One year ago today, on April 16, the world lost three of the best alpinists of all time, when David Lama, Hansjörg Auer and Jess Roskelley perished in an avalanche on Howse Peak, Canada.
Below are remembrances of the three men that Rock and Ice published in the past year.
[Also Read What Happened On Howse: John Roskelley Reconstructs Last Day Of Jess Roskelley, David Lama And Hansjörg Auer At Piolets D’Or]
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.
Though known the world over for his climbing accomplishments, David Lama was a chess player who liked the Sicilian opening; he was a cook, with a nearly professionally equipped kitchen; and he was a fisherman who traveled to the Maldives for weeks at a time to fish, alone. He and I would also hike around the rivers near Innsbruck for hours together, with rods made of salvaged plastic water bottles around which we had wrapped the lines, searching for fish. When we had two fish, we went back to David’s flat where he cooked an elaborate, experimental meal.
We had a lot of intense discussions about risk, statistics and death. David was a thoughtful person and loved pondering complicated topics. Thinking hard often yields simple conclusions, and his was this: He didn’t want to rely on luck to survive—but accepted that in the mountains, bad luck could mean disaster. On April 17, 2019, the disaster happened. David, 28, died in an avalanche on Howse Peak in Canada, together with Hansjörg Auer and Jess Roskelley.
Of his nearly 29 years in this world, David spent almost 20 in the limelight: first as a rock climbing prodigy, then as the new kid in the conservative town of alpine climbing, and soon after as one of the most skilled alpinists in the world.
Anna Stöhr, who was on the same climbing team as David as a child, remembers: “In our kids climbing group we called David ‘Fuzzy’ because he was by far the smallest boy, and ‘Fuzzy’ means small in our Tyrolean dialect. However, he was not small when it came to ambitions. From a very young age he was convinced that he would be a climber when he grew up. He was also not small in terms of dedication. As a young boy he would prefer to go climbing during our training camp in Arco when all the other kids, including myself, just wanted to jump into Lake Garda. When he dropped out of school in his teens to pursue his climbing career it was hard to understand his decision. I did not dare to think of climbing as a job or career path, but Fuzzy knew from the very start that climbing was his destiny.”
In 2000, he became the youngest person to climb 5.13b, when he redpointed Kindergarten, Osp, Slovenia. From 2004 to 2010, he left his mark in competition climbing. More than his success, David’s legacy on the competition circuit was his climbing style. He was ahead of his time with his fluid, dynamic and confident movement. He climbed the way he lived: as it felt right to him, without hesitation.
Kilian Fischhuber remembers the years they shared on the World Cup circuit: “You could have so much fun with him, sometimes with dear consequences. We’d win a World Cup one weekend (him first, me second) and get kicked out of semis next weekend just because of a stupid bet (which he’d win), a crazy party (which he’d stage), or because he simply didn’t bother. …[W]e missed out on some medals, but these couldn’t match the good times we had.”
David traveled to Patagonia for the first time in 2009 to try to make the first free ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre. He came up short, but he also received a lot of negative feedback for bolts that his film crew placed. At the time he was an outsider in alpine climbing with little knowledge of its history. Afterward, he decided to catch up on that, and took responsibility for the bolts—not because they had been his decision, but because they had been put in for his film. In the end, he free climbed the line without the bolts—they were removed shortly before his ascent—in January 2012, succeeding in his goal of the first free ascent of the Compressor Route.
A few years ago, David and I drove to the Dolomites together to climb the classic Tempi Moderni on the 3,000-foot south face of Marmolada. We met a few friends of mine the night before and had pizza. The confidence with which David announced that we’d neither get up too early, nor miss the gondola to get down from the summit, could easily be mistaken as arrogance or cheap talk. But he knew what the day would bring, and saw no reason to approach it any other way. At the parking lot, he put four quickdraws, a few cams and six slings into the backpack. The climbing went by fast. His confidence, proficiency and most of all love for the mountains was on full display. When we neared the top our feet hurt so much that we slipped out of the heels of our shoes for the last pitches. This made for some interesting moments on the slabs, which David navigated in a very “dynamic” way, not letting some pain in his feet get in the way of a laugh. Despite his wisdom, there was a childish joy about him in the mountains.
