After a four-day search, Parks Canada announced Sunday that they had recovered the bodies of climbers Jess Roskelley, Hansjörg Auer, and David Lama from the aftermath of an avalanche.
Roskelley, 36, Auer, 35, and Lama, 28, were in Banff National Park last week attempting the second-ever summit of M16, a brutal, 1,000-foot climb spanning several sections of rock and ice. The three climbers had spent the week notching summits in the Canadian Rockies before setting their sights on M16, one of the hardest routes in the region. The first team to climb M16 nearly lost a member in the process, and they chose to name the route after a famous rifle because of its “difficulty and seriousness” and to pay tribute to “Barry [Blanchard]’s experience of being ‘under the gun.’”
Roskelley was supposed to report to his father John on the evening of Tuesday, April 16. When John hadn’t heard from his son by Wednesday morning, he alerted Canadian authorities. A helicopter crew was sent over the area, and they reported “signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing equipment.” The avalanche was believed to be a Size 3 on a five-point scale. Parks Canada said they had seen one partially buried body, and that they were operating under the assumption that the three men were dead.
“It’s just one of those routes where you have to have the right conditions or it turns into a nightmare. This is one of those trips where it turned into a nightmare,” John told the Spokesman-Review. Efforts to search the avalanche area were delayed until last weekend by dangerous conditions and bad weather. Parks Canada finally announced Sunday afternoon that they had found all three men dead in the avalanche field. A photo of the three men smiling was found on Roskelley’s phone, which suggests that they reached the summit of M16 before the avalanche struck.
Auer, Roskelley, and Lama were three of the most accomplished alpinists in the world. Roskelley made headlines around the world in 2003 when he summited Mt. Everest at 20 years old, becoming the youngest person at the time to climb the world’s tallest mountain. He undertook that expedition with his father, who was a famous climber in his own right with several pioneering ascents in the Himalayas. Jess, however, chose to focus on shorter, more technically demanding routes. He spent last summer charting new routes in a remote valley in northern Pakistan, and in 2017, he made the first ascent of the Gauntlet Ridge Route on Alaska’s Mt. Huntington with Clint Helander:
“There are two types of alpine climbers,” [Jess Roskelley] said. “The ones who sit and think and dream, plan and obsess over certain projects. And then there are the ones those guys call up because they need a good partner who’s ready to go. I’m one of those guys.”
Auer—who survived one of the gnarliest rappels you’ll ever see last year—was born in Austria, and he spent his climbing career soloing and free soloing (no ropes, no protection) difficult routes all around the world. He navigated an impressive variety of terrains, and was as comfortable on rock as he was on ice. Auer completed the first solo ascent of Pakistan’s Lupghar Sar West last summer, though he is most famous for free soloing the Fish Route on Italy’s Marmolada. The route is an 850-meter, 37-pitch climb with a difficulty rating of 7b+ or 5.12c. Because the Fish Route is two grades below El Capitan’s Freerider and 500 feet shorter, many in the climbing world consider Auer’s ascent to be the second-hardest big wall free solo ever completed, trailing of course Alex Honnold’s Freerider free solo.
Auer and Lama were part of a team that nearly made the first ascent of the southeast ridge of Annapurna III. Their five-week crusade to summit one of the world’s most infamous routes was chronicled in the 2017 documentary Unclimbed. Of the three men on the expedition, Lama was the most well-known. The son of a Nepalese mountain guide and an Austrian nurse, Lama was considered a legitimate prodigy before his death. He was a champion competition climber a decade ago, winning several lead climbing and bouldering awards before setting his sights on the mountains and retiring from competition in 2011.
One year after his retirement, Lama became the first person to complete a free ascent of the Compressor route on Cerro Torre, one of the most famous spires in Patagonia. Lama tried four times to summit Lunag Ri, Nepal’s highest then-unclimbed mountain, once being forced to turn back 300 meters from the summit, once scrambling down to save his partner Conrad Anker’s life after Anker suffered an altitude-induced heart attack, and once again on his own after getting Anker to safety. A year after his third attempt, he finally reached the summit, without a partner.
The deaths of Lama, Auer, and Roskelley have shook the climbing community. Death is an ever-present possibility for those attempting remote alpine ascents, but the sudden, violent loss of three of the world’s best seems to have driven that unavoidable truth home for climbers around the world. The risks of mountain climbing are well understood, though they rarely feel this cruel. Tributes have poured in from former partners and other famed climbers.
Free Solo filmmaker Jimmy Chin captured the tension of living on the edge beautifully, writing, “We again face the great paradox of pursuing one’s dreams in the mountains ... something that gives us so much life and yet also takes life away. It never makes sense ... yet we understand.”