Adventure sports, filmmaking, art. Remembering a husband, father, and friend - Tate
Waves break on a long sandy beach, on an idyllic day in Cardiff, California. It’s a particularly warm September weekend, and the small coastal community has largely migrated to the beach, enjoying surfing, sunshine, and friends.
Tate MacDowell takes in ocean views and salty air. Lora, his wife, is sitting in the sand wearing a one piece bathing suit, green with criss-cross straps low across her back. The two are with neighbors, family, and friends, spread out with beach blankets and umbrellas. The vibe is laid back, wine for the adults and snacks for the kids as everyone enjoys smiles and a relaxing Sunday on the southern California coast. Lora and Tate’s young son Wilson, a ball of energy who’s just started kindergarten, runs and plays with other children in the waves.
Tate heads towards their family beach van. He’s wearing long pants, a jacket over his shirt, and a hat bearing his own design of a fish on a fish surfboard.
“My son Wilson and I make up songs, on the ukulele,” he says, moving slowly towards a 1973 Dodge Balboa van with a green stripe. “We have one called ‘It’s too hot for a puffy jacket’. I’m always cold even when it’s hot outside, so we made up a song about it. Wilson and his friends played songs that we made up at my birthday party.” Tate leans on a cane, and takes time navigating over a small log separating the sand from the parking lot.
“They played “Happy Birthday’ for me. It was a great party, we had really close friends on our back porch. I turned 39 years old.”
I heard you got an award on your birthday?
I got inducted into the TGR (Teton Gravity Research) hall of fame, for excellence in production. Super happy about that, it’s so nice to get a pat on the back for work you’ve done.
Adventure sports filmmaking is a lot of people’s dream job. How did you get into your career?
My family was big into being outdoors, and my dad was into video cameras. I liked pushing the buttons, learning how to work cameras, doing what my dad did.
My freshman year of college, I started a liberal arts program. I walked past one of the production rooms, where they had the television and radio program, and there were so many buttons and cameras! I changed my major right away. I knew I had figured out what I wanted to do.
After graduation, I took the best internship I could find, and that happened to be Teton Gravity Research.
I had never been to Jackson. I packed up my Volkswagen Golf, and we drove out, me and my parents.
That’s a revered, iconic place to start - both TGR and Jackson. Any favorite projects from the TGR days?
“Tangerine Dream” was the most fun to work on. By then I was the Lead Editor at TGR and did mostly editing and post production, but for this movie I was shooting in the field a lot, and as a group all of us at TGR were formulating ideas for the movie, it was very hands on. We made a crazy intro in Red Lodge, Montana, together we came up with silly ideas of what suited the athletes.
After TGR you started your own company, Death Cookie Entertainment. How did you decide to go out on your own?
Lora was pivotal. I wanted to follow my own dream, and she was the person that said, you can do amazing stuff. See what you can do.
Any favorite pieces of work after that?
There were a lot of really cool jobs. “Every Third Thursday” was a great web series, with Signal snowboards.
One of my favorites was “Roner Vision”. It started because one of the pro athletes at TGR, Erik Roner, was a GoPro athlete. He’d end up with a lot of footage, and handed me a hard drive with no direction or anything. It turned into a silly action sports variety show. As it progressed, it turned into what I had always wanted. To be able to shoot, and create, and produce. I would create a concept, and we’d make something out of it. We’d come up with ideas, and travel and make them happen.
It’s been 4 years since Erik died.
It sounds like you were close.
Yeah, we were.
One of the big motivations, through my cancer treatments, was to spread some of Erik’s ashes on top of the Grand. I’m so glad I got to do it. That felt really special.
You created and executive produced a film with TGR called “Mountain In The Hallway” about your quest to climb the Grand Teton after being diagnosed with cancer, but in the film health complications prevented you from going on the first try. When you decided to try again, was it a last minute decision?
It was really last minute.
I had the end of August in mind, but as the time got closer I had a lot of health stuff going on. I was on a new immunotherapy that was kicking my ass. A week and a half beforehand, I got double vision.
I had to go to the emergency room, and found out that not only was the immunotherapy not working, but it was causing the cancer to spread.
I got off the immunotherapy trial, and back on chemo right away. On the chemo, I walk around with a pump for 48 hours. I was on 24 of the 48 hours, and I said to Lora, it’s now or never. Call your mom to watch Wilson, lets book a flight. I’ll put the team together and make this happen. If it doesn’t work out, you and I get a trip to Jackson together.
