Climbing Onward

Jenni Anker-Lowe has dedicated years of her life to helping the indigenous people of Nepal, all in the name of her late husband, Alex Lowe.

By Kimberly Beekman

Building the Foundation

 

The late Alex Lowe, a preeminent mountaineer and elite climber, spent a lot of time in Nepal. He was a pioneer guide on Everest, attempted Annapurna, solo climbed Ama Dablam, and pioneered new routes on both Kwangde Nup and Kusum Kanguru. Each time he traveled to Nepal, he came back increasingly enamored with the indigenous people but worried over the lack of technical training that his Sherpa friends possessed.
 

“They did not know how to tie safe knots, and had very little instruction,” said Jenni Lowe-Anker, Lowe’s widow. “And a lot of expeditions sent them into dangerous terrain without the skillsets to keep them safe and make good decisions.”

When Lowe died in 1999 in a massive avalanche, Jenni launched the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation to help indigenous mountain people around the globe. In the years since his death, the foundation has, among other projects, built the Khumbu Climbing Center, which is a successful vocational program for Nepalese people, as well as a facility that serves as a library, clinic, safehouse, and community center in the village of Phortse that lies under Everest’s looming silhouette. (Miraflora supports the efforts of the KCC.) The KCC teaches courses on technical climbing skills, English language, mountain rescue, and wilderness first aid. Since its inception, more than 1,000 Nepali men and women have attended the KCC, many of whom have returned to become instructors.

Now married to climber Conrad Anker, Lowe’s best friend and climbing partner, Jenni’s work on the foundation—which has been 100% pro bono—is often overshadowed by Anker’s famous name. We recently caught up with her at her home in Bozeman, Montana. This is her story.
 

Q:
How did you get the idea to start the foundation?
 

Jenni:
It was really at the suggestion of Greg Mortenson [author of “Three Cups of Tea”], who was a good friend of ours here in Bozeman. He started the Central Asian Institute to help people in Pakistan and Afghanistan after losing his sister. He did a lot of good with that foundation. He knew Alex, and knew how Alex connected with the indigenous people of all the places he visited. He told me it would feel like I was carrying Alex forward. For me, as a young widow, it was very cathartic.

Q:
What was your first project?
 

Jenni:
Our first project was in Mongolia. We partnered with the Mongolian Altai Club and built an indoor climbing facility in an existing gym for Mongolian youth. They have long cold winters there. It was a way for the young folks to get together and do something wholesome, a healthy alternative to being on the streets and getting into trouble. It was a great success.
 

The next project was the KCC. We knew there was a lot of loss of life in the Sherpa community, and there was a need for more instruction. I raised money, and Conrad and I found a few people to come over and volunteer as instructors that first year. We asked our friends, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa and Chhongba Sherpa, to help organize the course and offered it for free, gathering at the lodges of Phortse friends Panuru Sherpa and Lakpa Dorje Sherpa.
 


 

That first year, 30 students came. Many of them had already summited Everest, and out of the bunch there was no one who knew how to tie a figure eight [a basic climbing knot]. We felt really validated that we were offering something that was needed. Over the years, KCC got more sophisticated, and more people came. It has evolved into a really viable and sustainable program that is very well-received and well-attended. Original students are now accomplished instructors. Four years ago, when I trekked to Everest base camp and visited with friends Ang Tsering Lama and Phunuru Sherpa, who were guiding there, they said there were over 200 indigenous Nepali working on Everest that season who had been educated at the KCC. So that was a really great feeling.

Q:
Are there many women who come to the KCC to train?
 

Jenni:
The numbers of women are still very small. Both Dawa Sherpa and Pasang Lamu Sherpa Akita (2016 National Geographic Adventurer of the year) came to KCC as young women determined to become climbers and guides. Conrad was impressed with Dawa’s drive and skills, and she summited Everest with Conrad’s 2012 team. Dawa, Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita, and Maya Sherpa became the first women’s Nepali team to summit K2 in 2014. Conrad and I thought it would be a great idea to bring Dawa onto The North Face athlete team, and the fact that she was a woman would be a really empowering thing for women in Nepal. She was the first indigenous Nepali athlete to join the team.
 

Q:
What’s the culture like for women in Nepal?
 

Jenni:
Every culture has its norms and its evolutions as far as women are concerned. I don’t want to speak too much because I’m not Nepali, but traditionally, women have been the keepers of the home, and the men go off to do more dangerous jobs. Women look after the yaks or cows on the hillside or harvest potatoes and garden and care for family. Animal-tending would be their most adventurous type of work. As a guest of that culture, I’ve always felt that it’s really important to not come in and say, “I know what’s going to better for you,” but to come in and say, “How can I help you?” To that question, the women say, “We want a chance.”
 

Q:
If women are traditionally not encouraged to become climbers and guides, how do you inspire them to enroll in the KCC?
 

Jenni:
We have a women’s only course, which is less intimidating. We thought they might just have more confidence and be more eager to sign up if they know it’s just women. They want to feel safe. Dawa did a wonderful job last year finding students. We had a class with 10 women, a couple of whom had been rescued from human trafficking through the American Himalayan Foundation. Dawa was there to make sure those girls felt safe and give them a chance to see what it was like to be a trekking or climbing guide. If nothing else, it empowers those young women that they can do something physical. We know climbing gives you the courage to try other things in your life that are challenging and hard.

Q:
How is the women’s class received by the villagers?
 
Jenni:
Dawa, along with Pasang Lamu and Maya, has now really become quite a hero to many young women—and even to young men—in Nepal. As a North Face athlete [and the first Nepali woman to earn an international mountain guiding certificate], she has a high profile but mostly stays in Nepal to lend a helping hand. That’s also something we encourage the people we are mentoring to do: If you get a hand or foot up, help fellow Nepalis. You are the change within your country.
 


 

Q:
You recently completed the KCC facility. Tell me a little bit about what that entailed.
 

Jenni:
About 15 years of my life, and I’m really proud of it. We partnered with the Montana State University School of Architecture for the design. Our Nepali friends, Panuru and Lakpa Dorje Sherpa, donated land. We solicited lots of volunteers and hired Nepali artisans. The building is passive solar, so it’s warm in the winter, and can withstand earthquakes and be a safehouse. It has an indoor climbing gym, a library, a medical room, and a beautiful open area for gathering. We didn’t want to change Phortse; we wanted to help protect it. This is special place, one of the most pastoral villages in Khumbu. That’s something we are really aware of.
 

Q:
You have been married to two of the best-known mountaineers in history. What’s it like to live in their long shadows?
 

Jenni:
As the woman behind the man, I’ve been happy to use Conrad’s notoriety, because I believe in what we’re doing. We are a partnership, but he’s gotten awards for the work we both did in Nepal.
 

There are many people who have done an incredible amount of work for Nepal that no one hears about. Dr. Luanne Freer founded the Himalayan Rescue Association and the Everest base camp emergency tent. Lila Bishop, who’s now in her 80s, started the English program for the KCC. She trekked up to Phortse in winter for five or six years straight and created this program with her dear friend, Lakpa Sherpa, who oversees it now. (Lila was in Nepal long ago when her husband, Barry Bishop, was on the first American ascent of Everest.) Another friend, Leeli Bonney, founded the Tara Foundation, doing important work in Solukhumbu.
 

Ultimately, though, it’s still a man’s world out there. Our own culture is still on its path of evolution.

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