‘Torn’: Son learns to process trauma by making a film about his mountaineer dad who died in Himalayas

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Alex Lowe (right) with his son, Max, while camping in Zion National Park, Utah. Photo by Jennifer Lowe-Anker.

Alex Lowe, one of the world’s most successful mountaineers, summited Mount Everest twice and explored the Antarctic wilderness. Then on October 5, 1999, he died in the Himalayas, leaving behind a wife and three young sons, the oldest of whom is now a documentary filmmaker. Max Lowe tells his father’s story and how his family coped following the death in “Torn,” a National Geographic film that hits theaters on Friday. 

In “Torn,” Max Lowe documents how his family coped after the death of his father Alex Lowe, a world-renowned mountain climber. Credit: YouTube. 

Max Lowe was 10 when he lost his dad. “I was at that juncture where I was just beginning to understand what trust and love mean, and that you could give it and not give it, and that it could be broken. When he was killed, for me, at least, that was really my first experience losing trust in something that you thought was totally absolute.”

He further explains that when you're a kid, you trust that the world is kind and will never take things away. “So I think when Alex was killed in that avalanche, I lost that trust.”

He tells Press Play that making the film was a way to build the image of his dad as a man, who he remembers always being excited to spend time with the kids, taking them climbing and teaching them to play the violin. 

He says his own identity today is shaped by his early impressions of his dad, who went on “wild adventures” at the world’s most remote corners. 

Alex Lowe’s mountaineering career took off right when he and his wife decided to start a family, which is the root of the complexity in “Torn.” 

“He was truly torn between this thing that made him feel so whole. It's something that anyone who has a passion and drive for what makes them whole as an individual struggles with. We all struggled to balance that selfish and selfless love,” Max Lowe says. 


Alex Lowe, Jennifer Lowe, and their sons Max, Sam, and Isaac a year before Alex’s death. Photo Courtesy of Max Lowe.

Survivor’s guilt and filling a hole

Alex Lowe’s best friend Conrad Anker was on the Himalayas trip when the avalanche struck. He was injured but survived — at least physically. 

“It was an immense trauma for him to be there and be so close to his best friends and have them killed feet from him. And I think he came away from that experience with immense survivor's guilt. Alex had this family and this life beyond climbing. And Conrad only really had that life of climbing. So I think he really struggled with finding meaning going forward,” says Max Lowe. “And in the wake of that, and him returning to the U.S., finding solace with us in Alex's world was something that he needed — as much as we needed.”


Alex Lowe (left) and Conrad Anker (right) at the summit of Mount Evans, Antarctica. Photo by Gordon Wiltsie.

Anker and Max Lowe’s mom, Jennifer, ended up falling in love. “It was something that I struggled with a lot — Conrad stepping into our lives and stepping into this role of our father figure for me and my brothers. It was really tough for me because we didn't have any resolute ending to Alex's life. We never had a funeral for him. We never saw his body. And so I didn't really take to Conrad right away, like Sam and Isaac did, because they were just much younger at that point.”

Max Lowe took a few years to adjust to Anker being part of the family, and on the second Father’s Day they spent together, he gave Anker a present. “I wrapped it up in six or seven layers of wrapping paper. And in the middle of it was just this little heart that said, ‘I love you.’ And to me as a kid, that was a big thing to be able to tell him that, and give him that trust that I had lost in my relationship with Alex when he was killed.”

Max Lowe and his brothers now call Anker “dad.” He says, “He's been our dad longer than Alex ever was. And he's earned that title.”


Left to right: Isaac Lowe-Anker, Max Lowe, Conrad Anker, and Sam Lowe-Anker stand outside of Bozeman, Montana. Photo by Chris Murphy. 

Handling trauma when it resurfaces 

When Anker and Max Lowe’s mom were in Nepal working at a school they co-launched, they got a phone call from Anker’s friend who was attempting to climb Shishapangma, the peak where Alex died, telling them they found two bodies. Anker knew one of those bodies was Alex Lowe’s — from the description of the remains. The discovery happened 17 years after Alex Lowe’s death.

“For me as a kid, when Alex's body was never recovered … he was like an astronaut lost in space. And I just closed the door on it and left it behind, never to think that I would ever have to confront that trauma ever again,” Max Lowe says. “When his body was discovered and our family made the decision to go back to Tibet together to recover his remains and put him to rest, it brought all that back to the surface for me and for all of us in different ways. I think coming out of that trip was really the impetus for me in wanting to make ‘Torn.’ I saw that all of us were still, 17 years later, struggling with who Alex was to us … in life and who he was to us now in death.”

He continues, “It made me realize that trauma isn't something that you just experience and move on from. It's something that sticks with all of us. And When you decide to address it and shine a light on it … you can actually start to understand it a little bit more, and see how it impacts you as you move through your own life.”

He says that when he started making “Torn,” hearing Alex Lowe’s voice was tough and painful. He went through old videotapes of Alex climbing as a young man. 

“A question that a lot of people asked me in the process of making ‘Torn’ was: Did you resent Alex? Did you find anger within yourself at him and Conrad for making these decisions to go off and do these things that risked them not coming back? And I never did because I wanted to live in their image as their son.”


The Lowe-Anker family gather at a memorial for Alex Lowe and David Bridges at the Shishapangma base camp. Photo by Max Lowe/National Geographic.

Credits

Guest:

  • Max Lowe - director of the documentary “Torn,” son of the late mountain climber Alex Lowe