Torn review – tender love letter to mountain climber father who vanished

Show caption Life on the edge … Alex Lowe in 1995 in a scene from Torn. Photograph: Chris Noble Film Torn review – tender love letter to mountain climber father who vanished The son of renowned mountaineer Alex Lowe explores how his death in an avalanche shaped his own life in an absorbing documentary Cath Clarke Tue 18 Jan 2022 12.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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When climbers die on the mountains leaving young families behind, they are frequently criticised for putting themselves in harm’s way. How could they be so selfish? That question feels judgmental to me, cruel even. But the person asking it in this National Geographic documentary is director Max Lowe, who was 10 in 1999 when his pioneering climber dad Alex Lowe was buried under an avalanche in Tibet. His body was not discovered until nearly 17 years later. His film is an emotional, tender and painful love letter to his father and family.

Max’s mum is Jenni, an artist who was left a young widow with three small boys when her husband died. She’s emotionally rock-solid, raising her sons as a tight unit. When she first started dating Lowe, she didn’t expect it to last. “He was a wild thing.” Long pause, then a confession. “That’s what I loved about him.” Lowe was rugged, good-looking, incredibly charismatic. The couple married, moved to Montana, had children. But he struggled to balance family life and climbing. Talking about that final expedition, Jenni says: “You couldn’t question his love for our family, but he chose to be there.” She doesn’t let him off the hook.

Max’s brothers Sam and Isaac were seven and three when their dad died; they don’t have any solid memories of him. The loss shaped them. How can you walk in the footsteps of a man you hero-worship but don’t remember, who wasn’t around to show you how to be a man? Lowe’s best friend and climbing partner Conrad Anker, who was injured in the accident, talks about being wracked with survivor’s guilt.

There’s an emotional twist in the story: something that happened in the family after Lowe died. I’m glad I didn’t know before watching. Because, in its own way, this film is as gripping and absorbing as any documentary about the thrills ascending a north face. One of its pleasures is that everyone here is thoroughly decent, with a real story to tell.

• Torn is released on 21 January in cinemas.