I n Jeff Lowe’s world, the climb isn’t complete until the story’s been told.
“In my experience, the most complete climbs are the ones that don’t end with the climb,” Lowe said. “They end after you’ve had time to consider them and the impact they’ve had with you and then actually shared that with other people. Then it’s a complete cycle of experience.”
Lowe was expounding on climbing and what it meant as he enjoyed the late-winter sun in the foothills above Boulder. His partner, Connie Self, had helped roll his wheelchair over a ridge in the doorway of her sister’s house so they could be outside for an interview. Watching him talk about the sport and the universe at the same time was like staring into the sun.
That’s one reason why Lowe is making the film “Metanoia,” which examines his solo climb by the same name on Switzerland’s notorious Eiger. He chose to name the route based on an experience — a metanoia, a transformative change of thinking, or heart — he had while stormed into a snow cave high on the climb.
“The metanoia I had on the Eiger kind of showed me how it all wraps together, how one thing is not separated from another, and they’re all bound together in a really timeless web of — well, I’m going to get too esoteric there…” Lowe said, trailing off.
Lowe ascended the route on the north face over nine unforgiving days in the winter of 1991. It remains unrepeated.
As mountains go, the Eiger is huge, said Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, in Golden.
“Its vertical relief from bottom to top is extraordinary,” Powers said. “It faces north, so it’s a cold face. Weather is often very hard to see as it comes towards the Eiger. …And the Eiger produces a lot of loose rock and falling ice.”
And, Powers added: “Iconic climbers from days gone by have perished on the Eiger, so it has this intimidating reputation.”
When Lowe decided to take on this new route on the iconic Eiger, he was going through a bankruptcy, a business failure and a divorce, and was separated from his then 2-year-old daughter, Sonja.
At that time, Lowe was in a self-destructive cycle, said Malcolm Daly, who climbed often with Lowe over the years and was involved with one of Lowe’s companies, Latok Mountain Gear.
“It was hard to watch, because we all knew that here was this spectacular dreamer who was watching his dreams and his reality start to burn,” Daly said. “And I think a lot of us thought that Jeff’s thing here was literally going to be an attempt to go down in flames.”
“I was really glad he made it,” Daly added with a chuckle.
Lowe was versed in solo alpine climbing, said his brother Greg Lowe, of Berthoud, who is helping to make the film.
Alone, high on this difficult route on a difficult mountain, and with no means to turn around, Jeff Lowe had a strange experience.
Still 1,000 feet below the summit, he retreated into a snow cave. With little food and another storm on the heels of the first, things looked bleak, but he stayed calm.
“I spent the day in this cave, watching the waves of spindrift fall past the entrance, and I had a time period when my mind went some wild places. I saw things and experienced things that are still now are being revealed to me.”
The big challenge with the film, Jeff said, is to get that scene right. “We’re working on it, without being hokey, like an LSD flashback,” he said.
The film will include stills from Jeff’s climb, plus re-creations of sections of the climb and flyovers of the Eiger, Greg said. But he agreed with his brother’s assessment — that mind-bending experience will be tough to translate.
There are other challenges to making the film, too. Like money — filmmaker Chris Ford, who had the idea to put together a film about the climb and Jeff’s, kicked in some seed money to get the project going. A Kickstarter campaign earned $38,000 for the film.
But the biggest challenge might be Jeff’s health.
It was the late ’90s when Jeff first started to notice that something was wrong, physically. He recalls going to Eldorado Canyon to climb one day at that time, heading up to the Redgarden Wall and inexplicably being unable to get off the ground.
Even now, Jeff doesn’t have a solid diagnosis for his disease.
At first, it looked like multiple sclerosis. Then, another doctor said, it’s not MS, it’s multiple system atrophy. Then that was eliminated as a diagnosis, too.
“I have a new diagnosis now,” Jeff said.
“It’s an unknown neurodegenerative process,” Self said. “Which means they have no clue.”
“I like to joke that Jeff has to do first ascents, even with disease.”
Lowe grew up in Utah but spent more than three decades in Boulder. He calls himself “more of a Colorado native.” He’s a well-known first ascentionist in Colorado on rock and especially ice climbing, because he is credited with envisioning the tools and the techniques for pushing the sport into a steeper realm.
Daly cited Jeff’s first ascent of Colorado’s Bridalveil Falls — and that he shocked the climbing community by returning the next year to solo it.
“He did audacious things in the mountains, he did audacious things in many, many first ascents on rock, he did audacious things as an ice climber,” said Powers, of the alpine club. “And he did audacious things in business.”
“He was a ground breaker in every sense of the word,” he said. “Everything didn’t work out, but that’s what comes from risk taking.”
Now, no longer climbing, Jeff hopes to break ground with this film. He hopes to have it ready for the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 — if it’s accepted.
“You have to be real, straightforward and direct and honest, and that’s what I’m striving for these days. And that’s what I hope this film does, is portrays some real, honest experiences and emotions in a way that is not overstepping to call them personal revelations that occurred on this climb.”
Learn more about “Metanoia” at jeffloweclimber.com .