Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Forget Her Not: An Interview With Jennifer Lowe-Anker

Written by Jesse Sposato
There are only so many stories that don’t belong to us but affect us on such a deep level, that we carry them with us; that the lives of the people these narratives belong to stay in our thoughts, even perhaps enough to influence our own decisions. Painter and outdoorswoman Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s story is one of them.

In 1999, Lowe-Anker’s husband Alex Lowe, the famed mountain climber, died in an avalanche on the fourteenth highest mountain in the world, Shishapangma, in Tibet. Since then, Lowe-Anker has shared the strength she gained from this loss with others, affecting positive change through the non-profit she helped to found in 1999, the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation; and with Forget Me Not, the memoir she wrote about Lowe and their life together. In Forget Me Not, Lowe-Anker also writes about falling in love with her current husband, highly acclaimed mountain climber Conrad Anker; Anker was a good friend to Lowe, and survived the avalanche Lowe didn’t.

Forget Me Not is the story of losing a partner, but it’s also a story about finding new love, raising three children, having a successful art career, and staying optimistic all the while. Lowe-Anker is an inspiration, not only because of what she’s accomplished, but because of her unique and chillingly courageous attitude towards life. Lowe-Anker is a forward and positive thinker; she appreciates her time on earth, and fully embraces opportunities she is given. She is not superstitious or afraid to say that things don’t necessarily happen for a reason, but they do happen, and you still have to live your life and move on.

Jesse: How did you first get the idea to write Forget Me Not? Had you always planned to write a book, and then once Alex’s death occurred it seemed inevitable to write about that?

Jennifer: No, actually I never planned to write a book at all. I never really thought of myself as a writer, and so the whole thing kind of took me by surprise. It happened after he died; I knew that Alex was very well known and well thought of and I felt like his story would make a good book. There were people sort of asking, “Oh, can I write about Alex?” And I kept saying, “Ahh, I’m not ready to cooperate with someone else writing that story.” I felt maybe too much ownership, or like I wanted to have the control of telling the story my way. Because I knew he had a lot of credentials in the climbing world, and I saw that as certainly a good book to tell what a great climber he was. But I felt like that was such a small part of who he was and I wanted to tell the bigger story and try to capture the soul of the man I had loved.

Jesse: You did a great job.

Jennifer: Thanks! So, that was how it came about. I thought at first I would actually have a ghostwriter or a co-author because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I had certainly written lots of letters and then when I had been a student, I had done a lot of paper writing. But at that point in my life, that was kind of all the writing I had done, so I think I was just going, “Ooh, can I do this? I’m not sure.”

So, I did a little bit of sample writing, and I had interviewed a couple of different people as possible co-writers; but then I decided I would lose my voice with a co-writer and I didn’t really want to. I had a vision for this story—I wanted to have Alex’s voice through his letters, and then my voice too so I felt like the reader would experience more the life we had shared.

Jesse: Did you wind up taking writing classes, or did you just wing it?

Jennifer: No, I just went for it. I had taken writing classes when I had been a student, and of course it had been years before but I think I had kind of a knack for it, just naturally. Being an artist you look at things in detail, and so my writing is very descriptive and visual. When you look back at the book, it’s all about the places we’re visiting and it’s descriptive of the scenes. And I think that, as an artist, I have a really keen memory of the visual things in my life. When I remember back, I can picture everything, so that helped a lot certainly.

Jesse: Actually, that relates to my next question. I’m always amazed at the way people remember things. You had such detailed memories of your life with Alex and in general, and I wondered, had you kept diaries of those trips and the beginning of your relationship, or did you just remember it all?

Jennifer: I had letters when we were apart from each other, like for instance, during the seismic work we were sometimes separated, so we wrote letters to each other about what we were doing, and I had all those letters. Both of us kept journals, not religiously, every year, every day, but enough that I had some things to choose from. And then the other thing I had were the letters both of us had written to my grandmother. The interesting thing is, that when you delve into a memory, it’s kind of surprising how much you can uncover out of the depths of your recollection. It’s pretty cool.

Jesse: So, what was the process of writing the book like for you? Was it therapeutic, or was it difficult; did you have to pause periodically?

Jennifer: All of those things. It was very cathartic, certainly when my sister was alive. When I started writing the book, she was a champion for me as I wrote. Jan died in ’05 and I wasn’t quite finished but I was very close to being finished with it. I had visited her often—especially the last year of her life when she was pretty ill—and read her a lot of the chapters. Jan was a real avid reader and also a beautiful writer; we wrote letters to each other. She would say things like, “This is so great. You’re going to be on Oprah. We’re going on Oprah together when this is done!” And so, when she died, there was a little part of me that was like, “Ugh, can I finish this? It was really hard.”

Jesse: I can imagine.

