LOUISVILLE — 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.
"When you stay open to possibilities, you stay in the present moment and you keep moving. You can make the best possible decisions when you keep your creativity open and you're embracing reality. That's what Jeff calls it, 'embracing reality' instead of resisting reality."
Lowe typically lets Self speak for him, because when he speaks he sounds a little like a reluctant car starter grinding on a cold winter morning. He keeps a notebook handy if he wants to communicate by writing.
"I wouldn't wish my daily care on my worst enemy, let alone someone like Connie, who I call my better Self," Lowe writes. "Remember, her last name is, in fact, Self. So, when I think of what she does for me by her own choice, I'm astounded by the depth of her love, and that makes my love for Connie expand all the more. She is an amazing woman."
Self, 58, feels the same way about him.
"Jeff is my greatest spiritual teacher," Self says, "because he models for me every day what would be an enlightened response to life."
Man of Metanoia
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.
"He felt like he needed something to keep all of his attention," Self says. "Climbing can be like a meditation, where everything else falls away and you're so focused for a long period of time that when you come out of that, you usually have a better perspective."
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."
"Starting to say goodbye"
Self first met Lowe 30 years ago when she managed an outdoor shop in California and he came to do a clinic. As a couple, they've been "off and on" for 20 years but inseparable since 2009.
"He says I'm the last woman standing," Self says. "He says it took him a long time to get it right."
The first hint of his disease came when he slipped and fell while ice skating with his family in 1999, hitting his head hard on the ice. That was odd. He was, after all, a man with exceptional balance and coordination. Nobody suspected that fall was a warning. It went unheeded.
A year later, Lowe went for a run and fell after two steps. He got up, ran two more steps and fell again. He quit running but waited a year before going to a doctor. By then he was feeling diminishing sensitivity in his fingers plus tingling in his legs, feet and hands.
It seemed at first like multiple sclerosis, but MRIs showed no scleroses in his brain. Later he was diagnosed with olivopontocerebellar atrophy (OPCA), a shrinking of the cerebellum. Doctors advised him to get his affairs in order because he probably only had a couple of years to live. That was in 2008.
His speech was starting to get bad, but an MRI a year later showed no shrinkage of his cerebellum. It wasn't OPCA after all, but doctors didn't know what it was. They still don't.
"Jeff has an as-yet-not-diagnosed chronic degenerative neurological process," says his primary doctor, Lee Schussman, speaking with Lowe's consent. "It at first did not meet the criteria for ALS, but in my opinion he's getting closer and closer to reaching the diagnosis of probable ALS."
Each day brings steep challenges. At times, Lowe has frightening coughing spells. Sometimes he needs a special breathing apparatus with a mask that helps force air into his lungs, increasing the oxygen level in his blood.
It takes a couple of hours to get him up and functioning in the morning, another hour to eat breakfast. He can write with a stylus on an iPad or computer — he is collaborating with a writer on an autobiography, and on the movie — but the process is painstakingly slow. It takes Self two or three hours to get him ready for bed at night. He has to sleep upright so he can breathe.
As the disease progresses, it will be increasingly hard for him 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."
Self straightens the bowl.
"He is starting to say goodbye to people, because it is becoming ever more real where this is heading."
Sense of humor shows
The route on the Eiger that Lowe would call Metanoia had never been done. Lowe not only wanted to be the first, he wanted to climb with integrity. He would not place bolts in the rock for protection, which would make the climb easier, and safer, but seemed like cheating to him. He would do it alone, in winter, with protective devices that would not scar the mountain as bolts do.
On the ninth day of the climb, after 18 hours in the snow cave where he had his Metanoia experience, the weather cleared and Lowe made his push for the summit. He was exhausted, running low on food and fuel, anxious to finish the route and reach safety. He was rushing.
A climbing tool came loose from ice he was ascending and he fell 25 feet, hitting hard and injuring a shoulder. He was able to finish the climb but was forced to leave his pack on the mountain because another storm was bearing down on him.
"That's very hard, to leave all your gear when you're an alpine climber," Self says. "You don't want to scar the mountain, you don't want to leave junk behind. For him to leave that was to compromise his climbing ethics and values. At the same time, he wanted to see his daughter again."
The documentary will show climber Josh Wharton chipping the lost pack out of ice on the Eiger in 2011, then returning it to Lowe, which makes for an amusing scene as Lowe removes its contents piece by piece, cracking jokes.
Lowe always had a sense of humor. In the 1970s Lowe and his brothers helped revolutionize the business of outdoor gear with Lowe Alpine Systems, which was based in Broomfield. When Self mentions that Lowe backpacks were the first designed with the understanding that a woman's center of gravity is lower than a man's, Lowe jumps into the conversation and says something only Self can understand.
"He says it was from a lot of careful study," she says.
Life powered by love
Lowe still loves to visit the mountains — in his wheelchair — and reflect on his life. He has amazing memories.
"One of the things he's learned too is that really what it all comes down to is love," Self says. "Love for people, love for the mountains, love for the planet, love for the outdoors."
He's pouring that love into the film and the book. He climbed with style; now he's dying that way.
"People say he's a fighter," Self says. "What Jeff does more is let go. He embraces, 'What's ahead of me.' I don't think Jeff wakes up in the morning with dread, ever. I do sometimes ... I struggle far more with reality than he does. I wish things were different than they are, and he doesn't."
He hasn't given up hope for a remedy that might extend his life. But he is realistic.
"Would he love a miracle? Absolutely," Self says. "What a great ending to the movie that would be."
John Meyer: 303-954-1616, email@example.com or twitter.com/johnmeyer