The Last Climb of Hansjörg Auer, David Lama, And Jess Roskelley

The following report is based on the three climber’s photographic record, the equipment attached to them upon recovery, Grant Statham’s detailed search and recovery information, and from three subsequent investigative trips I made to the scene of the accident.

Jess Roskelley’s iPhone was found on him at the accident site. The iPhone provided exact time, altitude, and GPS locations from each of his photos, which were transferred and located on Google Earth. The GPS coordinates showed they did a new route variation of M16 on the east face of Howse Peak and the time they summited. On my second trip to the accident site on June 2, Tim Sanford, a good friend of Jess’s, and I found David Lama’s GoPro and Hansjörg Auer’s camera, both with informative photos that filled in specific route details. Using Jess’s iPhone as the control for time and location, I sequenced David’s and Hansjörg’s photos with Jess’s into a timeline, which enabled Grant Statham and Steve Holeczi, two of the search and rescue (SAR) and recovery personnel, to determine the route they climbed pitch by pitch. 

Routes on the East Face of Mt Howse
Parks Canada with lines by John Roskelley

The equipment recovered off the climbers and found later at the accident site was insightful as to the overwhelming force that took their lives, but initially left me with as many questions as answers, as to what happened after the last photograph. Since August 4, for over two months, more than 30 pieces of their two ropes lay stretched out on the floor of an empty room in my house, as I tried to make sense of four knots they had tied in the ropes. Almost six months after the accident, the answers came to me, as I explain below. 

Hansjörg, David, and Jess climbed the east face of Howse from their camp at the base to the summit, an altitude gain of 4,400 feet, in less than 7 hours. Their ascent is a tribute to their strength, talent, and tenacity. Their deaths prove once again, though, that the mountain passes final judgment on success or failure.

John Roskelley October 17, 2019

Hansjörg Auer, David Lama, and Jess Roskelley died in a climbing accident on Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies on April 16, 2019. The route of their ascent and subsequent tragedy was a mystery that slowly revealed itself, as critically important information was gleaned from their cameras and equipment found at the base of the east face of Howse.

The three men, all members of The North Face athlete team, arrived in Canmore the first week in April for a three-week trip to test a new proprietary waterproof fabric and a specially designed extreme clothing system. They had a number of difficult routes on their agenda and within a short period of time made speed ascents of Andromeda Strain, one of the Rockies’ “grand cours” routes; and Nemesis, a 160-meter WI6 waterfall climb in thin spring conditions.

While they were waiting out bad weather in Canmore, Jess called me numerous times to talk about their previous two climbs and one last objective, the east face of Howse Peak. On April 14, while at the climbing gym in Canmore, Jess asked about the descent routes off the summit, as I had climbed the Northeast Buttress route many years before. We concluded their ascent route, which we didn’t discuss, would be the logical choice for descent.

Early on the morning of April 15, the three climbers drove from Canmore to the Waterfowl Lakes parking area, put on their skis and packs, and departed at 11 AM for the 8 km ski to camp. Within one hour they were at Chephron Lake and by 12:40 PM all three had reached their campsite at an elevation of 6,370 feet on the glacier below the east face. That evening, Hansjörg took several photos of small powder snow avalanches sweeping several gullies on the east face.

By 5:51 AM the next morning, April 16, in cold, but clear weather, Hansjörg on foot, and David and Jess on skis, climbed the lower snow slopes below “M16”, a difficult mixed climb with only one previous ascent. David and Jess soon left their skis on a long snow traverse and proceeded to catch up with Hansjörg. All three climbers reached the bottom of the first difficulty 1,100 feet above camp, a WI6 waterfall, a few minutes before 7 AM. Hansjörg grabbed the first lead and, after waiting out a spindrift avalanche that pummeled him for a short time, climbed the vertical frozen waterfall pitch in 15 minutes. Another 15 minutes saw all three climbers at the top of the pitch. 

