Three of the world’s most venerated alpine climbers are believed to have perished in Canada’s Rocky Mountains after an avalanche cascaded down the mountain they were scaling amid a daring expedition, Canadian officials said Thursday.
The apparent loss has left the global climbing community devastated as the likelihood they are still alive has slowly diminished. The missing climbers, who were ascending Howse Peak in Banff National Park, have been identified as 36-year-old Jess Roskelley, from Spokane, Washington, the son of legendary mountaineer John Roskelley; and David Lama, 28, and Hansjörg Auer, 35, both of Austria. All three were part of the North Face Global Athlete Team, the outdoor apparel company said.
“Based on the assessment of the scene, all three members of the party are presumed to be deceased,” Parks Canada, the country’s national parks department, said in a statement Thursday.
Authorities have not been able to launch a recovery mission, however, “due to additional avalanches and dangerous conditions at the scene.”
John Roskelley told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that he does not believe his son and his fellow climbers could have survived.
The trio of elite alpinists were climbing a harrowing, icy route on the east face of Canada’s Howse Peak, a route that Parks Canada described as “remote and an exceptionally difficult objective, with mixed rock and ice routes requiring advanced alpine mountaineering skills.” The first climbers to ascend this route in 1999 named it “M16″ because of its “difficulty and seriousness,” as well as the experience of feeling “under the gun,” of being pelted relentlessly with mounds of falling snow, one of the climbers wrote in the American Alpine Journal in 2000.
Parks Canada said the climbers began their ascent Tuesday and had already climbed various Canadian peaks recently. John Roskelley told the Spokesman-Review he was expecting his son to call Tuesday night to check in – but he never did. By morning, the elder Roskelley called Canadian authorities, who attempted to search the area by helicopter.
The avalanche, the father anticipated, was likely no match even for the most talented climbers.
“It’s just one of those routes where you have to have the right conditions or it turns into a nightmare,” he told the Spokesman-Review. “This is one of those trips where it turned into a nightmare.”
In a statement, the North Face said, “David, Jess, and Hansjörg are valued and loved members of The North Face family and we are doing everything we can to support their families, friends and community during this difficult time.” As of Friday morning, the company devoted its entire homepage to a tribute to the three men, posting their pictures beneath the words, “Honoring the lives of our beloved friends.”
Before the avalanche, the climbers had each faced their fair share of death-defying experiences at the edge of the world’s tallest peaks, emerging unscathed as they built reputations as some of the most dexterous alpinists on Earth.
Auer, who grew up guiding sheep through the mountains in Austria, had free-soloed a legendary 2,788-foot route on Italy’s Marmolada mountain known as the Fish, meaning he climbed it without any ropes or assistance. The 2007 achievement was “arguably the hardest ever big-wall free-solo” climb ever completed before Alex Honnold’s recent free-solo climb of El Capitan in 2017, Rock and Ice magazine reported.
“Climbing mountains is the fruit of my soul,” Auer said in a documentary about his life produced by the North Face.
David Lama, the son of a Nepali mountain guide and Austrian nurse, was “quite literally born to climb,” reads his bio on the North Face’s website. He was just 12 years old when he became the youngest climber ever to summit a mountain taller than 26,000 feet and recently, he became the first person to conquer Lunag Ri, Nepal’s highest unclimbed 22,660 feet.
Climbing mountains was in Jess Roskelley’s blood, too, although for years he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to pursue it, he told Men’s Journal last year, when the magazine named him the second-most-adventurous person in the world, just behind Honnold.
Then, in 2003, he climbed Mount Everest with his father at just 20 years old, becoming, at that point, the youngest American ever to do it.
In the ensuing years, Roskelley would decide to pursue climbing as a career, making a living as a welder until he could afford to train and climb full time. Just last fall, he told the Spokesman-Review he believed he was almost there, with his sights set on challenging peaks in Alaska and Pakistan.
“I want it that bad, and by God I’m gonna go do it,” he told the newspaper.
He had drawn the inspiration from his father, who built his smashing climbing career in the Canadian Rockies before summiting 23,000- and 26,000-foot peaks in Pakistan, Nepal and India, the Spokesman-Review reported. He and his son would climb numerous mountains together before Jess began carving out his own career, often in treacherous, life-threatening conditions.
In 2009, the two of them ascended the route known as the Slipstream in the middle of a snowstorm, in Alberta’s Columbia Icefields. John Roskelley’s hands were frozen to the point where, for a time, he couldn’t feel them, he recalled in an essay about the climb, contained in an anthology he authored. As conditions worsened, he yelled out to his son, “Jess, you’ve got to move faster, or we’re going to die right here.” Instead, they stopped. They took refuge in a snow cave, boiled their Gatorade on a tiny stove and hugged each other tightly all through the night, avoiding freezing to death.
And then, of course, there was Everest.
When they reached the peak, the elder Roskelley recalled shaking his son’s hand through their thick gloves as he thought to himself that he hadn’t believed he would ever see the day the two of them would be standing at the top of a mountain together, let alone the tallest in the world, as he wrote in his essay anthology. He started to cry. The tears froze against his rubber oxygen mask.
“The wind seemed intent on blowing us off the summit, and it was snowing hard,” John Roskelley wrote. “Visibility was at most a few hundred feet. The temperatures hovered around twenty below zero. None of this mattered, only that we were there.”