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Details on Jess Roskelley’s final climb pieced together by his father

In the minutes, days and weeks after Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjorg Auer died descending Howse Peak last year, what exactly happened wasn’t known.

That’s no longer the case.

Over the past months John Roskelley, a world-class climber in his own right, pieced together his son’s final hours using the geographic data contained in photos pulled from the trio’s cellphones. He’s also hiked to the base of the peak several times and examined the route, debris and gear recovered from the scene.

“I’ve focused mostly on finding out as much as I could about their climb and the accident, and pretty much putting the pieces together,” he said.

Below is a summary of Jess Roskelley’s final climb based off John Roskelley’s research.

The first week of April

Roskelley, Lama and Auer arrived in Canmore, Alberta, for a three-week trip. Members of The North Face’s alpine team, they were testing a new waterproof fabric design. They completed two climbs before bad weather forced them out of the mountains for a few days. By April 14, the weather was improving, and the three set their sights on Howse Peak.

April 15

The three drove north from Canmore, parking at the Waterfowl Lakes area. At 11 a.m., they started skiing the 5 miles to their camp near the east face of Howse Peak. By 12:40 p.m., they’d all reached camp, according to photos recovered from their phones.

April 16

They left camp early, and by 5:51 a.m. were climbing the lower snow slopes below the route M16. M16, which had only been climbed once , ascends the peak’s eastern face, winding through perilous rocky, snowy and icy terrain. This style of climbing is known as mixed climbing.

By 7 a.m., the three were 1,100 feet above camp. There they started the truly technical and difficult climbing. Auer led the first ice pitch. After this pitch, they diverted from the established route when Lama traversed left into “unclimbed terrain.” By 8:36 a.m., they’d reached the upper pitches of the King Line, an unclimbed mixed route to the left of M16. Lama led the WI6+ pitch. By 9:57 a.m., they’d reached a long snow gulley. Roskelley led up it and by 11:02 a.m. he was leading a mixed (rock and ice) pitch along the ridge. By 12:40 p.m., they’d reached the 10,810-foot summit, as evidenced by a selfie of the three smiling together. There they ate, hydrated and rested before starting to descend.

Prior to the climb, Jess had discussed with his father the best way to descend. John had climbed the Northeast Buttress years ago and was familiar with the peak. They decided that descending their ascent route was the best option.

All the evidence, John said, indicates that they started to descend the route they had just climbed. At 1:37 p.m., a photo taken by Auer shows Lama at the bottom of their final rappel off the southwest ridge. From that rappel, the three likely entered a long snow gully. This was the final photo John found on the climber’s phones. Their ascent tracks are visible in the photo.

Just before 2 p.m., an experienced alpinist from Canmore stopped along the Icefields Parkway to examine Howse Peak. As he looked at the peak’s east face, an avalanche “swept the basin above the route, ‘Life by the Drop,’ and billowed onto the glacier area at the bottom of the face,” wrote John. The climber grabbed his camera and took a photo of the violent aftermath.

The photo was taken at 1:58 p.m., 31 minutes after the last photo taken by Auer. Presumably, the three climbers were killed by that avalanche. Their bodies were found and recovered by Parks Canada on April 21.

John estimates that the men were “within minutes” of being out of the avalanche’s path.

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