From left: alpinists David Lama, Jess Roskelley, and Hansjörg Auer (Photo: Clayton Boyd)
Jess Roskelley

The Tragedy on Howse Peak

In April, alpinists David Lama, Jess Roskelley, and Hansjörg Auer went silent during a harrowing expedition in Canada. The climbing community mobilized, first for a search and then for a memorial. In the wake of the tragedy, writer Nick Heil examines the motives of cutting-edge climbers and wonders: How close should we stand to our own mortality to feel alive?

Howse Peak is a 10,800-foot twin-tipped spire rising from the Continental Divide between British Columbia and Alberta’s Banff National Park. The area is remote, no cell service or snack bars, although Howse is plainly visible from lonely Icefields Parkway, which bisects Banff just a few miles from the mountain. Only the most serious climbers would consider ascending its east face, a sheer 3,000-foot wall of sedimentary rock marbled with an intricate network of snow and ice. Its most fearsome route, M-16—echoing the name of the machine gun, because of the frozen detritus that routinely showers down it—has only been completed once, 20 years ago, by a three-man team during a perilous five-day effort. One of the men, Steve House, later wrote that the climb entailed “one of the hardest pitches of my life.”

On Monday, April 15, 2019, three of the best alpinists in the world—David Lama, 28, from Innsbruck, Austria; Hansjörg Auer, 35, from Umhausen, Austria; and Jess Roskelley, 36, from Spokane, Washington—skied to Howse and set up a tent in a snow-filled basin, with plans to attempt M-16, or a variation of it, early the next morning. The trio had been in the area for almost a month, staging out of a condo in Canmore. All three were members of the North Face climbing team, a storied group of mountain athletes created in 1992 that includes luminaries like Conrad Anker, Peter Athans, Emily Harrington, Alex Honnold, and Jimmy Chin, among others.

Alpinism is climbing’s most demanding discipline, involving the most objective hazards on the most challenging routes of steep, often fragile snow, ice, and rock. It hardly resembles what most people recognize as mountaineering these days, which is to say the sad circus on Mount Everest or the trade routes on Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. To alpinists, style is everything. Proper progression involves climbing light and fast, with minimal gear and maximum self-­sufficiency. First ascents are cherished, though repeating lines of significant difficulty also earns respect. The margin of error is alarmingly thin, and the sport has a long roster of casualties. Roskelley had recently told his younger sister, Jordan, a yoga instructor who works with the Gonzaga men’s basketball team: “If those guys make a mistake, they lose a game. If I make a mistake, I die.”

This trip was the first time that Lama, Auer, and Roskelley had all climbed together. They became friends through the North Face, hanging out at trade shows and company gatherings, chatting enthusiastically about potential trips. The men were set up for a month in Canada—a comfortable base from which they could launch alpine sorties, shake down new gear, and dream up big projects. The three had been discussing an attempt on the southeast ridge of Annapurna III, one of the great unclaimed prizes left in the Himalayas. Lama and Auer had already attempted it twice, in 2016 and 2017, with another Austrian, Alex Blümel. On their first trip, they were stormed off a few thousand feet from the summit. On the second, the project disintegrated before they reached base camp, when they got the news of a friend’s death and lost the desire to continue. For a third attempt, Auer and Lama thought that their new teammate Roskelley might be a better fit. The Canada trip was a chance to sort out any problems.

Jess Roskelley
From left: Roskelley, Auer, and Lama on the summit of Howse Peak. The image was recovered from Roskelley’s phone. (Photo: Jess Roskelley)

By mid-April, the trio had completed some solid climbs around Canmore, including a dramatic frozen waterfall called Nemesis and the Canadian Rockies classic Andromeda Strain. M-16 was bigger and bolder than those two routes but well within the climbers’ proven ability. They had all completed longer, more difficult, and objectively more dangerous climbs. On Monday evening, Parks Canada indicated spring conditions for Howse, a typical if somewhat vague rating for that time of year: “The avalanche danger is variable and can range from Low to High. Traveling early in the day is recommended, as conditions can change rapidly.”