Whether seeking a new variation or finding the two routes above them, “M16” and “Howse of Cards”, out of condition that late in the season, David traversed left along a snow band to a difficult right-to-left leaning ramp. Jess followed using a Petzl Micro Traxion, while David simultaneously belayed Hansjörg. They climbed approximately 80 meters up the ramp before David traversed left again at 8:36 AM along another horizontal snow band in search of the upper waterfall pitches of the “King Line”, a name given to an unclimbed mixed route left of “M16” by Steve House. David led the WI6+ waterfall, and then Jess and Hansjörg quickly followed. 

Once to the top of the waterfall and over the difficulties, they untied and stored the ropes in their packs. Fifty minutes later, at 9:42 AM, Hansjörg took a photo of David and Jess approaching the top of a long snow gully above the “King Line” waterfall. Faced with 1,500 feet of open and avalanche-prone snow slope above them and some short sections of mixed climbing, the three traversed left again at 9:57 PM to reach a snow rib at an elevation of 9,292 feet. This led them to a 100-foot wide snow gully, the right-hand snow gully of a larger, moderately-angled snow basin and gully system above a waterfall route known as “Life by the Drop”. 

David looking at Jess with Hansjorg leading the first waterfall pitch.
Jess Roskelley

Hansjorg Auer on the traverse from the King Line to the basin above Life By The Drop.
Jess Roskelley

David Lama breaking trail from the King Line to the basin.
Jess Roskelley

Jess, ankle deep in sun-warmed snow, took the lead up the snow gully to the southwest ridge. At 11:02, Jess, leading with a single rope, led a difficult mixed pitch along the ridge. After over 300 meters of mixed climbing, the threesome reached the 10,810-foot summit prior to Hansjörg’s first summit photo at 12:41 PM. The sun was shining, but a few clouds were starting to move in. From one of the summit photos, the three used this time to hydrate, eat, and relax.

Jess Roskelley, Hansjorg Auer and David Lama on the summit of Howse Peak.
Jess Roskelley

A short time after Jess’s summit photo taken at 12:44 PM, the three climbers began their descent. Hansjörg continued to take a few photos, as they made multiple rappels down the ridge. At 1:27 PM, Hansjörg took the last photo found on any of the three cameras. The photo is of David at the bottom of their final rappel off the southwest ridge into the snow gully they had climbed on their way up. Their original ascent tracks can be seen reaching the ridge crest in the bottom right corner of the photo.

Evidence from the recovered climbers, their ropes, and other equipment confirms that the climbers did not rope up after their final rappel into the gully. The three men had climbed this moderate snow slope section un-roped during their ascent. Now, they planned to loop-coil their two ropes and plunge-step quickly down this slope of soft snow to the traverse out of the basin that funnels down to the top of the route, “Life by the Drop”. 

The men’s ropes held several clues to their last moments before the accident. After putting together all the rope taken off the climbers at the medical examiner’s office in Calgary and the many cut segments I found on the avalanche cone left by the SAR team, I discovered the two 50-meter ropes had four overhand knots, two of which had loops. I put the ropes back together on the floor of a spare room and was able to determine where the knots were tied on the two ropes and what they were used for.

Two of the four knots were tied at the ends of the two ropes. At first, I thought these simple overhand knots were stopper knots for the bottom of their last rappel. This was a mistake on my part. The two knots were actually European death knots (EDK) that joined the two climbing ropes together for their rappels down the ridge. 

Overhand knot used to make large double loops at centre of both ropes.
John Roskelley

The two overhand knots with the loops in the ropes proved to be more difficult to interpret, as they were tied after the last rappel. The answer came to me early one morning in October. 

Once all three climbers had rappelled into the snow gully and basin above the route, “Life by the Drop”, they pulled the rappel lines, which landed at their feet in the soft afternoon snow. They had 540 vertical feet from the southwest ridge crest down to their exit out of the snow gully and onto the traverse toward the other snow gully above the “King Line” and more rappels. They decided loop-coiling the two ropes would be faster than untying them and stuffing them in their packs.

