Episode 3: The price of adventure

The death of Alex Lowe was one of mountaineering’s great tragedies. After recovering his body 16 years later, his family reflects on whether the call to adventure is worth the risk.

While working on an ESPN documentary about sailing around the Antarctic Peninsula in 1996, Alex Lowe took a break to summit Mount Scott.
Photograph by Skip Novak

Renowned mountaineer Alex Lowe had reached the summit of his career by 1999, scaling some of the planet’s most challenging peaks. Just a few months after he was featured in National Geographic as “one of the world’s finest all-around climbers,”  he was killed in an avalanche in Tibet. His son Max Lowe and his best friend, Conrad Anker, share their reflections on what it means to be a mountaineer and the true price of adventure.

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(Thunder clap)

PETER GWIN (HOST): Put yourself for a moment in the snowboots of a young Max Lowe. Several years ago he was on an expedition with three of the world’s most famous mountaineers—author Jon Krakauer; professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones; and the leader of the North Face athlete team, Conrad Anker.

They were three weeks into what many would consider the trip of a lifetime—an ascent of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

But things had gone wrong, and Max and the others found themselves caught in the middle of a thunder-snowstorm.

MAX LOWE (FILMMAKER): That was one of those moments in life where I was like, I might die here, yeah, I might get struck by lightning, or if this storm intensifies, you know, we could all get stuck here in the snow and freeze.

GWIN: Max hadn’t been in an experience like this before, but he was with climbers who had long resumes of expeditions to some of the planet’s most forbidding peaks.

Even with all their combined skill and experience, it had become an extremely dicey situation.

LOWE: This cloud had moved up around us and it was just dumping snow, and you couldn’t see the lightning but you could feel it. You could hear the thunder and you could feel the electricity just pulsing through all of the metal equipment on your harness. All of the carabiners that we had on the edges of your skis, your ski poles. I mean, all the stuff that you have on your person is metal and reacting to the electricity.

GWIN: Denali has been known to drop two feet of snow in a day. If they were trapped by the snow, there was no guarantee that they’d be rescued.

So they were left with two choices: Stay in place and risk getting stuck by the blizzard or continue pushing farther over the mountain to get out of the snow but also moving closer to the risk of lightning strikes.

It’s the kind of scenario that responsible mountaineers do everything to avoid but occasionally events and circumstances force upon them.

LOWE: When you’re in situations like that, your brain just goes into full survival mode, the adrenaline is just pumping, and you’re just like razor-focused on what is your next step going to be to survive?

GWIN: The vast majority of climbers I know are generally cautious people. That may sound odd considering that mountaineering is inherently dangerous. But there are lots of safety layers, including helmets, harnesses, scrutiny of routes and weather patterns, and careful preparation for all sorts of variables.

Still, sometimes the forces of nature intervene. One minute you might be experiencing the euphoria of being in an epic landscape on a bluebird day and the next minute a rope fails, a rock falls, or a thunder-snowstorm blows in and then tragedy strikes.

I’m Peter Gwin, and you’re listening to Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This season we’re bringing you two episodes about the human fascination with climbing big mountains. It’s been a subject that National Geographic has covered for more than a century—from Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first summit of Mount Everest to Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan.

Those were landmark successes, but this week we talk about what happens when things go horribly wrong.

More after this.


GWIN: On Denali the team ended up pushing through the snowstorm and made it to safety. But the experience had a lasting effect on Max.

LOWE: I was done. I didn't want to go back up again.

GWIN: Max decided he didn’t want a career as an extreme climber. But his father, Alex Lowe, had made a different decision. Alex was one of the greatest mountain climbers of his generation. Someone who pushed the bounds of the sport to new extremes.

ALEX LOWE (FILM): There’s no doubt that something in my chemistry is attracted to risk. But I don't see myself as a risk-taker. I see myself as a risk-controller.

GWIN: Now Max has made a documentary called Torn about his father and the impact he had on the climbing world.

The mountaineer who knew Alex Lowe best was his close friend and climbing partner Conrad Anker.

