From Top of the World to End of the Line: Jeff Lowe’s Theory of (Losing) Everything

By Samantha Tisdel Wright | Ouray

L ess than a year ago, Jeff Lowe and his partner Connie Self would have thought you were crazy if you told them they’d be preparing to screen their years-in-the-making film project, Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia at the 20th annual Ouray Ice Festival. After all, Lowe was supposed to be dying.

He suffers from a relentlessly degenerative condition, akin to Multiple Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig disease, which doctors have been unable to identify or treat. “I just call it ‘The Incredible Shrinking Brain Syndrome’,” Lowe joked when he accepted the Utah Chapter National MS Society’s Man of the Year award in 2009. “It gives me a ready excuse for any time I screw up in any way.”

Since then, Lowe has lost the ability to walk and talk. When he feels well enough to get out of bed, he spends his days in a powered wheelchair. And while his sense of humor is still wickedly intact, these days he cracks jokes with the help of a talking iPad.

Shortly after returning home from last year’s Ouray Ice Festival, at which he had made a surprise appearance, he went into a steep downward spiral that landed him in the hospital with blood clots in his leg and lung.

He battled pneumonia throughout the rest of the winter and spring. By May, he had signed a DNR and was preparing to die.

“The nurse was saying any day now, and the doctor was saying a maximum of three weeks,” Self said.

Since then, however, Lowe has turned a corner. He weaned himself off supplemental oxygen (which Self says was messing with his blood gasses), attended his brother’s wedding in Utah, and poured himself into the final production phase of his film project.

Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, directed by Jim Aikman, narrated by Jon Krakauer and produced by Self, is a film about one man’s journey from the top of the world to the end of the line. It chronicles the most compelling and perplexing climb of Lowe’s career, up the notorious North Face of the Eiger in the winter of 1991, using a combination of archival footage, interviews and modern footage. It spirals out from there to capture the essence of Lowe’s climbing career as well as the ironic challenges of his life today.

 Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, a feature-length documentary film that follows the life and climbs of Ouray Ice Festival founder Jeff Lowe through his visionary ascents around the world up to his current dance with a terminal disease, will screen on Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015 at 4 p.m. at the Main Street Theater (630 Main Street) in Ouray during the 20th Annual Ouray Ice Festival. Tickets are $10, and are available at the door. Doors open at 3:30. Will Gadd will introduce the film. A second screening will take place at the Wright Opera House (462 Main Street) in Ouray on Saturday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. All ticket proceeds from both screenings will go toward Jeff Lowe and Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia. UPDATED ON JAN. 9: Connie Self and Jeff Lowe are hoping to make it to the event on Saturday, Jan. 10!

Defying all expectations, Lowe (together with Self and a cadre of friends and family) was able to attend Metanoia’s World Premiere at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in early November, where the 950 seat theater was full to the brim for the big night. The film earned an unprecedented three standing ovations, and hundreds of people lined up afterwards, tears in their eyes, thanking Lowe, Self and Aikman for making the film.

“The audience jumped to their feet and gave Jeff the most heart-felt standing ovation the Banff Centre has ever had,” reported Canada’s Gripped Climbing Magazine. “There aren’t many climbing films I would show my whole family, but this is one of them.”

Self and Lowe basked in the glow at the Kendal Mountain Festival after learning their film had won the prestigious Best Mountaineering Film award. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Holmes/Kendal Mountain Festival)

Self and Lowe basked in the glow at the Kendal Mountain Festival after learning their film had won the prestigious Best Mountaineering Film award. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Holmes/Kendal Mountain Festival)

Then, a few weeks later, Lowe and Self found themselves in an even more surreal setting, at the Kendal Mountain Festival in the United Kingdom. There, on Nov. 22, they won the coveted prize for Best Mountaineering Film, and another standing ovation from the typically reserved British crowd.

“The most frequent comment we got in the UK was, ‘It’s so honest, and so raw, and emotional,’” Self said.

