Ice Fest Founder Jeff Lowe Faces Final ‘Unimaginable Climb’
by Samantha Wright
Jan 19, 2013 | 3579 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TRIBAL TRIBUTE – A large crowd of Ice Festivarians rose to their feet at the Ouray Community Center last Saturday evening to honor Jeff Lowe (seated, raising a glass), the visionary climber and founder of the Ouray Ice Festival. In honor of Lowe’s contributions to the Ice Fest over the years, long-time friend and fellow climber Jim Donini introduced the Jeff Lowe Award, which will be given annually from now on to someone who has volunteered significant time and talents to the Fest’s success. The first annual Jeff Lowe Award appropriately went to Bill Whitt, the co-founder of the Ouray Ice Park. (Photo by Samantha Wright)

TRIBAL TRIBUTE – A large crowd of Ice Festivarians rose to their feet at the Ouray Community Center last Saturday evening to honor Jeff Lowe (seated, raising a glass), the visionary climber and founder of the Ouray Ice Festival. In honor of Lowe’s contributions to the Ice Fest over the years, long-time friend and fellow climber Jim Donini introduced the Jeff Lowe Award, which will be given annually from now on to someone who has volunteered significant time and talents to the Fest’s success. The first annual Jeff Lowe Award appropriately went to Bill Whitt, the co-founder of the Ouray Ice Park. (Photo by Samantha Wright)

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OURAY – 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 Jeff Lowe. The guy who in 1958, at age 7, became the youngest person to climb the Grand Teton and never looked back. Always forward, toward the next unclimbed route, the next summit, the next virgin knife-edged spire, from the Wasatch Mountains and big walls of Zion to the Swiss Alps and the Himalaya.

The guy who, because it didn’t exist and he needed it, invented the gold standard in climbing gear and outdoor clothing and equipment that is still used today. The guy who started the Ouray Ice Festival 18 years ago and helped transform Ouray’s winter economy forevermore.

But a more irreverent godfather would be hard to find.

“They haven’t run us out of town yet,” he joked, as the dust settled on Monday from the 18th Ice Fest. “There was a time when many old-timers really didn’t want us. They called me a ‘god-damn ice climber.’ That went away. I am amazed by what people think can’t be done. I’ve always been a possibility thinker.”

Lowe, who bequeathed the Ouray Ice Festival to the nonprofit Ouray Ice Park, Inc., in 2002 and now lives in his native Ogden, Utah, with girlfriend Connie Self, is very happy with how the event has evolved over the years since he got out of the business of running it. “I was reassured by what I’ve seen here,” he said.  “Everything is moving along. It seems very positive. The old guard and the new guard are not very sharply delineated; it’s a very organic movement.”

It’s hard to understand Lowe talk these days. 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’; it gives me a ready excuse for any time I screw up in any way,” he joked of his illness in an interview that is part of an ambitious film memoir he, Self and others have been working on for the past several years.

The project, called Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, chronicles Lowe’s "unimaginable climb" up the notorious North Face of the Eiger in 1991, using a combination of archival footage, interviews and modern footage to tell the tale, and spirals out from there to capture the essence of his climbing career and character. Now in the final editing stages, Self anticipates Metanoia will be released in 2014 on the festival circuit. (The film is well-documented on the website, jeffloweclimber.com.)

Lowe probably won’t be here to see its release. He probably won’t be here for the next Ouray Ice Festival, either. He calls this latest one his “big love fest.” Because behind the scenes, honoring Jeff Lowe turns out to be what it was really all about. A steady stream of aging alpinists with sky in their eyes and climb in their souls, stopping by the apartment where Lowe and Self are staying, paying their last respects, sharing memories, drinking beer or Naked Juice, and laughing.

Now Lowe spends his days in a powered wheelchair because his body has almost completely shut down. He can’t talk very well either. But that doesn’t keep him from trying. When the words slur together too much, Self is almost always able to translate.

When the accolade, ‘the godfather of modern ice climbing’ is tossed out in conversation, as it almost always is in relation to Lowe, he just laughs. “My church is out there on the ice. In the mountains. I am a religious fanatic. I am very much a fundamentalist outdoorsman,” he quips.

Self shakes her head. “You’ll get no straightforward praise from Jeff Lowe, about Jeff Lowe,” she observes, then offers her own fluid thoughts on the godfather matter.

“Jeff had vision; he’s really known as a visionary,” she riffs. “He could see things that no one else could see. He would see something and think about climbing it. He was always very open and very curious, and interested. He loves ice, the formations, the look, the feel, the touch. He gets interested and curious. His climbs are very aesthetic; he looks for beauty. He’s just following his heart, his nose. He would go where no one else had gone, in a way that no one else had gone.”

“Me and Captain Kirk,” Lowe interjects, grinning slyly.

“I’m not trying to be funny; I’m trying to be serious,” Self protests.

Lowe settles down and becomes thoughtful himself. “People that are trying to ice climb or mountaineer, are my kind of people,” he concludes. “They are a great crowd. I love the people involved. I just love everything about the lifestyle.”

A life spent climbing has prepared him well, he says, for this final challenge he is now facing.

“There is a lot of work and hard times in climbing, and those are often the best parts,” he explains. “You get used to them, by not judging. And by realizing it’s a temporary situation. It’s easier to accept the difficulty because you know that this too shall pass.”

Lowe wonders how he will do, facing his final unimaginable climb. “I’m interested to see what happens when our body falls apart,” he says. “It’s all part of life; I don’t look at death as anything that serious; it’s something all people do. I have my ideas about what might happen, and I’m curious to see if any of these ideas are correct.

“I’ve lived an incredible life with the best people I would ever have hoped to encounter over the years.”

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