Jeff Lowe and Tom Frost: Two US Pioneers Pass Away

© Tom Frost

Two of America's most influential climbers passed away on the same day yesterday, August 24th. Yosemite pioneer Tom Frost died aged 81 in California following a short battle with cancer, and mountaineering icon Jeff Lowe died aged 67 after nearly 20 years of living with an unknown ALS-related degenerative illness.

Jeff Lowe on the 2nd ascent of Ama Dablam, 1979.
© Tom Frost

One of Jeff Lowe's most notable climbs was a failure. In 1978, Jeff, his cousin George Lowe, Jim Donini and Michael Kennedy retreated just 150 metres from the summit of Latok 1 in the Pakistan Karakoram after attempting to make the first ascent of the peak. They chose an alpine style route up the North Ridge, which - 40 years later - continues to make headlines, with Sergey Glazunov and Alexander Gukov recently reaching the top of the North Ridge before a tragic accident and rescue ensued, and Tom Livingstone, Aleš Česen and Luka Strazar making the first successful summit bid from the North. An integral ascent of the North Ridge of Latok 1 to the summit remains one of world's most coveted and elusive objectives, which has escaped over 30 teams over the years.

Zion National Park's classic route, Moonlight Buttress was established by Lowe and Mike Weis in 1971. Lowe was only 21 years old. Three years later, when Lowe and Mike made the first ascent of Bridal Veil in Telluride, he became one of the pioneers of ice climbing; an activity in which he would push the upper limits of performance considerably. In 1979, Lowe took part in an expedition to Ama Dablan, and soloed a new route on the south face. In 1982, he established a new route on Kwangde Ri, another on Kangtega in 1986, and yet another on Taweche in winter 1989. These climbs were an early indication of the trend in climbing where technical and aesthetic climbs were favoured over the pursuit of reaching summits at all costs.

In 1991, Lowe embarked upon his most notable adventure. With the goal of completing a solo first ascent of a direttissima, he threw himself onto the north face of the Eiger in winter conditions. Lowe's 9-day ascent pushed him physically and mentally and profoundly influenced his outlook on life. A brush with death inspired deep introspection and a radical evolution in his mentality—hence the name of the route: Metanoia ('a transformative change of heart'). The route remained unrepeated for 25 years, until it was climbed by a team in December 2016. Three years later in 1994, Jeff applied his new outlook to one of his favourite disciplines: ice climbing. Octopussy in Vail, Colorado, was the origin of dry tooling and would forever change practices in ice climbing, alpinism, and Himalayan climbing.

Jeff Lowe starting up the Eiger for the first ascent of Metanoia, 1991  © Jon Krakauer
Jeff Lowe starting up the Eiger for the first ascent of Metanoia, 1991
© Jon Krakauer

Lowe's contributions to mountaineering were not limited to his climbs. His passion for climbing gear design and development resulted in the co-founding of Lowe Alpine alongside his brothers Greg Lowe and Mike Lowe. He also founded Latok Mountain Gear and Cloudwalker, introducing the world's first softshell jacket through Latok Mountain Gear. Lowe invented the lightweight and compact tube-type belay devices for Lowe Alpine, and Footfangs were also quickly sought after as one of the first rigid crampons. Both Lowe's R.A.T.S screw (which could be used on poor-quality ice) and the Snarg (a screw-piton hybrid) became widely popular among an entire generation of ice climbers. An organiser of events - including America's first Sport Climbing Championships in Snowbird, Utah in 1988 - and author of technical climbing books such as Ice World: Techniques and Experiences of Modern Ice Climbing, Lowe played a role in every aspect of the sport.

In 2017, Lowe was named as recipient of the prestigious Piolet d'Or Lifetime Achievement Award - the Piolet d'Or Carrière - for contributions related to both his visionary climbs and technical development in the gear industry.

In 2000, he was diagnosed with an ALS-related degenerative illness. The 2014 biopic Metanoia showed Lowe's resilience in the face of adversity. On Lowe Alpine's website, he wrote about coming to terms with his illness:

"These days I am often asked if it doesn't feel especially unfair to be stricken in this way when my life was so centered on the exact physical and mental abilities that are now so diminished, or completely gone. Although I do miss those things, instead of feeling bitter over the loss, I can't help but be forever grateful for the gift of fifty fantastic years. Whatever time I get from here on is gravy. I'll continue to "Have fun, work hard, and get smart" - to the best of my abilities."