As the two ropes were pulled, Jess located the black mid-point marks in both ropes, and then tied an overhand knot resulting in two 20-inch loops. He put his arm through the loops, threw them over his head, and then proceeded to loop-coil the four strands of rope over his neck, a quick and efficient method of coiling the two ropes. Once coiled and hanging down his chest, Jess grabbed two of the loops, one from the green rope and one from the blue, tied a standard-sized overhand knot with a small loop, and then put it through the carabiner that was attached to the ferrule of one of his ice tools. This small overhand loop was approximately 21 feet from the large center loop over his shoulder and head. According to one of his former climbing partners, Jess used this technique when carrying looped coils as a moveable anchor when he was un-roped.

Jess' two ice tools. The one on the right showing the missing ferrule and broken and twisted carabiner that was attached.
John Roskelley

Hansjörg, David, and Jess proceeded to descend the moderately angled snow slope un-roped. There is every indication the threesome intended to descend their ascent route – they knew where possible rappel anchor placements were; David and Jess’s skis were left along the route; and Jess was convinced descent down any route they climbed was the safest alternative. Conceivably, they may have decided to descend the entire snow basin to the top of the route “Life by the Drop”, but this is unlikely, based on the snow conditions and possibility of an avalanche in the massive basin they were in.

As they descended in the early afternoon sun, the snow slope above them or a large cornice broke loose before they were able to exit the gully toward the “King Line”. They most certainly heard the tell-tale collapse of snow or ice, turned, and prepared for the inevitable force about to consume them. 

The snapped-off piece of ferrule from one of his ice tools and the mangled carabiner that was attached to it, both of which I found later, indicate Jess had managed to slam in his ice tool into the ice below the snow with significant effort before the full force of the slide hit him. He was overwhelmed by the force and immediately lost his grip on his tools. Twenty feet after being knocked from his stance, the full load of the avalanche came onto the two knots – the larger knot around his neck and shoulder and the small knot attached to the tool, which broke the ferrule and carabiner. When found later, the two overhand looped knots were pulled so tight it was as if they were welded of steel.

I have no doubt that both David and Hansjörg quickly planted their tools into the ice, as well, but unlike Jess’s broken tool and carabiner, there’s no evidence they were connected to their tools. In fact, neither David or Hansjörg used leashes on this climb. I recovered both of Jess’s tools, but none of David’s and only one of Hansjörg’s, which was undamaged. 

There is strong evidence that Jess had loop-coiled the two ropes around his neck and tied the two looped knots. Jess was found with many strands of the two ropes coiled around his torso and individual legs when he was recovered. At first, I thought that while on rappel Jess had stopped and wrapped the two strands around his left leg multiple times, so he could free his hands. But they were not rappelling when they were hit by the avalanche. With numerous four-strand coils over his neck and draping his body, it’s not hard to imagine how the multiple wraps around his legs and torso occurred, as he tumbled in the avalanche, much like being in a washing machine.

When the men were recovered, none of them were connected to the ropes by the main loop on their harnesses. The SAR personnel only cut rope that led to another climber or was frozen in the ice. Hansjörg does not appear to have had any rope wrapped around him at the accident scene. David had a few wraps and loops around him and one strand of blue rope through a locking carabiner that may or may not have been locked. Jess also had blue and green strands of rope through an unlocked carabiner attached to a gear loop on his harness and one strand through another carabiner, again attached to another gear loop. By their location on the harnesses, the ropes found through the carabiners on David and Jess were probably accidently inserted through the gates as they were flipped and tumbled in the avalanche.

All three climbers were swept down the snow basin and the route, “Life by the Drop” and were found close together on the largest avalanche cone below this route.

That same day, just before 2 PM, Quinten Roberts, an experienced alpinist living in Canmore, stopped his car along the Icefields highway on his way back from a climb further north to examine the routes on Howse Peak. As he and his partner stood looking at the east face, an avalanche, possibly from a cornice break, swept the basin above the route, “Life by the Drop”, and billowed onto the glacier area at the bottom of the face. They did not know Hansjörg, David, and Jess were on the face at the time. Roberts ran to his car, got his camera, and took a photo of the massive snow cloud forming at the bottom of the face. It was 1:58 PM, 31 minutes after David was photographed releasing his rappel lines at the top of the snow gully.

