National Geographic’s ‘Torn’ Documents a Family’s Loss and Explores Their Recovery


Bozeman, MT – Anker-Lowe family hiking Alex Lowe Peak in Montana. (Credit: Lowe Anker Family)

By Hannah Keating, Arts Editor


National Geographic’s latest documentary “Torn” is an intimate look into the life left behind by the “world’s greatest climber” Alex Lowe after his tragic death in an avalanche. In the film, director Max Lowe explores the footage of his dad’s feats and interviews his mother, brothers and stepdad Conrad Anker — who survived the avalanche — about their lives with and without Alex.

Mountains to Climb

The story is one known to almost all within the climbing community, and many outside of it. Lowe, Anker and cameraman David Bridges were on an expedition of Mount Shishapangma in 1999 when an avalanche tore through the snowfield they were exploring, killing Lowe and Bridges. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, Anker committed to supporting Lowe’s widow Jennifer and three young sons — Max, Isaac, and Sam — eventually marrying her and adopting the boys.

Conrad Anker (R) and Alex Lowe on peak of Mt Evans, Ellsworth Mountains, Antarctica Austral. (Credit: Gordon Wiltsie)

“Torn” leaves no stone unturned in the lives of the Lowe-Anker family as, seventeen years later, the bodies are discovered and they travel to the Himalayas to recover them, experiencing the climb firsthand and reckoning with the tragedy. 

Striking Footage

Visually, this film is stunning. Lowe’s choice to juxtapose the rich archival footage of Alex’s impressive climbs with the family’s own home videos is breathtaking, if not heartbreaking. Clips unexpectedly and hauntingly parallel one another, depicting the dichotomy of Alex Lowe’s two lives — that of a patriarch in love with his three boys and that of an insatiable adventurer.

Gone is the mythos of a man the public knew solely through magazine covers. Left in its place is a picture of someone’s dad, featuring videos of his toothy grin from a mountain top, the ferocious zeal for the challenge glistening behind his eyes. It’s striking how his features are clear in the faces of his now adult sons, but that electric energy is transformed in them. Max and his brothers are solemn, subdued. The youngest, Sam, doesn’t really even have memories of Alex, saying, “Kind of at this point, it feels like some sort of dream, or something.”

Alex Lowe (R) with his son, Max, while camping in Zion National Park, Utah. (Credit: Jennifer Lowe-Anker)

That’s what makes the film so intimate, so close to home. We see three men revisiting this heroic figure they only really know through stuff stored in boxes. We see a couple bound by the loss of someone they loved, but who are shaping a life of their own. We see a family trekking through hallowed grounds and unearthing their grief. “Torn” is a tragedy, love story, bildungsroman on film and nature odyssey all in one. 

Figures Made Familiar

“Torn” was hard for me to watch, but my attention never wavered. It captivated me with its off-putting, yet true, familiarity. I feel as though I know this man in the footage — this lanky climber clad in North Face outdoors wear, face blushed from cold and sun. I’m sure the song playing on the radio during footage of a drive home from the ski hill is one my dad played for me, and it makes me ache with nostalgia. I feel like I’ve met this family from Bozeman, MT and, having never seen the headlines about Alex Lowe before this, I feel as though I know their hurt. 

Near the end, we see Max and Conrad in the kitchen, the pensive director made vulnerable on this side of the camera. “We have this shadow of Alex that hangs over us, but for all of us, you’re our dad … We all really love you for it,” Lowe says. The two embrace.

Lowe as director has shaped an masterpiece that will stick with me. Yes, “Torn” addresses a traumatic loss, but it’s so much more. It’s about recovery. It’s about resiliency. It’s about love — love that this family shares for each other and love of the same thrill that Alex Lowe sought out.


“Torn” is available in select theaters now.


[email protected]