16 years ago Lowe and Bridges were climbing on Shishapangma in Tibet with their friend Conrad Anker when an avalanche swept them away. Anker, who survived by running left as his companions ran to the right, recalled in an interview with Outside magazine: “There was just this big white cloud, and then it settled and there was nothing there."
Anker, Lowe and Bridges were part of a party that was attempting to summit the 8,027m peak and ski down it. Had they made it they would have been the first Americans ever to descend one of the “eight-thousanders" with skis.
"Anker spent days looking for any sign of his missing companions, but nothing was ever found."
Along with their fellow skiers Anker spent days looking for any sign of his missing companions, but nothing was ever found. Nothing that is until last week, when climbers Ueli Steck and David Goettler were making their own ascent of Shishapangma, and spotted two bodies which had partially melted out of the glacier.
They phoned Anker, who recognised their description of “blue and red North Face backpacks," and “yellow konflach boots".
“We’re pretty sure it’s them," he told Outside.
Lowe was widely recognised as one of the finest climbers of his - or indeed any - generation, with Outside hailing him as “the best climber in the world" following his death. Known affectionately as the “Lung on Legs", the forty-year-old from Bozeman, Montana, was well-known not just to the climbing community but also to the wider world.
Had he, Bridges, Anker and their friends managed the ski descent it would have been just one in a long string of firsts in an illustrious career. He’d made the first ascent of Rakekniven in Antarctica and a peak on Baffin Island in the Arctic. He’d opened up new routes on peaks in Alaska, Nepal, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, and he’d made it to the summit of Everest twice.
His record as a skier was no less impressive. He’d claimed the first descents of two couloirs in the Teton mountains above Jackson, Wyoming. And in 1997 he and his friend Hans Saari (another member of the fateful 1999 expedition) had made the first descent of the “Hellmouth Couloir" down from Peak 10,031 in Montana. The mountain was re-named Alex Lowe peak in his honour following his death.
Perhaps his most celebrated achievement however was his involvement in the dramatic rescue of a group of Spanish climbers during a storm on Denali (formerly known as Mt McKinley), the highest peak in the US, in 1995. Lowe literally carried one of the stricken Spaniards to safety on his back and reports from the time suggested he was personally responsible for saving several lives.
Bridges, who lost his life alongside Lowe, was younger than his companion, but at 29 he was already an accomplished mountaineer in his own right and a skilled cameraman. He was with the crew to film their exploits.
In a strange twist, Lowe’s widow Jennifer married Conrad Anker following his death. Lowe’s close friend had helped her through the grief and the pair fell in love. Anker is adoptive father to Jennifer’s two sons and the couple now run the Alex Lowe foundation together.
They were in neighbouring Nepal preparing to leave after successful charitable trip when the call came through about the discovery of Lowe and Bridges’ bodies in Tibet.
In her celebrated 2008 memoir Forget Me Not, Jennifer wrote: “Alex will melt out of the glacier one day... and I do not look forward to it."
However, a statement on the Lowe Foundation website reveals that today, Jennifer is “thankful."
“Alex and David vanished, were captured and frozen in time. Sixteen years of life has been lived and now they are found," she said. “Alex’s parents are thankful to know that their son’s body has been found and that Conrad, the boys and I will make our pilgrimage to Shishapangma. It is time to put Alex to rest."
Recovering bodies from the high Himalayas is a difficult task, but the families are planning a trip to do so soon, before giving Alex and David a proper burial.
Anker said: “After 16-and-a-half years, this brings closure and relief for me and Jenni and for our family."
Anyone who’s interested in finding out more about Alex Lowe and honouring his memory with a donation to the Alex Lowe foundation (dedicated to providing direction and financial support to sustainable, community-based humanitarian programs around the world) should visit alexlowe.org.