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‘Forget Me Not’ is a story of love and loss

Jennifer Lowe's husband died tragically in an avalanche, but she eventually got remarried — to his best friend. In "Forget Me Not: A Memoir," Lowe explores her loss, her recovery and the controversial but redemptive power of love. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Jennifer Lowe's husband Alex died tragically in an avalanche in the Himalayas, but she eventually got remarried — to Alex's best friend and longtime climbing partner. In "Forget Me Not: A Memoir," Lowe explores her loss, her recovery and the redemptive power of love. Here, an excerpt, starting with an author's note.

Author's Note Sent: 7 July 1999 (9:26pm)
From: Alex Lowe (on the wall) Trango Tower

Dearest Jenni,

Mark, Jared and I are starting our third day on the wall. We're still just fixing rope up the world's largest slab to the base of the steep headwall. Everywhere I look the little Alpine forget-me-nots are blooming more profusely each day. Thus you are always with me as I work away. I know how much you love those delicate little flowers and I have pressed some and keep them with me, with my little stash of family photos. Do you think you could come up with an idea for a painting that ties together these flowers and our love for each other?

It seems natural to converse with you via electrons. I can hear the marmots whistling far below. Occasional grumbles from the glacier emanate upwards. There's nary a cloud in the sky, the Karakoram is magnificent today and I love you! You remain in my heart always and I will do nothing that jeopardizes my safe return to my family.

Infinite Love, Alex

When my husband Alex Lowe's life ended and the events following his death began to unfold, I knew right away that someone should tell his story. In his forty years, Alex had achieved legendary status as a mountaineer. His sum of climbs was impressive, but what I didn't realize until he died was that Alex, the person, had made an impact on a vast cross-section of humanity. It was his character, his pure magnetism that drew people to him. Alex was on fire for life.

"There's not enough time in this life to do everything," he used to say. "If only there was more time."

Alex and I were together for eighteen years, but during that time we spent many months apart, adding up to years apart. The words we might have spoken to each other were, instead, routinely penned on paper or postcards and mailed. At times they were carried by porter, yak, or any willing hand to mail drops that were days or weeks away. In the last year of Alex's life, e-mails were added to our exchange. Thus we communicated and sustained our love, even when we were apart. The words remain to be reread, relived, and now shared.

I read my letters from Alex many times since his death, knowing that he often wrote to reassure me but also to reassure himself that he would come home. "I always come home," he once told me. "What if you die in the mountains?" I asked him, and his answer was "I won't, because to die would be to fail as a climber. Staying alive is the first rule. Besides, I have too much to live for."

"Right," I persisted, "but what if you do die in the mountains?"

"Just throw me into a crevasse!" he said and grinned.

We both knew that objective dangers were very real at the level that Alex pursued climbing. We had lost good friends and realized that alpinists face a myriad of risk. We faced it together in our impervious youth, climbing as partners with Alex leading the way. He shared his passion for climbing with me when we were newly in love and I was a willing participant, always confident in his judgment and ability. As years passed, our life together evolved. I carved out my niche as an artist and mother, but climbing remained Alex's great passion. Although he was a loving spouse and proud father, it was climbing that defined him. It was his gift, and he pursued it with measured care and persistent glee.

In sharing my picture of adventure, love, and sorrow, I have made every effort to provide an accurate account of the people, places, and events relating to Alex's life. I have relied on his many letters, my own memory, and the memories of friends, family, and fellow climbers. But Forget Me Not is my perspective on Alex and our life together. My story continues after his death. Any misrepresentation of facts is unintentional. I have attempted to confirm all details, but some inconsistencies may remain, for which I apologize.

Alex's request that I do a painting with Alpine forget-me-nots has remained a poignant yet nagging thought at the back of my mind since his death. In fact, it's the only written request he ever made of me, transformed in my heart to be his dying wish. In this memoir, I hope to paint a picture of the life that I lived with Alex, touch on his many accomplishments, and remember him as the extraordinary, but very human, individual that he was.

Chapter one

Love and Risk There is a race of men that don't fit in, A race that can't stay still; So they break the hearts of kith and kin And they roam the world at will. They range the field and they rove the flood And they climb the mountain's crest. Theirs is the curse of gypsy blood And they don't know how to rest. -Robert Service

I have a vivid memory of the day I met Alex Lowe. I was young then, around twenty, but already tied to another. Barely out of high school, I had married my first boyfriend, Tom Ballard, a high school crush who was a rock climber, skier, and the proprietor of a bicycle shop in Missoula, Montana, where I grew up. Alex was three years younger than I, perhaps still a senior in high school, and so I observed him with a distant curiosity that day. Still, I felt the magnetism of his presence.