Lowe, who has been on Hospice for the past two years, wasn’t supposed to be well enough to travel. “To go to the UK, United Airlines wanted a letter from his doctor that he is well enough to fly and Hospice won’t give him that,” Self said. “So a friend of ours wrote it. But it’s like, you know, he can stay home and die peacefully, or he can go to the UK and have a last hurrah.”

Although the travel has taken its toll, “For him to be able to be at the world premier in Banff was amazing,” Self said. “We never thought that would happen. And for him to be there for the first award in the UK was even more amazing.”

Coming up next, the official U.S. Premiere of Metanoia at the Boulder is set to happen at the Boulder International Film Festival on March 5-8. But first, Self is working on organizing two private screenings of the film this coming weekend during the Ouray Ice Festival.

It’s the perfect complement to the 20th annual Fest. Because there would be no Ouray Ice Festival without Jeff Lowe.

 

No longer able to talk, Lowe took the time to pen this note last December to express his thoughts about the Ouray Ice Festival. (Photo by Samantha Wright)

No longer able to talk, Lowe took the time to pen this note last December to express his thoughts about the Ouray Ice Festival. (Photo by Samantha Wright)

THE GATHERING OF THE TRIBE

Ever since its beginnings in 1996, the Ouray Ice Festival has been described as a sort of “gathering of the tribe.”

If this tribe of dirtbag ice climbers, alpinists and climbing neophytes has a godfather, it’s got to be Lowe – the guy who introduced modern mixed climbing to the entire planet –and who, at the urging of Ouray Ice Park founders Gary Wild and Bill Whitt, started the Ouray Ice Festival 20 years ago, thus transforming Ouray’s winter economy forevermore.

In those early years, it was called the Arctic Wolf Ouray Ice Festival after Lowe’s company of the time, Arctic Wolf.

The Ouray Ice Park had only recently been started, and needed an event to put it on map. “So they asked Jeff, and he resisted,” Self said. “But in the end, they prevailed, and of course it evolved into one of the most successful climbing rendezvous in the world.”

In that first year, the Ouray Ice Festival was quite the shoestring operation. Lowe got six sponsors to put in $500 each and contributed $10,000 of his own money to make it happen. But it worked.

“325 people showed up the very first night of the festival,” Self said. “That is pretty good.” And, a fleet of international climbers came for the exhibition that very first year, in what has since morphed into the Elite Mixed Climbing Competition.

“Jeff’s contacts through his own climbing were what he could draw on to make that festival what it was,” Self said. “Not many people could have done it.”

Lowe bequeathed the Ouray Ice Festival to the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park, Inc. in 2002. He is very happy with how the Fest has evolved so organically over the years since he got out of the business of running it – with a lot of positive energy, and no sharp delineation between the old guard and the new.

“I’m so gratified to see people experiencing the joys of ice climbing and the tribe gathering together and celebrating…each other,” he recently wrote.

Two years ago, when he was still able to talk (with some interpretive help from Self) as the dust settled from the 18th annual Ouray Ice Festival, he had more to say on the topic.

“They haven’t run us out of town yet,” he joked. “There was a time when many old-timers really didn’t want us. They called me a goddamn ice climber. That went away. I am amazed by what people think can’t be done.”

Lowe called the 2013 Ouray Ice Festival his “big love fest.” He thought that it would be his last. And behind the scenes, honoring Lowe turned out to be what it was really all about. A steady stream of alpinists stopped by the apartment where Lowe and Self were staying, paying their respects, sharing memories, drinking beer, or Naked Juice, and laughing.

They gathered again at Jim and Angela Donini’s living room where they sat – Michael Kennedy, Bruce Franks, Ralph Tingey, Malcolm Daly and others – one by one, on the stool in front of a video camera to share their favorite anecdotes about Lowe.

Hanging on the Doninis’ wall, behind the stool, was a black and white photograph of the North Ridge of Latok 1, the needling “Mountain Impossible” in the Karakorum mountain range of northern Pakistan, upon which Donini, Kennedy, Jeff Lowe and his cousin George Lowe attempted a famous first ascent in 1978.

Jeff had Dengue Fever and was getting worse, not better, as the four young men approached the summit in a growling storm. Less than 500 vertical feet below the summit, after 22 days on the face of Latok, the team unanimously agreed to head down, leaving the route for someone else to bag. No one ever did.

“Thirty years and 20 attempts later, it remains one of climbing’s most elusive goals,” wrote Kennedy (who went on to have a career as the editor of Alpinist and Climbing Magazine and is now better known as Hayden Kennedy’s dad), in the March 2007 issue of Rock and Ice.

Their high mark still stands today.

The expedition changed the young climbers forever. It ushered in a new era of lightweight, low-impact alpine climbing in the Himalaya and around the world. And they still speak of “the climb without a summit” as a high point in their respective climbing careers.

 

Jeff Lowe. (Scene from the movie trailer for Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia.)

Jeff Lowe. (Scene from the movie trailer for Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia.)

THE TO-DO LIST

Connie Self’s ‘to-do’ list, neatly penned on a white board just above the fireplace mantle in the apartment she shares with Lowe, was overflowing on a Monday in early December. “I have four more just like that,” she sighed. “It’s just insane. I desperately need an intern.”

Yet the most important things on her list remain unpenned. They are written across her heart, in the weariness on her face, and the thrumming in her veins. The tasks themselves may vary from day to day, but the gist of it is always the same: taking care of Lowe.

In spite of spending almost every moment of every day together, “I miss him,” said Self. “It is a tremendous loss to not be able to communicate in the moment. It’s so hard to talk now. We kind of say things on a need-to-know basis.”

They can communicate through the iPad, “but it’s extremely slow,” Self said. “It’s like, I say something, and then I go off and do something else, and then he’ll answer, but I’ve moved on. It’s just slow. It’s not like having a conversation.”

They live on the flatlands of the Front Range, in the bedroom community of Louisville, Colo., about a 10-minute drive from the climbing mecca of Eldorado Canyon where in 1976 Jeff and his brother Mike Lowe opened their International Climbing School. But it might as well be a world away on days like this, when Lowe is not even well enough to come out of his room.

The home-health aide and a visiting nurse compare notes with Self. Everyone is worried. Ueli Steck was in town last night, and Lowe stayed out pretty late. He didn’t sleep at all. And now, he’s having a particularly rough day.

There’s some quiet discussion about the new nebulizer, the Sudafed, the Benzonatate and Lorazepam.

Through it all, those neatly penned items on the white board assert themselves insistently. Most of them have to do with promoting Metanoia.

The past few years have been dominated by the urgent need to finish up the project. Now that it’s done, there is the small matter of raising money. Lowe and Self have paid everyone else who worked on the film, but with no other means of income, it is critically important for them to be able to pay themselves now, as well, for the hundreds of hours of their lives that they poured into the film.

And that means promoting the hell out of this movie. You can almost hear Self’s mind ticking as she thinks about the hoops that the film must jump through in the coming months.

First there’s the delicate dance of film festival politics that they must master, trying to fill up their dance card without stepping on anyone’s toes. Then there’s the DVDs, which will be ready for sale sometime in 2015. They are currently working to sell broadcasting rights to the film as well. “We are hoping for wide distribution,” Self said. “HBO, Discovery, NatGeo – there are a lot of lines of distribution it could go down.”

You would think that Lowe’s biggest sponsors for his film would come from the outdoor adventure gear manufacturing industry that he and his family helped to spawn.

But after the film’s original title sponsor (SIGG water bottles) went bankrupt, the angel that stepped into the void to pick up the mantle was Bill Sweasy, the Chairman and former CEO of Red Wing Shoes and Vasque.

Self met Sweasy at a fundraiser last January.

