Tough climb 

Remembering a Montana mountaineer

Montana mountaineer Alex Lowe died in an avalanche on a Himalayan mountain called Shishapangma in 1999. In the years that followed, his wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, continued raising their three sons, married Lowe’s climbing partner, Conrad Anker (a survivor of the Shishapangma avalanche), and recently released a book about her 18 years of marriage to Lowe, entitled Forget Me Not.

You can ask any local climber and they remember Lowe and the tragedy in a mythical context. Lowe-Anker is also a climber, and the book could have been just another climbing book—indulging in technical lingo, tedious recollections of tough climbs, and gushing with pride about her late-husband. But it’s not. Lowe-Anker tied together letters from Lowe, interviews with family members and climbing partners, and anecdotes of her relationship with a man she characterizes as incredibly driven, often to a fault. 

That Lowe-Anker married Lowe’s best friend and wrote a book about his adventurous life—Jon Krakauer foreword and all—could raise eyebrows. But Lowe-Anker says Forget Me Not is a window into the legendary climber’s fears, some of which were rooted in Lowe’s relationship with his father, and also a look at the beginnings of his more cautionary nature once he became a father himself. And really, it’s a memoir, about her own life. Lowe-Anker spoke with the Indy about the importance of accuracy, risk-taking and how she learned to be a grittier writer.

Indy: What prompted you, at this point in time, to write about Alex?

Lowe-Anker: I knew that somebody was going to write a book about Alex because I had so many inquiries right after he died. So I think it was more about me saying, well, I want that to be me then...I felt like I knew him better than anyone else. [I wanted] it to be a book honoring our relationship and explaining those often asked questions: Why would you be with this man? What was of value in our life that we shared together for 18 years? And then, ultimately, why I would choose to be with another mountain climber…Anyone could have written Alex’s story…but I just like to think that [mine] is a deeper story, of what pushed him to be who he was.

Indy: A memoir can be difficult to write in that it’s your story, but you have responsibility to other people, as well. How did you approach delicate issues?

Lowe-Anker: You don’t want to go out there with guns blazing and hurt a bunch of people’s feelings. I talked about both of our parents in terms of explaining the people we became…You know, my father being the fighter pilot and my mother having come away from this childhood of hardship…and my grandmother being this person who was really connected with nature, with roots to Montana. And then with Alex’s father, I talked about their relationship…I could have gone into far more detail, which I didn’t, and I’m sure that Alex’s dad is glad.

Indy: It strikes me that you really get a chance in this book to provide explanations. In one letter, Alex mentions that a fellow climber called him one of the best western sherpas. You’re careful to explain that Alex would never have bragged in this way in public, that it was his way of reassuring you, as his wife, that he would be safe on the climb. Someone else could have misrepresented these things.

Lowe-Anker: I think that that’s probably true. Although, you know, no one would have ever seen that letter from Alex. I doubt I would have ever shared those letters with another writer—they’re just too personal… Jon Krakauer is a friend of mine and he pretty much said, “Jenni, the most important thing is that you write an honest book.” He goes, “You can’t leave out the bad stuff. It can’t all be glowing and rosy and Here’s Alex, and wasn’t he great? No one will believe it. And they won’t read it.” Jon was right. So I told some of the hard parts, shared some of the rough stuff that wasn’t easy to live.

Indy: How do you feel, now that the book has been written?

Lowe-Anker: It was definitely cathartic for me… As I was writing I was re-living the time I had with Alex and processing what those experiences meant to me…and it has a lot of the experience that I think many people can relate to of risk. We all take risks in one way or another. I mean, when you think about it, it’s a huge risk to fall in love with someone and that’s a risk that most people take at some point in their lives…When you’re young and you’re first in love with someone you think, how could I ever live without this person? The ultimate reality is that we all will eventually live without the people we love because everyone dies. And that, I think, is the biggest message in my book and one that everyone can relate to…In my mind, it’s not so much about mountain climbing as just a book about life.

Jennifer Lowe-Anker will read from and sign copies of Forget Me Not Tuesday, June 17, at Fact & Fiction at 7 PM, and Wednesday, June 18, at Chapter One Books in Hamilton at 7 PM.
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