Trio of world-renowned climbers missing and presumed dead in Banff avalanche

Three world-renowned climbers — Jess Roskelley, David Lama and Hansjörg Auer — are missing and presumed to have died in an avalanche in the Rocky Mountains.

Hansjörg Auer, David Lama and Jess Roskelley were attempting a route that has only been climbed once

From left, Hansjörg Auer, David Lama and Jess Roskelley. (Facebook)

Three world-renowned climbers are missing and presumed to have died in an avalanche in the Rocky Mountains.

Jess Roskelley was, at one point, the youngest American to climb Mount Everest. He had set out this week to climb Howse Peak in Banff National Park along with Austrian climbers David Lama and Hansjörg Auer.

The trio was attempting a challenging route up the mountain known as M16, said Eli Francovich, an outdoors reporter with the Spokesman Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash., where Roskelley is from.

"I talked to John Roskelley, Jess's father, this morning, and he confirmed that Jess was missing, and he thinks he's dead in an avalanche," Francovich said.

"Jess was going to check in Tuesday and didn't, and John called Parks Canada. They sent out a helicopter. They saw an avalanche debris field and one partially buried body."

Parks Canada said in a release Thursday that officials had "responded by air and observed signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing equipment."

"Based on the assessment of the scene, all three members of the party are presumed to be deceased," the release said.

"The three men, one American and two Europeans, are professional mountain athletes and highly experienced. Parks Canada extends its sincerest condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of the mountaineers."

"Further investigation is underway but recovery efforts are not currently possible due to additional avalanches and dangerous conditions at the scene," the release added.

"The east face of Howse Peak is remote and an exceptionally difficult objective, with mixed rock and ice routes requiring advanced alpine mountaineering skills."

Size 3 avalanche

Parks Canada visitor safety specialist Stephen Holeczi said the last known information about the party of three was that they had begun their ascent on Tuesday.

Parks Canada was contacted about the missing party on Wednesday morning.

Holeczi said it's not clear exactly when the avalanche occurred. It is believed to be a Size 3 on the scale used by Avalanche Canada. That's large enough to bury a car, break trees or destroy a small, wood-framed building.

Howse Peak is located in Banff National Park, right near the border between Alberta and British Columbia. (Tim Banfield Photography)

The area is under a "spring" avalanche forecast, according to Avalanche Canada, which means conditions and risk can vary widely throughout the day depending on on temperature, wind, solar radiation and the aspect and angle of a particular slope.

"Every mountain has different weather and avalanche conditions on it, so we can't speculate as to what the conditions were like at that time," Holeczi said.

The recovery operation will have to wait until there is a sufficient weather window for Parks Canada to assess and mitigate hazards in the area and put people on the ground, he said. There's no clear timeline for that.

'Fixtures of the community'

Francovich described the elder Roskelley as "one of the best alpinists of his generation" and his son is just as accomplished.

John Roskelley also served as a county commissioner in Spokane, and Francovich said the family is well-known and well-loved in the area.

"They're just fixtures of the community both civically and then also in the outdoor and climbing community," Francovich said. "They're very well respected."

Jess Roskelley is survived by his wife, Allison.

Auer and Lama are well known in the mountaineering world for their ambitious expeditions.

Auer recently completed the first solo ascent of Lupghar Sar West, a remote 7,157-metre summit in Pakistan. And Lama was part of a duo that made the first free ascent of the famous Compressor route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia, along the border between Argentina and Chile.

'3 of the most elite alpine climbers'

Brandon Pullan, editor-in-chief of Gripped magazine, described the trio as "three of the most elite alpine climbers in the world."

"All three of them, they had in common this similar goal of going and doing remote climbs on big mountains in a very pure, alpine way," said Pullan, who is based in Canmore, Alta.

Pullan spoke with the climbers when they arrived in Canmore recently and said the local community was surprised to see the famous alpinists show up in town unannounced, with their sights set on several goals in the Rockies.

"Jess Roskelley was just an all-around, American badass alpine climber with visions on doing these big climbs," Pullan said.

"Hansjörg Auer was a bit of a different character. He looked at big mountains in the Himalayas — and doing them by himself. He had kind of a bigger vision for himself in the mountaineering world. And then David Lama, he was probably one of the technically strongest solo climbers in the world ... you could call him the biggest rock star in climbing right now for what he was doing."

Pullan said the M16 route up Howse Peak was climbed in 1999 and never since.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

With files from Ellis Choe