I got unhooked from chemo on a Friday morning, and was on a plane that afternoon. On Saturday we prepped our gear, by Sunday morning we were hiking. While still having a bunch of chemo coursing through my veins.
What was it like, standing at the top of the Grand?
At the time, chaotic! When we were about to summit, the weather turned into a snowstorm. We were socked in, we didn’t have the glorious view that you would normally have, and we had to hurry because of the storm! We were like, take a picture scatter the ashes let’s get the hell out of here!
So you’re at the top of the Grand, in a snowstorm, in August, scattering Roner’s ashes. Also wearing an eyepatch because of the double vision. Did your body, your health feel OK?
I felt amazing. The best I’ve ever felt. Maybe because I was living out a dream, that I’d wanted to do.
I didn’t set my expectations very high. I set small, tiny goals. Goal number one, get to Jackson. Goal number two, pack my gear. Goal number three, get to the trailhead. Small goals, and a checklist, until the next thing you know you’re at the summit.
Is that how you tend to operate? Mini-goals?
Yeah, when I think back on it, for a lot of my successes. I set small, low bars, and then surpass them, and then I surpass the next one.
In some ways, I do that every day. Haha, lately on a smaller scale. Sometimes it’s such a low bar, it’s getting out of bed.
Your small goals seem to lead to a lot of success. You’re in the TGR hall of fame, you climbed the Grand Teton, and you create a ton of art. Can you tell me more about your art?
I do watercolors. A lot of times, my art work is an escape.
Sometimes I’m painting the mountains or the beach, when i’m sitting in an infusion chair somewhere, dealing with chemo treatments. I’m painting a place I’d rather be.
But sometimes I paint here, in this van. Some people get sprinter vans, but in those you can’t see the sunset. The windows in this van are key, you can see the beach and the ocean. You can watch the sunset, it’s beautiful.
Your art has really taken off, you had a pretty cool art show recently.
I did, on the east coast in New York. It went really well. It was in Ithaca, I got to work with my brother on putting an art show together, that was really fun. A lot of my friends and family came out.
I had paintings, and surfboards too, with my art on the surfboards. One was a Machado surfboard, Rob Machado donated a board, and that one had a Garibaldi on it, representative of the west coast. The other one was made out of wood, by a local wakesurf board shaper out of Ithaca, with a Rainbow Trout on it representing the east coast.
It was really fun to have these two different areas of surfing, brought together through my art.
That is so cool. Didn’t you do a surf trip recently?
We went to Kelly Slater’s wave pool. It’s a big manmade wave that barrels. It was for Rob’s birthday last year, we all went up and I got barreled. It was on my bucket list. That ended up being the last time I went surfing.
That sounds like an amazing trip, a great life experience.
It’s pretty high up there, but having a kid, that’s the top of the list for sure.
What’s the best part about being a dad?
The way your child looks up to you. How they admire you and want to do what you’re doing. That’s pretty great.
Anything in particular you try to instill in Wilson?
How he treats other people. That’s important.
What does he have in common with you, what did he get from Lora?
From me, maybe some of his athleticism and sense of humor, I’d like to say. But he gets his sense of humor from his mom as well. And a bit of stubbornness from her, haha!
What do you want people to know, about your illness?
That people having signs or symptoms, need to get them checked out. Insist that doctors diagnose by their symptoms, don’t let them say you’re too young. For years, doctors told me it wasn’t possible. But it is possible for this to happen to people at a young age, and it’s affecting people younger and younger.
What can people say or do when they see you, that is helpful? There’s no roadmap, for what to say to a friend who is dealing with cancer.
A lot of people walk up to me, and they get floored when they first see me. I’ve lost a lot of weight, and they don’t know what to say. They stop dead in their tracks, and just say ‘….WOW’.
I get it, I’m skinny.
People want to say something that is the best, but that’s a lofty goal to set for yourself. That you’re gonna say something that fixes it all.
If you’re struggling to get words out of your mouth, just say, “It’s really good to see you.” It’s one of the best things you can do, just say it’s really good to see you.
Tate McDowell passed away in 2019 at age 39. He is survived by his wife Lora, their son Wilson, and too many loving family members and friends to count.
Photo of Tate and Wilson taken by Lora, at Hossegor beach in France.
Want to check out more on Tate?
Read more about Tate and a mural in his memory in Encinitas, painted by Swedish artist Jonas Claesson:
Watch “Mountain in the Hallway” (It's really good)
(You can get beautiful art prints, and everyday things. I have Tate's art on my shower curtain, so I see it every day. You can get beach towels, and cards.)
Fish on a Fish shirts and hats:
(Best hat ever )