I started climbing in the Ogden area in the early 1990’s, and the Lowe’s were legendary figures in local lore. I didn’t know anything about them at the time other than the more experienced climbers would point out the difficult or scary looking lines and say “The Lowe’s did the first ascent of that line” in a tone that emoted awe, fear, and respect. It was only years later that I came to realize that the Lowe’s were more prominent players in the world of climbing than just in Ogden.
Although Jeff is the better-known Lowe, it’s often Greg’s routes that reached the pinnacle of myth. Often the most difficult and rarely repeated, Greg was far beyond almost EVERYONE at the time. Greg not only dominated the climbing grades, but he developed gear that would propel the sport forward in leaps and bounds.
"Greg had this explosive strength that was just so...it was almost hard to assimilate, because it was his own approach that was kind of a martial arts approach. He was way into martial arts. George (Lowe) was just hardcore solid, a mental solidity. I could emulate George. I didn't have the tools to emulate Greg. No one did. Greg had strength, both physically and enviably that few people had. I can relate to George in that respect. George and I were closer in terms of physical abilities than Greg and I were. I enjoyed climbing with both of them, and I learned a lot from climbing with both of them, but George became my mentor during that period of time because I couldn't relate to what Greg could do." Jeff Lowe
In the ice realm, some climbs, in particular, have reached what I like to call “Unicorn Status.” Super rare and mythical. When you find a unicorn, you hop on and take the ride! The Great Amphitheatre Gully.
In 1995 this line was rumored to have had only three ascents, and most climbers in the area had never seen it form or even knew exactly where it was.
Facing west and receiving sun from mid-day to sunset, the orange quartzite cliffs above Ogden, Utah radiate heat, quickly melting any chance of ice formation on its low elevation crags.
Luckily for us, a short window in late December 2016 a deep cold set in on the bench above town just after a week of warm temps and above average snowpack. These conditions quickly built and a beautiful sliver of ice started from the rim of the cliffs, 100’ wide and in over 400’ tapered to body width at the bottom.
A friend of a friend reported that the Gully was in and I took the day off work to go check it out. Zooming in on the ice from the town below with my telephoto lens, it was indeed in, but not sure how well attached it would be…or for how much longer.
I immediately called a few friends, and we all took the next day off to ride the unicorn.
We started hiking by headlamp, but the temperature already higher than expected. The lights from the city made it easy to spot the cleft in the cliffs we were aiming for. We walked uphill, directly towards the cleft, our headlamps illuminating the eyes of deer, glowing like highway reflective strips staring us down. The slopes were bare of snow until we reached the mouth of the gully. Traversing in from the right, once we reached the bottom of the gully we were surprised to see boot prints with Vibram® in reverse etched into the snow. Was another team ahead of us? We continued, scrambling up rocky steps, avoiding the icy sections until we arrived at the base just as the sun came over the ridge above. The footprints had ended at the base, but nobody was above so they must have climbed a few days earlier.
Jake Hirschi also grew up in Ogden and started climbing the same time I did. We both were excited to do the route and decided to roshambo for the first pitch. Jake won, so I asked Matt to belay as I scrambled up the Cliffside to get in position to take photos of Jake.
As he started up, he was a bit worried. “This ice is shitty! It’s barely even attached to the wall.” I told him to “stop complaining and just climb!” “I don’t see any sign of the other party,” said Jake. “I don’t think they climbed the route.” Slowly Jake made his way up the first pitch, sparse gear placements and sections of ice collapsing on him made for tenuous work, but finally, he reached solid ice more than 100’ above. This only lasted a short bit and then thinned out again, and the gear disappeared. We heard the sound of a pin ringing into the rock, bouncing off the walls of the amphitheater and Jake occasionally swearing as he kept trying different spots for a good purchase. Finally, we heard “off belay, ” and I just looked at Matt and smiled. This is what I came for.
Matt and I started up 15’ apart, now almost an hour into daylight. The temps had continued to warm, and by the time I got to the vertical sections of ice, entire sheets of ice sheared off, leaving a space of more than 5’ below me just bare rock. Delicately we climbed through the rotten ice, hooking and drytooling as much as possible to not have another sheet collapse.
We reached Jake, and I looked at the next pitch. Rolling WI3 steps that looked fat. Not as classic as Jake’s pitch but still looked fun. We exchanged the rack, and I started out. Bomber sections of ice led to detached, hollow sections every 10-15 feet but the climbing was comfortable, and there was good pro along the sides. The pitch went quickly, and I found a great belay ledge and brought the two up.
Jake again racked up as Matt was content just to climb, having no sentimental attachment to the route. Pitch 3 started with a fun stemming pillar and went through numerous 15’vertical pillars. Matt and I followed the pitch, grinning and joking as we climbed just feet apart, psyched to be on this improbable line.
Pitch 4 was again rolling WI3, and I jokingly cursed Jake for drawing the two best pitches. I cast off, trying to choose the most exciting line amid many options. The ice was still hollow but plastic so easy swinging. Just before the rim I encountered a short band of chossy rock then I was standing on the edge of the cliff, looking down the route. 400’ of fun terrain, not difficult by today’s standards, but I tried to picture Greg in 1971, making his way up the route with straight shafted wooden piolets and crampons designed for glaciers, not vertical ice. Their gear consisted of pitons, heavy oval carabiners and an extreme sense of adventure.
There were rumored to be “5 large, ugly” pins for the descent. Unfortunately, the rappel from the pins was also described as super loose and dangerous so looking for alternatives, we spotted some old webbing on a tree to the climbers left, so old and rotten we pulled it off by hand. We added some new cord and headed down, aiming for a tree 100+’ below. Again, there was some old rotten tat that we cleaned and replaced, but the next tree had been destroyed by rock-fall, so crossed over the route to the right side to see if we could find some of the old pins. Two 60m ropes tied together barely made it to a decent ledge where I went off the rope and started looking for existing pins or cracks where I could build a new anchor. The initial search revealed neither. Most the rock was fractured and loose. After digging through the snow, I found a few decent cracks and pounded in two pins and built a new anchor. Matt and Jake joined me on the ledge, and I started down the face. 40’ below our anchor I found one of the original pitons. The webbing was cut through, and the pin was just sitting in what must have once been a tight fit, but now plucked out by hand. Homemade, these pins looked like they were cut from a leaf spring of a car. Oversized and weighing about the same as my rack of cams, I could not believe they carried these up the climb.
Continuing, I found one more pin 100’ below, again just sitting on a crack, plucking it out by hand. I finally reached the ground psyched not only to have climbed a classic Lowe route but to have come back with two 46-year-old history pieces. Jake and Matt joined me at the base, and both marveled at the pins and our luck. Nobody had rappelled this route in at least 10-15 years. There is a walk off, but it would require 2-3 hours of talus and scramble into another drainage to get off making it unlikely that anyone would have elected to go that way.
We had hopped on the unicorn and ridden it to the end, and in the process re-discovered on of Utah’s oldest and least climbed classic routes. Thanks to the Lowe’s for their vision, boldness, and talent.