I don’t remember him leaving that early September morning. He probably woke up at some ungodly hour like he always did, made coffee for himself and my mom, and sat with her at the kitchen table before saying goodbye. Maybe he stepped into each of my brothers’ and my rooms for a kiss and a last look, backlit from the light of the hallway, and then he was off into the growing light of dawn, never to step back into our lives again, until now.
Ten days ago, my phone rang with a strange caller ID, and I answered to hear my mother’s voice on the line. It was early, maybe 6 a.m., and her call woke me, but Jennifer Lowe-Anker was still in Nepal, 11 hours ahead and on the other side of the world. It took me a moment to absorb what she told me in a choked voice, that the bodies of my father, the renowned climber Alex Lowe, and fellow climber David Bridges had been found 16 and a half years after they disappeared in the ghostly plume of a massive avalanche on Shisha Pangma, an 8,000-meter peak in Tibet.
Climbers Ueli Steck and David Goettler had been traversing the base of Shisha Pangma en route to climb the south face of the peak when they stumbled across some scraps of clothing emerging from the glacier’s foot. They found two climbers, a red North Face pack, and yellow Koflak boots—Alex’s uniform on the Shisha Pangma expedition of 1999. When my mother and adopted father, Conrad Anker, heard the facts, they knew beyond a doubt that this was Alex and David. Conrad had survived the avalanche that took their lives.
Conrad and my mom would get home to Bozeman, Montana, the following evening, and our whole family—my parents, brothers, and me—would be together again for the first time in three months to share the shocking news. We feigned the idea that the knowledge would remain ours alone for a bit of time, but within 12 hours the news had made its way to the ears of the press, and our family was receiving media inquiries for comment. Before I really had time to process what it meant to me, a storm of voices reported that my dad’s body had been discovered. It’s taken me a week to find the courage and voice to put my fingers to the keyboard, but I’m finally trying to grasp what this might mean to me, my father returning from the ether to confront me, my life, and all of those who he touched while living.
After the loss of my father in the fall of 1999, six days before my 11th birthday, I felt numb and alone, torn from a reality that I had understood all my life up to that point. Like all immense trauma in life, with time the wounds healed, anger and hurt turned to acceptance and remembrance, and I moved forward into my new life without Alex. For those of you who don’t know the story, Conrad became part of our family two years after Alex’s death, marrying my mom and adopting my brothers, Sam and Isaac, and me, and stepping into the empty space in our lives that Alex had left. I’m not unique in the sense that I lost a pillar in my life, nor in that I eventually overcame that loss and moved on to see it as an inescapable part of who I am. But looking back on my week since news of the discovery started pouring across the world, I feel somewhat isolated in this strange and confusing place.
As I struggled to understand conflicting emotions, I thought of my father and my personal memories of how he had brought me up to see the world as he had, with hungry eyes and a lust for each new day. I was ten when he died, but I recall him speaking to me as though I were an adult, telling me tales of the wondrous places that he traveled to and always excited for adventures that he would share with me. I knew we would explore the wider world together one day. After all, we had been exploring the outdoors as a family since I was a baby, and that August, he and I had shared my first big climb to the summit of Grand Teton.
In the week before he left for Shisha Pangma, Alex and I spent a day together, rock climbing in the Gallatin Canyon, stopping for burgers and milkshakes afterward. We spoke of how it made me sad when he left on expeditions and why it was that he went away to those mountains in a far off land. It was hard for me to understand at ten, but I remember telling him that I understood that it was his job but also that it was important for him to go. Now, looking back on those memories and meshing them with the life I’ve made as an adult and an adventure photographer, I understand that need to go. I’ve made my own forays into Asia, South America, and all corners of the globe, discovering and celebrating the diverse joys of our planet, its people, and its unique wild places.
When he was swept away by that rushing wave of snow and ice, it seemed as though Alex may well have been lost in space, eternalized only in the memories and stories of him that I’m able to still pull from my youth and from friends and family. On April 27, close to 16 years, 6 months, and 22 days after his death, the reality that this is no longer the case is what has held my thoughts for the last week. He is found. What will take place as we travel to see where he lived his last weeks and day, and discovering what that means to me is something I will find out in the weeks to come.
Max Lowe, along with his brothers Sam and Isaac Lowe-Anker, his mother Jennifer Lowe-Anker, and adopted father Conrad Anker plan to travel to the Tibetan Himalaya in the coming weeks to recover Alex’s body from the ice, where it has been preserved for the last 16 and a half years. They’ll perform a cremation ceremony there, in the last place where Alex loved being.