“Torn” Review: Losing a Father to the Mountains

“This isn’t going to be very fun, Max.” A filmmaker named Michael Brown says this to Max Lowe about a third of the way through Lowe’s new documentary film, “Torn,” an autobiographical exploration of his family’s experience with tragedy and its aftermath. By “this,” Brown means the experience they are about to have watching footage from the day, in 1999, that Max’s father, Alex Lowe, perhaps the greatest American mountaineer of his generation, died in an avalanche during an expedition in Tibet. Brown and Lowe have just dug a stack of videotapes out of a box and popped a promising one into a VCR.

We then see what Max is seeing, for the first time in his life: the climbers at base camp waking up to fresh snow, brewing espresso on a gas-jet stove, setting out on an exploratory ramble to a moraine. An avalanche engulfs them. Two men, Alex Lowe and a cameraman named David Bridges, are buried. One man, Lowe’s best friend and tentmate, Conrad Anker, survives. We see more footage of the aftermath—Anker back at base camp, near-catatonic, as his wounds are dressed and the finality sinks in; a futile search amid the debris—and then we return to the scene of Brown and Max Lowe, the son, solemnly taking it in. Brown stops the tape. “Well, that’s, um—”

“What else is on that one?” Max asks.

“It’s just—more stuff like that.”

They are both choking up.

“Thanks for shooting it,” Max says.

“I’m sorry.”

Max was ten, the eldest of three boys, when his father died. The news reached his mother, Jenni, in Bozeman, Montana, via a satellite phone call from another member of the expedition, Andrew McLean. Grief-stricken, she found herself, within months, falling in love with Anker, the survivor and friend, who’d come to Bozeman to provide, and seek, emotional succor and support. Within two years, they were married, and Anker adopted her sons, and Lowe’s, as his own. A modern family, of a kind.

Perhaps it seems unsporting of me to give so much away. But the Lowe-Anker story has been told many times, in many media. I have written about it twice myself, in pieces about Anker and McLean. It has almost become a kind of climbing-world folk song, a dark and wondrous mountain myth open to new versions and interpretations. And yet, even for someone familiar with the details and reverberations, the experience of watching “Torn” is emotionally wrenching, and uncommonly intimate. Its earnest and unadorned affirmation of love is a fine bracer, in these sour, suspicious times.

“Torn” is Max’s story—his attempt to come to grips with what he has lost and gained, as well as to absolve and commend Anker, for his taking of Lowe’s place. Alex Lowe, Anker, and Jenni Lowe-Anker are the film’s principal characters, in many respects. One marvels at the dead father’s incandescence, the widow’s frankness and courage, the survivor’s taciturnity and inner turmoil. But the film’s protagonist, its quiet heart, is Max. We see him as a young boy, in home videos shot mainly by his father, and then, after Alex’s death, as a witness to the presence of his replacement. We watch young Max watching, and then thirty-year-old Max watching his younger self watching. He doesn’t need to say much; his gaze—as child, man, and filmmaker—does the talking.

The seed of this project was the discovery, in 2016, of Lowe’s body on Shishapangma, on the glacier where he’d been buried by the avalanche. Two climbers, David Goettler and Ueli Steck, came upon his corpse; after seventeen years, the ice and snow had released him. The family travelled to Tibet to retrieve and cremate the body in a pyre at base camp. They brought the cameras, of course, and, as Jenni and the boys experienced some measure of closure, Anker wrestled with a flareup of long-simmering survivor’s guilt and impostor syndrome. He had suicidal thoughts.

Max, as the eldest, had been more hesitant than his brothers to accept Anker. He’s the only one who didn’t change his surname to Lowe-Anker. The other boys hardly remember their father—to them, he is “Alex,” more legend than man, and Anker is “Dad.” On camera, Max questions his mother about her haste in taking up with Anker (“Why?”), and she offers a piquant declaration of both her love for Anker and her practical considerations for bringing him into the family. “ ‘Why?’ Why is it worth it to love someone?”

“I mean, I just can’t—I can’t imagine, in the wake of something so crushing—to come out of it so quickly in that way that you did.”

Jenni explains herself and says, “There wasn’t time to overthink it, Max. I just acted.”

At the same time that Max Lowe was making his film, I happened to be reporting a piece that was partly about Anker’s psychological and emotional struggles. I was the latest curious outsider to gawk and pry, while Max was taking it up from inside. I spent days with Conrad and Jenni in Bozeman, had dinner at their house, and had frank conversations with them about all they’d been through. I spoke with Max about the delicacy of his project. I found myself wondering if Anker had let me into his world and his head (a little ways, at least) to inoculate himself against the deeper exposure of the film. Jenni seemed to regard my project with some wariness, focussed as it was on the men who leave, rather than the women who get left behind.

“Torn” is one of several prominent new climbing films. “14 Peaks” follows the Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja’s quest to climb the world’s fourteen mountains that rise higher than eight thousand metres in just seven months—an unfathomable feat. Such is his strength that the threat of death (his, anyway) hardly comes into play; the film, curiously, depicts fund-raising as a steeper challenge than Annapurna. “The Alpinist,” a documentary directed by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen, about the elusive Canadian free soloist Marc-André Leclerc, features what may be the most vivid and harrowing climbing footage I’ve ever seen. (After Mortimer’s previous film “The Dawn Wall,” co-directed by Josh Lowell, and Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Meru” and “Free Solo,” that bar is not low.) “The Alpinist” takes up questions of risk, loss, and grief, but perhaps in the genre’s more conventional way of accepting death as the cost of pushing limits. The sadness is raw, unprocessed. And no children get left behind, so there’s apparently no one around to parse the mythmaking or the long-term consequences of untimely death.

In “Torn,” the family members have been contending with the reverberations for two decades, even if they haven’t worked through it all together. Early on, Max’s brother Isaac says to him, “I’m curious as to why you want to make this film, considering it’s something that we haven’t really explored with just ourselves very much at all.”

The other brother, Sam, says, “I feel like it’s probably just going to bring things out in the open, and then we’ll just see if we can recover from that.”

The film turned out to be both a vehicle for, and a chronicle of, the family’s self-therapy. I got the sense from family members that it was not uncontentious. Jenni, who in 2008 published a memoir, “Forget Me Not,” has long served as the guardian of Alex’s legacy, and of her own story. It seems she had some trouble ceding control to her son. “Wouldn’t it have been easier just to go to therapy?” she told him.

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