By Willie McBride
I remember countless times laying on my bed as a kid in middle school, gazing up at a poster on the wall of a rope-less Alex Lowe swinging his tools into a column of vertical ice. He looked poised with pure confidence and focus, standing upon crampon front-points stuck into the chandeliered formation, raising his arm high overhead for the next placement. Beside the image of his effortless ascent was an autograph in black marker:
Climb on Willie! -Alex Lowe
I’d gotten to meet him and received the poster at the grand opening of The North Face store in downtown Chicago in 1995. The event was packed full of famous climbers: Lynn Hill, Jay Smith, Kitty Calhoun, Greg Childs, Alex Lowe, and more, masters of the sport I grew up with as role models, that had sowed the seeds in me for a life of outdoor adventure. I started climbing at age 10 and was hooked immediately, devouring Climbing magazines cover to cover, soaking in the culture any way I could.
Everyone knows climbing can entail great risk, often especially so for the seemingly immortal giants at the highest levels of the sport. Over the years I experienced the reality of that risk, seeing many of these larger than life characters pass one by one. Alex died in an avalanche in the Himalaya a handful of years after the night we met. Sometimes when I visit my childhood home I still get out that poster and think about the man who scrawled those words to me, trying to reconcile risk vs. reward, especially after my own close call after a ground fall off an ice climb during college.
I’ve gotten to meet other iconic adventurers now deceased too: Dean Potter on top of the Rostrum in Yosemite, Caballo Blanco at the Pocatello 50 in Idaho, Doug Tompkins at his home in Parque Patagonia, Chile, and Ueli Steck on a run together in the Columbia Gorge this past fall.
I consider these experiences to be some of my most impactful. What was it that made these people so special though? What gave their words and actions, not to mention their mere presence, such weight and wisdom? Anyone who follows their dreams without a stifling fear of consequences is deeply inspiring and compelling to others, if only for the simple fact that most people don’t follow their dreams and are very much stifled by fear. Self-confidence, courageousness and the ability to truly give yourself to a single-minded focus is undeniably attractive, even if sometimes that focus requires risking your life.
Alex, Caballo, Dean, Doug, and Ueli all had something else too that set them apart, something I felt immediately upon meeting them before they even spoke a word. It was their eyes; each had a dancing in the eyes, a glowing, flame-like light that transfixed you. You could feel their overflowing energy and confidence, like hanging out with a kid who says they can do absolutely anything as long as they put their heart and mind to it. Eyes like theirs make you believe in the possibility of outlandish things, in the possibility of yourself and others.
With eyes like those, nothing is out of reach.
Climbing up the steep Rock of Ages trail in the Columbia Gorge with Ueli it was neat to see that his wild enthusiasm wasn’t limited to climbing; he’d gotten into trail and ultra running and just moving his body and traveling through mountains for him was an immense joy. After the climb up we had a nice long 3,000 ft. descent back down, dancing over the slick, rock strewn trail, making tight switchback turns to avoid big drop offs. A grin stretched across his face and I couldn’t help but think how youthful his energy, how pure his happiness and presence in the moment seemed to be. I wanted to absorb some of his magical aura and take it home, to help me float up cliff faces effortlessly and never, ever get lazy.
Death always leaves an empty space, slowly refilled by time, memory, and reflection. Alex, Caballo, Dean, Doug, and Ueli—and others out there with a dancing in the eyes—are of great importance in all our lives, no matter what path or pursuit you choose. These people stand as reminders to follow your dreams and not be controlled by fear;
for that we should be grateful.
When things do go wrong, setbacks arise or disaster strikes, I think back to the rope-less Alex Lowe looking unshakably calm and confident, and the words he wrote on the poster on the wall of my childhood bedroom: