If you follow climbing, you’re aware of the tragedy of Alex Lowe. The 40-year-old Montana climber was a star of his generation, alternately referred to as a mutant and “the secret weapon” by his climbing partners and those up on his résumé. And then, just like that, in October 1999, he died in an avalanche on the south face of 26,335-foot Shishapangma, along with cameraman David Bridges. Lowe’s death shook the climbing world and made national news. He left behind a wife, Jennifer, and three young boys—Max, 10, Sam, 7, and Isaac, 3—in Bozeman.
The Climber Comes Down to Earth
This Outside profile of Conrad Anker was published in 2001, a year and a half after Alex Lowe’s death. It’s an intimate look at the serendipitous, tumultuous, and nearly unbearable success of the legendary alpinist.
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Alpinism is brutally efficient at converting sturdy, tight-knit families into grieving widows and traumatized children, but what happened next raised the story to the level of myth. Within a year, Conrad Anker—Lowe’s feral and boisterous climbing partner, who narrowly survived the deadly avalanche—moved in with Jennifer. They married, and Anker helped raise the three boys as if they were his own. It appeared to be the stuff of tabloids: Did Alex and Conrad have some kind of death pact? Were Conrad and Jennifer lovers before the accident? Could Conrad even be domesticated? Somehow, though, it all worked.
Jennifer Lowe-Anker (Photo: Courtesy National Geographic/Max Lowe)
That story has been told countless times, in magazines, movies, and books—including Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s 2009 memoir Forget Me Not—and now comes the documentary Torn, directed by Alex and Jennifer’s eldest son, Max. It hit select theaters earlier this month and begins streaming on Disney+ on February 4. In the film, Max, now 33, trains his camera on the Lowe-Ankers, and we watch as the key transformational event in the family’s history gets processed in a way that suggests it had been left largely unresolved for the past two decades. “I definitely feel conflicted bringing everything back up to the surface for all of you guys,” Max tells his brother Sam early in the film. There’s enough baggage here to bow a yak, and watching them unpack it makes for raw viewing.
The film is beautifully put together, leaning on a vast trove of discovered footage, home movies, and expedition video shot in the heyday of professional adventuring, when really fit (mostly) guys were able to make a living solely by getting atop the world’s hardest climbs. In the vintage footage, athletes wear fleece vests and Capilene headbands. Anker isn’t yet the wizened dean of the North Face but instead plays second fiddle to Lowe.
In the early years after the tragedy, Anker acknowledges, he was racked with survivor’s guilt and needed an outlet for his pain. “It was love,” he says. Alex would haunt both Conrad and Jennifer. “I had dreams that Alex came back and was like, ‘What the hell, Conrad’s just here?’ ” she says. But if Anker had any doubts about his decision to become a family man, he doesn’t show it.
Anker, now 59, never did scale back his climbing ambitions: he has since become a living legend in the mountains, in no small part simply by surviving when so many great alpinists failed to return. The film doesn’t mention his many close calls over the years, and it downplays how he has continued to push the envelope, most notably by leading not one but two grueling expeditions up the Shark’s Fin of Meru, in northern India, in 2008 and 2011. In 2016, Anker suffered a heart attack at 20,000 feet on Nepal’s Lunag Ri. (David Lama, the brilliant young Austrian alpinist who was Anker’s partner, mentee, and rescuer on that ascent, died in the mountains three years later, along with two other talented North Face climbers: Jess Roskelley and Hansjörg Auer.)
More complicated is Anker’s relationship with Max, who at the time of Alex’s death was the only son old enough to have formed a lasting bond with him. In the months before his death, Alex took Max up the Grand Teton for the first time and asked him whether he thought it was the right call to attempt the ski descent of Shishapangma, the expedition that ultimately took his life. “I told him that I understood that he had to,” Max recalls.
One of the film’s revelations is that Max wasn’t always so keen to think of Anker as his dad; he was the only member of the family who didn’t change his last name to Lowe-Anker. To the outside world, Anker’s devotion to the family appeared to be an act of love rooted in a mix of benevolence, grief, and guilt. But to a young Max missing his father, Anker rotating into the family home wasn’t necessarily cause for celebration. Part of Max’s journey in the film is coming to terms with the gift that Anker would become in his life.
At one point, Max says to his mom, “In the wake of something so crushing, I can’t imagine coming out of it so quickly in the way that you did.” In truth, young children have little sense of how daunting it can be to raise three boys as a single mother. Some of the film’s most tender moments come when Jennifer lets Max in on the stuff mothers tend to keep from their children. “I’m not going to let the painful end … be the end of me opening my heart,” she tells him.
It’s in that same spirit that the film answers a puzzling question I’ve always had about the Lowe-Anker saga: Why would Jennifer throw in her lot for a second time with the alpha-male type that had let her down so decisively before? The answer arrives when the family is forced to directly confront Alex’s ghost. In 2016, the bodies of Lowe and Bridges finally emerged from the glacier they’d been trapped in. As they lay Lowe to rest, it becomes clear that Jennifer is the force keeping the family together, with a rare amalgam of purpose and intuition. When the men don’t know what to do, they look to her to guide them. And in that way, Jennifer has brought not just three boys to adulthood but four.
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