Alex Lowe was a leading climber in the 1980s and 1990s, but until now, few outside of his inner circle truly understood him beyond his climbing accomplishments. Now, thanks to a new film by Alex’s son, Max Lowe, we can better know the man who so many of us idealized.
And let me start by saying that this film is a must-watch, is beautifully done, and completely knocked the emotions right out of me. Not only me, but the hundreds who watched it at the Banff Mountain Festival this weekend before giving it a standing ovation.
There’s a scene in the film where Conrad Anker, Alex’s best friend and climbing partner sits down to talk about Alex’s death. He sits, closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and then opens them and says “let’s do this.” Torn is as much a climbing film as it is a film about family, loss, love, humility and finding peace. Max paints apicture of the trials that his family faced during the time Alex was alive, and the decades after he died. The film mostly focuses on Jennifer, Alex’s widow and Conrad’s wife, and Max and his two brothers, Sam and Isaac.
Early in the film
The film starts with Max, his brother, Jennifer and Conrad sitting in the living room of their family home. They’re looking at slides of old family photos projected onto a screen. We then get an introduction of the family and meet Jennifer and Conrad, separately.
The film follows Alex through his early adventures, with old friends talking about his strength and determination.
We get a glimpse of the times when Alex was acting in a mean way, and Jennifer says that he wasn’t always the nicest. Max lets the audience know early that we’re not watching a film that will make Alex look like a superhero, but a man with flaws who battled with his passion.
Alex and Conrad seem unstoppable and are shown to be some of the best climbers at the time, with Conrad saying that he was second in ability to Alex. On a trip to Antarctica, however, it’s clear that Alex is struggling more and more with leaving his family; he wants to be home.
Then we see family time with Alex and the kids, thanks to some home videos that Alex shot. They go skiing and hang out around the breakfast table. You can see that Alex is connecting, or at least trying to connect, to his sons.
The avalanche on Shishapangma
Alex takes Max for a day of climbing to Grand Teton, and it’s one of the last times they’ll hang out. Alex tells Max that he’s planning on going to Shishapangma (8,013 m) in Tibet to attempt to ski from the summit. At the time, fewer than 20 people had skied from the summits of 8,000-metre peak, and no North American had skied from an 8,000er’s summit.
The original plan for the ski trip included six alpinists, Alex Lowe, Conrad Anker, Andrew McLean, Mark Holbrook, Kristoffer Erickson and Hans Saari. They were to be joined by a film crew led by Kent Harvey, Michael Brown and Dave Bridges to produce an NBC documentary of the expedition for The North Face.
We cut to Max sitting in a room watching footage from the expedition which he’d never seen before. In the clips, Conrad, Alex and David set up tents, talk about the mountains and are full of excitement.
Conrad tells Max that he and Alex were tentmates and that Alex told him that he realized that he’d taken one trip too many and that expeditions were taking a toll on his family. Alex tells Conrad that when he gets back home, he wants to take the kids to Disneyland. Conrad and Alex met a climber who’d just come off the mountain, and he told them about conditions, which included big avalanches that would start in the afternoon. Alex jokes around and says that early starts are always better.
The film then takes us to the day that Alex and David died. We see them making lattes and hiking up the snow slopes. Conrad said that they saw an avalanche coming and so they ran. Conrad said, “I’m going to die today, death is happening.” He went one way, Alex and David went the other.
We cut to Conrad back in basecamp getting bandages wrapped around his wounded head. The once-stoked Conrad from earlier in the day was replaced with a man who just lost his best friend, with a man whose life had changed forever. He said, “I outran an avalanche, but two people didn’t.”
We cut back and forth from Max watching search footage, to old clips of the memorial for Alex back to current day where Jennifer is talking about the moment she found out about Alex’s death from a phone call from Conrad.
After the avalanche in Tibet
Conrad talks about survivors’ guilt and thoughts about suicide. “You look at yourself as being of less value,” he said, and asked himself, “What could I do for Alex?” He knew that he could be there for Alex’s family, so he “packed up the Toyota Tercel and drove out to Montana for Christmas.”
Jennifer said that Conrad showed up, and said, “I’m going to Disneyland with you guys, it’s what Alex wanted and I’ll be there with you.” They talk about how Conrad was comforting to have there. Three months after the avalanche, their “love began to blossom.” We then get a glimpse of Jennifer and Conrad’s relationship during the first year after Alex died.
Max questions his mom about the speed her relationship with Conrad moved forward, and she said life was moving fast and that she had three kids, and that something had to be done. “You don’t have time to wait around,” she said to Max. “There’s no time to overthink it.”
The film moves through family life and Conrad returning to climbing, which left Max, Sam and Isaac imagining what would happen if Conrad died in the mountains. Conrad talks about living in Alex’s shadow and how he believed he was doing the best that he could.
In 2016, David Goettler found the bodies of Alex and David on Shishapangma. The movie now moves to the final act, where Jennifer, Conrad, Max, Isaac and Sam travel to Tibet to recover Alex’s body. Jennifer said there was, “Feelings of trepidation. What will it be like to see him after 17 years.” She said that she wasn’t angry at the mountain anymore.
They arrive at basecamp on a moody day and rig their tents. Conrad said all of the emotions from 1999 came back. We see Alex and David’s bodies being carried down the mountain in bags. Everyone huddles around next to a glacier.
Jennifer talks about how Alex’s head pointed towards his chest, which is what you’re supposed to do in an avalanche. She said that Alex probably suffocated in the snow, and didn’t die from trauma. She then talks about taking his wedding ring off and we see her put it on one of her fingers. They burned the bodies as everyone looked on. Max said that he’d seen his father as some superhero figure until that moment.
We then see the family go through some closure as they read letters from Alex. Max confronts Conrad about their relationship before telling him that he loves him. The film ends on Max Lowe Peak with the family spreading Alex’s ashes. It’s an intense and emotional moment.
Torn is about more than Alex Lowe and the avalanche that killed him and David Bridges. It’s about partnership, risk, regret, love, acceptance, healing and family. I didn’t know what to expect before watching it at the Banff Mountain Film Festival this weekend. I didn’t know that it would have such an impact on me, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it for the past few days.
Max has captured the legacy of his late father, Alex, and shown us how his second father, Conrad, has cared and loved for the family that his best friend left behind. It’s a powerful film about two of the greatest climbers of all time.
I highly recommend this film to every climber, whether you were around for the era of Alex and Conrad, or whether you’re just learning about them.