It chronicled the peak of Lowe's career, as he scaled some of the highest and most dangerous mountains in the world, including a first ascent up the north face of the Eiger, a 13,020-foot mountain in the Swiss Alps.
- Jessica Murri
Both of these photos are of Mike Blackaller. He was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy and has since lost his ability to rock climb, walk and often talk.
That's almost exactly what happened to his climbing idol, Jeff Lowe.
The film, which screened one night in Boise before moving on to McCall's Alpine Theatre on Nov. 11, attracted nearly 100 people, but the man sitting in the third row found it the most inspiring.
Mike Blackaller led a similar life to Lowe, climbing and guiding on Mount Rainier while Lowe climbed and guided in the Grand Tetons in the 1970s. They went to rival outdoor schools: Lowe at Outward Bound, Blackaller at the National Outdoor Leadership School.
Blackaller, however, hung up his climbing shoes in the 1980s and moved to Boise, embarking on a 34-year career with the Idaho Commission for the Blind and starting a family. Lowe kept climbing. They were later diagnosed with almost identical diseases. Now, both in their mid-60s, they share more similarities than ever.
Blackaller was diagnosed with a rare degenerative neurological disease called multiple system atrophy and has lost his ability to climb, backpack, walk and even talk much of the time. When he found out one of his idols struggled with a similar illness, he became obsessed with seeing the movie. His son, Dwayne, who Boiseans will know from his theater work as an actor, director and writer, helped bring the film to the Egyptian.
Surrounded by his closest friends and family, Mike finally got to see the movie on Tuesday night.
"I think he loved it," Dwayne said. "I think it was exactly what he wanted."
Mike spoke to Boise Weekly ahead of the screening, saying he wanted to learn the secret behind Lowe's happiness even in the face of such a painful disease. The film focuses on how one of Lowe's most ambitious climbs—the Eiger—became a transformative experience for him. He called it his "metanoia," meaning a fundamental change of thinking and of heart. Mike said he hoped to find that for himself within the film.
No such secret to life was neatly delivered within the movie.
"It would be nice to have a single thing, but instead, there isn't a single key or mystery," Dwayne said. "I think that's the secret: you can have a transformative moment, but you still have to come back to the here and now. The big takeaway from the movie was doing what you can with what you have and where you are right now. I think my dad learned from it."
- Jessica Murri
- Film producer Connie Self took questions from the audience on Nov. 10 after a screening of Jeff Lowe's Metanoia.
"He didn't want any shots of him in a wheelchair or the sound of his voice," Self said. "He just wanted it to be about his climbing and his legacy. I told him, 'I don't think so, dude. Anyone who has ever faced a challenge can relate to this.' You need to be able to do what you can with what you have. You can't be creative or have good ideas until you say, 'It is what it is, now what do we do next?'"
Lowe has been in and out of hospice care and studied by 30 teams of doctors from around the world to properly diagnose his illness. Self said doctors have never seen it before. He's doing better now, after a scrape with death in 2014. He's starting to use a walker instead of a wheelchair and still has enthusiasm for his life.
"We're calling it JLS," Self said, laughing. "Jeff Lowe Syndrome. He likes to go where no one else goes. Now he's doing a first ascent in a disease, which will probably make him more famous than any of his climbing ever did."
The film took five years to make and premiered at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in November 2014. Self is still looking for a distributor for the film, but it can be preordered online.