Their National Geographic-funded climbing expedition to the desolate Queen Maud Land of Antarctica graced the cover of the February 1998 edition, inspiring an entire generation of explorers.
“Everyone who had an opportunity to know and work with Alex at National Geographic deeply valued their relationship with him,” says Rebecca Martin, Expeditions Council Director at National Geographic. “Aside from being one of the most renowned alpinists of his generation, he was a wonderfully engaging human being. He [was] quite keen to meet our staff and spend time with them. After finishing up the Queen Maud Land Expedition in Antarctica for National Geographic magazine and National Geographic Television’s Explorer program, he and photographer Gordon Wiltsie threw a party for the magazine staff in the layout room, where they hung a fully-equipped portaledge from the wall, spread out their gear in expedition style, and provided everyone with samples of their homemade expedition elk jerky, packets of power goo, and tiny bottles of Antarctic glacial water—which I still keep in my office as a remembrance of Alex.”
Lowe was considered one of the first true renaissance climbers: a guy who was great at every style of climbing, yet never elevated himself above others. A guy who was awake every day at 4 a.m., chugging his way through a whole pot of coffee before heading out in the alpenglow to log thousands of feet of vertical, only to be back for breakfast by the time his three sons woke up. Lowe’s legacy cannot really be defined by numbers of first ascents. It was more his style and approach; his infectious, boyish love for the mountains, that made Lowe so widely beloved.
In the wake of the tragedy, Anker stepped in to become a father to Lowe’s three sons: Max, Sam, and Isaac, and support Lowe’s widow, Jennifer. Anker and Jennifer fell in love, and in 2001 were married.
“After 16.5 years, this brings closure for me and Jenni and our family,” said Anker in a press release from the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.
In her memoir, Forget Me Not, Jennifer Lowe-Anker wrote, “Alex will one day melt out of the glacier, and I do not look forward to it.”
Today she said, “Alex’s parents are thankful to know that their son’s body has been found and that Conrad, the boys, and I will make our pilgrimage to Shisha Pangma. It’s time to put Alex to rest.”