An Interview With Climber Jeff Lowe

Jeff Lowe on Latok I

Jeff Lowe is most definitely among the world’s climbing greats. Later this week, the 15th Annual Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival will celebrate 40 years of ice climbing in the United States. Dozens of multi-media retrospectives, presented by some of the world’s best climbers, will cover the key historical developments of the sport, including some of the infamous climbs that made Jeff a true ice and mixed climbing pioneer.

On Sunday morning, The American Alpine Club, together with the Bozeman Ice Festival, will hold a fundraiser for Metanoia, a documentary film now in production that chronicles the life and climbs of Jeff Lowe. If you plan to be in town, come share breakfast with Jeff and many of his climbing partners over the years, as you view rarely seen images of his 1991 solo first ascent on the North Face of the Eiger, and examine the contents of the recently recovered pack he ditched on the face those 20 years ago.

As one of my climbing heroes, it was an honor to have the opportunity to interview Jeff in advance of the upcoming festival.

Q. Your father Ralph taught you to climb at an early age. When did you realize you were born to climb and that is how you would make your living?

A. Jeff: By the time I was twelve, ski racing and climbing were my twin passions; ski racing in winter and climbing in summer. I was a better skier than climber, but the coaches for the US Ski Team wanted me to cut my hair and leave my girlfriend behind when traveling the ski race circuit when I was 19. I realized I preferred the less structured world of climbing, so I quit skiing and pursued climbing full time.

Q. You mentioned bouldering with Yvon Chouinard was a pivotal moment in your climbing career. Do you think mentors are important for climbers?

A. Jeff: Absolutely. Yvon was one of a lifelong stream of many mentors. Each coming at the appropriate time to provide specific guidance, as I was ready for it. My first mentor was my Dad who showed me an attitude of respect toward the mountains and self-responsibility for my own actions that served me well throughout my life.Then my brothers, Mike and Greg, and cousin George, who each showed me important aspects of how to do things right in the alpine environment.

For example, Mike showed me patience and endurance for long days. Greg showed me how to breath, focus and apply force precisely and efficiently, directed toward upward movement on the rock. George was the finest example of staying calm and quiet during intense moments. We all need mentors and to recognize and embrace the mentors that come to us at each stage of life.

Jeff Lowe on Octopussy

Jeff on Octopussy

Q. Your ascents of Bridal Veil Falls and Octopussy were a major influence in advancing the sport of ice and mixed climbing. Where do you think the future of the sport is headed now or where would you like to see it go?

A. Jeff: I am blown away by what people are doing now. I wouldn’t presume to know or forecast the future of climbing. I am fully prepared however, to marvel at the unforeseeable twists and turns directed by individual bursts of brilliance of performance and vision. I am sure we will all be astounded, as I have been repeatedly over the past 5 decades by what will surely come.

Q. You called Latok I one of your best climbs though you didn’t summit. Do you think today’s climbers are too focused on reaching the summit versus the style of the climb?

A. Jeff: Today’s best climbers are all about style. They always have been. Reaching the summit of Everest in a guided group or fixing ropes up a Himalayan or Patagonian wall are styles that were long ago rejected by cutting edge climbers.

Doing the most you can with the least amount of gear possible, in the most efficient manner, applicable to any particular climbing objective, yields the greatest rewards in terms of experience. The best climbers are always trying to find out who they are through this pure relationship between the individual and the mountain. With more gear and more people, this experience is diluted and less informative.

Jeff Lowe in Zion

Jeff climbing in Zion

Q. You have put up thousands of first ascents around the world. Do you have any favorites? Do you prefer one type of climbing over another?  

A. Jeff: First off, while I have done thousands of climbs, just over 1000 were first ascents. In terms of pitches, I have done many thousands. The 60 pitches on a Himalayan route is still a first ascent, just as a single pitch sport-climbing route is. But the former is 60 times as much climbing.

I love all types of climbing. During different periods I would favor one type over another. A couple of my favorite free climbs were Wind, Sand and Stars with Steve Petro and Lisa Gnade in Zion, the Nameless Tower of Trango with Catherine Destivelle in Pakistan.

An early favorite alpine ice climb was the Grand Central Couloir with Mike Weis on Mt Kitchener in the Canadian Rockies. Again with Weis, an early favorite waterfall ice climb was Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colorado. Favorite modern mixed routes would include Blind Faith, a 12-pitch climb in France with Thierry Renault and Deep Throat in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado with Will Gadd.

My favorite solo climbs were the first free ascent of Putscanturpa Norte in Peru, an 1800’ rock pillar and of course, Metanoia on the North Face of the Eiger. I still feel the finest climb/mountain experience I’ve ever had was on the North Ridge of Latok 1 in 1978 with my cousin George, Mike Kennedy and Jim Donini.

I had a lot of great experiences, so it is difficult to narrow them down to favorites.

[Editor’s Note: Check out the list of Jeff’s notable climbs here on Google Maps.]

Q. You have designed many new pieces of gear over the years- is there one or two you are most proud of?

A Jeff: I had input into the development of the LURP tent (Limited Use of Reasonable Placement – the first rigid floor single point hanging tent – a portaledge) which revolutionized big wall climbing. The SNARG Ice Piton, which I co-designed with my brother Greg, was state of the art ice protection for a good 10-15 years.

I also assisted in the development of Greg and Mike’s caming concept for climbing protection. We were the first to introduce constant angle spring-loaded caming devices and tri cams. The Tuber Belay-Rappel device that I designed in the early 80’s was the first of these deep tube style devices, which have dominated the market for the last 25 years or more.

I introduced the first soft-shell outerwear, the Diamond Pullover, through my company Latok in the mid 80’s, anticipating technical outerwear trends by a good ten years. These designs that were accepted and used widely were the most satisfying to me.

Q. What have you learned from climbing that you try and apply to daily life?

A. Jeff: Do the best you can, with what you’ve got from where you are right now.

Q. You have written numerous books on ice climbing technique. What advice would you give a beginner ice climber today?

A. Jeff: Find an experienced mentor – an amateur or professional guide, take responsibility for your own actions and have fun while learning all you can.

Q. Over the years, you have done so much to help promote the sport of climbing through World Championships, the Ouray Ice Fest, your non-profit organizations- what should we be doing as a community to help further promote and support the sport in the US?

A. Jeff: We need to preserve our climbing history and heritage and let it inform the future of climbing. If each individual will take responsibility for their own decisions and actions, and follow their own climbing dreams and share the joy… then climbing will continue to evolve in unexpected positive ways and our community will thrive. If you put in place a respect and understanding of the past and add that to personal responsibility and joy, you have a recipe for a vibrant future.

Jeff Lowe on the Eiger

Jeff on the North Face of the Eiger

Q. Your Metanoia documentary will be released soon. How was the experience of filming and reliving the story behind your solo first ascent on the iconic Eiger North Face route?

A. Jeff: The film is still in production and the whole process is deepening the personal meaning of the climb for me. My attempts to share the transformation I experienced have brought me to more fully appreciate the gifts of insight I received.

[Editor’s Note: You can help support the community funded Metanoia project by either donating or pre-purchasing a copy of the DVD.]

A huge thanks to Connie Self and Jeff Lowe for talking the time to answer our questions!

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