Around 2 A.M. on Wednesday, April 17, Roskelley’s wife, Allison, texted his mother, Joyce. Jess had not yet checked in by InReach messenger, as he usually did. Joyce tried to reassure her, but Alli spent a sleepless night waiting for news. The next morning, when Jess still hadn’t checked in, Joyce spoke with Jess’s dad, John, a renowned climber himself. John thought there were a number of possible explanations, not all of them dire. He contacted Parks Canada, which promptly dispatched a search and rescue team from Lake Louise, about 30 miles away.

A team member drove to Banff National Park, where he found Jess’s truck at the trailhead to Howse. Then search and rescue dispatched a helicopter to circle past Howse’s east face, where they saw a large swath of avalanche debris at the base of the wall. A few pieces of climbing gear were visible in the runout. Most troubling was the sight of a leg protruding from the snow. There were no other signs of the climbers or further indication of what had gone wrong. The weather was deteriorating quickly, so the team took photos from the air, then swung around and returned to Lake Louise, where they called John and Alli.


I arrived in Canmore on Friday afternoon, flying to Calgary from my home in New Mexico. I had lived in Spokane for a number of years in the nineties, learned to climb there, and visited regularly, since my dad still lived in the area. I’d joined the Spokane Mountaineers, a local outdoors club, of which John Roskelley was arguably the most esteemed member. In the seventies, he was on the first American team to summit K2 and made daring ascents on other major peaks. In 2014, he received the Lifetime Achievement Piolet d’Or, the sport’s highest honor. He wasn’t climbing much while I was around, having pivoted to public service as a county commissioner. We interacted a few times, because I worked for a weekly newspaper, and I always appreciated his common sense and straight talk in the blustery world of city politics.

The Roskelleys are close. They all live in Spokane and get together often for meals, vacations, and holidays. For several years after college, Jess and Jordan, who had been a pole vaulter at the University of Oregon, were roommates and confidants.

I found the family at the condo that Auer, Lama, and Roskelley had rented. A duffel of the climbers’ gear sat on the kitchen floor, and there was some tense discussion about what to do with it. Jordan stood in front of the refrigerator, holding the door open, revealing little more than beer and cookie dough. “What were these guys eating?” she sighed.

The unsettled weather stuck around until Sunday, which was Easter, dropping a foot of snow in the high country and keeping the search and rescue operation on hold. Media attention was in full fervor; Parks Canada had received more than 800 inquires about the incident. Others had arrived in Canmore, including Scott Coldiron, one of Jess’s climbing partners, and Lama’s girlfriend, Hadley Hammer, who skis for the North Face. 

There were murmurs of an Easter miracle. It was not impossible that a survivor, maybe two, was stranded on Howse with no way to communicate. But the mood was heavy. Alli sobbed fitfully, the grim reality of loss crashing down in waves. Joyce cleaned the kitchen, her face drawn. John made calls to correct errors in the numerous stories being rushed out. Jordan left to sit in Jess’s truck, recovered from the trailhead and now parked near the condo.

Growing up, Jess had a conflicted relationship with climbing. “Through high school I was dragged into the mountains as my dad’s fabricated climbing partner,” he wrote in 2014 on the blog of MSR stoves. “It’s as if I was planned with precise timing to be his young partner as he grew older and needed a young guy to keep him energized.”

For a while, he opted for more conventional sports: cross-country, wrestling. He raced mountain bikes. There were years when it appeared he might not climb at all.

But mountains were his destiny. He was built to climb, with long, ropy arms, a narrow waist, and broad shoulders that he decorated with colorful tattoos. At the top of his chest, in a necklace of ink, he inscribed one of his favorite quotes, from Ernest Shackleton: Fortitudine Vincimus (“By endurance we conquer”). He drove big, lifted trucks and favored T-shirts and flat-brimmed ball caps. “He was the American badass,” said Scott Mellin, global general manager for the North Face’s mountain sports.

