The lights dim as John Roskelley takes the stage last night in the big tent here at the Ladek Mountain Festival in Lądek-Zdrój, Poland—host to the 2019 Piolets d’Or ceremony this coming weekend. His talk is the big event on the first night of this festival. The room, packed with over 1,000 people, goes completely silent. John, dressed in a bright red puffy, walks to the microphone and over the next hour proceeds to present a virtually minute-by-minute reconstruction of what happened on April 16, when his son, American climber Jess Roskelley, along with Austrian climbers David Lama and Hansjörg Auer died in a climbing accident on Howse Peak, Canada. Until now, specifics have been scarce.
“I am a narrator tonight,” John says, “a biographer of what Hansjörg, David and Jess accomplished on Howse Peak this past April. I was not there during their climb or their accident, but I was there for several days after.”
John is referring to three trips he made to the base of the east face of Howse Peak, to the area where search and rescue had found the three climbers’ bodies. He went to retrieve their equipment, but the main artifact he sought was David Lama’s GoPro. The photos and video from that, combined with the photos from Jess’ already-recovered iPhone—replete with timestamped photos and locational data such as altitude, latitude, longitude—offered the tantalizing possibility of finally piecing together what had happened on their last fateful day on Howse: what route the trio had climbed, and perhaps greater insight into the accident that killed them.
Following Auer, Lama and Jess’ deaths, speculation was rife over what route they might have climbed, whether it was an existing one or a first ascent. Early in his presentation last night, John Roskelley makes clear that he will answer this question definitively. “Let me be clear,” he says. “We know exactly what route they climbed and where they were to the minute.”
With that he shows a picture of Howse peak, established routes overlaid in colored lines. A dotted red line up the center is clearly labeled as the Auer-Lama-Roskelley variation to M-16—a dangerous route established by Steve House, Barry Blanchard and Scott Backes in 1999. The red-dotted variation begins on M-16, before ducking left to follow the upper portion of an unclimbed line which House had dubbed the “King Line” when he first saw it back in 1999.
John then shows photos dozens of photos from Jess’ phone, Lama’s GoPro and Auer’s camera, and gives an accompanying description of where they were on the mountain, what part of the route they were at and what was happening.
The following are the descriptions of some of these photos (though far from all), John’s analysis, and what it all adds up to.
5:51 am, April 16. A photo taken by Auer, of a “low angle snow basin leading up to M16,” John says. Based on this photo and where it was taken, he estimates that the trio left camp at 5:30 in the morning.
7:04 am. David Lama stares into Jess’ camera. Auer is in the background, starting up the opening WI 6 pitch of M-16. The team had already blasted up the snow basin and are now around 2,640 meters.
John shows some brief video footage here of Auer near the beginning of the pitch, hunkering down while hanging on his tools to withstand relentless spindrift from above. Auer waits for the spindrift to abate, and then carefully begins tapping away at the ice above. And then the video ends, abruptly.
7:11 am. This photo shows Auer already at the lip of the 40ish-meter pitch. He climbed it in just 8 minutes. “Through this entire ascent that’s one of the things I looked at: how fast they did these technical climbs and ran up the snow slopes,” John says.
The next series of photos, taken in the morning at 7:35, 7:46, 8:05 and 8:36, clearly show the three climbers making a right to left traverse on steep snow from the top of the WI 6 pitch on M-16. This was where they struck out into new territory, towards the upper half of the unclimbed King Line.
8:51 am. Lama is leading a new, virgin pitch of WI 6 ice—possibly WI 7, says John.
From the top of this pitch, Jess leads the team up and leftward to a large snow basin, the top of a another route, Life by the Drop. Here they slowed down, considerably.
9:57 am. A photo by Jess shows David Lama struggling up the ridge. The snow slogging continues, as they wade through deep snow over the final 300 meters. This section takes them nearly 90 minutes.
12:44 pm. “Success,” John says, as we see the summit selfie that has now become the indelible image associated with these climbers’ final climb. “They climbed the 1,345-meter new route variation on the east face in approximately 6 hours 43 minutes. The Original M-16, took 3 days. Jess’s iPhone records—time, elevation longitude, latitude—shows the route. We changed the latitude and longitude to decimals and plotted them on GoogleEarth; we know exactly where they went on the face.”
1:07 pm. Jess, Auer and Lama are already descending. A photo from Auer’s phone shows Jess on rappel 23 minutes after the summit selfie.
1:27 pm. A shot of Lama on rappel, lowering into the massive snow basin they had traversed the upper half of on the ascent. “This is the last still photo taken by any of the climbers,” John says.
Not long after—precisely when remains uncertain—Jess, Lama and Auer were killed in an accident, the details of which remain fuzzy. They ended up at the base of the east face.
It’s at this point in the the puzzle, when photos and data can no longer act as a guide, that John begins using other clues and evidence to make his best guess at what happened. He believes he’s got it narrowed down to two real possibilities.
A critical clue is a photo taken by someone else. At 1:58 pm—31 minutes after Jess took the shot of Lama rappelling into the big snow basin—Quentin Roberts, who was climbing across the valley, snapped a shot of a cornice avalanche sweeping Howse’s east face. “He didn’t know they were on the face,” John says.
Another clue: Jess, Lama and Auer’s bodies were all found very close together, buried beneath a shallow layer of snow, 90 centimeters at its deepest.
John also considers the gear that he found still attached to the climbers and scattered in the debris field below the face. Their two 50-meter ropes had several knots and were configured in such a way that invites more questions that answers. The two ropes were joined together with two flat overhand knots at one end, typical of stopper knots. About 7 meters from halfway, the two ropes were tied in single overhand on a bight—Jess was attached to this bight when he was found. Then, about halfway down, the two ropes were tied into another overhand on a bight, creating two larger loops of roughly 50 centimeters. These last two knots are the biggest outstanding question in John’s mind. “Doesn’t quite make sense to me still why they tied the ropes like that,” John said. “I’m still working on it…”
Lama was found with one strand of a rope through a single carabiner. Auer was not attached to the rope.
Additionally, the ferrule (the spike at the bottom of the handle of an ice tool or axe) on one of Jess’ tools had broken off the tool itself. The carabiner that had been clipped to the broken ferrule was also busted. “This all indicates that a large force hit them when they were in place,” John says.
After all the photos, and all the evidence, and all the theorizing, John turns to the audience.
“So what happened?” he says. Its what everyone is waiting for. It’s what he’s still looking for.
“It’s hard to tell,” he says, matter of factly. “The truth is we don’t know. Holes exist in the possibilities, but the evidence suggest two options.”
The first is that they were swept away by a cornice break. The combination of the timing and specifics of Roberts’ photo with the shallow depth of the bodies lead John to believe this is the most likely scneario.
But a second possibility is human error. “The knots in the rope and the state of the equipment found with them are difficult to explain,” John says. “A rappel anchor may have pulled. But I don’t know what they would have rappelled off of. So that’s a stretch for me.”
And that’s all the info there is. John will continue to puzzle over the knots and the photos and the conditions of the face.
John ends his presentation simply: “They had so much potential for the future. They loved life, they loved adventure.”
And then the lights come up, the audience processes towards the tent’s two exits slowly, and into the the pre-autumn cold of Lądek-Zdrój everyone goes.