Max Lowe has a penchant for adventure. The young National Geographic Explorer has cut his teeth as a photographer and filmmaker by traveling to the far reaches of the globe in an effort to document inspiring tales of survival and exploration.
Lowe, who comes from a storied lineage of mountaineers–he is the son of famed climber, Alex, and the adopted son of iconic alpinist Conrad Anker–has found his own path amongst the sometimes oversaturated outdoor photography scene through a continued willingness to go further and suffer more for the story. He puts himself in situations that others might balk at. While a number of his peers travel to the same well known outdoor meccas to capture cliche moments that will equate to social media success, Lowe goes the distance for his work, scouring the globe from Rapa Nui to Iraq.
Iraq is a place that most people would avoid at all costs, from ISIS uprisings to being sandwiched between Iran and Syria, it’s a place that has become synonymous with conflict. So when Iraq War veteran Stacy Bare approached Lowe one night at a Sierra Club event and asked him to go to Iraq Lowe initially agreed, assuming that the trip would never materialize. However, Bare, who served for 12 years wasn’t just making small talk. He was sincere in his offer and 6 months later Lowe, Bare and two other veterans, Matthew Griffin and Robin Brown, were boarding a plane for Iraq.
What transpired was a moving journey of healing and adventure, a revival of soul and spirit. Three U.S. veterans returning to a place of trauma and strife to find solace and closure. Lowe was there to document the journey and his new film, Adventure Not War, is a visual tribute to the men and women who put their lives on the line in the name of country, honor, and duty and the post-war healing process. We caught up with Lowe to talk about traveling to Iraq, healing through adventure, and most importantly what we as U.S. citizens can do to be more empathetic and supportive of military veterans.
How did you initially get involved with this project?
Not more than an hour after I had met Stacy Bare at the Sierra Club event he was hosting last summer, he casually asked whether I might be interested in coming to Iraq with him to make a ski film. I honestly just laughed and said sure, thinking that more than likely nothing would come of it. Less than 6 months later, as I boarded a flight from Istanbul to Erbil, I was still in something of a state of disbelief. This story is one that I loved in concept, and in the production of this film, truly hope that it pushes us in our industry to go further into the realm of stories that confront the social boundaries that we build between and around ourselves.
Was Iraq the first trip?
Iraq was the first trip I was able to join Stacy on in the thread of Adventure Not War, but Stacy had done a trip to Angola a few years back with legendary climber Alex Honnold. Stacy did landmine clearance there before his deployment in Iraq, and had tested the concept in theory on that journey, but it felt like going back to Iraq was really the full send, taking him back to a place where he was truly embroiled in an all out war zone and all the trauma that comes along with that.
How did the idea for that trip develop?
The idea for the trip really started developing in Stacy’s subconscious while he was deployed in Iraq. He had heard about people taking ski trips from Baghdad to ski in the northern part of the country, never expecting that he might be able to indulge in something so light-hearted while he was a soldier there. The trip developed after we started talking about the project last summer. A lot of logistical back and forth landed us in the Kurdish northern region of Iraq, where it was relatively safe to travel as Americans.
It seems like it would be sort of an emotionally-heavy trip to be on, the veterans you were with seemed to be going through a very cathartic experience. Did you do anything special to plan?
Beyond preparing ourselves physically for the climb of Mt. Halgurd, our objective, most of the preparation was mental. For Stacy, Ronin, and Griff, I am sure they all had second thoughts on returning to a country where they had experienced so much darkness and pain. We also had to justify to those around us why it was important to go back to this country, where we didn’t know what we might find in the form of life-threatening dangers, from insurgents to landmines to dangerous mountain conditions.
Where was your headspace in going with these vets to a place that holds so much emotional value?
Just being prepared for anything, honestly. Going into a film project like this you have a vague idea of where you want the story to flow, but in all reality, going into something that holds so much emotional tension for your subjects, I think you really need to just be prepared to capture anything and everything as it unfolds. I tried to pay attention to all of the little moments where my three characters were interacting with their pasts through our present-day journey, and draw those out in the story.
People aren’t exactly falling over themselves to go to Iraq right now. Were there any security concerns?
Honestly, there were almost zero security concerns while we were in country, or at least nothing that presented itself. We had flown into Erbil which was 50 miles away from Mosul during some of the heaviest fighting between ISIS and the Kurdish Peshmerga, and also right after Trump had dropped his big travel ban on the region, so we were a little worried in our first days for sure. After a few days though, the amazingly-kind and welcoming people of Iraq and Kurdistan had won over our complete trust and confidence and the conflict that still maintained a grip on parts of the country almost never crossed our thoughts.
