Story and photos by Max Lowe Explorebigsky.com Contributor
The raw sound of thousands of pounds of rock and snow crashing like a raging torrent of whitewater reverberates off of canyon walls and strikes a guttural fear in me. Lying on my back staring through the fog of my own breath and into the darkness of the tent ceiling, my thoughts drift to my father in his last minutes. The din of the glacial avalanche dies into the cold still night air. I can’t imagine the feeling of terror and the scramble to move up, down, back or forward, somewhere out of the cascade of snow and ice crashing toward you.My father died 10 days before my 11th birthday in a massive avalanche on the slopes of Shishapangma, a peak in the Tibetan Himalaya. I traveled there in the spring of 2012, into the high Himalaya in Nepal, following in his footsteps.
As I hiked through the winding valleys along trails skirting 6,000-meter peaks of snow, ice and rock, I realized I was entering the otherworld of my childhood.
As a child, my father Alex Lowe was with me half the time and on the other side of the planet for the other. I learned of the places he went—Nepal, Antarctica, Baffin Island and New Guinea—through postcards stamped with unrecognizable postage and always his signature and love.
Alex came to this place, the Khumbu region of Nepal, many times. He truly had a passion for the Himalaya, and for the native Sherpa people who so warmly welcomed him into their lives.
As I hiked up from the small town of Dughla, I came upon a collection of Cairns dedicated to those lost to the slopes and peaks of Everest, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga and countless other peaks. Many were large and made of concrete, built by westerners honoring a lost teammate or family member. One stood alone from the others, consisting of a large boulder topped with stacked stones and tattered prayer flags, with the words “Alex Lowe Friend” hand carved into the granite.
This monument to the friendship my father shared with the Sherpa with whom he traveled and lived in these mountains is, in some ways, his gravestone, and this was the first time I had seen it. Although our family and friends have erected many other monuments to my father’s memory, this one stands alone.
It was never a question that my father loved his family, but if he had a vice, it was most certainly escaping into the wild and unbroken corners of the world. The Himalaya of Tibet and Nepal occupied a prodigious sum of his gaze into the inhospitable.After spending several weeks here, I share his fondness for these mountains. The peaks are beautiful, titanic, cold and foreboding. The snow blankets the land by day and night, and the midnight sky has so many stars it seems the glinting light of the millions of far-flung suns might soon overwhelm its blackness.
The Sherpa people who inhabit this realm of mythical gods directly contrast the harsh landscape. Never have I chanced upon people more warm and welcoming than those I befriended through my travels in Nepal. With smiles and laughter, they usher in weather-beaten travelers from distant lands like they were kin, always offering a warm cup of tea to shake off the nipping cold.
After trekking to Everest Basecamp and back to Namche Bazaar, I have concluded that Alex was onto to something, spending as much time here as he did. The Khumbu will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Max Lowe is a photographer and writer based out of Bozeman. He received a grant this year from the National Geographic Society to do a study and photo essay on the changes of the Sherpa culture in the Himalaya of Nepal over the last 50 years. Max also traveled there in 2003, with his family for the Khumbu Climbing School, which was founded in honor of his father, the late Alex Lowe. Check out more of Max’s work at maxlowemedia.com and maxlowemedia.blogspot.com.