Tom Frost on the second ascent of The Nose route on El Capitan.  © Tom Frost (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Tom Frost on the second ascent of The Nose route on El Capitan.
© Tom Frost (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Tom Frost was known for his big wall first ascents in Yosemite Valley in the '50s and '60s and for shooting some of the most iconic photographs from this period with his Leica camera. His revolutionary first ascents in the Valley include the second ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in 1960 with Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Joe Fitschen, the 11-day first ascent of Salathé Wall, also with Robbins and Pratt, in 1961 and the first ascent of the 2400ft North America Wall in 1964 with Robbins, Pratt and Yvon Chouinard. This was also the first ascent made from the ground up in one push.

In 1968, Frost visited the Cirque of the Unclimbables in the Northwest Territories of Canada. From August 10 to August 13, along with Jim McCarthy and Sandy Bill, he made the first ascent of the vertical southeast face of the 2,200-foot granite pillar named the Lotus Flower Tower, YDS V, 5.8, A2. The line has been described as "one of the most aesthetically beautiful rock faces in the world". He also made major ascents in the Tetons, Canada, the Alps and the Himalaya. In 1970, Frost participated in the Annapurna South Face expedition, reaching 25,000 feet. In 1979, he reached the summit of Ama Dablam on a filming expedition. In 1986, he returned to Kangtega and climbed a new route with Jeff Lowe.

Frost's degree in engineering from Stanford University and interest in climbing gear combined with revolutionary results. During Frost's first ascent of Kat Pinnacle with Chouinard in 1959, the pair designed and manufactured the Realized Ultimate Reality Piton or RURP, a small device that enabled them to finish the most difficult aid climb of the time in North America, and which is still used today on cutting-edge trad ascents. This led to a lengthy partnership between Frost and Chouinard in climbing equipment companies such as the Great Pacific Iron Works and Chouinard, Ltd.

Tom Frost leads pitch 29 on the Salathé Wall, El Capitan
© Tom Frost (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the late 1960s, Frost and Chouinard developed an alpine axe with a drooping pick. In 1967, Chouinard and Frost began marketing adjustable rigid crampons made of chrome-molybdenum steel.

The pair also invented the now widely-known climbing protection device, the Hexentric - or 'Hex.' Hexentrics continue to be manufactured by Black Diamond Equipment, which is a successor to earlier companies owned by Frost and Chouinard.

Frost was a longtime advocate of environmental ethics in climbing, using natural protection whenever possible, guided by respect for tradition and a desire to "leave no trace." His efforts to save Camp 4 in Yosemite began in 1997 and resulted in its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Between the years 1997 to 2001, Frost returned to big wall climbing with his son Ryan, repeating the Nose, the North America Wall and the Salathé Wall on the 40th anniversary of his first ascent of each climb.

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25 Aug, 2018

Sad news for their friends and family. In future, please can you say that people have died, instead of this rather woolly "passed away" business.

25 Aug, 2018

It was the most appropriate headline. 'Jeff Lowe and Tom Frost die'/Two US Pioneers Die' is too abrupt and to my mind implies they died together (in an accident or something). Generally I'd use 'X dies aged Y' but that's too long-winded here. 'Pass away' is generally used more often when describing the end of an illness/death from old age, in my experience.

And then there's the matter of repetition, second mentions etc. in first paragraph.

Anyway, it's late and I don't want this to derail the thread. 

26 Aug, 2018

Well said and well written. 

This should be a thread to remember and celebrate two extraordinary people.

26 Aug, 2018

In response to Frank the Husky - the title of the article is both well-phrased with a natural syntactic rhythm and is also respectful. Both qualities in this type of journalism need to shine through and Natalie has done a good job; the content is also complicated with historical significance done to a tight deadline.

Agreed Natalie, not to de-rail the thread. Immense respect to both climbers, and again to you for your efforts. Keep up the interesting and informative work please.

27 Aug, 2018

What a great loss to the climbing community of two of the all time greats. By a quirk of fate we just got down after climbing North America Wall on El Cap,

North America Wall (A3)No match for crag id:8025

arguably Frost's finest achievement, the day before he died. We'd spent the previous night in The Igloo and been very conscious of treading in the paths of giants (Frost, Robbins, Pratt and Chouinard). What a great talent!

Condolences to both families 


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