Jess had a domestic side, too. He doted on his white bulldog, Mugs, and fawned over Alli, filling his Instagram with images of them frolicking in romantic locations—Thailand, Iceland, Costa Rica. He had a playful, irreverent sense of humor, with a penchant for fart jokes. Once, halfway up an ice climb, he radioed his wife, who was ski-touring nearby.

“Are you there? Over.”

“What’s wrong?” she replied, alarmed.

A pause, then she heard a blast of flatulence rumble over the speaker.

“Jess!” she shouted, and burst out laughing.

He had always been bright, but school had been challenging. He developed a keen ethical sensibility and a temper to go with it. Bullies infuriated him. Joyce, a ninth-grade teacher, made more than a few trips to retrieve her son from the principal’s office for fighting. In junior high, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. He had trouble staying focused. “If he was in a quiet classroom, he would hear the teacher at the pencil sharpener in the room next door,” Joyce told me. He was prescribed Adderall, which helped. Even more therapeutic, though, was rock and ice climbing. It channeled the energy and anxiety into his hands, into his ice tools, helping calm his mind.

In 2003, when Jess was 20, he and John climbed Everest together. The expedition was long and grueling, plagued by dodgy weather. When they finally reached the summit, they could see only clouds, and the wind was blowing so hard they were forced to their knees. The pair embraced and wept.

Everest was a turning point. Jess didn’t much care for traditional Himalayan expeditions—on the MSR blog, he referred to Everest as a safari, “a luxury experience for the well-to-do”—but he had proven himself on a serious climb at extreme altitude. Afterward he “decided that alpine climbing was the purest form of the sport.” He dropped out of the University of Montana during his sophomore year and took a welding job on Alaska’s North Slope. It was demanding work but lucrative; most important, it allowed him to climb for weeks at a time. 

For the next decade, Jess tackled icy peaks and walls in Alaska, Montana, Canada, and South America—striving to turn his passion into a profession. On a climb, he always seemed to be at his best when things were at their worst.

“I’ve seen Jess in tough situations where shit’s going down and he’s got this iron underneath,” says Coldiron, a former Army sergeant in Iraq who now works for the Spokane fire department. “It’s this quality you don’t see often, this ability to go to another level and do what needs to be done. I saw it in combat in Iraq. I see it in really intense, big fires when people’s lives are on the line.”

In the spring of 2017, Clint Helander, a climber based in Anchorage, reached out to Jess to try a first complete ascent of the south ridge of Alaska’s Mount Huntington. The ridge rises in a series of steep pinnacles, like a row of giant shark’s teeth, each more imposing than the last. The pair hadn’t climbed together before but had crossed paths in Patagonia and hit it off. “There are a lot of guys who can climb hard ice and hard snow,” Helander told me, “but Jess had the kind of commitment you long for on this kind of route.”

Success on Huntington helped secure Jess a contract with the North Face. “He had really gotten to a place where he was making it,” Alli said. “He wasn’t going to have to weld this year. He could train full-time, which, I have to tell you, over the last couple months the change in his attitude was just significant. He was so psyched.”


On Sunday, the weather cleared and the search and rescue team returned to Howse. There would be no Easter miracle. With the help of an avalanche dog, rescue workers located the three bodies in the debris field.

It would have been news in the climbing community if any one of these guys had been killed, but to lose all three in a single accident sent shock waves around the world. Writing in The New York Times, Francis Sanzaro, the editor of Rock and Ice, said it was like “waking up and learning that Tom Brady, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown had all been killed on the gridiron.”

The next morning, I skied into the base of Howse with a friend from Spokane to have a closer look at the mountain. The wall was a magnificent nightmare of black rock and blue ice, soaring straight up into oblivion. It started to snow, so we retreated while we could still see our tracks. Near the trailhead, we encountered a young woman in sneakers postholing awkwardly toward Howse. She had driven several hours from Calgary, she said. We asked if she knew the climbers.

“No. I just read about it, but for some reason it hit me really hard, and I felt like I needed to come here,” she said. “I guess it’s a spiritual journey.”