CONRAD ANKER (MOUNTAINEER): Hello, my name is Conrad Anker, and I used to climb mountains all the time. Now I talk about climbing mountains all the time.

GWIN: If you’re into mountain climbing documentaries, you might remember Conrad from the 2015 film Meru, where he led a team up a 1,500-foot wall

of sheer rock and ice called the Shark’s Fin to reach the summit

of India’s Meru Peak. It remains one of the most stunning mountaineering achievements of the century. Back in the 1990s, Conrad and Alex were in their mountaineering prime. They were a totally unstoppable climbing duo.

ANKER: The decade of your 30s, if you’re a climber alpinist, that’s probably your strongest decade because you’re still strong, you have endurance and then you have knowledge and experience that comes with it. So the 90s was our decade, for both of us.

GWIN: What was Alex, sort of his impact on the climbing world at that time?

ANKER: Alex was the strongest ice climber of his generation. When you look at climbing and what it entails, it’s not something you learn in a vacuum. There’s very specific techniques and equipment that go into it, so someone literally has to show you the ropes.

GWIN: Mountaineering is constantly evolving. Climbers are always developing better gear, new techniques, and creative approaches. But every once in a while, a climber comes along who takes on challenges previous generations thought were impossible.

ANKER: And so that ball of knowledge that we have of what climbing is, we get to add to it. And if you’re really lucky and you are that person in your generation, you get to hold that ball of knowledge. And I might have passed or, like, you know, touched it, but I didn't hold it in the same way that Alex Lowe did. They’ve set the standard higher.

GWIN: Conrad and Alex were part of the first generation that could actually make a living as full-time professional climbers. The sport had become popular enough to attract lucrative sponsorships and film deals. Now that he was able to devote himself full time, Alex found ways to climb mountains that had never been climbed before, from Antarctica to the Arctic Circle.

He worked as a guide on Mount Everest and broke speed records, sometimes by hours, earning the nickname the “Lungs with Legs” and “the Mutant.” Conrad and Alex were part of the same climbing team. And they had planned an expedition on a peak called Shishapangma.

ANKER: So October 1999, we set out to Tibet to climb Shishapangma, which is the world's 14th highest peak, and we had an audacious goal of to ski down that.

MAX LOWE: (FILM): Did he confide in you in a lot of things?

GWIN: This is Max in a clip from his film, interviewing Conrad about that trip.

CONRAD (FILM): He and I were tent mates on that trip. He realized that he was one trip too many. And that constant expeditions was taking a toll on his family. He wanted to be there for you. You wanted to go to Disneyland, and it was like, “Oh, this is something that the kids wanted to do. I need to listen to the kids.” And he wanted to go do that.

GWIN: Their team, which was there to make a film for NBC Sports, had made it to a base camp near the foot of the peak. They were scheduled to take a rest day, but Conrad, Alex, and cameraman David Bridges decided to take a short hike to scout the path ahead.

ANKER: We walked underneath what was a runout zone. When you have ice at that elevation, it’s a result of avalanches coming down the mountains, and we knew that; that’s a part of understanding the Himalayas and how you climb there. But we thought that, oh, we’ll just get across it quickly, and it’s one of those rolls of the dice. The acceptable risk that climbers engage in and understand is to be part of it.

GWIN: An avalanche can be started by anything. A little bit of extra overnight snow adds weight in just the right place, the morning sun thaws the top layer of powder into a hard slab, a sharp wind adds instability. Minute changes in the environment add up until suddenly and unpredictably, thousands of tons of snow and ice race downhill 200 miles per hour.

ANKER: And as we’re walking across, an avalanche dislodged from high up and gained speed and momentum, eventually coming down and engulfing the three of us. There was—Alex, David, and myself—the three of us in the line, and they ran one direction, I ran another direction. As it was coming, I lay down and dug my ice ax in and covered as much as I could. My head didn’t have a helmet on and still in the process of that I was picked up and carried and battered by the blocks of ice, the snow, and the wind blast.

GWIN: Conrad was lifted up by the falling snow and tumbled, utterly helpless, through the avalanche.

ANKER: I was getting pummeled, there was no horizon.

