Quentin Roberts and Jasmin Fauteux woke up in Banff National Park on April 16 with hopes of climbing a rugged peak along the Icefields Parkway.
When they discovered the next morning that 10 centimetres of snow had fallen, they reconsidered.
“There was a lot of snow and that was already a concern,” Roberts says. “More snow made everything more dangerous.”
Two years earlier, he was trapped in an avalanche while climbing a frozen waterfall. Torrents of snow pounded down as he clung to a rope. It filled his hood and jacket and poured into his pants. He and his climbing partner escaped, badly shaken.
“I made a really stupid mistake,” Roberts, 26, says.
He and Fauteux abandoned their plans. They skied four hours back to their car and headed toward Canmore, the town in the Rocky Mountains where Roberts lives.
A few minutes later, Howse Peak came into view. The mountain rises more than three kilometres as it straddles the continental divide between Alberta and British Columbia in a remote corner of Banff National Park.
Although Howse Peak is little known beyond the climbing world, adventurers regard it as one of Canada’s most inhospitable and unassailable mountains. It looks unapproachable from the Icefields Parkway, like a quilt nature patched together from diabolical elements.
It has a sheer, 1,300-metre-tall striated grey wall, and unsteady rocks as sharp as razor blades. In winter, there is deep snow and a glacier to traverse. Hundreds of cornices hang from ledges all over its upper reaches. Shards of ice cling to cliffs. Along its sides, skinny remnants of avalanches look like fingers that clawed their way down.
Roberts and Fauteux stopped. “The sun had just come out, and it looked beautiful,” Roberts says.
As they watched, a cornice, a large, dense mass of snow, broke off from a ridge below the summit and triggered an avalanche. Roberts snapped pictures with his phone. “It looked like the whole mountain was falling apart," he says.
From where he stood three kilometres away, he had no idea anyone was on Howse Peak.
Jess Roskelley, Hansjorg Auer and David Lama had begun their ascent before dawn. Early in the afternoon, three of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers became only the second group of climbers to reach the 3,295-metre summit in winter. Shortly after that, they started to make their way down.
The next day, the members of The North Face’s elite Global Athlete Team were declared missing. When Roberts heard, it felt like a punch in the gut. “I had an inkling that what I had watched was connected to it,” he says. “It was very eerie.”
He told friends. They urged him to contact authorities. He provided information that helped document a disaster that shocked climbers around the world.
“I somehow got lucky,” Roberts says. “Those guys didn’t.”
JOHN SOPINSKI AND MURAT YüKSELIR/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; government of canada
JOHN SOPINSKI AND MURAT YüKSELIR/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; government of canada
JOHN SOPINSKI AND MURAT YüKSELIR/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:
TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; government of canada
‘A DIFFERENT STRATOSPHERE’
In the week before they climbed Howse Peak, Roskelley, Auer and Lama tuned up by completing a difficult ice-climb on Mount Andromeda, a 3,450-metre peak along the boundary of Banff and Jasper national parks.
They went to a climbing-club meeting in Canmore, where they heard Geoff Powter, an author and clinical psychologist, talk about risk.
Powter, who has climbed for 46 years, said that he attended 15 funerals during his first 10 years of mountaineering.
“I understand risk to be an intricate part,” he says. “It is not the purpose of the climb, but a measure that establishes how challenging one is.”
Powter scaled Howse in 1995.
“It is full of mystery and from pure aesthetics, it is difficult not to look up and say, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Powter, 62, says. “When you realize it has only been done by a relative few, that elevates it into a different stratosphere. It is a completion of a lifetime.”
Howse Peak checks all the boxes for thrill-seeking climbers. Difficult. Dangerous. Rarely conquered. Canada has probably a dozen dangerous peaks that attract mountain climbers. But there is little adventure left with them anymore, having been scaled innumerable times. And by comparison, Mount Everest, at more than 8,000 metres, has been scaled successfully more than 4,000 times, including a few successful attempts in the winter.
Howse Peak, however, is in rarefied air.
