- Associated Press - Saturday, May 17, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Colo. (AP) - Ever so slowly, one by one, Jeff Lowe places pills from the 10 medications he takes every morning into a cup of applesauce that will help him swallow them. One for muscle spasms, another to prevent blood clots that could be fatal. One for his bladder, another for his bowel.

There’s a steroid for pain, an allergy medication, something for reflux, a cough suppressant and more.

A legendary mountain climber renowned for his athleticism, grace and creativity in the 1970s and 1980s, Lowe was credited with an amazing 1,000-plus first ascents. He didn’t just do things others couldn’t, he did things others couldn’t imagine, including an audacious climb on the killer North Face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps. Solo. In winter.

Now, because of an unknown neurodegenerative disorder with symptoms similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he lives in a wheelchair with a breathing tube in his nose. The disease is slowly killing him, but he is facing death with the same spirit that made him a mythic figure in mountaineering. Maybe the way he faces death will help others live better.

Lowe lives in an apartment here under home hospice care but spent a week in a hospital in January battling pneumonia and a blood clot in his leg. His devoted partner, Connie Self, can hardly bear the thought of losing him, even if the mere act of eating is an ordeal for him.

But Lowe, 63, has a contented light about him, one of peace and amusement. He is letting go with patience and grace. He sees his approaching death as the last adventure in a lifetime spent seeking them.

“He’s very interested in the process,” says Self, who serves as his translator because his speech has deteriorated to a point nearly impossible for others to understand. “He wants to be aware and awake when he crosses over. He’s real interested in what’s on the other side of that veil.”

A spiritual if not religious man, Lowe believes he had a glimpse of what lies beyond death during his epic Eiger solo in 1991.

“His life as a climber has had a huge impact on how he deals with this,” Self says. “Climbing, you do the best you can with what you’ve got, from where you are, right now. You are focused in this moment on solving this next step, this next move. You’re not saying, ‘Argh, this shouldn’t have happened. Why is this crack ending here?’ If you’re doing that, all your creativity shuts down.

Lowe, who climbed the Grand Teton when he was 7 years old, not only found new routes to the top, he inspired others to new heights.

Jeff was known for bringing incredible athleticism to rock climbing, mountaineering, but most notably to ushering in a new age of ice climbing and mixed climbing (snow, ice and rock),” says Pete Athans, a former Boulder climber who has summited Mount Everest seven times. “He had incredible technical skills, and to match it had the passion to be able to push them up all types of terrain that other climbers not only didn’t try to do but never thought to do. His enthusiasm and his passion were infectious to the people who climbed with him.”

The North Face of the Eiger is one of the most dangerous mountain walls in the world. It even looks malevolent, Eiger meaning “Ogre” in German. The north face (Nordwand in German) is nicknamed with a macabre pun: “Mordwand,” the murder wall. It has a vertical rise of 6,000 feet, is ridiculously steep and sometimes overhanging.

When Lowe went there in 1991, his status as an iconic climber was well established but his personal life was a shambles. He was recently divorced and his business, Latok Mountain Gear, was bankrupt. Creditors were hounding him.

He had wanted to climb the Eiger’s north face since childhood when he read Heinrich Harrer’s classic book about it, “The White Spider,” but there never seemed to be the right time until his life had fallen apart. Some wondered if he was going there to kill himself.

Climbing the Eiger brought a life-changing experience. Pinned down in a snow cave in a storm with spindrift avalanches threatening to bury him, he heard a humming vibration, a sound he couldn’t identify. He found himself in an altered state - or was it a hallucination?

“He met himself, and he experienced infinity, experienced the universe in all its grandeur and all its expansiveness, his purpose in it and what he needed to do,” Self explains. “Being himself was the most important thing for him to do. It changed everything for him.”

Climbers making first ascents get to name the route. Because of what happened in that snow cave 4,500 feet up the Eiger on the eighth day of the climb, Lowe named his route Metanoia, which is defined as “a fundamental change of thinking or a transformative change of heart.”

Now he is collaborating with filmmaker Jim Aikman to produce a documentary titled “Metanoia” about his life as a climber, his experience on the Eiger and his physical deterioration with motor neuron disease.

“This movie is the last hurrah,” Self says. “It’s the last opportunity that we know of for him to share what he sees and what he’s learned from this point of view, from mountaintop to wheelchair.”

As the disease progresses, it will be increasingly hard for Lowe to breathe as his diaphragm weakens. Lowe doesn’t feel sorry for himself, but he feels sorry for Self.

“He thinks it’s more difficult for me, and there are times when I think so too,” Self says while Lowe works slowly on a bowl of cereal he holds precariously on his lap. “He is so well-trained at putting one foot in front of the other, he’s just focused on getting the movie done, getting his book done, visiting with family, spending time with his daughter and granddaughter, eating this bowl without spilling it.”

“He is starting to say goodbye to people, because it is becoming ever more real where this is heading.”


Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com



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