Filmmaker Max Lowe was just a child when his father, mountaineer Alex Lowe, was killed in an avalanche while climbing the Tibetan Himalayas. It was a private family tragedy, and yet a public story: Lowe’s death made headlines around the world because he was perhaps considered the greatest mountaineer of his time.
“Alex Lowe, 40, mountaineer, died of an ascent in Tibet”, New York Times reported in October 1999.
The snows buried Lowe and David Bridges, a 29-year-old cameraman who took part in the expedition organized by North Face, the leisure products company. Lowe’s best friend and world-class mountaineer colleague Conrad Anker was injured in the avalanche but survived.
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In his new documentary Torn up, Max Lowe recounts how his father’s death impacted his family and how Anker came to play an increasingly central role in their lives. The National Geographic documentary premiered at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this month before being screened at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine.
Lowe calls showing the film to the audience âquite emotional, on many different levels. Not just because of the content and the personal catharsis, butâ¦ hearing people’s stories of their own traumatic life experiences, whatever they may be, is powerful. It’s difficultâ¦ but that’s why I’m telling the story.
Alex Lowe tackled rock climbing and ice climbing with the same enthusiasm, achieving celebrity status in the mountaineering world. His reputation was based not only on his skill and incredible physical strength, but also on his magnetic personality. He simply lived for rock climbing and outdoor adventures. But unlike many climbers, he had a family: his wife Jennifer and young sons Max, Sam and Isaac.
âI probably felt comfortable even thinking about the idea of ââmaking a movie about our story because Alex started it with his own work in public space,â Lowe told Deadline. âOur family has been known to the public since I was a child. Alex, as soon as he left on these high profile expeditions for North Face there were camera crews coming to our house to interview him and document our lives and the fact that he had a family was part of his story. .
Among his many climbing feats, Alex has climbed Mount Everest twice and made “the first ascent of Rakekniven, a high granite spire towering above the vast ice of Queen Maud Land,” according to Mountaineer magazine. Two days before his death, according to Alpinist.com, Lowe wrote: âI understand why I come to the mountains: not to conquer them, but to immerse myself in their incomprehensible vastness – so much greater than us; to better understand humanity and balanced patience in harmony with the desire to push hard; share what the hills have to offer; and share it long term with good friends and ultimately with my own sons.
When Alex was killed Max was 10, Sam 7, and Isaac only 4. The film gently raises the question of whether embarking on such dangerous climbs was appropriate given Alex Lowe’s family commitments.
âAs people, we find it difficult to understand the motivations of others,â observes Max. âWe see these people who do amazing things with their lives and admire them for it, but that prospect – being the son of someone who gave his life to what he loved, literally and figuratively, and then being myself someone who wants to live a life of passion – I mostly try to understand how Alex came to terms with this so that I can understand more on my ownâ¦ There is no answer at the end out of the way, so to speak.
This moral conundrum would have been subject matter enough for a documentary, but the story of Alex Lowe, his family, and Conrad Anker takes a different twist that takes up much of the film. Anker, feeling guilty about surviving the avalanche and vowing to play a positive role in the lives of Alex’s boys, has become close to the Lowe family. As Anker spent more time with Jennifer and the kids, he and Jennifer developed romantic feelings for each other.
“In the aftermath of tragedy and shared grief, Conrad Anker and I found love,” Jennifer wrote. âTwo years after Alex died, we got married and he adopted our sons. I fell in love with Alex’s best friend, maybe because of the characteristics I liked about Alex. They both had a thirst for life in all of its finest forms, were passionate, exuberant, and sought out knowledge and a diversity of experiences in nature and the world.
The younger boys, Sam and Isaac, took Lowe-Anker as their last name. Max kept his last name Lowe. Torn up documents his struggle to come to terms with the loss of his father and Conrad’s emergence as a surrogate father.
“I was old enough when Alex died to understand the seriousness of it and to understand what his absence meant to me,” says the director. “But I was too not old enough to understand the seriousness of Conrad and my mom’s relationship after Alex’s death and I think I’ve struggled with it, personally, since then never really recognized it. And making this film has given me a lot, personally, of the things that I took from my parents without knowing it.
A major development for all family members occurred in 2016 when the bodies of Alex Lowe and David Bridges were unexpectedly discovered in Shishapangma in Tibet. Max, his brothers, mother and stepfather Conrad traveled to Tibet to retrieve Alex’s body. Max says he was moved, “Seeing the fact that Conrad on this trip still struggles so deeply with the guilt and impostor syndrome of his survivor.”
Max’s brother, Sam, shot a video of their father’s body recovery and the ceremony held on the mountain to honor the fallen climbers. Jennifer and Conrad are interviewed in the documentary, as are Max’s siblings, Sam and Isaac. But the younger brothers seem ambivalent at best about sitting in front of Max’s camera.
âMy younger brother Sam is a very talented filmmaker in his own rightâ¦ I asked him if he wanted to co-direct this movie with me, because I saw a lot of potential for us in the process of making it and doing it. also share. story with people but, yes, he didn’t want to go deeper into that for himself, “says Max.” He’s never been more comfortable embracing our family history than his own. , for some reason and maybe because I knew Alex longer than him and our younger brother Isaac when I was a kid, but I’ve always admired Alex and the fact that he has inspired people from so many ways to the point that even to this day people will come to me and tell me how it touched their life in one way or another. And that, for me, growing up has always been something I aspire to as well. .
With the film, Max comes out of his father’s shadow.
“Manufacturing Torn up, for me, âhe says. “It was personally a sort of reconciliation with my struggle to find my own place in this larger story that was primarily about Alex, Conrad, and my mom.”