So you guys are in Iraq a place where these vets saw action, are you feeling a certain depth and weight to the energy, or is it like any big adventure?
There was most certainly an immense amount of depth in going back to Iraq with three vets of the war, but the gravity of that really only hit us every once in awhile. Like any great journey, you often don’t have the ability to zoom out and fully appreciate the unique momentousness of the actions you’re taking on a daily basis. Reaching the summit of Mt Halgurd was definitely an emotional moment though, as in many ways it was the culmination of each of Stacy’s, Robin’s and Griff’s journey, to recreate the country of Iraq as a place where beautiful memories and experiences were possible.
The objective was to ski Mt. Halgurd, but the real mission seemed to be going back to a place of war and trauma for these vets and reengaging with the people of Iraq to let go of some of that trauma and anger. Do you think the trip was successful in those two objectives?
Well, the trip was definitely a success in the form of skiing from Mt Halgurd! The skiing itself was pretty terrible conditions, but the whole team of vets made it to the summit, and all skied from the summit, making it the first recorded ascent and descent of the peak by skis. As far as each of the three vets I was with, Stacy, Robin and Griff succeeded in addressing that trauma they had left with before. They definitely each grapple with it in their different ways as you see in the film. As with all PTSD, and not being someone who has come home from war with PTSD I can’t say for sure, but it seems that it’s not something you vanquish but more something you just learn to live with, something you can either accept in some small way and move on with, or not.
Was it fascinating to watch these veterans bond with the people of Iraq? That had to be a very humanizing experience.
It was incredible watching our whole team bond with the people of Iraq as we traveled through the country. I think for Stacy, Robin and Griff especially though, it was a life-altering experience to get to interact with the people of this country simply as fellow humans. Soldiers who are sent abroad are almost dehumanized in many ways by the military complex of which they are a part while deployed, so just sharing meals, laughs and nights out in wild places with the people of a country that they never really got to know as people was a very powerful experience for them.
What was the skiing and ascent like? Some of the crew was relatively new to backcountry skiing right?
The skiing and accent of the peak was not particularly difficult as far as current standards go. If you were asking any professional mountaineer, Mt. Halgurd would be a very straightforward to climb and ski in good conditions. The snow conditions the day of our summit though definitely made it quite challenging with a breakable sun crust that made skiing the steep couloir which we descended a serious challenge for Stacy, Robin and Griff who are weekend warriors these days and don’t often venture off the slopes of their home mountain resorts in Utah, Washington and Colorado. Also this climb was the first time Robin and Griff had ever used crampons or an ice axe, something of an oversight on my part (laughs).
I know you and Stacy, the veteran who was at the head of this adventure, formed a pretty tight bond. Do you guys have any future projects planned?
Stacy and I definitely have become fast friends throughout the process of making the project happen, executing the trip to Iraq and gathering the story subsequently. We are actually already talking about the second instalment of this project, a trip to Afghanistan to climb with a different group of veterans.
What do you want people to walk away from this film with?
I think I had two big takeaways from this trip and project: one that the depth of the illness that is widely known as PTSD is so much deeper and more complex than anyone including those who suffer from it know. We as a country are so gung ho about “supporting the troops”, and it’s such a tagline used cheaply by politicians to gain numbers in support, but if we are truly supporting our troops, we are supporting them in life upon their return and exit from the experience they have in the military. My other major takeaway from this trip was just how false the image of the Middle East that is painted for us is. There is evil across the entirety of humanity, just as much in American society as there is in countries like Iraq and otherwise. Through my experience, while traveling in Iraq, my perspective on just how very similar we are was in large part emboldened. Everyone I encountered in our travels in Iraqi Kurdistan were trying to simply make a comfortable and peaceful life for themselves and their children. It’s no different than anyone else you might encounter across the globe.
Is there anything you think we as citizens can do to better support our veterans?
I think as citizens, we can really step up to support veteran programs as a whole. Stacy runs the Sierra Club’s Veteran Outdoors Programs, just one of the many programs across the country that helps Vets re-engage with themselves as individuals and with their local communities and offers activities that allows them to engage with life outside of the military. Supporting government officials who support relegating funds for these sort of programs, and donating to these programs as individuals is probably the best way we can help support our veterans.