David was an outlier in many regards. He rarely felt pressure from outside expectations. Important decisions, such as retiring from competition climbing or figuring out his path as a professional alpinist, came with a consideration and tranquillity that guided him in all aspects of life. When he quit competition climbing because he preferred climbing mountains, he recognized that his talent in that world was more important to others than to himself. David thought about the big picture, and lived as he saw fit.
A few years ago, I had to choose between spending a weekend with my then girlfriend, or climbing a winter route with David, which had been the original plan. I didn’t choose the winter route. It was the one time that I experienced him annoyed. He told me that I wasn’t committed enough. In his eyes, this was the worst way to be. He was a loyal friend, though, and didn’t hold a grudge against me for long, thankfully. David aspired to always be fully committed in his undertakings, and filled this maxim with life.
Since his first expedition to Lunag Ri in 2015, David was more and more drawn to Nepal, the home of his father. In 2015 and 2016, he’d attempted the mountain, one of Nepal’s highest unclimbed peaks, with Conrad Anker. After Anker suffered a heart attack on their second attempt, David set out to try it alone. Sharing a climb with someone was essential to him: the feeling of pushing on for a shared experience rather than a summit was important to him. But his climbs were linked to the partners he had attempted them with, and he didn’t like switching partners. “He started this journey with Conrad, so I think he wanted to finish with Conrad. It wasn’t possible though, so he decided he would do it alone,” his mother, Claudia Lama, told Rock and Ice in an interview in Poland last September. About a year ago, David returned and did the first ascent of Lunag Ri. He climbed a very difficult wall by the easiest line, which was what he looked for in alpine climbing. A few weeks after, he climbed the comparatively mellow Cholatse with three close friends from Austria. When he returned, David said that both ascents had been equally important in making the trip outstanding.
David is survived by his parents, Claudia and Rinzi, and his partner, Hadley Hammer.
Hansjörg Auer, 36, was born February 18, 1984, in Zams, Austria. Although he was an Aquarius, he ironically had an irrational and at times comical fear of water, which was only outdone by his equally laughable and more spastic arachnophobia. On April 16th, Hansjörg’s life and pursuit of climbing was cut short when an avalanche caught and buried him and his partners, David Lama and Jess Rosskelly, on Howse Peak, Alberta, Canada.
The third of five children, Hansjörg was raised on his family’s farm in the Ötztal Valley. Before he’d even reached the age of 10, he had summited a 3,000-meter peak with his older brother Matthias in their home valley—in winter, no less. By Hansjörg’s own admission, his athleticism growing up was far from obvious. Once he realized his talent for climbing and alpinism, he pursued it with tenacity, intensity and urgency.
Back in 2005, I was an undocumented, aspiring and sometimes sputtering former comp climber living in Innsbruck, Austria. That was the first time I heard of Hansjörg. Our mutual friend and fellow Ötztal native, Heiko Wilhelm, had gone to Rocklands, offseason, in December, with Hansjörg and some other Ötztalers. Heiko marveled at how Hansjörg had no concept of a rest day. Even with gritty sandstone, hot conditions and muscle-wrecking moves, Hansjörg climbed every day.
The following year, 2006, Hansjörg free soloed the classic Tempi Moderni (“Modern Times”), a 6c+ (5.11c) route of 27 pitches on the Marmolada South Face, in the Dolomites. Though the ascent didn’t earn him widespread fame, people started whispering about him and his feat in Tirol climbing circles, with admiration aplenty.
I remember how in 2007, on a rainy Spring Saturday, the editor in chief of Klettern (Germany’s largest climbing publication) rang my roommate, Gerhard Hörhager, a legendary climber in his own right, and asked if he could verify an unconfirmed report about a young mountain guide from Ötztal free soloing The Fish Route. Geri turned to me and asked if I’d heard of Hansjörg Auer, as the story sounded far-fetched. We gave our trusted source, Heiko, a call. Heiko unequivocally confirmed Hansjörg’s feat.
Via Attraverso il Pesce, commonly known as “The Fish,” is also on the Marmolada’s South Face. The 37-pitch route, named after a large fish-shaped pocket on the 20th pitch, is graded 7b+ (5.12c) and is a feather in the cap for anyone who manages to free it. Hansjörg’s free solo you couldn’t script. He had never even freed the whole route previously. He’d tried the route for a bit in 2004 and hadn’t done all the pitches clean. The day prior to his free solo he rapped and rehearsed the crux pitches alone.
