Rare is the man who can balance strength with humility, intense goals with selflessness, and high-level alpinism with a stable life in the city. Jess Roskelley, 36, who died April 16 on Howse Peak, had mastered all of those traits and more.
Jess grew up in Spokane, Washington, to Joyce and John Roskelley. Although his father was perhaps the strongest and most prolific American mountaineer of his generation, Jess only took up climbing after high school. For two years he worked as a mountain guide on Mount Rainier. In May 2003, he and his father summited Mount Everest. For seven years, Jess was the youngest American to have stood on top.
In the ensuing decade, Jess became a master welder and developed his own love for rock, ice and especially alpine climbing. For eight years, he divided his time between work on Alaska’s North Slope and climbing trips around the world.
Where his father had made a name for himself as a strong and accomplished high-altitude Himalayan climber, Jess developed a reputation as a gifted technical climber, especially on steep ice. For years, he and Ben Erdmann were a force, whether in reaching the summit of Cerro Torre in Patagonia, attempting Annapurna in Nepal, or establishing countless first ascents in Alaska’s forbidding Kichatna Spires.
It was through his accomplishments in Alaska that I first heard of Jess. On a trip to Patagonia in 2015-2016, we became fast friends.
We were in separate teams of mutual friends, but I was instantly drawn to him for his humor and confidence. Our two teams celebrated on the summit of Fitz Roy, and the conversations Jess and I shared showed great promise for future adventures.
For years I had dreamed of attempting the first ascent of the south ridge of Mount Huntington in Alaska. The effort would require a special partner, and my list was short. I cold called Jess. After asking his wife, Allison, he quickly said yes. In eight days on that tormented ridge of cornices, ice and stone, we forged something stronger than friendship or partnership. We became linked as brothers. Jess became my closest friend, my confidant, my favorite everything. We worked together in Colorado, climbed in Canada and talked incessantly.
After years of hard work and sacrifice, Jess was welcomed onto the elite North Face athlete team. Gaining other sponsorships as well, Jess became less dependent on welding and earned a substantial part of his income through gear development, teaching clinics and flying around the world attending high-profile climbing events.
The two of us walked around the Outdoor Retailer show in January 2018, eager to propose our next trip. After our 2017 Mount Huntington success, we felt like anything was possible when we were tied in together. The southeast face of Mount Logan would be the biggest thing either of us had ever attempted. After a 15-minute meeting with The North Face, both of us stood in stunned silence. Not only did it appear that we had funding for our expedition, but David Lama was interested as well. Jess had grown up having dinners with Sir Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner, Royal Robbins and other climbing royalty, but neither of us ever expected to be going on a trip with this generation’s most talented alpine virtuoso.
Our trip to Mount Logan was marred with horrible weather, but the three of us bonded. We never even put on harnesses, as eight meters of snow fell during three weeks on the glacier, but we laughed through it all. Jess spent the next year fine-tuning his skills and fitness for upcoming trips with David and Hansjörg Auer, both of whom were his North Face team members. Jess had secured his dream job, and he worked exceedingly hard to be his best. The Roskelley name had always been synonymous with his father, John, but Jess’s countless accomplishments gave him a sterling reputation of his own.
Those who watched Jess from a distance will remember him as one of the brightest climbers of our generation, but he was so much more than that. Jess was undoubtedly more proud of his wife, Allison, than anything he ever did. I didn’t really believe in true love until I saw the two of them together. Their marriage epitomized mutual respect, admiration and partnership. Even on the south ridge of Mount Huntington, Jess called her every day and sent her little videos professing his love. Likewise, he had the endless support from a strong woman to pursue his dreams. In January of this year, the two climbed Bridalveil Falls in Telluride together.
“Anytime I can share something with my wife and she gets a better idea of what I do, it’s a good day,” he said that day.
“A partner in life, it’s not just about love. It’s about doing life together, doing it well and kicking ass,” Allison responded.
Those who knew Jess Roskelley, whether intimately or from afar, will miss him dearly. He was a man who gave far more than he took. He was a positive force that inspired, made us laugh constantly and instilled within us a redeemed sense of confidence. His absence will leave a deep void within our souls, but his memory will make us all better humans and give us the courage to unabashedly pursue that which we love.