Adventure Not War

Max Lowe made a film about U.S. Army veterans returning to Iraq for a ski adventure, but as it turns out, the filmmaker has his own story to tell, too.


In 2005, Stacy Bare, then a U.S. Army captain, was stationed in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, working as a civil affairs team leader. His efforts centered on supporting local civilian populations to help lessen the impact of military operations. During his time there, he heard locals talk about trips to the snow-covered peaks north of the city and he dreamed of one day hiking in those mountains.

Stacy never imagined he’d return to Iraq after leaving in 2007, but 10 years later, in March 2017, he came back to climb and ski 11,834-foot Mount Halgurd, the highest peak entirely in Iraq (11,847-foot Cheekha Dar sits on the border of Iraq and Iran). Stacy, who was then the director of Sierra Club Outdoors, brought along friends and fellow U.S. Army veterans Matthew “Griff” Griffin, who served in Mosul, Iraq, as a U.S. Army Ranger, and Robin Brown, a pilot who was shot down over Fallujah, Iraq, in 2003, to join him on the expedition.

Through Stacy’s organization, called Adventure Not War, he returns to countries he once was deployed to—but as a climber and explorer, not a soldier. “Over time … I felt like the best way for me to come all the way home from war and to help me add onto and create a more positive narrative of not only my experiences in war, but also the people and places where I’d been sent to fight, or clean up after war, was to return as an adventure tourist,” Stacy said.

For their 2017 trip to Iraq, Stacy also invited a filmmaker named Max Lowe, who worked in conjunction with Stept Studios to direct and produce a 26-minute-long film about the trip. “I knew Max was a talented filmmaker and skier and given his own experiences with trauma at a young age, I thought he would have a very unique, but also different eye, to help tell the story we thought needed telling,” Stacy said.

The film premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 and won best mid-length film at the Tehran International Sports Film Festival in Iran that same year.

“All three climbers went into this trip to open themselves back up to the experiences they had had previously in Iraq, including traumatic experiences and the loss of friends they’d seen die there,” said Max. “Through this positive experience of traveling back there with friends who’d shared those past traumas, it seemed to help them understand more about the experiences they’d had. For me, it was really eye opening as well.”

Alex Lowe takes son Max for his first climb in Yosemite, circa 1991. (Photo Courtesy of Max Lowe)

Raised in Bozeman, Montana, Max, now 30, comes from a family of legendary mountain climbers. He also knows what it’s like to lose people he loves. His dad, Alex Lowe, was a renowned alpinist who died in an avalanche on 26,289-foot Shishapangma in Tibet in 1999, when Max, the eldest of three boys born to Alex and Jennifer Lowe, was days shy of his 11th birthday. His younger brothers, Sam and Isaac, were seven and three, respectively.

“To me, at that age, he was just my dad. But when he died, I really started to understand his role in his community and the world around him,” Max said. “People started reaching out from all over the place to share their stories of who my dad was.”

Jennifer later married famed alpinist Conrad Anker, Alex Lowe’s close friend and climbing partner who was with him on Shishapangma. Conrad later adopted the three boys. In December 1999, the couple started the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, which promotes safe climbing practices in Nepal. In 2003, as part of the foundation, they opened the Khumbu Climbing Center, a school in the shadows of Mount Everest that trains sherpas and other high-altitude workers in technical climbing and mountain rescue skills.

In 2016, 16 years after the avalanche, two climbers found the remains of Alex’s body and the body of his fellow climber, David Bridges, on the mountain, encased in ice. “When he was swept away by that rushing wave of snow and ice, it seemed as though Alex may well have been lost in space, eternalized only in the memories and stories of him that I’m able to still pull from my youth and from friends and family,” Max wrote in a story for National Geographic the week after his dad’s body was discovered. “On April 27, close to 16 years, 6 months, and 22 days after his death, the reality that this is no longer the case is what has held my thoughts for the last week. He is found.”

Max says his life was shaped by who his father was. He and his brothers grew up hiking, skiing and climbing in the mountains and traveling the world with his parents—first with Jennifer and Alex, then with Jennifer and Conrad—visiting places like the Himalaya for climbing expeditions. “When you’re a kid, your dad is your hero. I wanted to go and do what he was doing,” Max said.

His mother, Jennifer, gave Max his first camera when he was in the eighth grade, to help capture images from their family trips to places like Italy, Thailand and the Tetons.

Filmmaker and photographer Max Lowe is now working on a film about his father, Alex. (Photo Credit: Mia Sadowsky)

Years later, after graduating from college with a degree in international business and marketing, Max, then 23, received a National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2012. His grant involved traveling to Nepal, a place he visited with his family when he was a child, to conduct a photographic re-creation study using old and new prints to look at how the rise of adventure tourism in the region had impacted the area’s social and cultural geography. “I had these connections to Nepal with my family, but I’d never gotten to explore it myself,” Max said. “I wanted to go see this place for myself that I’d heard so much about when I was a kid.”

After that, Max ended up assisting on a National Geographic story on Mount Everest, then returned home to Montana, where he got a job at a coffee shop and tried to figure out how to keep working as a photographer. He slowly picked up more filming and photography gigs, many for brands in the outdoor industry.

After first being introduced to the outdoors through Alex and then Conrad, Max says he later took it on as his own. “I loved skiing, being outdoors and interacting with this world that Alex had been so deeply ingrained in,” he said. “For me, photography and storytelling has been my way.”

Max’s next project? He’s continuing to share his own story. When he returned to Tibet in 2016 to recover Alex’s body and perform a cremation ceremony alongside his family, Max and his brother Sam began capturing their family’s experiences on camera. He’s now working on a film about Alex, which he hopes to complete by early 2020.

“Discovering Alex’s body brought all of this to the forefront and pulled the curtain back on exactly how much our lives had been affected by him in death,” Max said. “This film will look at opening up those conversations more. Whether or not we choose it, the story of his death and our family going on from his death has shaped all of our lives.”

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