[The following is just one of several stories we published in our Climbing Life department of Issue 48. Pick up a copy to read over Nick Bullock’s shoulder as he writes the soundtrack of the mountains, while John Hessler goes mountaineering with monks and Luke Mehall narrates the origin of Creeksgiving.–Ed.]
Zion: The Jeff Lowe Years
IT WAS DAYTIME, 1972, BUT THE DEPTHS of the twisting sandstone chimney filtered out most of the pale February sunlight. It was too dark, even, to take a photograph. Afterward, Jeff Lowe recalled climbing up Isaac Peak– one of the towering Three Patriarchs of Zion National Park–as like being inside the undulating intestines of a giant stone man. Lowe and his partner Wick Beavers oozed through the twelve-inch-wide constriction, their pace measured with each pause at the single belay bolts drilled by their two other partners.
Every night, the four men slugged watery beers around small fires built on wide, sandy ledges. Their shadows flashed high up the empty wall behind them as they bemoaned the overcrowding of Yosemite. During the day, they hauled their home-sewn bags with slow, lurching motions until they spurted from the bowels of the rock and into the sunlight.
Higher up Isaac, the iron-red hues faded from its sunbaked stone, bleaching the rock a pale umber. At the lip of the wall, Lowe left his partners to scramble up loose boulders and fragrant scrub. Alone on the summit, he stacked stones while the light faded behind the Court of the Patriarchs. The cairn was out of character for Lowe, a flicker of hubris from his time as a ski racer. Since his initial trip to Zion several years before, that sense of contest had waned in favor of something else: a vision of life as an artistic pursuit, a yearning for quiet adventures. Here, in Zion’s raw, unpopulated canyons, it was easy for almost everything he climbed to be a first ascent, yet the volatile rock of the canyon’s upper layers never promised a topout.
VIEWED FROM UP-CANYON, the tapering girth of a flat summit makes the hulking, grey-lichen-coated Great White Throne seem even taller than its 2,300 feet, like the painted backdrop in an old Western, unrolled to simulate untouchable space and grandeur. In 1916 two young men from nearby Rockville, Claud Hirschi and Ethelbert Bingham, guided the Methodist minister Frederick Fisher up Zion Canyon. Upon seeing the Throne, Fisher exclaimed, “I have looked for this mountain all my life but never expected to find it in this world. This is the Great White Throne.” From a low saddle, Angels Landing swoops skyward and swings a wide arc along the shallow Virgin River. Turning from the Throne, Fisher said, “The angels would never land on the Throne, but would reverently pause at the foot”–atop Angels Landing.
Half a century later, Jeff Lowe arrived from Yosemite where, as the historian Joseph E. Taylor writes in Pilgrims of the Vertical, “a tragedy of the commons gripped the campgrounds and walls.” The numbers of visitors in the Valley had more than doubled over the past decade. During the four previous seasons, climbers had repeated the Nose seventeen times, the Salathe eight. To some, all the obvious crack lines–and the lines between those–had been climbed out. As Steve Roper recalls, the climbers who had dominated big-wall nailing in the 1960s were unwilling to drill into the remaining blank spots. For others, the Valley had simply become too urban. And so, there was an exodus of big-wall traditionalists, including Lowe and his then-girlfriend, Christie Northrop.
In the summer of 1969, the pair was headed for Salt Lake City, near Lowe’s childhood home in Ogden, where he’d grown up as the fourth of eight children. At age seven, he’d climbed the Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton with his family. At fourteen, he’d planned his first solo bivouac on a new route up Mt. Ogden.
Roper and Chuck Pratt had come through Zion several times, but they’d scowled at the way the nice lines seemed to evaporate in a puff of white sand at two-thirds height. In 1967 Fred Beckey, Pat Callis and Galen Rowell had made the first major ascent in the canyon, jangling up the wide maws of the Throne’s Northwest Face, placing bongs and blade pitons. Sand rained down in their eyes.
Lowe didn’t mind the soft rock; he was smitten with the red canyons. The open sky, framed by the leaf-dappled cottonwoods and the eroded silhouettes of the chasm rim, left space to pause, to unfurl. A clear, dry breeze carried only the occasional trills of a canyon wren. Over the next three years, he’d establish a host of difficult aid routes there. The stone was rough and fickle, but it gave off a warm radiance. “Zion had…a big heart,” his longtime partner Mike Weis says, “and Jeff had a heart to match it.”