Records show that Howse Peak was climbed in 1902 for the first time. After that, there is no evidence of an attempt for 65 years. In all, probably only a few dozen people have successfully reached the top. Those who do nearly always climb in summer and take a more moderate approach up the northeast buttress, the line that separates the east and north faces.
A sporting climb won’t satisfy the best. They need one that stirs the soul.
“The whole notion of rendering the impossible possible and the untenable tenable is very alluring,” Sharon Wood says.
In 1986, the Canmore mountain guide became the first North American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Four years later, she and a partner climbed Howse Peak in summer. They ascended the northeast buttress.
“You climb it with a hope and a prayer,” Wood says, sitting on the deck of her home and surveying a backyard as rich as an English garden. “All of your senses are flared. You listen to the sound of the rock under your feet and beneath your palms.
"It is a big, messy problem to solve.”
“I hear people say you can do it when conditions are right, but I disagree. It is never safe," says Will Gadd, who with two partners was the first to reach the summit in the winter, in December of 2002. The climb took two days over a route he named Howse of Cards.
“It is a dangerous face. The environment interacts in ways you can’t control.”
At 52, the Canmore resident is one of the world’s greatest adventurers. He is a four-time national sport-climbing champion and twice set world records for paragliding, the second time flying for 423 kilometres.
As with Roskelley, Auer and Lama, he is an alpine climber. Alpinists seek the most challenging or highest mountains, and engage them as lightly and quickly as they can. They use almost no safety gear.
“It’s like the stock market,” Gadd says. “Everybody thinks they know the secret to success. There is one difference. You lose your fortune in the stock market. You lose your life alpine climbing.”
Powter met the North Face climbers at the lecture, but talked mostly with Auer. The Austrian famous for daring solo ascents asked him what he thought about his group’s coming attempt at Howse Peak. “I told him I knew they were elite climbers, that they were well prepared and would make the right choices,” Powter says.
In the immediate aftermath, he wondered if they had made a poor decision. He decided they hadn’t. “You can do everything right and things can still go wrong," Powter says. "It is not out of line in our sport for someone to die.”
A SECRET ROUTE
As far as everyone knew, Roskelley, Auer and Lama set out to duplicate a winter climb only one other group had achieved. The fact that they did something different, something that would enthrall climbers, was a secret that nearly died with them.
Photographs recovered from their phones and cameras show them beginning to ascend Howse Peak’s soaring east face at 5:49 a.m. It was windy and snowing lightly, and very cold, between -5 C and -15 C. As much as 50 centimetres of snow had fallen in the preceding week.
They began by following a route called M16 that Barry Blanchard and two partners established in March of 1999. It brought Blanchard’s party to within a hair of the summit, but not to the top because its path was blocked.
Blanchard, a Canmore guide, nearly died on the way down when struck by a mushroom-shaped cloud of snow. By luck, the impact thrust him backward rather than over a ledge and into a fatal fall. “It broke my right leg, but saved my life,” Blanchard says. “If I was standing one foot to the right, I would have gotten scraped off the wall."
In 1999, Blanchard and his companions spent five days on Howse Peak, including three in snow caves during a winter storm. The climb was so gruelling that Blanchard lost 15 pounds. After he was injured, he rappelled – with a fracture – 300 metres to where a helicopter pilot could rescue him.
“Getting on the side of an alpine mountain is dangerous by definition,” Blanchard says. “It is a fine kind of madness.”
He named the route M16 because he and his partners felt like they were under the gun the entire time. Nobody tried M16 again until that mid-April morning.
3,295 metres above sea level
Approximate path of Route M16
MURAT YüKSELIR/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,
photo: todd korol, SOURCE: gripped.com
3,295 metres above sea level
Approximate path of Route M16
MURAT YüKSELIR/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,
photo: todd korol, SOURCE: gripped.com
3,295 metres above sea level
Approximate path of Route M16
MURAT YüKSELIR/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, photo: todd korol, SOURCE: gripped.com
Roskelley, Auer and Lama started out on the route, but abandoned it two hours in. Perusing the face, they found a more efficient path. After making a jog to the left, they were able to clamber up a thin line that nobody had ever dared try. It gave them access to the upper reaches of a massive waterfall, which they free-climbed for 12 storeys.
From there, they were only about 300 metres from the summit with a deep ridge of snow between. It took them 90 minutes to wade through it. They climbed from bottom to top in less than seven hours and then stopped to pose for a picture.
If it weren’t for photographs, their accomplishment and deaths would have remained a mystery. It took months of sleuthing by John Roskelley, the climber’s father, and Grant Statham, a visitor-safety expert in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.
For the first time, Statham used time stamps and location data from photos to reconstruct a climb.
“As the pieces came together, it blew my mind,” Statham says. “I knew I was sitting on top of an international-climbing story. The route they took was incredibly exciting, and the short time it took them is mind-bending.
“They lived up to their reputation.”
In a picture on the summit at 12:44 p.m., Roskelley beams beside Auer and Lama.
“You can see the joy in his eyes,” Statham says. “The guy was living his dream.”
‘THESE GUYS ARE BEASTS’
Jess Roskelley was 9 pounds 14 ounces at birth, and only a day or two old when his parents strapped him into a car seat and headed for a climbing adventure in the Grand Tetons.
His dad, John, was the most prolific U.S. mountaineer of his time. Sir Edmund Hillary dined with the Roskelleys at their home in Spokane, Wash., when Jess was young.
As a teenager, he began to climb in the Pacific Northwest and by 18 was working as a mountain guide. In 2003, at the age of 20, he became the youngest person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He accomplished the feat with his dad.
“I took him on a number of adventures I probably shouldn’t have,” John says.
Jess wanted to be a Navy Seal, but his love for mountaineering won out. He had numerous tattoos, including words ascribed to British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton on his chest: “Fortitudine Vincimus.” Translation: “Through endurance, we conquer.”
At six feet and 165 pounds, he was skinny as a rail. He made first ascents across South America, Asia, Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, and in the summer of 2018 climbed two 6,000-metre peaks in Pakistan. Men’s Journal chose him one of the most adventurous people in the world that year. At 36, his rising profile led to an invitation to join fellow North Face climbers Auer and Lama at Howse Peak.
Auer, 35, was the first person to free-climb Italy’s Marmolada Peak via the south face in 2007. A decade later, he made three huge climbs in the Dolomite Mountain Range in northwest Italy – and connected each by paragliding between them.
Lama, 28, was the son of a mountain guide from Nepal and an Austrian nurse. In 2012, he became the first to free-climb Cerro Torre, one of the most striking peaks in the Andes. In 2018, he reached the summit of Lunag Ri, a 6,895-metre peak in the Himalayas.
In the days before the trio began the ascent of Howse Peak, Jess called his father. By then, the three had already scaled the ice on Mount Andromeda. Jess was thrilled. “Dad, these guys are beasts,” he told John. “They run right up this stuff.”
Jess had a white English bulldog named Mugs, named after Mugs Stump, a U.S. rock climber who died when he fell into a crevasse while climbing Denali. He laughed at stupid jokes, enjoyed dressing up his dog and could fart on command.
“He gave all of us unspoken permission to be in touch with our inner child,” says Ben Erdmann, a climbing buddy.
Jess and Ben spent weeks on expeditions. To entertain one another, they spoke only in exaggerated Scottish accents.
The middle child, Jess was bracketed by older sister Dawn and kid sister Jordan.
She is a neat freak, so to irritate her Jess tore her freshly made bed apart and mangled her perfectly rolled and clipped toothpaste tubes.
He was away at college in Montana when Jordan turned 13, but had roses delivered to her at middle school. As they got older, they met for long runs and climbed Mount Rainier and Mount Hood together.
“Jess was my rock and my protector,” Jordan, 30, says. “Whenever I was screwing up, he was the only one that could steer my stubborn ass back to the right path.”
When she was young, her father would leave for months on climbing expeditions, but always returned.
“I didn’t understand the risk of dying,” she says. “Finally, when I was 18 or 19, I got it and would tell Jess, ‘Don’t screw up.’ ”
They talked about the possibility that he could leave on a climbing trip and not come back. “He told me, ‘If something happens, take care of Mom and Dad,’ ” Jordan says. “He didn’t want anybody to mourn.”
Six years ago, she set her brother up on a blind date with a friend of a friend. They met in Spokane at a wine bar. The first words out of Jess’s mouth were, “Wow! You are way prettier in person!”
“I fell in love with him the first day we met,” Allison Roskelley, 32, says. “His humour and authenticity drew me in.”
Months before he left to climb Howse Peak, Jess signed a sponsorship contract with The North Face, which in 1992 established a team of adventurers and the best extreme-sports athletes. He could finally give up a part-time job as a welder and spend more time with Allison. They talked about starting a family.
On April 15, Jess sent her a text message from the campsite at the base of Howse Peak. He promised to send an update the next day.
America’s greatest alpinist, John Roskelley, climbed Howse Peak in 1971 with a friend. They ascended the mountain named after a Hudson Bay fur trader after hiking 25 kilometres down a river. “I did it once,” Roskelley, 70, says. “Once is enough.”
In recent years, as he drove past, he would scrutinize its face. “I almost felt intimidation coming from it,” he says.
Early in the morning on April 17, John called an RCMP dispatch centre in Alberta. He explained that his son Jess had not checked in with him or Allison the night before. In turn, the Mounties contacted visitor-safety officials in Banff National Park.
“I didn’t think anything major had happened,” John says. “Getting stranded on a difficult route is not unusual.”
At 9:50 a.m., Paul Maloney, a pilot with Alpine Helicopters, was notified the three climbers were missing. He flew a Bell 407 out of the heliport in Canmore and stopped to pick up search-and-rescue teams in Banff and Lake Louise.
They arrived at Howse Peak at 11 a.m., and found the mountaineers’ tent pitched in the snow near the base. “There was no indication that anything bad had happened,” Maloney says. “We get a lot of these calls and more often than not everything turns out all right.”
It was snowing and visibility was limited. Fog and clouds obscured the summit. Maloney flew as close to the mountain as he dared. “It was a white, white world,” he says. “In conditions like that it is easy to lose your reference point. I was concerned I could get vertigo.”
He flew along the face and worked down in intervals of a few hundred feet. In a scarce window of visibility, he saw a large pile-up of snow at the bottom of the slope. Then, a safety officer with Parks Canada made out a dark spot. Maloney was unable to set down, but made four or five passes over. Downwash from the blades exposed the toe of a boot.
“We knew there was one fatality,” Maloney says.
Conditions were so poor that it was impossible to retrieve the body.
Maloney saved the GPS co-ordinates. The search team filled orange highway cones with rocks and dropped them from the helicopter to pinpoint the location. Two avalanche beacons were placed in Ziploc bags and dropped to the ground. The devices use radio signals to help find the buried. None of the climbers carried one.
Weather forced the team to turn back. Statham called John Roskelley and told him one climber was dead. “We still had reason to hope one or two survived,” Roskelley says. “All three had climbed much more difficult peaks in much worse conditions.”
LULLED INTO COMPLACENCY
According to data collected by Avalanche Canada, an average of 11 people a year have been killed in a barrage of snow and ice in each of the past 10 years. That is the lowest figure since the mid-1990s – and remarkable considering the exponential increase in winter backcountry use over the past couple of decades.
Over a reporting period from Oct. 31, 2018, until Sept. 30, 2019, there were a dozen avalanche fatalities in Alberta and British Columbia. Victims include ice and mountain climbers, backcountry skiers, snowmobilers and snow-shoers.
"[Avalanches] aren’t discerning of who they strike,” says Lawrence White, the executive director of Alpine Canada.
Although an avalanche can occur any time, December through April is the peak season. Spring is especially dangerous because ice and snow becomes unstable as temperatures rise. Think about it like this: When the temperature is low, snow sticks to the roof and windshield of your car. When the temperature warms, snow slides down, often in pieces. Something similar occurs on mountains.
More than 5.1 million people visited Alberta and British Columbia’s national parks between April 1, 2018, and March 31, 2019. Banff is Canada’s most popular, with nearly 4.1 million visitors over the same period.
The surroundings are so spectacular that it is easy to be lulled into complacency. Because of that, the parks service has created programs to educate visitors about the risk. Daily avalanche forecasts are posted from November on. Information includes an overview of the region’s avalanche conditions, recent avalanche activity, and an outlook of how the snowpack can react in current and coming weather.
Elite climbers understand. “Snow is the most complicated medium for us to judge,” says Barry Blanchard, who has been climbing without ropes or safety equipment since the late 1970s. “It can go from as safe as it gets to as dangerous as it gets in 24 hours.”
Will Gadd has made at least a half-dozen attempts to climb Howse Peak and turned back multiple times when he felt conditions were unsafe. “Danger does not add to the thrill of the chase,” he says. “It is something you mitigate. There is enough inherent danger that you don’t need to add more.”
He was raised in Jasper and spent a lot of time in the mountains. He was age 17 when he began to climb in earnest, but the elevated risks associated with alpinism made him uncomfortable. He has come to accept the consequences. “I have gone to a lot of funerals and wakes,” he says. “Basically, everybody that taught me to climb is dead.”
The avalanche risk was unpredictable when the climbers set out on April 16. Snow from storms the preceding week could unsettle the snow. Wind could push a slab loose and down the mountain. It is impossible to know. “The more complex the environment, the more complex the results,” Gadd says. “Big faces are harder to control.”
So why do climbers expose themselves to the danger?
“It is while doing these things that they feel most alive,” Maloney says. “People say they have a death wish. They don’t. They have a life wish.”
In his practice, Powter, the psychologist, sees many climbers. He recognizes they flirt with danger and handle it in ways most of us can’t. Brain studies show the most elite barely react when confronted with fear. It even sharpens their responses.
“You know the price is high,” Sharon Wood says. “It ups the stakes and ups your performance.”
Ben Erdmann shared a rope with Jess on climbs across Alaska, and stood beside him on summits in Patagonia. He started to climb as a teenager as a way to cope with the trauma caused by his father’s suicide.
A few years ago, he stopped climbing. Three of his friends died, one after the other after the other. “It broke my heart,” says Erdmann, who lives in Leavenworth, Wash., a mountain town with a Bavarian theme four hours south of Penticton, B.C. “I tried to climb after that, but I lost my drive.”
Before he quit, he and Jess talked about climbing Howse Peak. “I feel like I am living a second life right now,” he says. “If I hadn’t stepped away, I would have been on the rope with Jess and Hans and David.”
HOPE FOR A RESCUE
After an early conference call on April 18 to discuss what they hoped would be a rescue, Maloney flew the team back to Howse Peak. As they scanned the endless mountains, they realized the biggest avalanche cycle of the season had just occurred.
When they arrived at Howse Peak, wind and snow were so relentless that he was unable to set the helicopter down. Maloney found a safer spot a half-kilometre away. From there, the search team watched avalanches tumble down. They would have no more than 25 seconds at a time to search before needing to be lifted out.
At the same time, another fierce storm was bearing down. The forecast called for 40 more centimetres of snow. Again, the search was called off.
On April 19, as the storm raged, the team deliberated how to proceed once the weather cleared.
Searchers are trained to hang beneath a helicopter on a sling and unclip themselves before they start to look. The avalanche risk made that impossible. “There was a lot of conversation among us,” Grant Statham says. “If we couldn’t do it that way, how could we go in there?”
As luck would have it, Brian Webster, the team’s safety manager, had attended a presentation about a new technique being used in Switzerland. It requires searchers to fly beneath the helicopter and remain attached as they probe in the snow.
That night, the team watched a how-to video and got ready to try it at Howse Peak.
The next morning, for the first time in days, the weather was beautiful, sunny with blue skies. Maloney swept up and down the face.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of optimism, but we wanted to eliminate the possibility that somebody was clinging to the side," he says. “There are tremendous survival stories.”
He returned to where the boot was seen sticking out of the snow, but the spot had been covered by multiple avalanches. Maloney used the GPS co-ordinates he had saved and touched his skids to the ground. As he did, somebody in the back planted a flag.
He returned to a staging area where searchers were waiting. For 20 minutes, one probed beneath the snow while suspended on a line 120-feet long. Nothing was found.
As searchers considered their next step, they were called to an avalanche 20 kilometres away. They found a backcountry skier with fatal injuries. By the time the recovery was made, it was too late to return to Howse Peak.
The search began anew on April 21. The weather was perfect as the team left Canmore at dawn. “It was what we needed,” Maloney says.
Initially, the same ground was covered as the preceding day. In 20-minute intervals, a searcher with a probe worked beneath the helicopter. As they looked, Maloney flew 120-feet overhead and matched them step for step.
“We were still not hitting it,” he says.
The parks service placed a call to Adam Sheriff and asked him to bring his avalanche dog, Brooke, to Howse Peak. Sheriff drove two hours from his home in Golden, B.C., and parked along the Icefields Parkway where Maloney picked them up.
He flew Sheriff and Brooke, a 10-year-old German shepherd, to the search site. Each was clipped to a harness on a 170-foot line. It was longer than the others to keep the helicopter from kicking up snow.
Sheriff, who works as the visitor safety manager at the Kicking Horse Resort in Golden, got Brooke as a puppy for avalanche rescues. Over two years of training, she learned to fly in a harness, ride on snowmobiles and ski lifts, and search for items beneath the snow.
“Her tail wags non-stop when she hears a helicopter,” Sheriff says.
Sheriff and Brooke began searching. Just like the others, they came up empty. The team was about to call the operation off, but decided to give Brooke 10 more minutes. “It was probably going to be our last try,” Maloney says. “If we weren’t successful, there was a likelihood the bodies would not be recovered until the snow melted in summer.”
Suddenly and frantically, Brooke focused on one spot and began digging. A foot-and-a-half down, the black dog uncovered one of the climbers. Soon, all three were found within a few metres of each other. Two were tied to the same rappelling rope. Some of their gear was recovered, as was Jess Roskelley’s iPhone.
Jess was taken to a funeral home in Canmore. The Roskelleys, who drove to Canmore the day after the three went missing, visited his body. “I needed to see him,” his mother Joyce Roskelley says. “I had been terrified that he had suffocated beneath the snow or that animals had gotten to him.”
He had a traumatic injury above his left eye, possibly from being struck by a rock. “I knew he must have died instantly and had not suffered,” Joyce says. “It was comforting for me.”
On May 17, a celebration was held in Spokane for Jess Roskelley. The service, held in a theatre, was delayed to accommodate the crowd. For two hours, one person after another rose to eulogize him.
Allison Roskelley’s voice shook as she stood at the podium. “Your dream was engrained in your soul,” she said. “It is something I never imagined taking away from you. I trusted you were very conservative and calculated in the risks you took. I know your No. 1 priority was to come back home.”
The service ended with a series of photos on a video screen above the stage: Jess vacuuming with Mugs in a backpack, Jess wearing bunny ears, Jess wake-boarding naked behind a boat.
The next day, his parents had people to their home overlooking a wildlife conservation area. They live on a flyway for American bitterns, Canada geese and tundra swans. There are bald eagles, elk and otters, too. Off in the distance, one can see the silhouette of Mount Spokane.
In a quiet moment, Joyce sat at the dining room table and talked about the hardships endured by the spouses of mountaineers.
She and John have been married for nearly a half-century.
When he went on an expedition, she would get letters every three to six weeks. Sometimes a stack of 10 would arrive, and she would read them in chronological order.
“Just because you got a stack, there was no guarantee that he was alive,” she says. “Every time he left, he would say goodbye. While he chose not to die, we both accepted the responsibility.”
MAKING SENSE OF A TRAGEDY
John Roskelley visited Howse Peak three times to retrace his son’s steps.
At the end of May, he found the tent the climbers shared at the base of the mountain the night before they set out. Combing through snow, he also recovered sleeping bags, skis, a bit of clothing, gloves and ice tools. On a glacier he found Jess’s inReach GPS texting device.
He returned on July 2 with Tim Sanford, the high-school buddy with whom Jess had begun rock climbing. More clothing was found, as well as a camera and ice tool belonging to Auer and Lama’s GoPro video recorder.
In late July, Jordan Roskelley joined her father on the mountain that took her brother’s life. They spent hours bushwhacking their way in and scrambling over rocks and boulders until they reached the base. “Seeing it from a helicopter or from the road doesn’t serve it justice,” Jordan says. “It is so much bigger than you possibly could imagine. It was such an immense fall.”
She and her father found a coat, ropes, batteries from headlamps, crampon parts, ski poles and more skis. “There were a lot of helmet parts,” John says. “Their helmets got busted up pretty badly.”
He used photos recovered to track the climb. Their ascent began at 5:49 a.m. A picture taken at 9:57 a.m. shows Lama struggling up a steep ridge. At 12:44 p.m., they are on the summit. In the last photo taken, at 1:27 p.m., they had begun to rappel.
Sometime shortly after that, John Roskelley believes a cornice broke off from a precipice and thundered down on top of them.
“They just got hit by this thing,” he says. “There had to be tremendous force.”
In July, The North Face invited the families of all three to Austria for a memorial service. “We got to know the other parents, and did some hiking and biking with them,” he says. “It was a good get-together.”
He was drawn to Alberta after the accident in an attempt to make sense of the tragedy. He is stoic from decades of scaling dangerous peaks. He has re-created all but about 30 seconds of the climb.
“I am used to going to celebrations and memorials for climbers,” he says. “Death happens, and that is the way it is.”
His voice trails off.
Eventually, Allison Roskelley will visit Howse Peak.
She was a rodeo queen in high school, so in May of 2014, Jess took her to one in Winthrop, Wash., and proposed in the centre of the arena on bended knee. The following summer they were married in a climbing area north of Spokane. They went on a mini-honeymoon to Montana and camped beneath limestone walls in the wilderness. They fished on the Yellowstone River with his friend, Sanford, serving as their guide. Jess and Tim taught Allison to fly-cast, and she reeled in a brown trout the first day.
From the moment they met, the couple’s shared love for angling solidified their bond. His grandfather, Fenton, was an outdoors writer. Allison was raised in Idaho stalking steelhead trout with her granddad.
In their last trip together, a month before Jess died, they went deep-sea fishing in Costa Rica. They dined at sunset on the beach on ceviche prepared from the tuna they caught.
She still listens to voicemails that he left. At times, she pauses outside their home and dreads going in. Without him, it seems empty. She misses his flatulence, smile and silly jokes, and how he chased her down the driveway, half-naked, to sneak in one more kiss as she left for work.
She struggles most with how she imagines the accident. The avalanche starting. Jess realizing what was happening. How scared he was. What was going through his head about her, Mugs, his family.
“It’s not fair and it will never be fair,” she says. “I planned to spend the rest of my life with him."
In reality, he spent the rest of his life with her.
She has not felt ready yet, but one day she will drive to Banff National Park, where they spent weekends in a pop-up camper. Howse Peak will rise before her, and she will gaze up its towering face. She took a mountaineering course a few years ago to better understand what he did.
“I know I will feel his spirit and be engulfed by him,” Allison says.
He said goodbye each time he left on a climb. “I accepted that this could happen,” she says. “It doesn’t mean it isn’t hard every day, but I am owning it. I can move forward living and honour him.”
In a funeral home in Canmore, she held his hand one last time.
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