National Geographic Young Explorer Max Lowe has a pedigree for adventure. He is the son of late mountaineering icon Alex Lowe; his adoptive father, Conrad Anker, is one of the leading alpinists in the world. His mother Jenny Lowe Anker is an accomplished painter, author and co-founder with Conrad of the Khumbu Climbing School, which provides the Sherpa people with the skills they need to be competent climbing guides for the many tourists who visit the Himalaya.
Following in the family business of adventure, Max is creating a name for himself as a photographer, filmmaker, and writer. In 2013 he presented a unique collection of images at the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride. In a project funded in part by a National Geographic grant, this series of panels depicts the dramatic cultural changes that have occurred in the Khumbu region over the past 50 years during the modern era of professionally guided expeditions and treks in Nepal. Based on a collection of photographs originally shot by photographer and family friend Gordon Wiltsie in the 1960s and 70s, these new original portraits and landscapes that Max created illustrate the impact of western civilization on an ancient culture. In this interview with The Clymb, Max shares the story behind his artistic passion that continues his family’s legacy.
James Edward Mills: Your step-dad Conrad Anker has a profound relationship with the Khumbu Region and the Sherpa people just as your father Alex Lowe did. But what motivates you do this kind of work in Nepal?
Max Lowe: I’ve been going to the Khumbu since I was a child and Alex used to go there to climb. He used to send me postcards and tell me all these stories of places he went and the mountains he climbed, the people he met. So I’ve known about it all my life. But when Conrad and Jenny went over there nine or ten years ago they came across this chorten that said “Alex Lowe: Friend” on it. It’s the closest thing my father had to a grave. When I heard about it and later saw it in person it was really powerful and the fact that so many people knew Alex when he was there and had such a strong connection with him that they would build this monument to his life in this very beautiful very unique place it really struck me. It kind of gave me a more intimate feeling of connection to this place. It made me want to go over there and spend a substantial amount of time to learn more about the culture and the people.
James Edward Mills: Wow, it sounds like that particular moment in which you became aware of this monument to your father was pretty inspirational to work that you’re doing now. How does your father’s legacy inform what you do as a writer and photographer?
Max Lowe: The sorrow of his dying was a pretty traumatic experience, one that definitely changed my life. But I think that was how I was able to see really how big his sphere of influence was. There were just so many people writing to our family. People we didn’t know at all wrote to us to say how much they admired him, that he inspired them. It really showed me how one person could effect change in the world. I want to do the same in my own way. I know he was this big-shot climber but in that since he gave me something to strive for and look for in my own life that I could take away from his.
James Edward Mills: So what’s your role going to be? How will you distinguish yourself in work that is your own?
Max Lowe: That’s what I’m trying to figure out now. I think there is more of a story to share beyond the Khumbu along the lines of how far flung developing places get pulled into the modern world. In a bigger sense, I know that I won’t be the world’s greatest alpinist or the world’s best extreme skier or anything like that. But I live in that world as a photographer and writer. It makes me feel connected to the realm that Alex lived in and Conrad lives in now that is deeply intwined in my family history. It gives me this sense of connection to things I have felt all my life and I hope to continue working on that.
James Edward Mills: Your work now is certainly part of your family heritage but since you signed on with National Geographic for this project what kind of preparation went into dedicating yourself to making it happen?
Max Lowe: I went over there for the first time with the Khumbu Climbing School. That was pretty awesome. I was younger then and went over with my family, so I had a sense of what it’s like. I knew I wanted to go back with my parents at some point to see the chorten and spend more time with the people there. I didn’t have the idea of going with this specific project, but I had heard about this grant through a program that National Geographic did at Montana State University and I started thinking about things I could do to inspire a story within myself and get over to Nepal. I wanted to tell a story that would build me up in my own sense and get away from the whole other story of the Khumbu. With my family’s intimate connection with the people there that just came naturally. I wanted to do something more from the social and cultural side.
I did a lot of trekking around. To prepare I made sure that I was well enough fit and able to navigate these high trails. It’s pretty high altitude up there and for the most part I was going from village to village. It would be as much as a day, a day and a half or a two day walk. And for most of it I was doing it all by myself, which is kind of unadvisable for a western tourist. But I felt like I had a grasp on where I needed to be and where I shouldn’t be. It was a bit of physical exertion. But I wasn’t climbing over peaks to the next valley. There were well established trails.
James Edward Mills: It sounds like you were traveling pretty light. What where some of your gear options and challenges while you were there? What was your kit like?
Max Lowe: I pretty much had everything in one backpack. I did have a bag that I brought up with me to Namche by porter. That was my home base. I lived with a family there and left about half my stuff there when I went out on these forays to the smaller villages. I had my camera, a Nikon D300s, and two or three lenses depending on what I was doing. I had a laptop but didn’t usually take that with me on these excursions. It gets pretty cold up there so I had a pretty substantial layering system, a rain jacket, fleece, a couple of pairs of long underwear (all North Face brand) and a little video camera I used for documenting some of my interviews and some of my more intimate experiences when I was out on my own.
James Edward Mills: Along the way you probably had some pretty amazing moments. Can you describe what might have been the most beautiful moment in your trip?
Max Lowe: I had a lot of really beautiful moments by myself. You’re in this amazing landscape of these epic peaks. Even though there are a lot of tourists there that time of year you can get out on your own. A lot of times I would find myself walking down these valleys with these huge peaks rising around me with the most beautiful alpenglow. There’s such a serene feeling being alone in those environments. It’s really soul inspiring. That’s a cheesy way to put, but that’s really how it feels.
See Max’s work on his website, Max Lowe Media.