A FEW MONTHS AFTER HE FIRST GLIMPSED ZION’S WALLS, Lowe enlisted his buddy Wilson Clinton “Cactus” Bryan to climb Angels Landing’s steep north face. The two had met at Tahoe Paradise College, which they’d both chosen for the ease of its academics and for the ample cash that supported its ski-racing team. But when the coach pressured Lowe to lose his tagalong girlfriend, cut his hair and stop smoking pot, he quit school to wander the country and climb instead. “Once I had done these things,” he recalls, “the planet opened up to me and became my classroom, teaching me about myself.”
Lowe taught the neophyte Bryan how to jumar and belay just days before they started up Angels Landing. Bryan’s eyes opened wide as he took a pendulum swing out over the
Virgin River almost 1,000 feet below. But he said nothing at the anchor, and passed Lowe the gear for the next lead. A year later, they climbed the north face of the Red Sentinel, a broad wall of crumbling and twisted columns. Epochs of debris buried its stone steps in an apron of sand hardened by wind and water. Grainy particulate sloughed from under their boots. Lowe wished for a mountaineering axe to hack new steps through the crust of desiccated moss. They bivied at the base of one pillar. Dawn illuminated a smooth succession of moves off RURPs and knifeblades. At dusk the next day, they flopped onto the apex of the wall, the end of what would remain Lowe’s most difficult Zion climb. That night, he and Bryan lay awake listening to the echoes of croaking toads rising in cacophony from the canyon floor.
MOONLIGHT BUTTRESS, THE ANGULAR PROW on Angels Landing’s north side, is split by a narrow fissure that swells and constricts for hundreds of feet. This was Lowe’s “easiest” Zion wall. During his first attempt with Davey Agnew and Burt Redmayne in the spring of 1971, Lowe led the third pitch with quarter-inch bolts, RURPs, handmade bashies and a few hook moves to reach a tower of wobbling blocks (now chained to the main wall as a belay stance). He stood tall on the trembling stack; his partners huddled together below. Lowe shifted his weight fore and aft to demonstrate its instability. The display had an unintended effect of scaring his partners off the climb.
That October, he came back with Mike Weis, a fellow college dropout. Lowe still remembers everything he and Weis brought up the climb: “Arrows, angles, bongs, set of Stoppers, set of hexes, quarter-inch bolts for aid…. Four ounces of cheese, four cracked wheat crackers, small can [of] tuna in spring water, small can [of] fruit in light syrup, one cup granola with powdered milk….” And three quarts of water per day. They took turns watching the “bivy TV,” a plastic red box no larger than a deck of cards that shuffled through photographs of women in 1940s bathing suits. A swilled can of beer pressure-washed the grit from their teeth. Lowe says, “We bantered easily…told lots of jokes and imagined great solutions to the world’s current maladies.”
As Weis led up the long finger crack that extends through the buttress, he came upon a set of stacked blocks in a dihedral. Even if he could get around them, his trail line might drop the blocks onto Lowe. Weis decided to tie off to his protection, ease the rocks onto his lap and heave them out past Lowe’s hanging stance. “Do you think you can do it?” Lowe shouted. His voice cracked with a rare note of worry. “I gave it all I had,” Weis says, “and the blocks tumbled from my arms in a slow, ungainly lurch and smoked by Jeff with little room to spare.”
BY THE EARLY 1970s, LOWE DRIFTED AWAY FROM ZION, increasingly drawn by the glint of waterfall ice and intricate alpine faces instead. But in the mountains, he found, the mindset of the desert remained. The threat of rockfall. The long runouts that stretched his tolerance of fear. The faceted snow that shifted under his feet high on the North Ridge of Latok I, disintegrating like the mossy slopes of the Red Sentinel. And all the while, that same curiosity that drove him upward, inward, deeper.
In 1991 Lowe spent eight winter nights alone on the Eiger Nordwand. To manifest his vision of a pure ascent, he added no fixed hardware, weighting only strings of delicate aid placements up an unbroken rockband. Cave-bound in the grey tumult of a storm, Lowe reached a state of intense clarity, his life’s choices and consequences stretched out behind and before. By then, Lowe was no longer the only human to have stood atop Isaac, and many more climbers had chased their own visions up the luminous Zion rock. Lowe never built another cairn in Zion–or anywhere–perhaps to preserve the feeling of solitude and of mystery that had gradually transformed him.
Now Lowe endures a neurodegenerative disorder that has ended his life as a climber and will eventually shut down his body. Says Weis, “He may be the only person I know who can stand at the top of that final, dark and forbidding north face, lean into the wind and be delighted about what he might see on the way down.”
–Gwen Cameron, Jeffersonville, Vermont
[We encourage you to visit jeffloweclimber.com to learn about Lowe’s film project, Metanoia, and consider making a donation.–Ed.]