GWIN: And then it was over. Everything was suddenly calm and quiet. Conrad had a bleeding head injury but was able to dig himself out of a light layer of snow.

ANKER: As the fine dust of the snow and the avalanche settled in calmly, and then it was a blue sky again. And it was… I stood there and I was like, Oh my gosh, I walked away from this. Where are my climbing partners? It was in that transition that the two of them had lost their lives.

GWIN: The climbing team spent hours searching for any sign of Alex and David in the unstable snow, but they couldn’t be found.

LOWE: My mom told me that dad was gone, that he was in an accident and wasn’t coming home. You know, I was 10 years old, and it’s hard to wrap your head around that sort of information.

Alex Lowe had three sons. Max is the oldest and the one who has the strongest memories of his father. He remembers his dad doing hundreds of pull-ups before breakfast and heading into the mountains around their home in Montana at four in the morning on intense training missions to prepare for trips to the most remote corners of the world.

He’d heard stories about Alex’s many exploits, like how once he’d helped rescue a team of Spanish mountaineers on Denali, climbing with one man on his back to a medevac helicopter.

LOWE: To me, he was the ultimate hero. There’s some sort of magic in, in thinking about people going out and casting off into the unknown.

More after this.


GWIN: As a professional mountaineer, Alex’s full-time job was going on adventures. I mean, whose dad does that?

LOWE: You know, I imagined Alex going off to these amazing places like Kathmandu and Antarctica, and going up to visit the Inuit people up in the Arctic, and it just captured your imagination as a kid, you know. And the fact that he would write us letters back describing these experiences in these places. And, yeah, it was a gift.

GWIN: The Lowes’ gear room was like a mini REI—packed with all kinds of mountaineering equipment: coils of climbing rope, racks of ice axes and carabiners. They also had other special gear, including portaledges, which are like little tents that hang against the side of cliffs.

LOWE: I've never slept on the portaledge on a cliff, just in my dad’s garage when he was preparing to go off on expeditions. And then us kids would play in them, and I got to sleep in there one night.

GWIN: Did you imagine as a kid what that would be like? You and your brothers are like all squirreled away in your sleeping bags on the portaledge in the garage.

LOWE: Yeah, you just imagine being on the edge of a cliff in the middle of nowhere and sleeping thousands of feet up in the air. It was just cool to have this doorway that we were provided, to think about this wild life beyond what we knew.

GWIN: One of Max’s strongest memories of his father was from a few days before he left for his final trip.

LOWE: It was either the day before or a few days before that he took me out on a little rock climb and he asked me if I was OK with him leaving. I think that he was finally, like, coming to a point in his life where he was reconciling the fact that he was maybe pushing too hard. And, you know, I don’t think that he expected to make any decision based on my answer. But, you know, I told him that I understood that this was his life and that it was his work and he was who he was to me because of the things that he did and, yeah, then he left. That was the last time I ever saw him.

JENNIFER LOWE-ANKER (FILM): I had just taken you and Sam to school. I’d come home with Isaac, maybe he was in the stroller. And the phone rang.

GWIN: This is Max’s mom, Jennifer, in another clip from the film.

LOWE-ANKER (film): You know, at first, you know, it didn’t come through that well and I thought it was Alex. You know, I'm like, “Alex? Alex?” you know? So then finally, you know, it came through and I could hear Andrew’s voice and it was totally quavering, you know. And he told me there's been a, there's been an avalanche. “I'm really sorry, Alex is buried.”

ANKER (FILM): And I spoke to Jennifer, and it was, and there's—“They're gone.”

LOWE-ANKER (FILM): Isaac was only three. I cried more around him because I thought he was more oblivious. And so when he came to me and he’s like, “Mom, you don't have to cry anymore. You can quit crying, Mom. Mommy, it’s OK.” You know, and he was three. So that was the hardest, that was probably the hardest part of it, you know. And I would try not to cry in front of you kids, and I would go cry in the shower.

LOWE: When Conrad came back from Tibet, you know, I think he was just in a state of shock and grief that sat right alongside that of my mom’s and our family’s. And he saw this loss in our family firsthand, you know, he flew straight back from Tibet to be here for Alex's ceremony of life.

