Yesterday, August 24, was a fateful day for the climbing world, as two of America’s greatest climbing legends and icons passed away–Tom Frost and Jeff Lowe.
Frost died of cancer at a hospice center in Oakdale, California, and Lowe died several hours later in Colorado after suffering from a prolonged illness that has been described as an “unknown neurodegenerative process” similar to MS and ALS. Frost was 81 and Lowe was 67.
Both men were visionaries and innovators who impacted the philosophy, techniques and standards of climbing during their respective generations.
Frost frequently shared a rope with the greatest climbers of Yosemite’s Golden Age, including Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard and Chuck Pratt, and together they completed some of the most notable ascents of the era, such as the second ascent of the Nose on El Capitan in 1960, the first ascent of the Salathe Wall in 1961 and the North America Wall in 1964. The “NA Wall” was the first route to explore El Capitan’s steepest and most imposing aspect and set a new standard of difficulty for hard nailing routes.
In Camp 4, Steve Roper recounted a time when Frost saved a climbing partner’s life. In May 1964, Frost and Eric Beck were climbing the direct north buttress of Middle Cathedral, when Beck–in the lead–“began nailing an expanding flake, five pitches up and about forty feet above Frost,” Roper recalled. “A pin popped and Beck plummeted, ripping out his only other piton.” Their belay anchor was merely a thin knifeblade. “Thinking both of them were headed for the talus, Beck figured he was dead–but then he suddenly stopped. Frost, bracing himself with his feet, had somehow managed to hold the huge fall. Beck’s arm was shattered, but with the help of Frost he made it to the ground a few hours later.”
Elsewhere in the same book, Roper noted:
Tom Frost was the quietest and most modest person to inhabit Camp 4 during these early years. Only much later did I learn that he had been a champion sailboat racer in his early 20s. Bright and super clean both in looks and language, he preferred to stay out of the limelight, rarely arguing, rarely writing about his exploits. Robbins later described Frost “as one of those spirits I cite to illustrate that the quality of people in climbing is one of the reasons I love the sport. Tom, besides being an outstanding climber, is a walking emanation of good will.”
As a mechanical engineer, Frost was instrumental in creating the Realized Ultimate Reality Piton (RURP) with Yvon Chouinard in 1960. A wafer of metal made for shallow, thin seams, this equipment remains standard for aid climbers today. Frost later helped Robbins promote the clean climbing revolution by crafting some of the first passive protection, such as chocks and hexes, which were not yet available or widely used in the United States (Robbins was first introduced to passive protection in Europe).
In a 2009 interview for Climbing, Frost said, “Designing was as much fun as the climbing. Yvon was the idea man, and I was the engineer.”
Both on the rock and off, Frost believed in approaching all actions with care and integrity. In 2008, as Tommy Caldwell and Alpinist staff were working on background research for the Alpinist 25 profile of El Capitan, Frost told then-senior editor Katie Ives: “How you do anything is how you do everything. We were defining who we were to ourselves. How you climb is who you are. El Cap was the best of the rocks, so we tried to be the best we could for it.”
Jeff Lowe received a Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. Lowe had started climbing with his father at 6 years old in the 1950s and hit his stride as a climber in the 1970s. He embodied a similar ethic as Frost did, completing difficult first ascents with boldness, innovation and impeccable style. He was one of the early climbers to realize the potential of Zion National Park’s sandstone big walls, where he established an untold number of first ascents. He went on to pioneer groundbreaking routes around the world that were ahead of their time, such as the near success and subsequent epic on the North Ridge of Latok I (7145m) in 1978 with Jim Donini, Michael Kennedy and George Lowe (their high point on the North Ridge was only recently surpassed after 40 years of attempts by the best alpinists, and the complete line appears to remain unclimbed); and Lowe’s solo first ascent of Metanoia (VII 5.10 M6 A4, 1800m) on the Eiger North Face in 1991, which waited 25 years for a second ascent this last December. Lowe was also an innovator of equipment and techniques. He is credited for sparking the age of modern mixed climbing with his first ascent of Octopussy (M8) in Vail, Colorado, in 1994. Lowe’s vision continued with the first ascent of Deep Throat (WI6 M7, 600′) in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado, in 1997 with Will Gadd–another testpiece that has only seen a few ascents in the last 20 years.
During his fabled ascent of Metanoia, as he waited out a vicious storm in a snow cave, Lowe said he realized how badly he wanted to return to his young daughter, Sonja. He wrote a Mountain Profile essay for Alpinist 41 titled “Metanoia,” which concluded:
Thinking of Sonja, I climbed through the pain–every move solid and fast–to a saddle near the Japanese route. Tatters of old ropes emerged on bare rock and disappeared under ice, showing the way for the last four or five pitches. It was already afternoon. Wisps of clouds swirled. David Roberts radioed to tell me about the avalanche conditions on the descent route. He suggested a helicopter pickup from the summit ridge. My initial reaction was “No way.” But my cosmic journey in the Hermit Cave, and the image of my daughter’s angelic face, outweighed any other consideration. With little time left, I hung my pack from an ice screw and ran out the rope to its end at a band of loose blocks. I found nothing solid enough for protection. I untied and scrambled the short distance to meet the helicopter on top.
I named the route “Metanoia.” For thousands of years, shamans and spiritual seekers have starved themselves, endured long days of toil, and meditated for weeks in hopes of receiving some sort of vision or nirvana. On the Eiger, I’d felt a fundamental change of thinking and a subtle transformation of heart.
Shortly after her father’s death, Sonja posted on Lowe’s Facebook page: “My father…to put it in his words, ‘moved on from this material plane to the next’ this evening in a peaceful transition.”
Lowe’s longtime partner Connie Self also posted on Facebook:
Jeff was the love of my life, my best friend, my business partner and the most amazing human being I have ever known, with all the flaws and foibles that beset those with extreme talent and brilliance. Jeff always made the best of any situation by living in the present moment. He had an incredible sense of humor, was a visionary climber and inspiring writer. I was blessed to know Jeff for 37 years, to live with and care for him for 8 years, and to share with him “the greatest love I have ever known” as he said in his own words. I will miss him beyond measure and yet I am glad that he is free of his physical body and all the pain and suffering he has endured for many years. RIP, dear Jeff.
Alpinist will follow up with full obituaries of these men at a later date.