“Torn” Helps Filmmaker Max Lowe Face His Father’s Death
For years after the avalanche, Max Lowe still believed his father could come home.
After all, his father’s body had yet to be recovered from Shishapangma, the 26,289-foot peak he had traveled to the Himalayas to ski down. Alex Lowe was a renowned mountaineer – a member of the professional North Face climbing team who had climbed Everest twice and appeared on the cover of Outside magazine. Perhaps the rescue team had failed to find him miraculously alive in a crevasse.
And then there was the birthday card. Alex painted it for his son during the expedition, just days before he was enveloped in a 500-foot-wide cascading snowfall. When he mailed it to the Lowes in Montana – shortly after the disaster in Tibet – 10-year-old Max saw it as some kind of talisman.
More than his brothers, who were only 3 and 7 years old when Alex disappeared in October 1999, Max held on to his father’s memory. When their mother remarried a year and a half later, he was the only one to keep Lowe as a last name. In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 – when news broke that Alex’s remains had been found by a climber – that Max really began to struggle with his relationship with his father.
This is apparently the subject of “Torn”, the documentary he was going to direct: a son trying to get to know the father with whom he did not have enough time. But the film, which was released in theaters by National Geographic this month and on Disney + in early 2022, is also about the daddy Max won when he lost Alex. It was Conrad Anker, who was also Alex’s climbing partner and best friend. He was on Shishapangma with Alex, and it was he who called the Lowes to tell them about the avalanche.
âMaking this movie, in part, was something I wanted to do for Conrad,â said Max, now 33. “Paint a picture of Alex more resolutely, which speaks of his flaws and tells a story to which we can relate more.”
The filmmaker sat next to Anker at a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, a sculpture of a snowy owl hanging from his neck. They were in the town of Bozeman, MT, where Max lives in a house across from Anker and his mother, Jenni Lowe-Anker. Both men are the strong and silent type, less interested in brooding over their feelings than moving forward with a positive attitude. “Torn”, however, would require facing such uncomfortable conversations head-on. And at first, Anker was reluctant.
âHe didn’t really care at first,â admitted Lowe-Anker. âHe’s not a guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve. It was really hard for him to think about pushing back all this pain, and especially doing it in front of the camera. But we talked about it and said, âThis is Max’s trip. It’s our son.
At 59, Anker has spent most of his life in the public eye. He rose to fame in 1999, after discovering the remains of George Mallory on Everest. At the same time, he said he and Alex have become âthe standard bearers of alpine climbing,â followed by film crews on their travels and giving speeches at outdoor trade shows. And after Alex’s death, Anker continued to cement his reputation as one of the world’s most accomplished athlete, tackling dozens of risky and distant heights. He was one of the central figures in âMeru,â a 2015 documentary in which he and filmmaker Jimmy Chin attempt the first ascent of a dangerous route on a Himalayan peak. He even survived a heart attack that struck while climbing to 20,000 feet – an incident that prompted him to retire from high altitude mountaineering.
The heart attack happened in 2016, the same year Alex’s body was found. Anker, Lowe-Anker and their three boys decided to travel to Tibet together to collect the remains. The company required a massive logistical effort: obtaining special entry visas, obtaining a police escort, purchasing body bags and stretchers.
Unsure if he would ever use the footage, Max – who had made short documentaries and branded content for companies such as REI and Red Bull – asked his family for permission to film the trip with a portable camera. The level of emotion he captured surprised everyone.
âIt was the first time I could see how Conrad still grapples with the survivor’s guilt around Alex’s death and impostor syndrome,â Max said.
âThis pain is physical,â Anker said. âAnd then PTSD to go out there and take care of the bodies. It’s like having my water bottle in his day bag with my writing on it, with water I put in it 16 and a half years ago.
Back in Montana, Max began to unbox his own response to the trip. A friend who hosted a local ideas summit asked him if he would be doing a presentation about the trip, and on stage, Max broke down in tears. He realized he had gained access to a new level of vulnerability that he had never explored and decided to ask his family “to stand up and come to the table” for separate interviews. whole on Alex’s death.
Still, Max was particularly worried about his one-on-one with Anker.
âFor some reason, we never really got to talk about things with a level of privacy,â said Max as he moved into his seat. He stopped himself. “Have you and mom ever talked about going to family therapy with all of us to talk about all this?” “
“No,” Anker replied without hesitation. âWe looked after and we lived life. The children were at school. I have always worked as a professional athlete. And that was our therapy, in a way – not to sit still or something. â¦ We didn’t feel the need to say, âWell, we’ve got to get over that. Life was good.
It was also the philosophy Max absorbed: dealing with chaos. Maintain forward movement. As a teenager, he said he was reluctant to bring up the sensitive topic for fear of “rocking the boat”. In 2007, when his mother published a memoir about her life with Alex, Max couldn’t get away.
“I hid a lot of these feelings,” he admitted.
But in the end, the camera gave Max the freedom to ask the questions he had buried for so long. In return, his relatives met him with a new level of candor. Anker spoke of the pressure he felt to replace Alex and live up to the ‘good guy’ ideal that audiences assigned him after adopting the boys. Lowe-Anker read aloud intimate love letters written to her by her two husbands. In one of the notes sent just a month after Alex’s death in 1999, Anker wrote:
It’s only been a moment since the four of you have been in my thoughts. Sometimes it’s hard for me. I cry to fall asleep, waking up grinding my teeth with very dark thoughts. I gather strength knowing that you are there. You and the boys are the ones I want to help and care for. Being there for the boys as they grow up to be little men and become men is something that I hope to do.
âIt really hit me,â Max said of the note, which made him cry in the movie. “I never thought of it that way, that he wanted to be there for we more than anything. Not that he didn’t want to be there for my mom. But for me and my brothers in this deep and emotional sense. I opened up to it.
The reveal prompted Max to express his love for Anker on camera. To say thank you for intervening. To tell him that no one could have done a better job. To say that he considers Anker to be “Daddy”.
âFor Max, it was like trying to convince Conrad that he didn’t just see Alex as someone he was loyal to. âYou are my dad and I love you,â Lowe-Anker said. “It probably deepened their relationship.”
It’s not that Max never told Anker he loved her. He did it for the first time on the first Father’s Day they spent together. Max gave Anker a large box containing a supply of small boxes. Inside the smaller one was a card: âI love you.
But “Torn” was a different kind of gift.
âIt’s a tribute from Max for his love for me,â Anker said. âI am very grateful for this, and I recognize it. It took a long time.