Although she didn’t feel terribly confident that he would think sponsoring the movie would be a good fit, she followed up with “probably the best letter I have ever written,” asking for his company’s support.

“And I didn’t hear anything for about a month,” she said.

Then, on a Friday afternoon, she got a call:

“Connie, it’s Bill Sweasy. I just got off the phone with our CEO. Is that opportunity for a presenting sponsor still available?”

And that’s how Red Wing Shoes became Metanoia’s largest single sponsor.

Self had felt that her letter to Sweasy was a total shot in the dark, but it couldn’t have hit a better mark. Sweasy, it turns out, was a huge Jeff Lowe fan and had actually learned to ice climb at the Ouray Ice Festival.

“I can’t put into words how I feel about helping out with this movie,” Sweasy wrote to Self in a letter that arrived the next day. “When I went to the Ouray Ice Festival, and met Jeff, he was so welcoming and encouraging. I was just a beginner and he was the hero. But he made me feel welcome, and encouraged me.”

Sweasy has continued to support the film project in many ways; he made it possible for Self and Lowe to go to Banff, and even attended the World Premiere himself.

CamelBak is another important sponsor. But apart from these notable exceptions, Self has found that it’s the dirtbag climbers, not the big-name companies in the outdoor equipment industry, that have stepped up to support Lowe, and his project.

“Those smaller donations have really made it happen,” Self said. “And it adds up. So when people donate $10 I’m grateful. And when they donate $10,000 I’m grateful too. But everything in between matters. It really does.”

 

Lowe climbing Dizzy with a Vision at an early Ouray Ice Festival. (Scene from the movie trailer for Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia.)

Lowe climbing Dizzy with a Vision at an early Ouray Ice Festival. (Scene from the movie trailer for Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia.)

THE THEORY OF (LOSING) EVERYTHING

Self shudders to think how close she came to losing Lowe last year.

After the long drive home from the 2014 Ouray Ice Festival, “He wasn’t feeling well,” Self recalled. “He never quite came back.”

Still, they were on track to fly out to Salt Lake City on Jan. 20 to attend the Outdoor Retailer show, where they had a big fundraiser scheduled, and where Lowe was to receive the Outdoor Inspiration Lifetime Achievement Award.

The night before their departure, Self had gone to bed at about midnight, thinking she’d grab six hours of sleep before finishing up the packing and heading to the airport.

At about 3 a.m. she woke to the thunder of boots on the hardwood floor.

“And I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’ I go pop open the door, and there’s four firemen looking at me,” she recalled.

They had just broken down the door, responding to a 911 call from Lowe, who had woken up in the middle of the night feeling like he was drowning.

“I was here, but I didn’t hear him calling me,” Self said, disbelief still ringing in her voice.

She often sleeps in a separate room, because Lowe “has so many machines,” and they keep her awake. But, she said, “I never don’t hear Jeff. I have hyperacusis. I hear everything.”

In hindsight, Self says it was divine intervention that she didn’t hear Lowe calling her for help.

“Because if I heard Jeff, I would have gone in and done a nebulizer treatment. I would have called Hospice. And if I called Hospice and they would have come they would have said ‘Well, it’s all part of the process,’ and he would have died. He would have died.”

Instead, the paramedics ran some tests and said, “You know, Mr. Lowe, your numbers don’t look good. We would like to take you to the hospital. Are you willing to go?”

And he said yes.

First, they had to take him off Hospice. “You can’t do life intervention when you are on Hospice,” Self explained. But although she depended on Hospice to provide critical home health care, she didn’t say a word, “because it’s Jeff’s life.”

Once Lowe was admitted to the hospital, the doctors ran some tests and figured out what was going on. Lowe had a blood clot in his lung, a blood clot in his leg, and pneumonia.

He was in the hospital for a week, and had pneumonia every month after that until June.