ANKER (FILM): It should have been me. Survivor’s guilt is a bear. The worst part of it is, you have a lot of very unhealthy thoughts.

LOWE: (FILM): Like what?

ANKER (FILM): You wanna take your life. And that’s just, you look at yourself as not, as being of less value than what the other, the other, the person that died. I just felt so sad because what he would do for you as a father was never gonna happen. I mean, what could I do for Alex? What could I do to take care of him and what would it be? Packed up the Toyota Tercel and drove out to Montana for Christmas. And I was with all of you for Christmas. (Whistles)

LOWE-ANKER (FILM): I can remember Conrad arriving on my doorstep. I just looked at him, and he could barely hold it together. From the moment that I saw him, you know, and gave him a hug, he’s like, “I'm going to Disneyland with you guys. It’s what Alex wanted to do, and I wanna be there with you.”

GWIN: What was it like to have Conrad come into your family at this point?

LOWE: We had all been friends with Conrad before Alex had passed away. He had been close to our family already. Having him in our lives just felt… comforting in a way, like Alex was still there in part. He understood what we had lost in a way that no one else could.

ANKER: It was unknown to Jennifer and I and the boys, but love heals, as the saying goes.

ANKER- LOWE: (FILM): And I said to him, “It isn't just me.” These three little boys were gonna fall in love with him too. And he said, “I'm all in.” And he moved up here to Bozeman, one year after Alex’s death.

MARRIAGE OFFICIANT: We’re gathered here for a joyous occasion to witness the celebration and coming together of these two lives of Jennifer Lowe and Conrad Anker.

MAX LOWE: (FILM) What were the detractors saying?

ANKER- LOWE: (FILM): I mean, there was people who were nasty and said mean things. Were they having an affair before Alex died? You know, there was that kind of nastiness. But, whatever. It felt good. Better than good, it felt like a miracle.

GWIN: Conrad and Jenni were married, and life began settling into a new normal. The family grew together and tried to leave painful memories behind—until 16 years later, the bodies of Alex and David emerged from the snow of Shishapangma.

LOWE: So in the spring of 2016, two professional climbers were climbing in the same area that Alex and David and Conrad and their expedition were and saw bright-colored jackets melting out of the snow, and found these remains of two climbers. And so right away, they called Conrad.

ANKER: I saw the call number come up and I realized, Oh, it’s an 88 number, which is a prefix for satellite phones. And I just kind of was like, Oh my gosh.

LOWE: You know, when Alex died, he was just gone. It was like he was lost in space, never to be seen again. And so when their bodies were discovered, I mean, it was like getting the news that, that he had died all over again in a similar way.

GWIN: Conrad, Jenni, and the boys traveled to Shishapangma, the mountain in Tibet where Alex was lost, to finally put him to rest.

LOWE: So I had never been to Shishapangma before. To me, Shishapangma was a monster. So to make that journey and trekking across the Tibetan Plateau to this huge range of mountains, and the wildflowers were just remarkable. You know, it was like nowhere you could ever imagine. It was truly a magical mountain environment.

GWIN: Alex Lowe’s family climbed to base camp on the mountain to pay their final respects and see his body. He was still curled in the protective crouch climbers are trained to assume to protect themselves from avalanches.

LOWE: It was this weird time capsule frozen in the ice and the glacier below Shishapangma that we all opened up and then had to deal with the emotions that were within.

ANKER: Yeah, there was closure to it. It was also like, Oh, look at that—there's the backpack that we were carrying that day. My water bottle was in Alex’s backpack and it’s still... I mean everything was there. I mean, it brought me right back to where we were. So, but it was also the—going through everything that had happened. And now that we’ve put this, we’ve put that question to rest.

GWIN: Alex was cremated high in the Himalayas—the mountains he loved and to which he gave so much of his life. Being a mountain climber means putting yourself in danger. All climbers know that, at least in an abstract, one-in-a-thousand statistical way. But Conrad knows the risks of mountain climbing deeply, painfully, and personally. And yet, for him, it’s still worth it.

