It was February 1991, and for nine days Jeff Lowe had been climbing alone up the punishing, nearly 6,000-foot north face of the Eiger, a notoriously dangerous mountain in the Swiss Alps that had claimed the lives of more than 50 climbers over the years.
His food and strength were nearly depleted, and he had ascended higher than the length of his lead rope, his only lifeline if he fell. Now a winter storm was whipping toward the mountain, it was getting dark, and Lowe faced a difficult choice.
He could rappel back down the rock face to his bivouac, then hunker down and try to survive the storm. Or, without a lead rope, knowing that one slip would send him tumbling into the void, he could climb the roughly 20 feet to the summit, where, with luck, a helicopter could reach him before the storm did.
Lowe chose to radio for a helicopter, drop his lead line and clamber up the cliff face. A helicopter picked him up moments before the storm swept in.
Still, despite having to be rescued, he had conquered a new route up Eiger, doing so without bolts — climbing equipment that would have anchored him in areas without natural handholds. He named the route Metanoia, a Greek word for spiritual transformation. No alpinist has since climbed it alone.
That first ascent — the focus of a 2014 documentary, “Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia” — was one of more than a thousand Lowe made in a career that began when he was a boy, and it was not his last. He would continue to challenge the world’s tallest peaks and trickiest ascents as one of the most renowned climbers of his generation, until illness in the last few years made climbing impossible.
Lowe died on Aug. 24 at a care facility in Fort Collins, Colo. He was 67. His daughter, Sonja Lowe, said the causes were pneumonia and a degenerative disease similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
In the world of alpinists Lowe was a celebrity, tackling routes that seemed impossible to other climbers and taking along as little equipment as he could. Rather than go on large expeditions, he favored climbing solo or with small groups of friends.
“He was always looking for something that would push his personal boundaries, and also push what people thought of as possible in climbing,” Michael Kennedy, a friend and the former editor of Climbing magazine, said in a telephone interview.
Lowe helped improve climbing technology and apparel by designing and testing new gear for Lowe Alpine Systems, a company founded by his brothers, Greg and Mike, who are also mountain climbers.
Lowe was also something of a legend for his ice climbing. He was the author of “Ice World: Techniques and Experiences of Modern Ice Climbing” (1996), one of several books he wrote on the subject that continue to be consulted by climbers today.
In 1974 he and another climber, Mike Weis, became the first to reach the summit of the Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colo., which freezes into a bulging column of ice almost 400 feet tall.
Lowe climbed Bridal Veil again, alone, in 1978. About halfway up he decided to forgo his rope and free-solo dozens of feet up the rippling ice. The feat inspired the journalist William Oscar Johnson to write about it in Sports Illustrated, which made Lowe one of only a handful of climbers to appear on the magazine’s cover.
His brother Greg told The Denver Post in 1996 that such nonchalant courage was characteristic of Lowe, who “always has this ability to dissociate from his body.”
Lowe tempered his boldness with caution. He told the magazine Rock and Ice in 2017 that “no climb is worth the tip of my little finger.”
“I always thought if I died in the mountains,” he added, “it would put an asterisk on my climbs.”
A hardheaded assessment of risk ended a notable first ascent attempt in 1978. Lowe, his cousin George Lowe and his friends Michael Kennedy and Jim Donini were climbing the north ridge of Latok I, a roughly 23,440-foot mountain in the Karakoram range in Pakistan, when Lowe became very sick.
Though the summit was tantalizingly close — just 400 feet — the party turned back and returned to base camp after 26 days of climbing.
“They gave up the summit to see me safely back on flat ground,” Lowe told Rock and Ice. “I think it set a standard that is not always adhered to for taking care of your partners and not letting the summit be the be-all, end-all.”
Jeffery George Lowe was born on Sept. 13, 1950, in Ogden, Utah, to Ralph and Elgene (Siefertson) Lowe. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a lawyer who introduced Lowe and his seven siblings to climbing when they were young. At 7 Jeff climbed Grand Teton in northwestern Wyoming with his father.
He graduated from high school in Ogden and spent three years at Tahoe Paradise College on a ski racing scholarship before becoming a full-time climber. He worked with the nonprofit outdoor educational organization Outward Bound and gave climbing lessons to support himself when he was young.
In the early 1980s he married Janie Hannigan.
Lowe founded Latok Mountain Gear, an apparel and equipment company, in the early 1980s, but his brothers took control of it several years later when he was struggling to repay its debts. He also helped introduce climbing competitions to the United States, including the first Sport Climbing Championships in Snowbird, Utah, in 1988. The event was popular with climbers but earned little money and left Lowe in more debt.
He declared bankruptcy in 1990, and in 1991 he and his wife divorced shortly before he began his climb up the Eiger.
“I’m trying to get my freedom back,” he was quoted as saying in an article about the climb in Men’s Journal that year. “I could have saved my marriage if I had chosen to. But when I was forced to take a new look, I realized, ‘Hey, it’s not what I really want.’ It’s a weird thing, but climbing is still at the center.”
Another marriage, to Teri Ebel, also ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter and two brothers, he is survived by three sisters, Melinda Pauli, Lillija Contos and Liisa Frei, and one granddaughter.
Lowe’s former companion and caregiver, Connie Self, produced the film “Metanoia,” which features narration by the climber and writer Jon Krakauer.
Lowe was also a founder of the Ouray Ice Festival, a popular annual ice climbing competition outside Ouray, Colo.
He climbed Ama Dablam in the Himalayas in 1979 as part of an expedition that was filmed for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” The party included Tom Frost, a climber who died on the same day as Lowe. After returning to base camp, Lowe turned around and completed a solo first ascent up Ama Dablam’s south face.
Lowe said mastering mountains, ice and rock had helped him prepare for another struggle — with his illness.
“The challenges of adventure, rock climbing and alpinism trained me well for dealing with the slow neurodegenerative malady I’m experiencing,” he told Rock and Ice last year, conveying his thoughts with an iPad because he could no longer speak. By then, he was also using a wheelchair.
But his vivid memories of climbing remained a consolation.
“More than five decades of hands grated by cracks,” he wrote on his tablet. “Whole body aching from long days of big-wall hauling. Tiny tents, bivy sacs, snow caves lashed by hurricane sleet. Frozen fingers and toes. Migraines and altitude malaise. Not knowing what’s to come. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.”