“It recurred every single month,” Self recalled. “He’d get on antibiotics, and two weeks later he’d be sick again. It was just a really hard winter. It was exhausting. And he kept going up on the oxygen. I remember freaking out when it got to 7 liters per minute. And here it is at 18 and I’m like, how high can it go?”

In May, Lowe signed a Do Not Resuscitate order for the first time in his lengthy illness.

“And that was heartbreaking,” Self said. “It’s scary to have a DNR. Because you know that if anything happens, that’s it. It was the first time I went ‘Okay, whatever desires you had about him sticking around, time to let those go.’ Because he was suffering, and I don’t want him to suffer.”

Then Lowe made the decision to wean himself off supplemental oxygen.

“We figured out he was on too much oxygen,” Self said. “He was on 18 liters per minute. It’s too much. It messes with all your blood gasses. Of course the doctors still won’t admit to that. They still don’t think that’s why he’s better. But, it is why he is better. Everything got better. He said it was like having the bends. Because he had too much CO2 in his body.”

Now, Lowe usually uses supplemental oxygen only at night, and he feels much, much better.

“He totally did it on his own,” Self said. “The doctors and nurses have never seen anyone on longterm oxygen get themselves off of it. Doesn’t happen. This is unheard of. And to me, that’s just Jeff. I asked him how he did it and he said, ‘Well, it’s a spiritual solution to a physical problem.

“He envisioned it. He did it the same way he did climbs.”

One of the strangest things about Lowe’s condition is that 15 years into his illness, he still has no official diagnosis.

“We know it’s a motor neuron disease,” Self said. “ALS is a motor neuron disease. The people that we consult still say that he does not have ALS. But no one can really tell us why.”

The problem is, ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) – is hard to diagnose. There is no blood test. It is generally identified through a constellation of symptoms. And, according to Lowe’s doctors, he doesn’t have the right constellation.

“Like, one doctor told us that his tongue isn’t atrophied enough,” Self said. “He can barely move the food to the back of his throat. He cannot speak at all. How much more atrophied do you need?”

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if he has ALS or something else.

“It is what it is,” Self said. “And if he has ALS, he’s lived longer than most people in the US with ALS. But then, so has Stephen Hawking.”

Watching The Theory of Everything – the new movie about Hawking – “was heartbreaking for me,” Self said. “But I really came away from that movie thinking, ‘You know, Jeff is his own Stephen Hawking.’ I am just convinced that there is something in Jeff’s character, in Jeff’s vision, in Jeff’s heart, that is extraordinary. And that is why he is still alive. And other people don’t have that. And I don’t know why.”

 

One for the annals. George Lowe, Michael Kennedy, Jeff Lowe on Latok 1. (Scene from the movie trailer for Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia.

One for the annals. George Lowe, Michael Kennedy, Jeff Lowe on Latok 1. (Scene from the movie trailer for Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia.)

A TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE OF HEART

Lowe’s iconic ascent of Eiger’s North Face in 1991 came in the midst of the biggest crisis of his life. His heart had been poisoned by the nuclear fallout of a failed business venture, an extramarital affair and ensuing divorce, and worst of all, estrangement from his two-year-old daughter.

Lowe knew that climbing was the only thing that could make it better. He went out alone into the winter and straight up the middle of the most storied mountain face in the Alps, the 6,000-foot high North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland, where he faced down his demons in merciless conditions.

For company, he had the ghosts of past Eiger tragedies, and a photo of his daughter that he stared at when he bivouacked precariously on cliffs by night.

His website, JeffLoweClimber.com, recounts the experience in its entirety, including the emotional crux of the climb:

“High up, trapped a day below the summit in a little limestone grotto by a fierce storm, Jeff hears a strange, deeply resonant sound. After hours of questioning the source, he finally concludes it is his own vibration, being amplified by the great concave rock wall and broadcast to the universe. Jeff sits there, then, in a state of satori. For moments or perhaps hours, Jeff experiences life beyond time and space and gets a glimpse of a greater reality and his own place in it.”

