October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

For world-class mountain climber Alex Lowe, the hardest part of his latest expedition was over. He had already torn himself away from his wife, Jennifer, and their three young sons—now all he had to do was scale Tibet’s 26,291-ft. Shisapangma and then, with a team of fellow climbers, ski back down. When he reached 20,000 feet on the icy Himalayan peak, Lowe, 40, was flush with the heady sense of freedom that had so often lured him away from his Montana home. “Pascal said, ‘Our natures lie in motion, without which we die,’ ” Lowe wrote in a Sept. 30 Internet dispatch from Shisapangma. “We’re feeling richly alive.”

Five days later, as the party scouted snow conditions, a freak avalanche roared down the southwest face of the mountain, burying Lowe and fellow climber Dave Bridges, 29. In less than a minute, the man many colleagues considered the finest climber on earth was gone, victimized not by some technical slipup or risky maneuver but by a cruel vagary of the sport he loved so much. “Alex knew he was more mortal than most people thought he was,” says mountaineer Jack Tackle, Lowe’s friend since 1979. “What happened was total, random, horrible bad luck.”

Ironically, Lowe’s final expedition was not among his most challenging. Becoming the first to ski down Shisapangma was more a novelty than a serious endeavor for Lowe, a fitness fanatic whose astonishing endurance earned him the nickname Lungs with Legs. Lowe had twice reached the summit of Everest, racked up first ascents of peaks on several continents and, this summer, conquered the northwest face of Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower, a dauntingly sheer 20,618-ft. wall of rock that no one else had even dared climb. “He represented something of the American spirit that we are all hungry for,” says his friend, famed National Geographic photographer Gordon Wiltsie. “He inspired so many people.”

Yet Lowe was trying to temper his wanderlust, cutting down on far-flung expeditions to spend more time with Jennifer, 44, and their sons Max, 11, Sam, 7, and Isaac, 3. “To be honest, Jennifer has been a single mother most of her life,” says Wiltsie, who lives near the Lowes’ two-story Victorian home in Bozeman, Mont. “Alex was physically not there.” Lowe talked of surrendering his passion, telling MountainZone.com, “I would let climbing slide if I had to, to maintain my relationship with my family.” But giving up on his sport was not a sacrifice that his wife—an. artist and former climber he married in 1982—ever insisted he make. “I never felt like I could say, ‘You can’t do what you were meant to do,’ ” she admitted to Climbing magazine.

Scaling slabs of ice and stone was something Lowe learned to do early when his father, James, an entomology professor, and mother, Dorothea, a schoolteacher, took Alex and his two brothers hiking near their Montana home. A mathematics whiz, Lowe took a hiatus from Montana State University to climb (he later earned a degree in engineering mechanics), then worked as a mountain guide to finance his trips. ” ‘Driven’ and ‘obsessed’ aren’t even adequate words for him,” Jack Tackle says of his friend, who trained with predawn ski trips followed by hours in the gym. “I always felt I was standing still next to someone who was running a thousand miles an hour.”

Lowe’s wildly imaginative ascents—it took him just 10 hours to scramble up Yosemite’s El Capitan, a trip that took others days—turned him into the brightest star in an increasingly popular sport and earned him a sponsorship deal with the North Face equipment and outerwear company. This fall, Lowe agreed to film his Shisapangma ski trip for an upcoming NBC sports series. “Everything was going great,” says Topher Gaylord, director of athlete programs for the North Face. “Snow conditions were good. I don’t think they thought for a second they were in a risky situation.”

On Oct. 5, Lowe and two climbers, including David Bridges, an experienced mountaineer hired as the expedition’s videographer, set out to scope out paths for their ski descent. Lowe, who had also been an avalanche forecaster, was the first to notice a snowy plume forming a mile above them on the mountain. Within seconds, the 500-ft. wide avalanche—a fluke most likely triggered by a gust of wind—swept over the men at roughly 100 mph. One climber, Conrad Anker, survived by running across the slope, flinging himself to the ground and securing himself with an ice ax until the avalanche passed. Lowe and Bridges both tried to escape the cascade but were buried beneath 20 feet of snow. “Our friends are locked in the ice within eyesight of us,” team leader Andrew McLean wrote in a dispatch following a futile 20-hour search for the bodies, “and there is nothing we can do about it.”

In fact, the close-knit climbing community has done something—it has started a fund for Lowe’s three boys. Despite all his brilliant ascents, it was with his oldest son, Max, that Lowe enjoyed what he considered his most thrilling climb—an ascent this summer of Wyoming’s 13,766-ft. Grand Teton. Lowe had climbed the mountain 100 times before, but this was the first peak he had ever summited with his son. “It was one of his proudest accomplishments,” says Wiltsie. “What Alex wanted was to be in the mountains, enjoying life with his friends and family.”

Alex Tresniowski

Gabrielle Saveri in Bozeman and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles

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