If Jess Roskelley was the American bad-ass, then Hansjörg Auer and David Lama were the European superstars. They stood out in an Austrian culture that is obsessed with mountaineering. The Österreichischer Alpenverein—the Austrian Alpine Club—boasts more than half a million members, 5 percent of the country’s population. Top climbers are recognized on the street and routinely have their restaurant meals paid for by anonymous fans.

Auer may be most widely known for a 2018 viral video, shot on his helmet cam, which shows him bailing off a mixed route in Austria, rappelling from a tiny nubbin of rock. But he’d been considered one of the most skillful, audacious climbers in the world since 2007, when he burst into prominence by free-soloing a route in the Italian Dolomites called Via Attraverso Il Pesce. Named for a fish-shaped feature three-quarters up a rock face, the route is a 2,700-foot 5.12c, with a crux that involves handling a powerful, awkward undercling—with no ropes or protection—above a thousand feet of air.

Until Alex Honnold’s 2017 ropeless ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider—which, at 3,000 feet and rated 5.13a, is slightly longer and more difficult than Il Pesce—Auer’s climb stood as the benchmark free solo. He didn’t bring a camera or a film crew and had climbed the route only once, three years earlier. The climb may well have vanished into obscurity had it not been witnessed by two Germans on a nearby route. 

Growing up, Auer was an awkward kid, skinny and shy, with jug ears, a tremendous chin, and a gap in his front teeth. “I was always one of the last ones picked for the football team,” he said in No Turning Back, a film about his climbing life. “I would go hiking alone in the mountains. I felt comfortable there.” In 2017, he published an autobiography, Südwand, that detailed his feelings as an outsider and his struggles with anorexia.

He’d started a career as a math teacher but eventually abandoned that path to climb full-time. By his thirties, he was bringing his formidable climbing skills to big alpine routes. In October 2015, he was climbing Nilgiri South in Nepal with Alex Blümel and his close friend Gerry Fiegl when Fiegl, suffering from altitude sickness, slipped during the descent. Auer and Blümel watched in horror as their friend tumbled backward and fell 2,000 feet to his death. A couple of years later, Auer and Blümel completed a first ascent of the north face of 22,982-foot Gimmigela East, in Nepal. At the summit, they spent half an hour in silence. Later, Auer asked what Blümel had been thinking about. “Gerry,” he said.

Lama’s path was equally impressive if higher profile. He was the son of a Sherpa mountain-guide father and an Austrian mother who had him climbing early. When Lama was five, he went to a climbing camp run by Everest veteran Peter Habeler, who declared him a prodigy. At 18, he was the overall Climbing World Cup champion. It didn’t hurt that he had Teen Beat good looks, with caramel-colored skin, brown eyes, and a lustrous dome of dark hair. At 21, he quit competition to pursue alpine climbing exclusively.

Bringing his peerless strength and technical abilities to the big mountains held great promise, but it got off to a messy start. In 2010, Lama attempted to free-climb—that is, using gear only for protection—the iconic Compressor Route on Cerro Torre in Patagonia. (It was named this because the first to climb it, Cesare Maestri, left a large air compressor that he’d used to drill bolts dangling from anchors on the rock. It remains there today.) A film crew from Red Bull accompanied him on the climb, stitching additional bolts up the face and turning the iconic spire into a glorified climbing wall. When Lama failed, and the crew left bolts and ropes behind on the peak, the critics pounced. “Go home, gym rat,” one climber quipped online.

Lama took the criticism seriously and committed to doing the climb in pure alpine style. It took another two years, but at last he “freed” the Compressor route, garnering Lama and his partner, Peter Ortner, a special mention at the Piolets d’Or awards. “David was an incredible alpinist, but he also was a really good human,” says Hadley Hammer. “He was gentle, had me laughing all day, and could make me feel like I was capable of anything.”

In 2018, Lama pulled off his pièce de résistance: a solo ascent of Lunag Ri, on the border of Tibet and Nepal. He’d attempted the route twice before, in 2015 and 2016, with Conrad Anker. The second year, at 20,000 feet, Anker suffered a heart attack. With Lama’s help, he was able to descend to base camp, where he was evacuated by helicopter. Afterward, Anker said he would no longer climb at altitude. “David saved my life,” he told me. In 2018, Lama returned to Lunag Ri, completing the first ascent on his own in three days.