He had come into the bike shop to get the beta, or inside scoop, on a local climb, and I happened to be there. He politely introduced himself with a confident grin: "I'm Alex," he said, emphasizing the X. He was very boyish, tall and slim with wide shoulders and long limbs, truly gangly. I remember him with thick shaggy dark hair, tattered clothes, and the essence of climber, that hint that bathing wasn't high on his list of priorities. I was struck by his handsome features and his open enthusiasm, but most of all by his smile. He was a kid and could barely contain his excitement over climbing. The information he wanted that day was about the particulars of a route in the Bitterroot Mountains' Blodgett Canyon. Not long after, he came back to report on his success.

Alex rather quickly ticked off the local climbers' test pieces, or most difficult routes, and after a short go at college he was on to bigger places. He sporadically dropped in on Tom and me over the next few years with tales of his travels, the climbs he had done, and his grueling work stints in the oil fields of Wyoming. I recall seeing him huddled over a climbing magazine with a group of friends. A picture of Ray Jardine leading a very difficult roof climb called Separate Reality in Yosemite Valley was featured, along with the new camming devices of the time, called Friends. Everyone else was incredulous at the difficult-looking route — except Alex, who exclaimed, "I can't wait to try that!" The other guys' response was "Right, dream on!" But within the next few years Alex went on to climb it, along with dozens of other routes that most Montana climbers only dreamed of.

Alex paid his last visit to Tom and me in the autumn of 1980. We were living near Boulder, Colorado, where Tom had taken a job after finishing his degree. That summer it had dawned on me that the age of twenty had been too young to get married. I knew I wanted children, and Tom knew he didn't. Love had waned. I had chased a ski bum with a bike shop, but now that he was an engineer with a mortgage, I had a bad case of remorse. I had attended art school but never finished my college degree, always needing to work at menial jobs to help pay the bills. Suddenly I felt trapped. I was miserable and panicky that my youth was slipping away. I wanted out of marriage to travel, to get a taste of adventure, to find passion and my own path while I was still young.

Alex arrived out of the blue, but his presence seemed serendipitous. He had come to hang out in Boulder for a while and get in as much climbing as possible in the local playgrounds of Eldorado Canyon, Boulder Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Park. His lifestyle looked like freedom at its finest to me. Unencumbered with responsibilities and material possessions, Alex was like a migrating bird, able to take flight whenever the impulse struck and to alight in whatever green field beckoned. He got a job at Lowe Alpine Systems (no relation), where I was employed, and he rented the basement of our house as I made plans to return to Montana. To have found Tom a roommate lessened my guilt about leaving, but I didn't foresee falling in love with that roommate.

I couldn't wait to leave my job, with its neon lights and acrid fumes of hot-cut nylon. I gave notice and bolted for the freedom of the hills, taking every opportunity to head to the mountains around Boulder. Alex had introduced me to his good friends Alice Phinney and Eric Winkelman, whom I warmed to instantly. He'd met Eric in Yosemite the previous spring and they'd hitchhiked to the Canadian Rockies for a summer of rock, ice, and alpine climbing. While there, they'd made the fifth ascent of Mount Kitchener's Grand Central Couloir, adding to an impressive sum of ascents. Alice had arrived later and joined Eric for some notable climbs of their own. They were a bright and fun young couple, and both were full of admiration for Alex, the "young gun" from Montana. With each passing day, my own admiration and fondness for Alex grew.

My first ice climbing experiences came early that winter, with Alice, who was excited to share the sport with me. A gifted athlete with a go-for-it attitude, Alice was a Boulder native whose parents had instilled in her a love of the outdoors and a passion for pushing her limits. (Her brother Davis became an Olympic bike racer who rode in the Tour de France.) Although Alice channeled most of her energy into studying, first for a degree in biology and then for another in mechanical engineering, she was driven to climb for a few years of her life.

As we approached our first climb in Rocky Mountain National Park, crunching along through the ice and snow of a subalpine forest, I was candid with my new friend about my unhappiness, and she was empathetic. We walked in the fog of a gray cloud that had coated everything with a crystalline layer of fragile hoarfrost. Alice was certain that the cloud would burn off with the rising sun, and she was right. As we gained elevation, the sun shone through the ever brighter mist and lit the world around us in a dazzling burst of white. We peeled off layers of clothes and smeared on sunscreen while breathing in the cold pine-scented air. The gnarled and stunted trees of that high place were bent by harsh winds and deep snows of long winter months. Few and far between, they'd grown in one direction and then another, their seeds rooted in crevices of stone with barely a grain of soil. Their warped forms looked as if growth had been painful, yet they were beautiful and artful, like nature's bonsai among a scattering of talus.