Jennifer: So then I was invited to the Banff Centre in Canada—they have a mountain writing program, and I was invited to go up there for a month and live in the little dormitories and work. There were two editors there and another group of writers, so that was a real jump-start for me to finish it up. And then the whole editing process didn’t take too long. I had good editors; Mountaineers were my publishers and they were great, and then everything else kind of fell into place.

Jesse: Was it an obvious choice to pick Jon Krakauer to write the forward for your book? Were you already a fan of his?

Jennifer: Well, Jon is a friend, and so, at first, weeks after Alex’s death, I had said to Jon, “Would you consider writing a story or a book about Alex?” And he said, “No, I’m too close to you. And I loved Alex too much.” So, then I thought about it and I, of course, called him up at times when I was thinking of writing the book and I would say, “Well, what do you think?” And he was always really blunt and honest, and he finally said, “If you write this book, it won’t be any good if you don’t paint a realistic picture of, not just the good part of Alex and the hero part of Alex and the part you love, but also some of the hard stuff about this person. Everybody has chinks in their armor, and so you have to paint a realistic picture. You have to be brutally honest and try to include everything.” So, I really made an effort to do that, and I think that helped a lot. It was good advice. Occasionally I would send him a chapter to read—he didn’t do any editing but we’d talk on the phone and he’d give me advice.

Jesse: That’s great.

Jennifer: So, it was a big help. And then he wrote the intro, and I asked him to do that.

Jesse: This is kind of a tough question—of course you could have never wished for anything as terrible as Alex’s death to occur, but since it has, do you ever feel that maybe things happened the way they did for a reason, or that it was “supposed to be this way?”

Jennifer: I don’t ever feel like it was supposed to be this way. There’s not a day that—well, there might be a couple days that go by where I don’t think of Alex—but I still think of him very often. There are things about Alex that I just miss, that no one can replace. So it’s more like, your life has taken a turn and you just go forward.

And certainly Conrad is a wonderful guy and I feel super lucky that we’ve been able to share our lives together, and I realize that had Alex not died, I never would have known Conrad and loved him the way I do. I’m just really grateful for the life I have and for each day I have. Perhaps having experienced the losses of Alex and Jan, in particular, because they were both young when they died, makes me realize that I could not be here too. I could be not living each day just as they’re missing each day of life.So, I think it’s more like that. You realize how lucky you are to have what you have, and you try to make the best of it and to look outward and not inward. Certainly we all need to grieve—grieving is a part of loss, and I’m not saying that’s not important. But for me personally, I think looking outward from my own grief and into the world and what is out there and what can I do and what can I experience, helps me the most. Love is a wonderful thing to keep grasping for in your life. And I feel really lucky that Conrad and I found that.

Jesse: Yeah, that’s great. And how do you think Alex’s death changed the way you take risks?

Jennifer: For me personally, when I had the kids, I kind of lowered my own risk-taking level. I think that was a big wake–up call, like, OK, I have to be around for these guys. And certainly Alex was aware of it too but I think men are programmed differently as far as risk-taking, and certainly the men I seem to be attracted to, are. And Conrad too, after Alex died and when he and I first became involved with each other, he said, “Oh, I’m not interested in climbing any more big mountains. There’s just too much objective danger, and I don’t want to do that anymore because I see how much grief it brought on your family and Alex’s family and David’s family,” who was also lost in that same avalanche.

But then gradually over time, he was still lusting to get out there, and it turns out he’s gone back and climbed Everest again, and he’s climbed some other six thousand meter peaks that were pretty technical. So, he didn’t really scale it back all that much. He did a little bit certainly, and he is doing more scaling back now and I greatly appreciate that.

I think everybody has different levels of risk-taking. I still ski. I ski difficult and fast stuff and I’m in my fifties. But I’ve skied all my life. And certainly I’m not out there jumping off cliffs or anything, and I’m not acting like a twenty-year-old, but I’m still out there doing it. I ride my horse up in the woods to the top of hilltops. And horses are really dangerous—they probably cause more injuries than any other sport. So, I do embrace a certain amount of risk in my life I guess, as we all do, but I like to think I’m managing that risk and that it’s not just wanton recklessness.

Jesse: To lighten things up a bit, how do you think writing this book has changed your art career?

Jennifer: I don’t know that it’s changed my actual career that much. I think that, after Alex’s death, I definitely scaled back the amount of work I was producing because I had been quite obsessed and I was doing as much as I could. Both Alex and I were. We were at that point in our lives where the children were young and we felt like we were in our game and that we should be pushing, pushing, pushing, to produce as much and work as hard as we could. And so the year before he died, I had a phenomenal number of shows; I had five art shows in that time.

Jesse: Wow!

Jennifer: So, yeah, it was a lot of work. And I had this realization that, “My god, Alex’s life is done. He’s not here; he’s not living.” And I kind of reassessed my own management of time or division of work and took a step back and looked at how I needed to spend more time out seeing the world with the kids, and get more involved with them. And so I scaled back a little bit on that and sort of revamped how much I was going to produce as far as artwork. But I’ve been doing at least one or two shows every year. I still enjoy it; but I’ve enjoyed other things too.

