The 1990s saw Jeff Lowe hit both a low personal ebb and the pinnacle of his career – in a climb that would become legendary.
By 1991 Jeff Lowe’s life was in freefall: under pressure running two companies, a disintegrating marriage and an extraordinary career as an alpinist reaching a crescendo, Lowe set off to the alps to tackle the climb of his life.
The Eiger’s north face has been the nemesis of many of the world’s greatest climbers, who took to its deadly, always shadowed face to commence battle with this most notorious alpine wall. It is a place inscribed with tragedy alongside triumph. From the attempts in 1936 by Kurz and Hinterstoisser, whose ultimately fatal expedition gave grim eponymous names to some of its most famous features; to the victorious, National Socialism-tinged victory by Heinrich Harrer and Anderl Heckmair as World War Two was gathering steam; from Chris Bonington’s first British assault with Don Whillans to the tragic Eiger Direct which claimed the life of John Harlin and established Dougal Haston as an alpine superstar. The wall was, to a climber – as described in Joe Simpson’s The Beckoning Silence – ‘quite addictive’.
By 1991 most of the routes considered possible on the Eiger’s north face had been attempted, and climbed. But not all. Jeff Lowe had already made history with his climbs. Described by one of his contemporaries as the greatest alpinist America had ever produced, his Himalayan escapades had made him famous as a risk-taker and a connoisseur of pure lines “long and sustained, and made of good rock and great technical difficulty.” His free-climb (free = without ropes) of Trango Tower in Pakistan with Catherine Destivelle, and his audacious free ascent of the 2000ft pillar of Puscanturpa Norte in Peru ranked as some of the hardest climbs ever attempted. Even as early as 1979 his solo ascent of Ama Dablam had been similarly admired, and never repeated: a climb with extra resonance as the day before, he’d ascended the mountain with his brother Greg and father Ralph, over 20 years after Ralph had introduced his boys to the mountains.
Jeff Lowe’s date with a direct, bisecting route up the Eiger in 1991 would be the pinnacle of his career, at perhaps the most turbulent point in his life. Friends were worried he wouldn’t come back – he had stacked the deck against himself by attempting the route in winter, alone, without bolts for security and on the hardest unclimbed route he could find. “My intention was to make the purest climb I could manage in the hope that [it] might serve as an example of what might be accomplished.” Where the route coincided with established routes with gear left behind, Jeff planned to ignore it. What he found was a route that nearly killed him – and gave him a spiritual awakening that set his life back on track.
Toughing it out for seven days on the face, suffering a fall and avoiding the constant onslaught of rockfall and avalanche threat, Lowe completed the route – but not until after an experience in a snow cave during a storm on the face gave him a nirvana moment from which he still feels the effects today, over 20 years later.
“After days of small rations on the Eiger, the space between my belly and my backbone contained nothing of substance to prop me up,” he remembers today. “Shivering in waves, I stared at a picture of my two-year-old daughter Sonja. I felt remorse for the mess I’d made of my marriage, and the sense of abandonment she would face. I experienced a change of thinking and an opening of my heart. I knew the word metanoia from reading great literature. For thousands of years shamans and spiritual seekers have starved themselves, endured long days of toil and meditated for weeks in the hope of receiving some sort of nirvana. I had my own “metanoia” in that little hermit cave on the wall.”
He named the route Metanoia, which became the name of the 2015 film telling Jeff’s story. The Eiger would give Jeff a philosophy he would need for his last, greatest challenge, and would lend it added poignancy. Jeff – now a grandfather – is in the final stages of a neurological condition similar to ALS. Despite being confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, his courage to fight on with the grace he lent his climbs remains: and Metanoia is testament to that. The route wouldn’t be repeated until the eve of Lowe Alpine’s 50th anniversary, in December 2016.
For more about Jeff Lowe visit www.jeffloweclimber.com
Lowe Alpine - 50 years of firsts
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