The strange love story of Alex Lowe’s widow and Conrad Akner



In the 1990s, alpinist Alex Lowe was on top of the world. He was considered the best mountain climber in the world. He summited Everest twice, tackled K2, and, with his best buddy and climbing partner Conrad Anker, set speed records on peaks in the Himalayas and Antarctica. When he wasn’t traveling to far-flung locales as a member of the North Face climbing team, he came home to a beautiful wife, Jenni, and three adorable young sons, Max, Isaac and Sam.

Then, in October of 1999, Lowe, 40, and Anker, then 38, travelled to Tibet with the intention of climbing the 26,289-foot Shishapangma and skiing down it. As the two men and cameraman David Bridges were climbing up the peak, an avalanche struck, killing Lowe and Bridges, their bodies buried and left to the mountain. Anker somehow survived but was left wracked with guilt.

Aimless, he drove out to Bozeman, Montana, to comfort Jenni and the boys

“Although we weren’t biological brothers, we were certainly both brothers of the same passion,” says Conrad, now 59, of Lowe. “I just felt so sad . . . [I thought], ‘What could I do for Alex? What could I do to take care of him, and what would it be?’ ”

But he and Jenni quickly developed feelings for each other just a few months after Lowe’s passing. On April 6, 2001, less than two years after Alex’s death, the two wed in Italy with the boys at their side.

Their unusual love story is the subject of the National Geographic documentary, “Torn,” streaming on Disney+. The doc is directed by Lowe’s oldest son, Max, who was 10 at the time of his father’s death and has sometimes struggled with accepting Anker as part of the family. The film finds Max, now 33, asking his mother how she could move on with his father’s best friend so soon after his death.

Jenni and Conrad Anker embarked on their relationship just months after Alex Lowe’s death. Courtesy Max Lowe“You can lose someone and still love someone else,” says Jenni, now in her 60s and still happily wed to Anker.

Her youngest sons were just 3 and 6-years-old when Lowe died, and they have little recollection of him but revere him as a “superman” of sorts. But the documentary also touches on the fact that he traveled often and struggled with balancing his adventurous career and family.

Max Lowe (left) with brothers Sam (center) and Isaac (right), and parents Alex and Jenni in the early ’90s. Courtesy Max LoweBefore meeting his untimely fate, Lowe told Anker — who he shared a tent with on the night before his death — that he wanted to take Jenni and their boys to Disneyland for Christmas. It was a destination the world traveler had previously had little interest in, but now he wanted to do something for his sons.

After his death, Anker went to Disneyland with Jenni and the boys, and shortly after their trip to the amusement park, romantic sparks ignited between the two grief-stricken adults.

Conrad Anker (right) says he considered Alex Lowe a brother. Gordon WiltsieTheir relationship prompted snide whispers from cynics in the climbing community, and there were false rumors about them having an affair before Lowe’s demise. Jenni said she was eager to move on to the next chapter of her life and that “life was moving very fast.”

“It was a validation of my love for Alex,” the mom of three and author of the memoir “Forget Me Not” says of her swift nuptials to Anker. “I [wasn’t] going to let the painful end of those years with [Alex Lowe] be the end of me opening my heart to love someone else.”

Max Lowe says he and his brothers consider Conrad their father. Chris MurphyAnker adopted the three boys in the 2000s, although his relationship with Max has always been slightly strained.

“We have this shadow of Alex that hangs over all of us,” says Max. Unlike his mother and brothers, who hyphenated their last name to include Anker once he became their adopted father, Max chose to solely keep Alex’s last name. 

But, towards the end of the film, he and Anker share an emotional moment. “For all of us, you’re our dad,” he tearfully tells the older man — who, throughout the film, details his ongoing struggle with survivor’s guilt.

“Living in his house, marrying his widow, raising his boys, people coming up to me and calling me Alex. I’m living in that shadow, doing the best I can,” confesses Anker.  

“You’ve done as good a job as I could have ever imagined,” says Max. “And we all really love you for it.”

Adding to the emotion: The bodies of Lowe and Bridges were finally found in 2016, discovered on the south face of the mountain by rock climber David Goettler.

The whole Lowe Anker family traveled to Tibet to retrieve Alex Lowe’s body after it was found in 2016. National Geographic/Max LoweThe whole family traveled to Tibet to recover Lowe’s body and burn his remains. Later, the family scattered his bones and ashes atop his eponymous peak in Montana.  

Jenni reflects peacefully on the men she’s loved.

“Alex is a lucky guy, in that, his best friend, who loved him, fell in love with me and each of you,” she says to Max. “[Alex is] a really lucky guy.”

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