Heiko Wilhelm says: “When Hansjörg was climbing on a rope, he was sometimes very quick, even a bit hasty, in his movement. But when he free-soloed, something changed; for him there was something sublime about the situation. He would climb with stoic calm. He was deliberate in every single movement, as he climbed meter by meter.”
For at least a couple of months, Hansjörg’s achievement was the talk of the town in the German and Italian climbing media. Two German climbers on the Marmolada that day had snapped a photo that verified his feat, but that was it. In the ensuing furor, every big-name photographer in the region asked Hansjörg if he’d go back to The Fish and let them capture some shots of him. He shunned all their requests and went back with his brother Matthias and close friend Heiko to get the shots.
Hansjörg carried the momentum from The Fish, and although he was at times afraid to admit his wish to be a professional full-time climber, he used it to do just that. It was around that time that our paths began to cross regularly, and our friendship blossomed. Also around this time Hansjörg began teaming up with one of my closest friends, and perhaps one of free climbing and alpinism’s most underrated achievers, Michael “Much” Mayr.
The three of us would climb together almost weekly, and Much and Hansjörg went on to make numerous bold first ascents. There was never a dull moment. Once the three of us were stopped on the Croatian border and subjected to a strip search after Hansjörg spilled all of his chalk. I also had the pleasure of belaying Hansjörg when he climbed his first 8c+ (5.14c), The Dark Side, a Much Mayr FA on Tirol’s China Wall. On that occasion, in typical Hansjörg fashion, at the final crux, he skipped a draw and inadvertently wrapped the rope around his leg. Anyone else would have said “Uncle!” and grabbed the draw, but Hansjörg pressed on for the redpoint. Such moments and acts of optimism and defiance defined Hansjörg. Right around this time, with his younger brother Vitus, Hansjörg managed an FA of his own on the Marmolada, an 8b (5.13d) they named Bruderliebe (“Brotherly Love”).
In 2012, Much and Hansjörg upped the Marmolada ante with the first free ascent of the bolt-less L’ultimo Dei Parucadutisti, which weighs in at 8b+ (5.14a) and is still unrepeated. Right up until Hansjörg’s untimely passing, these two forged a collection of diverse first ascents across five continents. Nearly all of this duo’s work up until now remains unrepeated.
In 2015, Hansjörg and Much went to Alaska and pulled off not just a new line, but the very first ascent of Mt. Reaper, via a 750-meter route they dubbed Sugar Man (M7 85° A1 750m). Much says they were tent bound for three days, waiting out weather, and constantly shoveling out snow: “Hansjörg had this ability to make you forget where you were and all that discomfort. We’d discuss and bicker [about] every possible topic like an old married couple. Farming, childhood, politics, books, music … Asaf Avidan’s “Reckoning Song” played on repeat, and the chorus—‘One day baby we’ll be old, think of all the stories that we could have told’—stayed stuck in our heads. Once we were done and down, we both agreed that we had pushed the envelope a little too far.”
In remembering Hansjörg, one also has to mention his achievements in the Himalaya, starting in 2013 with the first ascent of Kunyang Chhish East, carried out with the Swiss ace Simon Anthamatten and, once again, Hansjörg’s brother Matthias. The three tackled the southwest face of this 7,000-meter peak with technical difficulties up to M5. The ascent was followed by a 2017 first ascent of Gimmigela East (7,005 meters) with a fellow Austrian, Alex Blümel, and a solo first ascent of Lupghar Sar West (7,157 Meters) in 2018. For the latter, Hansjörg won a Piolet d’Or in 2019, posthumously.
During Hansjörg’s wake, as we reminisced over too much wine and beer, Matthias spoke of the special intuition that he and Hansjörg had when they climbed together. “Climbing with Hansjörg was the most natural thing,” he said. “We’d climb in all conditions and bad conditions when we were young. It didn’t matter how long it took, we wouldn’t stop until we reached the summit.
“It was in this style and with this fervor, that when Hansjörg was 19 and I was 21, we summited the Eiger Norwand.” His non-mechanical zest and irreverence stayed with Hansjörg throughout his illustrious climbing career, and were among the things that made him so lovable. His heart was always on his sleeve, and he never masked his vulnerability. Hansjörg was always loyal to himself, his girlfriend Tatjana, family, friends and the valley where he was raised.