GWIN: You know, you come from such a tragic event like what happened. And yet you’re still a climber. I mean, I can only imagine there were a lot of conversations about this.

ANKER: Well, yeah, there were conversations and a lot of gratitude and thankfulness to Jenni. It wasn't any mystery and what I did in life, and this is how I make a living. And some people might be like, “Well, it was completely irresponsible to keep climbing. You’re putting t more in harm’s way.” But within the family, we all, we understood what I do, and, and there was support for it. And for that, I’m very thankful to the family. 

GWIN: Do you feel like the climbing drive, the drive to become a climber is something that, you know, certain people are born with? Are climbers made or are they born, or there’s some amalgamation of that?

ANKER Yeah, there’s a combination of it. So, in a sense we all understand climbing. We see children going up a tree and crawling around in their cribs, they just want to go climb, they want to go see things. And within that, there are people that are like, their factory setting when they were born was climbing at volume 12. They're like no Plan B, and that is sort of life’s gift. And my life plug finally found the socket that it was meant to be in, and that is climbing. So I was just like, it's been nonstop since then.

GWIN: What do you feel, you know, when you're up on a big wall, like in Yosemite or in the Himalayas, looking down, you know, from hundreds of feet in the air. What do you feel?

ANKER: Oh, I always liken it to this moment of tranquility and sort of a rare moment that you savor in that sense of exposure, and to look out of over that place and then finding yourself in an improbable location is something that I enjoy. Whether it’s traveling and visiting a cathedral or a mosque or a temple or some place of worship that is unknown to me, I savor that in the same way that I enjoy being on the side of a cliff.

GWIN: There’s this great scene in Max’s film…

ALEX LOWE (FILM): Wooo! Yahooo!

GWIN: …where Alex Lowe is, you know, he’s attached to a rope and he’s just swinging out over this massive void. He’s up on a climb and he’s just so exuberant. Like his demeanor is so opposite of what I think most people would feel in that situation.

ANKER Well, yeah, that’s… When you’re big wall climbing, every now and then you have an opportunity where you have a free hanging rope, and then you can untether from the belay and then go for this big jumbo swing. They’re pretty special moments.

ALEX LOWE (FILM): Ah, I love it. Woo! Aww-hoo!

GWIN: The stories of inspiring climbing achievements are everywhere—watching Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan can remind us what humans are capable of. Lord knows we need that these days. But Max’s film reminds us of the other side of the equation. But that’s not to say that he’s against climbing or taking risks. We just need to be honest about it.

LOWE: I think we need to tell it all, and I don’t think we can shy away from one or the other. I think for a long time people didn’t want to talk about the sad stuff. But it’s that sort of mentality that leads us into making the same mistakes over and over again. That’s a balance there that everyone needs to strike for themselves. When it comes down to it, you know, it’s just something that you feel, that’s something that can’t really be translated from one person to the next. But the best thing we can do is just to understand both sides of the equation and what it looks like when you make one choice or the other.

GWIN: Who becomes a climber? What pushes them to climb? No one can say.

If anyone seemed destined to become a climber, it would be Max, born with the genes of Alex Lowe and raised in the nucleus of the professional climbing world. 

But he took a different path and became a different kind of explorer.

He became a filmmaker documenting the bounds humans push to see what’s on the other side, always acutely aware of the cost to get there.


If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

Max’s documentary, Torn, is available now in theaters and on Disney+. We’ve put a link in the show notes where you can learn more.

We’ve also included links to other National Geographic stories about mountaineering, like a brief explainer on the history of climbing and an interview with Nepali climber Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, who recently helped lead a scientific expedition to the top of Mount Everest.

This and more can be found in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Marcy Thompson, and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our senior producer is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorers Max Lowe and Conrad Anker.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

More information about Max Lowe’s documentary, Torn, can be found here.

The sport of rock climbing has a long and eventful history, this article explains some of climbing’s greatest moments.

Check out our interview with Dawa Yangsum Sherpa, a Nepali climber who shares her thoughts on overcrowding on Mt. Everest.

Also explore:

The Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation was founded in memory of Alex Lowe and helps people living in remote parts of the world.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.