We came upon a waterfall frozen in gentle tiers, a stairway of ice. There, Alice and I strapped on our crampons. Mine were newly acquired "foot fangs" that I had purchased at work. They had corrugated red plastic bottoms lined with shiny steel shark teeth biting downward and little sawlike front points. With ice axe in hand, I felt like a knight in armor bedecked in spikes. Alice taught me to plant my tools with the same wrist action used to swing a hammer. I watched her lead the clean blue ice, then followed, ascending with care as Alice coached me.

I had grown up skiing, biking, and hiking with girlfriends in Montana, but the climbing I had done was always with guys. The first day I went out with Alice was a day that I treasure. She was not taking me climbing but teaching me to climb ice, and on our next outing, I led a pitch myself. Our forays into Rocky Mountain National Park were both empowering and enchanting. They helped give me the impetus to strike out on my own. Alex, with his romantic life of adventure, would certainly have an influence on me too, but it was Alice who gave me the courage to try climbing some mountains of my own.

Eventually I returned to Montana and the remote comfort of my father's ranch near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a good place to sort out my life. There I was able to find solace in the routine of feeding cattle and the daily chores of ranch life, watching over the place while Dad and his wife, Carol, enjoyed a visit to California, a hiatus from the long winter. With guilt and sadness, I reflected on my impending divorce. I thought of Tom's parents, whom I had grown to love, and thought of my own parents' divorce in my early teenage years, remembering my hurt and confusion. But things had turned out better in the end for each of my parents, it seemed.

As cattle began to drop their calves, I enjoyed the role of looking out for any that had trouble with the birthing process. I called on a neighboring ranch to help with one troubled young heifer I had brought to the barn. She was down and exhausted by labor, her bulging eyes rolled back with fear. When two brothers from the Copenhaver ranch arrived, we got her up, and one of them reached an arm dripping with iodine deep into her contracting body to get a rope around the calf's front feet. Once that was done, it took all of us to "pull the calf," but we managed to have it suckling in a couple of hours. The birth of that little bovine gave me a jolt of confidence. I stood before the frisky calf the next day and said, "Well, I managed to get you out into the world and on your feet. I ought to be able to do it for myself."

I was on the lookout for another job when my cousin called from Utah to say that a position was available on the seismic crew that employed him. Working outside was appealing, and the job would be lucrative. I assured his boss that I was tough enough, having done ranch work, tree thinning, and seasonal work for the Forest Service for many summers. I drove through the night to arrive at Heber City and sign on.

Alex left Boulder soon after I did. He returned to the Wyoming oilrigs, where he could make a higher wage and take double shifts, allowing for a shorter period of work between climbing adventures. He wrote to me at the ranch, and Dad forwarded his letters. I had become infatuated with the charismatic young climber who appeared to have life by the tail, and I wrote back to him:

I must thank you for inspiring me to take a risk and try a new lifestyle. My goal is to save enough money to go to Europe this summer. I want to visit some art museums and do some climbing. Seismic work is not bad at all. We "juggies" fly to work in helicopters that take us high up into the mountains. Once there, we lay out geophones and then set out charges of dynamite. After the shot, the geophones send a readout to the "box," where it is recorded; then a geologist somewhere can tell if there is oil in these hills.

The next letter I got from Alex said he would be keen to get a job on my crew if an opening came up, and that he would be happy to accompany me to Europe.

In the meantime, we both had a few days off and planned to meet in the Tetons of Wyoming for some ice climbing. I drove into Jackson Hole with anticipation and there, by the antler arch in the sunny town square, stood Alex leaning against his old Volvo station wagon, arms folded across his chest, an enormous grin beneath his Vuarnet shades. It was still late winter, and he wore army-navy khakis and flip-flops with a wool sweater knit by his mom. His long arms were around me in an instant and it was pent-up love at first sight for both of us. We spent a steamy night in the back of his car, and the next day skied up Death Canyon to Prospector Falls.

