The 1970s and 1980s saw a dizzying array of firsts from Lowe Alpine – from beginnings in a Utah basement to the very top of the world.
"Our aspirations were to create the most functional, highquality gear systems for the climbs of our dreams,” remembers Jeff Lowe, 50 years on from the founding of Lowe Alpine in 1967. The story of the Lowe brothers’ revolutionary equipment had started when 17 year old Greg – working in his parents’ basement in Ogden, Utah – created a backpack that would revolutionise loadcarrying design forever.
Backpacks without frames were small, designed for light loads. The only packs capable of carrying heavy loads were externally-framed and ungainly, particularly on more technical ascents that required climbing. What Lowe produced in that Ogden basement was the Expedition Pack: a large rucksack that used the benefits of an external frame’s load transference from the shoulder to the hips – but relocated the frame inside the rucksack, using flexible materials that contoured around the body. Also adding side compression straps and a sternum strap – both firsts – the result was a slimline pack with an internal frame capable of carrying big loads. The pack rewrote the way rucksacks were, and continue to be, made.
After this, the only way was upward. The list of the Lowe brothers’ visionary creations reads like a what’s what of equipment, from the L.U.R.P. in 1969 – a stable tent designed to be suspended from a single pitch on a vertical rockface, and therefore the first ever port-a-ledge – to the first spring-loaded cam device in 1973, reducing the need for pitons to be hammered into rock and leading the surge in more ethical climbing techniques that left the rock undamaged.
In the winter of 1973 Greg Lowe let his outdoor swimming pool freeze. Over the coming frigid months he used the pool to refine the design of what would become known as the Modular Ice Axe – an alpine ice tool that allowed interchangeable picks and hammers, and had a curved shaft that could reach around bulges more effectively than a traditional straight one. The prototype was nicknamed the Hummingbird. Quickly deployed on cutting edge ice climbs in the ranges of the American west, before the 1970s were over Italian manufacturers CAMP were working with Lowe to produce the axe commercially. “In those days, our direct experience showed us the limitations of nearly every piece of clothing and equipment available,” remembers Jeff. “It was natural to want to improve all of it. There were things we wanted to do and the current equipment didn’t support our aspirations. As constant users, we had to improvise and improve clothing and equipment along the way.”
Lowe Alpine Systems (LAS) were registered by business-minded Mike Lowe in 1972. Military packs followed in 1978, Lowe’s first women-specific rucksacks in 1979, and the first plastic buckles used on backpacks came in 1980. Greg Lowe found himself the unlikely nominee for an
Oscar in 1981 when his film Fall Line – co-directed by Bob Carmichael – returned to the family’s old stomping ground of Grand Teton to follow alpinist Steve Shea as he attempted to climb and ski the mountain in winter.
At one point there was barely an item of clothing or equipment Lowe Alpine didn’t make. An image of Greg Lowe on Ama Dablam in 1979 features a LAS (Lowe Alpine Systems) cap, harness, fleece, trousers, gaiters and climbing hardwear. Remarkably, the company continued its already enviable run of firsts in clothing design, too. Jeff was hankering after a solution to the need for stretchy, warm clothing that allowed the freedom of movement necessary for climbing. With 1984’s Latok Diamond pullover, the softshell was born – 20 years before the word entered outdoor parlance.
1993 saw a return to rucksack revolutions with the first adjustable back system; meanwhile fabric technologies were challenging some of the most established names inthe industry. Dry Yarn technology was Lowe’s answer to breathable/waterproof fabrics such as Gore-Tex, but used a different, highly technical system that involved coating the nylon threads of a garment in tiny ceramic particles, giving each fibre water repellency. Pores built into the structure of the jacket allowed sweat out. With permanent Durable Water Repellency (DWR) and no membrane or coating to cause condensation or wear off and ease of cleaning, many considered the fabric superior to some of the giants of the industry and the fabric won several awards. It became functional reality with Triplepoint Ceramic, a successful range of waterproof garments. When American magazine Outside released its list of the 100 most influential bits of gear of all time in 2012 – from the personal floatation device in 860 BC to the iPhone in 2007 – Lowe Alpine had no fewer than four items of kit on the list.
Meanwhile Jeff was testing Lowe Alpine’s output on rock and ice in the Rockies, Alps and Himalayas, with many first ascents to his name. One would prove his defining moment as an alpinist – but Jeff’s greatest challenges were yet to come.
Lowe Alpine - 50 years of firsts
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