I recently went to a screening of Metanoia, a documentary film on the life of Jeff Lowe. Jeff Lowe is regarded as one of the preeminent technical mountaineers in history, and the film did an incredible job of portraying Jeff for everything that precedes his reputation in general.
From his humble beginning as a youth in a large family with a “eccentric” father and loving mother, their family was all about adventure from the start. The father would load the kids in the VW Van, and off they would go. Pictures in the film show a father clad in climbing gear with a rope around his body, a smile on his face, ready to introduce the family to adventures obviously in the vertical world. Accounts from family and friends described Jeff as the slight toe head blond with a passion for climbing starting with trees and anything he could attempt. As he grew, so did that passion. Later life, the film goes on to portray all the incredible feats he was able to accomplish, and it is made clear that as he naturally progressed, it was not about showing off, but pure outright adventure. Jeff found a need to explore, to go to places and climb where no one else had. Not that ego was not part of his makeup, it is for everyone, but it is clear that there was an indiscernible need for him to simply take his skills to places, and when those skills were not enough, to figure out how to not improve for the sake of climbing, but for the sake of getting to places in the purest sense. Jeff was the penultimate explorer and if he didn’t have the skill, he would develop it, often at the moment he found he needed it. Later in his career, he went to great lengths to even develop gear that would help.
The film is a diary of incredible feats, climbs Jeff and a close network of friends with similar passions, set out to try. I will leave the feats for the viewer to go and see, but trust me, they are a hit list of some of the most impressive climbs in the history of mountaineering. Even on massive objectives where summits were not attained, the efforts resulted in achievements not matched even today with vastly improved techniques and equipment. To list just one, the films title, Metanoia, a solo ascent of the north face of the Eiger, a feat that in the film, the modern day Michael-Jordan technician Ueli Steck claims will not be seconded by himself or anyone else for many years to come. In my view, today, there are simply not many records in all sports that stand the test of time like this. The only athletic accomplishment in my mind that this can be compared to is Joe Dimmagio’s 54 consecutive game hit streak, which is mathematically almost impossible. That’s the level of climber we are seeing in this film!
As a ski mountaineer with passion for the sport, there are a few notable things that jump out that I doubt the general audience will really appreciate. It’s one thing for Jeff’s friends to say he did not climb for fame or notoriety, but in a documentary style film commemorating a great man, this type of talk is often not defined to a general audience, and it is often interpreted to be by strength of character, almost a highly moralistic approach. When I look back at the achievements in my own career, and also those of other athletes, the true successes were driven by something other than notoriety. In Metanoia, this message came through to me loud and clear to what I believe was in Jeff’s mind. He just had this desire to push himself, and was relentless in a very calculating way of doing all he could to simply learn what he was capable of, and what it was like to “be there” where he desired to be. It’s a frame of mind that is well beyond what anyone thinks. It’s totally personal, hard to define. It just is. To many people, this mentality is something to be commended, but the reality in my mind, is that while it may be interpreted to many to be, it really isn’t about that. It’s just the way some people are wired so to speak. They just have a super strong desire to be, and it later becomes part of the fabric of which they are defined. It’s cool, but not for the reasons many think, and really is not something that Jeff or anyone else can control. Recognition and notoriety comes from success, but over history, it is rare that there are examples where it drove the adventurer to do what he did. It’s rare, which makes it awesome, but it is part of the gift Jeff was given, making it a very special attribute that contributed to the notoriety which was not part of the drive. It’s unique and special.
As a filmmaker myself, the film is written, edited, and produced in a manner that in my view, makes this a unique gem not only for mountaineers, but people in general. If you have not seen it, GO! But the film struck me in a way that I wanted to share simply from my film background. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to do a very similar film on Jimmie Heuga. Jimmie was the first American to medal in alpine skiing in an Olympic games, 1964 in Innsbruck Austria. By the early 70’s, Jimmie was diagnosed with MS. He spent the rest of his life really going through a similar process that Jeff has, completely changing every aspect of his life, and in the process, gaining invaluable perspective that can only come from being thrown a very difficult and demanding condition. As with Jeff and his battle with ALS, this process had super highs, but also super lows. After doing my intense evaluation required to do a documentary film on such a person, it really opened my eyes to a number of things that have been gifted through the process.
Both Jimmie and Jeff went through life changing events that really gave them not only the time, but also the incentive to look back on their lives and formulate the desire to “make things right”. So often one’s gift in life comes at the expense of many aspects of life in general. When people have the gifts like Jimmie and Jeff, to be the absolute best, those gifts often drive passion that supersedes many of the other areas in one’s normal life. It’s one thing to make a billion dollars, but another thing to have to protect it, and encourage it. There are only so many hours in a day, and things get left undone. Both Jimmie and Jeff became almost addicted to their success, and the cost of this addiction came in the form of failed relationships with family, friends, business, and all the other stuff that makes a life worth living. The honesty and openness Jeff relays in this film is amazing. For both of these men, life changing events forced them into this “look back” of their lives, and while both suffered from otherwise debilitating conditions, their real gifts came in the form of the perspective I allude to. As in my film, Metanoia depicts a man that didn’t have the ability to go back in time, but gave him the knowledge to understand and change the future. In both stories, these men had the ability to reformulate relationships with what is truly important, their children and former spouses, and friends. The parallels to me were heartwarming. It was brilliant in both films to see these family members embrace, on camera no less, the goodness that attracted them to these men, in what can only be, in my mind, the miracle of the goodness in people all around. The contrite acknowledgement of making mistakes, the power of forgiveness, and the mirror of true characters uncovered through otherwise immense hardship is powerful. I also realized that unless you are standing in the shoes of Jimmie and Jeff, there really is no way to comprehend what they have had to endure through their situations, but there is a parallel in their lives that will stand the test of time as an example of inspiration for others that watch these films.
It is regarded by many viewers that the hardship of training, and enduring all the sport is a reason that these men have flourished on so many levels despite their physically debilitating diseases. However, this was another topic that made me think. There is without question a correlation to the life experiences these men had from their life in sport that has helped them to deal with their lives impacted later on. However, when you dissect their timelines, I think their life success after sport really is tied more to the fact that these men simply have been given a gift beyond their athletic ability. As with their climbing and skiing, they simply have a passion for life, and a desire to be the best they can be. This is critical to understand in my view, because we all will be faced with difficulties in life. For most people, they don’t have as blatant success to fall back on, but as Jimmie said, in life, we are guaranteed two things. Both gifts and difficulties. The key is to appreciate the gifts, and to look back and tap into the ways you took advantage of those gifts, and to apply that passion to get through the difficulties you face today. “Take the cards you have been dealt, and use everything you can in your life to play them out to be the best you can”. Jeff Lowe is a shining example of this in motion, and his film is what I see as a tool that everyone can use as source of inspiration for us all to be the best we can. For that, I can’t think him enough.