I started the foundation and that takes some time. It’s been super rewarding to get involved with helping the people in Nepal, and I’d like to branch out and possibly do a project up in the Northern Arctic with the Inuit who Alex also loved. I have a great deal of compassion for them right now in that their world is changing so drastically.

Those are things that came about because of Alex’s death, and I feel a huge amount of reward from them. I think that if everyone lives long enough to feel satiated in their own lives, they often start looking outward to see what they can do in a bigger arena; and those feelings of reward are greater. The more you can manage to give or help out other people, I think the reward comes back to you.

Jesse: That sounds great. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation. In a previous conversation, you had mentioned that you’re going to Nepal soon—is that to help out at the climbing school?

Jennifer: Yes. We established a climbing school for the indigenous people in Nepal—it’s mostly the Sherpas but there are a few other tribes that also work in the high mountains. They come up from the low lands and they work as high altitude porters and high altitude climbing guides on Everest; they also work as trekking guides.

Conrad and I went to Nepal together a couple of years after Alex’s death and we trekked up to Everest base camp and I began to notice how many deaths in the mountains had been the Sherpa people, and it was devastating. When you begin to look at the numbers, it’s something like a third of all the people killed on Mount Everest had been Sherpas because they were working for Western teams that were coming over to climb and putting themselves in that objective danger without the skills that the Western climbers have.

So, we started thinking . . . There was a climbing school in Nepal, but it was far away from the Khumbu region and a lot of the people who ended up working on the mountains didn’t have the money or means to travel over and take the classes to learn how to be safe mountain climbers. They just sort of worked their way up to the altitude and were available when needed to take a job without really knowing the sorts of things that Western climbers know about traveling up on glaciated mountains where avalanches happen.

And so we started this technical climbing school, and this will be the eighth year it’s been going. The most exciting thing is we’ve run it out of the lodges of some local families up in Phortse. It takes place in the winter and it’s just a couple of weeks where the climbers come and they sign up for the classes and then every day we take them out and teach them ice climbing and rock climbing skills. We’ve had wonderful volunteer guides come over and trek up to Phortse Village. There are ice climbs around there in the winter so it’s a perfect time for them to learn on technical steep ice which has got a steeper learning curve for making sure you’re doing everything correctly.

They learn about the proper gear, harnesses, ropes and how to use them, and how to tie knots. Then we also have some mountain medicine and rescue classes, and a beautiful English course that my wonderful friend Lila Bishop put together. Lila still went over last year, but soon mostly Sherpa and local people will be teaching it.

We’re hoping that this Khumbu Climbing Center will be sustainable with the new building we’re starting to build in the village. The land was donated by locals, and we partnered with the Montana State University School of Architecture. The graduate students there designed a building, which is passive, solar, and earthquake resistant. And it will be the first passive, solar building in the Khumbu region, designed as such and projected to maintain temperatures of sixty degrees year round, which is pretty phenomenal because most of those high villages are freezing cold in the winter. You have to sit around in a down coat indoors, and they burn yak dung, and wood is very scarce so they’re always smoky; and then the wind whistles through the stone buildings at night. So, this building is going to be a real change for them to see. It’s open source so maybe in the future they can see that they can improve their own buildings and homes as far as their comfort level goes.

In the high villages, the Sherpas, as they get money, move out and go to Kathmandu, which is kind of the center city. There’s almost a pilgrimage out of the mountains of the Sherpas, and it’s sad to me because the high villages are really beautiful places. I feel as though if we can show them that their standards of comfort can be quite nice up there in their villages—if they can have electricity and running water and those amenities that we all love to have, especially as they get older—if they can have a nice warm place to sit and knit or do their craft and have their grandchildren at their feet, that’s a wonderful thing.

Jesse: So, is the Khumbu Climbing Center the focus of the foundation?

Jennifer: That’s been our main project for the past seven years or so. We’ve done a few other things like adding roofs to schools in other areas. We helped out with this school in Taksindu. We also have another wonderful project: the Magic Yeti Libraries. Our director is Liesl Clark and Liesl has now established four libraries in kind of remote regions of Nepal.

Jesse: That’s great!

Jennifer: As it turns out, even in the remote schools, there’s a shortage of books. Children just don’t have the availability of books like our kids do. And certainly the books are schoolbooks and not beautiful, illustrated picture books like our kids have the advantage of opening up to read every day. But it’s been a wonderful thing to bring these children’s libraries out there, and they’re a great help to the mothers too, many of whom are illiterate, so they also learn along with their children.

Jesse: Wow, that’s incredible. Before we end, is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you would like to add?

Jennifer: I can’t think of anything. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you; thanks again for the interview.

Jesse: Yes! Thank you so much for speaking to me.

To find out more about Jennifer Lowe-Anker, check out her Web site; and to read more about the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, go here.

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