A reckoning with risk: The powerful story at the centre of new mountaineering film Torn

In 2016 the son of lost climber Alex Lowe made a journey back to the mountains, and into the past, to confront the disaster that fractured his childhood. What emerged was a story of grief, family – and hope.

Published 24 Jan 2022, 16:51 GMT
Scenes from a life balancing adventure and family – a balance that, for Alex Lowe, ended ...

Scenes from a life balancing adventure and family – a balance that, for Alex Lowe, ended in tragedy.

Photograph by Skip Novac (top right), Chris Noble (bottom left), Thom Pollard (bottom centre) Michael Graber (inside left centre) Gordon Wiltsie (centre right). All other images courtesy Max Lowe and the Lowe-Anker family

THERE are thousands of tales of mountaineers’ risk-strewn, oxygen-starved exploits in the high places of the world. Few of them consider the lives these adventurers lead and leave back home. This misses a part of the story because, for every second many high-altitude professionals spend using the world’s most extreme environments as their workspace, it’s a second spent away from others – wives, husbands, parents, children – enduring a gruelling wait.

For them, those seconds can spin into months spent clinging to threads of contact, while their loved ones push their luck in an environment that wants them dead. Sometimes, that environment succeeds.

Torn is a film about what happens to those back home when binding ties are cut in the cruellest way of all. Snatches of its story are famous in climbing circles: that of charismatic and gifted Alex Lowe, whose possibility-bending expeditions to some of the world’s most ballistic mountains during the early 90s threw fuel at a new generation of high-altitude, fast-and-light alpinists. Then, in 1999, during a recce for a ski descent above basecamp on 8,027m Shishapangma, a snowpack on the Tibetan mountain collapsed, triggering a massive avalanche. In an instant, Lowe and expedition member Dave Bridges were buried, their bodies lost.

(Related: pictures of the world's highest mountains, in winter.) 

Alex Lowe leads an ascent of the north wall of Great Sail Peak, Baffin Island, on a National Geographic expedition in 1998.

Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie, National Geographic Image Collection

Alex Lowe, with Peak 4810 in the background on an expedition to Ak Su, Krgyzstan, 1995.

Photograph by Conrad Anker

Alex Lowe (left) and Conrad Anker (right) – on the peak of Mt Evans, Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica. The pair were best friends, who each found the rare ability to keep up with the other in the mountains. 

Photograph by Gordon Wiltsie

Caught amidst the tragedy were Lowe's best friend and climbing partner Conrad Anker, who survived the avalanche, and back home in Montana, his wife Jennifer and three young boys: Max, Sam and Isaac.    

Torn – as well as being a revealing portrait of an adventurer – explores what happens to a family when it is fractured by a complex tragedy. Complex because, by not following such a dangerous path, that tragedy could have been avoided – albeit at the compromise of at least part of what made a person who they are. It’s this dilemma, between family and safety and adventure and sacrifice, that sits at the core of this inspiring but strikingly emotional film.

The reason for its disarming intimacy is revealed in the film’s opening credits, which sit over an archive news interview with the wiry, grinning Alex Lowe: Torn’s director is his eldest son, Max. He was 10 years old when his father disappeared under the avalanche, and the only one of his siblings to have a clear memory of his father, or a lingering bond: the two even climbed together.

Then, and now: Max Lowe in 1999, after a climb with his father. Right: Max Lowe today, director of new film Torn.  

Photograph by Alex Lowe (left) Max Lowe (Right)

“Those sorts of things, for people who experience them, stick with you. They affect who you are for the rest of your life, and even your kids, and their kids,” says Lowe, speaking to National Geographic UK over Zoom. “Trauma is something that goes down through generations if it's unacknowledged… and I felt like I needed to talk about it.” 

The film’s title chimes with, and cascades through, many themes explored in Torn. As well as Max Lowe’s attempt to help his family navigate, as he puts it, ‘a tumultuous chaos of emotions,’ the Lowe’s is a unique story. That of a flawed but now mythologised man conflicted between his adventurous life and domesticity. And, that of his family remade in the wake of tragedy – with components some may find surprising.

Father to father

At Christmas 1999 Conrad Anker – two months after the avalanche that killed his best friend, and almost killed him – turned up at the Lowe’s Montana home, and announced his intention to accompany the Lowe’s to Disneyland. It’s ‘what Alex would have wanted’, he’d said.

“There's that balance that we all have to strike… between selfish love, and selfless love for the people that hold us up.”