Allison, Jess’s wife, and his mother, Joyce, spoke multiple times on the evening of April 16 and the morning of April 17. Jess always phoned in after a climb and he had told Allison that they would be out that night. In fact, Jess had a Garmin InReach GPS device and, no matter where he was, he would have texted their position to Allison (I found the shattered Garmin InReach on the avalanche cone during my second trip to the accident site). 

At 7:30 AM on April 17, I called the RCMP Dispatch, which put me in touch with a Parks Canada representative. I told him where they were and that we were concerned they hadn’t checked in. Parks Canada immediately dispatched a ranger to the Waterfowl Lakes parking lot to see if Jess’s truck was still there. It was. 

The SAR team was notified on April 17 and several of the team were flown by helicopter that afternoon to the base of the east face. The weather had changed overnight and clouds blanketed the upper slopes of Howse Peak limiting visibility to the bottom one half of the face. As they flew toward the avalanche cones at the bottom of the face for the first time, rescuers could see a small dark shape on the snow, but could not get close enough to see it. On the second flight, a closer inspection of the face was possible and the helicopter was able to hover directly above at least one of the climbers, possibly two, who were partially buried halfway up the large avalanche cone below the route, “Life by the Drop”.

Weather conditions were poor and the SAR team was unable to put a team on the ground. Worried about incoming weather and locating the buried climbers after the storm, they tossed two large fluorescent traffic cones and two avalanche beacons where the evidence was located, and then departed. Over the next two days, poor weather prevented any search and rescue or recovery efforts as a significant storm deposited 18” of snow with high wind and created an extreme avalanche hazard

On April 20, the weather was clear and sunny with hazardous avalanche conditions. The helicopter pilot, along with a few SAR team members, flew up and down the face, over the summit, and around the mountain looking for signs of survivors. No climber or equipment was seen after a careful and meticulous search. They then concentrated their efforts on locating the climbers on the avalanche cone where the initial sighting took place, but were now buried in additional avalanche debris.

The SAR team was flown to a staging area below the face and out of avalanche danger. Using a 100-foot long line attached to the helicopter, one rescuer flew in on the line and remained clipped to it while probing likely areas on the avalanche cone. The pilot held the helicopter steady overhead, while spotters watched the operation closely. An adjacent avalanche was timed and demonstrated a 30 second threshold for escape. After two attempts, the weather deteriorated and search operations were suspended for the day.

Again, on April 21, the weather was clear and calm. The rescuers returned to the accident site and, while connected to the long line below the helicopter, probed twice more to locate the climbers without success. The SAR team this time, however, brought an avalanche search dog and handler. After exhausting their probing efforts, the decision was made for one more search attempt with the dog. The pilot picked up the dog and her handler and long lined them into the site. The handler let the dog, still attached to a tether, search a wider area and after 25 minutes she located one of the climbers.

The dog and handler returned to staging and rescuers returned two-at-a-time on the long line to dig and expose the climbers who were buried close together. Still clipped into the long line, the rescuers quickly cut the two 50-meter ropes in as many as 30 places to free the climbers from the ice and loops of rope that were wrapped primarily around David and Jess as they tumbled in the avalanche. The climbers were then clipped into the line with the rescuers and flown back to staging. At staging, the climbers were placed into cargo netting and the helicopter then took the three climbers to ambulances waiting on the highway.

Grant Statham said he did not see any sign of an avalanche slab fracture line in the basin or gully during their reconnaissance on April 20, although after four days of wind and snow, a fracture line could have been filled in. In addition, the climbers were near the surface when they were first spotted on April 17, giving credibility to a cornice/small slab avalanche theory.  

In conclusion, the fact that the three climbers were found high on an avalanche cone directly below the route “Life by the Drop” proves they were swept to their death by a significant force of snow and ice in that short window of 31 minutes from the time they dropped into the gully and the photo-confirmed cornice/avalanche break before 2 PM. 

Knowing what happened to these three young men in the last moments of their lives doesn’t bring them back into our arms, but the final story of their last climb gives some closure and peace of mind to their families, friends, and loved ones. 

By John Roskelley 

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