On April 16, top climbers David Lama, Hansjorg Auer and Jess Roskelley died while climbing Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies. The sudden loss of three of the best alpinists in the world shocked many climbers. Jess’s father, John Roskelley, is one of America’s most accomplished climbers and he recently spoke about what he thinks happened.
John was speaking at the Ladek Mountain Festival in Lądek-Zdrój, Poland, at the 2019 Piolets d’Or ceremony. Hundreds of people packed into the tent hoping to hear a conclusive answer to what happened to the ill-fated trio. John had no definitive answer, but a few theories about what went wrong. He also revealed the line which Lama, Hansjorg and Roskelley climbed.
Parks Canada search and rescue workers made a number of daring rescue and recovery efforts before recovering their bodies from under snow at the base of the northeast face. In the following days, John made a number of trips into the area to retrieve as much gear as he could. He also hoped to find Lama’s GoPro, as he already had his son’s iPhone that contained photos from the climb. John said that they know exactly the line the trio climbed based on the images.
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“Mountains help me navigate what is most important to me. They balance the chaos that is regular life. Balance is what I strive to accomplish in climbing – a balance of life, love and mountains. Alpine climbing is a life-long commitment. I live and breathe it.” – Jess Roskelley • The response we’ve received from the climbing community and the myriad of family, friends, acquaintances and The North Face team has been unbelievable. Our deepest condolences go out to the families of David Lama and Hansjörg Auer. Jess looked up to the two of them and was so excited to climb with them. • “By endurance, we conquer.” • Love Alli, John, Joyce, Jordan and Dawn Roskelley
Howse Peak has long been at the attention of alpinists and ice climbers. The first ascent of the peak from the north was up the Northeast Buttress in 1967 by Ken Baker, Don Vockeroth and Lloyd MacKay. It was a route that John would go on to climb a few years later. The second route was the massive north face by Barry Blanchard and Ward Robinson in 1988. The grade-six wall has only been climbed a few times, including a solo by Frank Jourdan.
In 1999, Dave Edgar and Dave Marra made the first ascent of Life by a Drop, a grade-six WI5+R up the northeast face. The route climbed through huge avalanche slopes to below a long ice smear on the steep wall. The two strong climbers stopped above the ice and below the upper snow bowl.
Later that winter, Barry Blanchard, Steve Howse and Scott Backes climbed the northeast face to the summit via M16, a 1,000-metre WI7+ alpine route that had major objective hazards. On their fourth day, while in the upper gully and after 48 hours of snow, a snow feature fractured and took Blanchard out. “Tons of solidly bonded snow slammed me into the wall and under a small roof,” Barry recalled. “Seven seconds after it had begun, the pummeling tapered off, then ended. My jaw quivered uncontrollably; spit streamed from my mouth. My shoulders quaked. I groaned in pain.” With an injured knee, Blanchard radioed for a helicopter, which came to long-line him back to safety.
The next route up the northeast face was by Will Gadd, Scott Semple and Kevin Mahoney. The three climbers were among the best in the world at the relatively new discipline of sport mixed climbing. Semple wrote after, “We called our route Howse of Cards VI M7- WI6X due to dubious ice, a key hold that resembled a deck of cards, and the ongoing mystique of the face. We copped the attitude of the M-16 crew by adding ‘no bolts!’ to the route description, and finishing it off with ‘no aid, no jumars!'”
Neither M16 or Howse of Cards had been repeated before the spring of 2019. Most climbers stayed away from the wall due to the immensity of it combined with the big objective hazards.
Lama, Roskelley and Auer followed M16 to the top of a WI6 pitch below the big headwall and to where they branched out left into a big corner featured. They reached the mid-way point by 8 a.m. and had started up what John called the “King Line.” There’s a photo of Lama leading a new WI6/7 pitch to upper snow slopes. John said the team slowed down here due to the deep slogging.
The three reached the summit just before 1 p.m. and took a selfie. “They climbed the 1,345-metre new route variation on the northeast face in approximately six hours 43 minutes. M16, took three days. Jess’s iPhone records time, elevation longitude, latitude and shows the route. We changed the latitude and longitude to decimals and plotted them on GoogleEarth; we know exactly where they went on the face.”
Less than 30 minutes later and they were on rappel. A photo of Lama rappelling into the upper snow basin was the last image taken, it was at 1:27 p.m. What happened after that is unclear. At about that same time, a climber named Quentin Roberts took a photo of a cornice breaking and avalanching down the face approximately where the trio were. John also that all three of their bodies were found very close together, buried in less than a metre of snow.
John also said that their ropes had a number of knots that add to the confusion. They were joined together with two flat overhand knots at one end (typical for a rappel) but about seven metres from halfway, the two ropes were tied in single overhand on a bight. Roskelley was attached to that bight. Then there was another bight which created two loops of roughly 50 centimeters. No one can figure out why they had the knots tied like that.
Auer was not attached to the rope and Lama was found with one strand of a rope through a carabiner. The ferrule (base of the ice tool) on Roskelley’s right ice tool had broken off. “This all indicates that a large force hit them when they were in place,” John said.
John said the mostly likely cause of the accident was a cornice collapse, but human error or anchor failure might have played a role. “They had so much potential for the future,” John said. “They loved life, they loved adventure.”
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Its been a heavy past few days in the rockies. Three of the worlds greatest alpinists, Jess Roskelly, David Lama, and Hanjörg Auer died after likely climbing new route on Howse Peak. If so the trio would have climbed a beautiful strip of ice that races up the east face of the mountain. They would have blazed up the route, since it was still morning when they reached the top. For a team to climb these ~1000m so quickly would be truly impressive and testament to their skill as alpinists. – It was on the descent that it seems a cornice on the ridge collapsed, obliterating the route and also killing the three of them. Jas and I were on our way to attempt a route of our own and watched a huge cornice collapse on Howse at around 2pm. Its harrowing to think that we might have witnessed their deaths. – I feel deeply shaken every time there is death in the climbing community. Shaken because I know that It could just as well have been me. I question the integrity of our sport and our motives for pursuing it. I take a step back. – Before long I know I’ll be setting my boot into a crampon once again. I’ll be striving for that freedom of spirit the mountains provide. I’ll let them breathe life into my soul and fill me with joy, happiness, and gratitude. Mountains breathe a life in us that is so rich it transcends time. It is hard to imagine a life without them. Rest easy Jess, David, and Hansjörg. Thank you for showing the world one of the richest ways to live life. – I write this sending out my strength to those who love them. I wish I would have had the chance to know them well, and I’m so glad to have met them, albeit briefly. – Photo 1: Howse Peak Photo 2: The line I imagine they climbed (EDIT: it seems it might actually have been just to the right of the circle I drew in. Center circle is ‘Life by the Drop’) Photo 3: L->R David, Jess, Hansjörg