Max Lowe

Traumatised and consumed by survivor’s guilt, he was determined to be a support for his friend’s family. He soon became a literal part of it: Anker and Lowe’s widow Jennifer fell in love, and married

The subject of their union, for a complexity of reasons, makes for some uncomfortable scenes in Torn, as the film-maker grapples with conflicting emotions around his family’s response to the loss – and in some cases, a palpable reluctance to engage. With memories long sealed and lives moved on, as Max himself notes, many of the exchanges on camera were the first time the family had ever spoken about it in depth. As such trust, he says, was everything: ‘they never would have done this for anyone else but me.’

“I started to try and understand that experience for myself – and see the power that it could be as a story, beyond just our family,” he says. “And [so] I started asking my family about it. It was scary stuff because, you know, when you open yourself up to someone that you're close to in that way, you don't really know what's going to come out of it. You trust that they're not going to hurt you.”

Subtle details hint at the Lowe’s different responses to moving on. His and his siblings’ referral to his late dad as ‘Alex:’ the fact his brothers adopted the hyphenated name Lowe-Anker, whereas he chose not to. Anker's acceptance into the family was swift – 'one light going off, another coming on' – which for Max, as an adult, added questions to the heavy load losing a father had on his 10 year-old shoulders. 

Alex Lowe, pictured with Max, while camping in Zion National Park, Utah.

Photograph by Jennifer Lowe-Anker

“When Alex passed away, my mom acknowledges that I kind of felt like I needed to step up and be the little man of the family, and I think that's kind of stuck with me,” he says. “As a kid, I think you trust that everything will be ok, especially if your parents are always there. His death, for me, as a kid… it shattered my understanding of trust. A lot of kids in the world experience that loss in one way or another, whether it's losing their parent to death or, you know… just not being there for them.”

Lowe’s death was made more cruel by the lack of material closure. In one scene, Max alludes to his father’s literal disappearance with a child-like frame of reference: ‘like an astronaut lost in space.’

Then, in 2016, something happened which awakened the trauma. A phonecall came in from Tibet carrying news of the impossible: after almost 17 years locked in the ice, Alex Lowe’s body had been found.

A reawakening

“When it happened it just stirred in me all these emotions that I had kind of sealed up and left behind when I was a kid.” Max says. “I think that I was frozen with him – I shut myself down. I just kind of blocked out a lot of that memory and experience of that time in my life, I think because it was so difficult to cope with.” Max refers to a photograph, featured in Torn, of him blowing out his 10th birthday candles, a week after news of Lowe’s death, as being the image that haunts him the most: “just thinking about, like, what that young boy is thinking about – what is going on in his mind.”

Conrad Anker looks toward Shishapangma in 2016, the site of the accident that killed his friend. The Tibetan mountain is the 14th highest peak in the world. 

Photograph by National Geographic/Max Lowe

Whatever was shut down in 1999 was woken up by that phonecall in May 2016.
“I never thought Alex's body would come back to us,” he says. “It was almost like I came out of the tunnel and again found this path that I had left behind as a little kid. I started to walk it again and started to try and understand that trauma and grief again with new eyes.”

The finding of Lowe and Dave Bridges’ remains, emerging from Shishapangma’s glacier, by climbers David Gottler, and Ueli Steck – who himself would die in a 1,000 metre fall on Nuptse the following year – was the trigger for Max to begin making his film. In Torn, Lowe’s widow Jennifer describes the discovery as ‘like he’d come back to life. He’d showed up.”

(Related: how a Nepali climber with a 'freakish' physiology stormed the world of high altitude mountaineering.)

As the family returns to the mountain to lay Alex Lowe to rest, the footage makes for a symbolic coda. But for Max, it was in many ways just the beginning. “Going back to Tibet… that was beyond anything I ever have imagined would come to pass,” he remembers. “My brother Sam and I asked the family collectively if they were open to us filming [it] – at that point we didn’t know what this would become, if the footage was just something we would have personally to reflect on at some point. [But] I started to think more about it… what a story might look like if we were going to tell something about our experience and Alex's life and death and our family as a whole.”

‘Attracted to risk’

Alex Lowe’s life was one that saw his adventurous streak balanced uneasily with a clear love for his growing family. In one scene, an archive report sees Lowe hypothesising that ‘something in [his] chemistry is attracted to risk.’ Amongst some peers, he was considered the greatest all-round mountaineer of his time, with a striking immunity to hardship. Nicknamed the ‘Lung with Legs,’ Lowe once single-handedly rescued several frostbitten Spanish climbers from high on Alaska’s frigid Denali, at one point carrying one on his back at high altitude. On another occasion he sustained a 30-metre fall when an icicle he was climbing collapsed: he pronounced himself OK, declining to notice a flap of scalp so substantial had been torn from his head it was draped over one of his eyes, exposing his skull. Lowe simply taped it back on, secured it with a hat, and headed for the hospital. That was the life the public knew: then there was the life he was growing back home.

Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker exult after making the first ascent of the Rakekniven ('Razor') spire, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.