As clearly as he could visualize the route he had to continue to follow to reach the Eiger summit, Lowe saw a path unfurling before him, that he and his daughter could travel together.

Lowe named his route Metanoia – for the transformative change of heart that has since infused his life with acceptance, peace and joy. Nobody has ever been able to repeat it.

The contents of Lowe’s pack, retrieved from near the summit of Eiger by climber Josh Wharton a few years ago, are now on display at the American Mountaineering Center.

What was in there?

“Pack shit,” Self said. “His little tent. A little sleeping pad.” A couple of mummified candy bars.

When work began on Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, Lowe was already almost a decade into his illness, but “he really wanted to make a film that was just about his climbing legacy,” Self said. “I remember very clearly at the first production meeting in October of 2009 he said, “Nothing of me in a wheelchair, nothing of me with a walker. Nothing with my voice as it is today. And he could speak quite clearly then, but he was affected.

“And it took us a few months, but I was going, ‘Uh, dude, this is kind of the story,’” Self laughed. “But to him, it wasn’t. He didn’t want to draw attention to that. He didn’t want sympathy; he just wanted to share his legacy.”

Eventually, Self and Aikman convinced Lowe that what he was going through with his illness was as inspiring as anything he ever did as a climber, and it became an important element of the film. Lowe came to embrace the double entendre of the title, Metanoia, which in the end is what gives the film its meaning, and its power.

“I always come back to that saying, ‘Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, from where you are right now,” Self said. “Jeff calls it embracing reality. ‘Okay, this is where it is. This is what’s happening now. What are my options? What can I do from here, with what I’ve got?”

 

Jeff Lowe and Connie Self basked in the sunshine during the 2014 Ouray Ice Festival. Shortly after the long drive home from Ouray, Lowe’s health plunged into a downward spiral that landed him in the hospital for a week. (Photo by Samantha Wright)

Jeff Lowe and Connie Self basked in the sunshine during the 2014 Ouray Ice Festival. Shortly after the long drive home from Ouray, Lowe’s health plunged into a downward spiral that landed him in the hospital for a week. (Photo by Samantha Wright)

INTO THIN AIR

It’s like when Lowe jumped on the Eiger.

He’s got two picks in and both crampons in, as Self recounts. And his left pick pops. And his left foot pops. And he barn doors and sees the whole valley.

And then he looks down and there’s this bulge. If he fell on that, he’d have broken his legs, probably. Those crampons hitting that rock, it would have been disastrous.

And so he jumps away from the mountain. He’s 5,000 feet up and he jumps out into space, rather than hit the bulge that’s right below him. The rope goes over the bulge and then he swings in and slams against the mountain. He hurts his shoulder; but he doesn’t break his legs.

“That is not intuitive,” Self said. “That is being present and assessing the situation and making a judgment call about what needs to happen now, that you can only do when you have tremendous presence of mind. To have that when you are tired and cold and hungry and wet, it’s pretty amazing.”

For Self, that kind of says it all.

“That’s why it’s so important to be able to embrace reality,” she reflected. “You have to be present to access that divine essence that can support and help when you are praying and saying ‘Okay, I need something here.’ You cannot be in resistance. You cannot be wishing things were different than they are.

“You have to stay tuned in to all those little messages that we all get all the time, that save our lives, inform our lives, create our lives. That’s what this movie’s about.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Supporting Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia is more important than ever. The film is still accepting sponsorships, and tax deductible donations can be made at the Jeff Lowe Mountain Foundation. 

View the movie trailer here:

 

 

If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to reprint all or part of it, with credit to the author and the San Juan Independent (sjindependent.org).

 

About the Author

Samantha Wright

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Samantha Tisdel Wright writes and raises two red-headed children in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, dividing her time between Silverton and Ouray. She has worked as a reporter and editor for a variety of publications throughout the region, and is proud to be a founding member and co-editor of the San Juan Independent. samantha@sjindependent.org