Fear is what keeps an ice climber alive,” says Jeff Lowe. “It prevents you from doing foolish things.” Still, Lowe risks his life virtually every time he sets boot on a mountainside. At 29, he has broken an ankle in a 50-foot fall and has been buried chest-deep in an avalanche. But for him the compensations are paramount. “Free-form ice climbing is mind control,” he says. “It’s like yoga. You are at the very edge of your abilities, dealing with the subtleties of your own breathing, the ice itself—which changes constantly—and just holding on. The only limit is your own creativity.”
Though modern ice climbing began more than 70 years ago with the invention of the spiked crampon, the ranks of the sport’s enthusiasts have always been sparse. Every expedition threatens to render them sparser. While the risks are great, the rewards are intangible: Lowe, known worldwide for his high-altitude exploits, scrapes along on the $15,000 a year he earns as a lecturer, guide and technical consultant, plus occasional appearances on ABC’s The American Sportsman. In his spare time he breaks new ice in the annals of ascent. In 1974 he and a partner were the first to scale Colorado’s frozen Bridalveil Falls. Four years later Lowe was one of four climbers who became the first to reach 22,900 feet on Pakistan’s Latok 1 without oxygen. “Climbing ice is like chess,” he says. “Each climb has its own intricate set of problems to be solved. It is a simpler, more dynamic world than we are used to. Death is close. Social concerns drop away. The truth of an individual’s nature begins to emerge.”
Ironically, Lowe’s first major climb ended dismally. At 7 he and his father, an Ogden, Utah lawyer, set out to climb Wyoming’s 13,766-foot Grand Teton. “On the way down,” he recalls, “I fell and bumped my head on a rock, and I cried. I had nightmares about climbing until I was 13. I didn’t climb again until high school.” For a while he dreamed of becoming an Olympic skier. “But I never seemed to do as well in races as I did in practice,” he says. “I always choked. Maybe it was because I thought I had to win.” After dropping out of California’s Tahoe Paradise College, Lowe moved on to Yosemite, where he drifted into mountaineering and drugs, and scaled the forbidding North American Wall of El Capitan.
By 1974 he was invited to join a team of international climbers in the Soviet Union, and was caught in an avalanche on Lenin Peak. Partially buried, he was within inches of losing his life and he became thoroughly disenchanted with the idea of climbing in a group. (In another accident on the same expedition, eight Russian women were killed.) “The point is,” he says, “when you are with a lot of other people, you are less responsible for yourself. When you’re alone or with one or two partners, you are more aware of everything.” Switching primarily to ice climbing, he found “it still had the mystique that big-wall climbing had lost. There were so many unknowns to keep you interested.”
Indeed. In 1977 he and two friends were climbing Alaska’s icebound Mount Hunter when Lowe slipped off a cornice. “I fell 50 feet and caught the crampons on my left foot in the ice,” he remembers. “That was it for my ankle. But that didn’t worry me. I just wondered if the others would be able to hold me.” They did, but it took Lowe two hours to clamber back up the ridge to rejoin them. Then he had to climb down 4,000 feet on his broken ankle. He takes such mishaps in stride. “Climbers have to learn to use fear to their advantage,” he says matter-of-factly. “If you succeed in being fearless you’re in trouble. Sometimes I start breathing shallow, lose control of my legs and get sweaty hands. That’s when you yell, ‘Relax, relax!’ ”
Living now in Eldorado Springs, Colo., Lowe seems driven in pursuit of fresh challenges. He plans to spend the next two years in the Himalayas, and hopes to receive China’s permission to climb the precipitous north ridge of K2, which rises nearly vertically from 13,000 to 28,000 feet. “This one is more beautiful than Everest,” rhapsodizes Lowe, who intends to make the climb without oxygen. “Technically, there is no question about successfully climbing Everest. But the north ridge of K2 has never been climbed. It could be the hardest event on the planet.”