 

Celebrating Christmas with cards and letters from the family left at home: Alex Lowe (left) and Conrad Anker (centre) on a National Geographic expedition to Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, 1997. 

Conrad Anker watches Alex Lowe mug for the camera whilst washing his hair, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, 1997. 

His widow Jennifer, herself an artist and adventurer, speaks emotionally about her late husband being torn between the two worlds while she held the fort – and weathered his irritability when he wasn’t able to get his mountain fix. At one point she describes him as ‘not a perfect character.’

(Read: Climbers pay tribute to David Lama.)

Ironically given what would follow, Lowe also once professed to envy Anker, for his life of spontaneous adventure unencumbered by such ties. Lowe’s partnership with Anker was based around both’s need for the kick of climbing, their ability to keep up with each other – and a knack for goading each other higher. As Anker says in Torn, it was about ‘how fast and how difficult a route could we do – and how badass are you really?”

Anker today has an equally high profile: a three-time Everest summiteer, in 1999 he discovered the frozen remains of British climber George Mallory high on the mountain’s north face, just months before the avalanche on Shishapangma that killed Lowe. Then as now, the ever-present danger of death was a part of his life, too – in marrying Lowe’s widow and adopting the three boys, was there the fear for Max and his family that history could repeat itself?

“Yes and no,” he says. “I understood why Alex and Conrad went off and chased that feeling. And [After Alex’s avalanche] I then understood that he could die. And it scared me for sure. But just like I told Alex before he left for Shishapangma in 1999… I understood that he had to go. And that it was a decision that only he could make.”

Left: Top:

Jennifer Lowe-Anker reads letters from Alex Lowe at the home in Bozeman, Montana, where she and Conrad Anker still live. 

Right: Bottom:

Conrad Anker throws Isaac Lowe-Anker in the air during a trip to Morocco in 2002, three years after Alex Lowe's death. Isaac was 4 when his father died. 

photographs by Jennifer Lowe-Anker

“Nothing really changed when Conrad stepped into our lives,” he adds. “I think we all want something from the people we love for ourselves – but if you truly love someone, you understand that they are the person for you, because of the person they are for themselves as well. That was just kind of how we all saw Conrad, and we understood that he had given us a lot by being there for us as a family. And that he needed to also continue being himself.”

As revealed in Torn, the bond between Anker and Max Lowe is deep, but complex. In one scene, Max confides to Anker that there has always been a ‘wall between us, a little bit... like I couldn’t talk to you about some stuff because it seemed too scary to bring up.’ 

In a recent Instagram post for his birthday, Anker wrote of his pride in Max for having the courage to tell the story: “It wasn't easy to open up and share our journey... We have learned from the process and your dedication will help others with their grief… Love dad.”

Conrad Anker marries Jennifer Lowe in Ravello, Italy, 2001, pictured with (l-r) Isaac, Max and Sam. Unlike the others, Max did not adopt the name Lowe-Anker.  

Photograph by Kim Gaylord

The Lowe-Anker family on a trip to the Antarctic. In Torn, Jennifer refers to their life together as 'adventurous.' 

Photograph by Courtesy of Max Lowe

Left-right: Isaac, Jennifer, Sam, Conrad and Max stand with Alex Lowe and David Bridges' memorial at Shishapangma basecamp, 2016. They had travelled as a family to recover the remains of both climbers, holding a cremation ceremony on the slopes of the mountain where they died.  

Photograph by National Geographic/Max Lowe

What ultimately emerges, for Max, is a story not only of loss, but of gain – and hope. “In exploring it and in making the film, I really found a lot more meaning in the love that I had in my family. I hope that it's a story that when people walk away from it, they feel the value of the love they have, because it's fragile. Hanging off cliffs and high mountains is a scary thing to consider for your average person. Opening yourself up to trusting and love is one of the scariest things humans can do, I think.”

Balancing two lives

So to the unspoken question at the heart of Torn: the trade-off between what Alex Lowe went looking for, what he left behind – and what a son found in his exploration of his late father.   

“I didn't go into this to be pointing a finger, or making anyone seem like they had made the wrong decisions in life. The lives that my parents led, you know, they were my heroes by it,” says Max. “Alex was going off to these amazing places and sending me postcards from Kathmandu and these parts of the world, like from a fairytale. To have your dad going off and doing these wild things, I think it impacted on me in a way that has shaped who I am to this day. That made me believe to my core that I could find something that I loved for myself and make it my life.”

He adds: “If you're lucky enough to have found [that], you will sacrifice something to pursue it. There's that balance that we all have to strike… between selfish love, and selfless love for the people that hold us up.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Torn is playing in selected cinemas from 21 January, and is streaming on Disney+ from 4 February.

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