It was a fresh winter day with sun sparkling on new snow as we approached the frozen waterfall. We found the vertical ice in perfect shape, and the day unfolded like a dream as we ascended. But about halfway up, an avalanche came roaring down upon us. Alex, who was above, yelled at me to plant my tools and hug the ice. Powdery spindrift poured over me as I held tightly to the shafts of my tools.

Then the snow was gone, the sun shone, and with a surge of adrenaline we quickly finished the climb. Only when we had rappelled and returned to the bottom did I realize the magnitude of the avalanche. The windblast had sent our packs more than fifty feet downslope, and there was stuff strewn everywhere: big chunks of frozen debris and bits of rock. "Whoa!" I said. "It was lucky we weren't standing here when that came down!" Alex looked a little spooked and answered sheepishly, "No kidding." The day was an auspicious start for the two of us, but fitting for the exhilaration of new love that felt somewhat illicit.

Soon after, Alex joined my crew. We adapted to seismic life and set a goal of working for three months. In that time, we figured we could save enough money to take a trip to Yosemite and then Europe, traveling for several months. As enamored of Alex as I was, I knew he was a vagabond so I didn't hold out hope for a long relationship. It didn't matter. He was twenty-two and I was twenty-five. Happy to live in the moment, we both agreed that we would travel to Europe together and see how it went.

As it turned out, we were glad for each other's daily companionship. Work on the seismic crew meant adopting a nomadic lifestyle with little chance for social interaction outside of our coworkers. Aside from a handful of frugal Mexicans, most of the crew approached life as a party and spent their fat paychecks quickly on drugs, booze, and expensive steak dinners. Alex and I did not fit the mold; we were lovers of nature and saw our jobs as a temporary means to an end. To save money, we bought food at the grocery store and ate in our hotel room.

When the weather got warm enough, we camped out to save even more of our precious paychecks. For a while we camped near Montpelier, Idaho, and Bear Lake, where the campground was mostly empty but for us. Alex did pull-ups in the outhouse doorway every evening to stay fit for climbing. I would watch his long arms pump up and down in slow rhythm as I cooked dinner on our camp stove, and then we'd sit by a fire reading. Alex played Neil Young, Cat Stevens, and John Prine songs on his guitar while I painted with watercolors or wrote letters, looking up now and then to watch his tongue curl over his lip in concentration. When tiredness overcame us, we'd crawl into the Volvo for the night.

Our salaries each amounted to two thousand dollars per month, which was great money at the time, and I remember getting paid in hundred-dollar bills. On a typical day we would be at the LZ, or landing zone, early. There were usually two helicopters, which would whisk us away at first light to the top of a ridge. As soon as the pilot gave a thumbs-up we were out the door, ducking beneath blades to scurry away with packs slung over a shoulder. The day would entail laying out equipment, setting up shots, or picking up equipment as the helicopters ferried loads of geophones from the back of the line to the front. Working outdoors and walking all day up and down hills was great, but it was a compromised existence knowing that we were looking for oil. Alex had worked on rigs for several years, taking advantage of the high-paying jobs provided by the oil boom, and he had seen firsthand the callous treatment of the environment. I dreaded the idea of roads and oilrigs invading the wild places where we walked each day. The terrain where we worked varied from steep and rocky with deep windblown snow, to timbered, to wide-open with wildflowers popping from the melting snow banks as we followed a line left by surveyors.

For a while Alex and I "chained" for the survey crew, whose company we preferred. Far from the noise of shots, we traipsed through mountain groves of aspen, alone with red-tailed hawks, whitetail deer, and occasional cottontails, planting flags in the snowy ground. In the late afternoon or evening, our pilot would call on the radio saying, "Find an LZ," and we'd look for the flattest spot for a helicopter to land. On occasion we'd have a sketchy landing where the pilot would toe into a hillside, hovering while we carefully climbed into the floating chopper.

Although our pilots were usually skilled Vietnam vets or guys with military training who put us through regular safety drills and flew with sound judgment, we did have a couple of wild cards. I remember one guy nicknamed Captain Wa-wa who had a fondness for zooming along at what felt like inches above the water of Bear Lake. He loved to rocket up a ridge and then dive-bomb out of the sky, following the contours of the hills, while fellow "juggies" squealed with delight on this ultimate amusement ride.

When Alex and I gave our notice in the spring, most of the crew were amazed that we had amassed enough money for a trip to Europe. We smugly drove off toward Montana to make our plans, store our things, and meet each other's parents.

Excerpted from "Forget Me Not: A Memoir" by Jennifer Lowe-Anker with permission from Mountaineers Books. Copyright © 2008.