A few weeks after the accident on Howse, I met with Benjamin Erdmann, 32, a longtime climbing partner of Jess’s and one of his closest friends. Erdmann is a warm, vivacious entrepreneur who lives in Leavenworth, Washington, where he raises bees and runs a kombucha company. When he was 18, his father attempted suicide, and Erdmann got into climbing to help work through his trauma. For several years, along with Jess, he was one of the leading American alpinists, with sponsorships from Adidas and Camp USA.

Like Jess, Erdmann also worked on the North Slope as a welding inspector. They started a welding company, and their compatible schedules and lifestyles allowed them to travel together, bagging hard routes in Alaska, Canada, and South America. Then, in 2018, Erdmann abruptly quit climbing.

Two years before, they’d spent nearly a month on the iconic peaks in Patagonia with a third friend, Scott Coldiron. Of particular concern was the body of Chad Kellogg, a well-liked and highly respected climber from Seattle. In 2014, Kellogg and his partner Jens Holsten had been descending a steep, difficult route on Fitz Roy called the Supercanaleta when their rope got stuck in a stone flake above them. Pulling on the rope dislodged the rock, which hurtled down and struck Kellogg in the head, killing him instantly. There was nothing Holsten could do but descend.

The precarious location of the body prevented any attempt at recovery, until 2016, when Jess, Erdmann, and Coldiron were descending the Supercanaleta and came across Kellogg. Erdmann was the first to reach the body, which was cemented to the wall by snow and ice. He attempted to chop the ice away with his ax but kept striking the limbs, impaling them. It was arduous, gruesome work that quickly became too upsetting and risky to continue.

When Jess and Erdmann went back the next season, the ice had thawed and Kellogg’s body had dropped to the glacier. They gathered the remains and buried Kellogg in a stone grave.

“After that I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Erdmann told me. “I started climbing to help me deal with trauma, but now it was causing it. I was like a heroin addict who turned to methadone to get clean, then the methadone became the problem.”

caked
The east face of Howse Peak (Photo: Aaron Black/Getty)

I’d often heard this kind of language—the vocabulary of addiction—not just in the climbing world but among many who pursue dangerous activities like BASE jumping, wingsuiting, ski mountaineering, big-wave surfing, and so on. I marveled at the power of such pursuits to override our hardwired instinct for self-preservation. How close one needed to stand—or fly, or ski, or surf—to their own mortality was, to me, a question of infinite fascination with no correct answer.

In Walk the Line, a documentary about Anker and Lama’s attempt on Lunag Ri, Anker is seen lying in the snow, incapacitated from his heart attack, awaiting evacuation. “I always wondered when I would get the message that it’s time to let go of this game,” he says to the camera. “And I think I got it.”

Many never do. In the past few years, we’ve seen a raft of fatalities among high-profile climbers: Justin Griffin, Kyle Dempster, Scott Adamson, Ueli Steck, Marc-André Leclerc, Ryan Johnson, Daniele Nardi, Tom Ballard, Hayden Kennedy, Inge Perkins, Kellogg, and Fiegl, to name a few.

In 2018, the North Face hired Timothy Tate, a grief counselor and therapist in Boze­man, Montana, and a friend of Anker’s, to work with athletes affected by tragedy and survivor’s guilt. The program was prompted in part by the 2017 deaths of Kennedy and Perkins. The couple had been ski-touring in Montana’s Madison Range when Perkins was killed in an avalanche. Distraught and traumatized, Kennedy, who was still suffering from the deaths a year earlier of his close friends Dempster and Griffin, went home, wrote a 15-page suicide note, and took his own life.

“It was devastating for everyone,” Anker says. “Hayden had recently moved to town, and I just kept thinking, if someone had been able to get to him, if he hadn’t been alone, things might have been different.

“There’s this sense in our community that shit happens in the mountains and you buck up, take it like a cowboy, and don’t talk about it,” he continued. “But now we’re trying to have a better, bigger understanding of it.”


One afternoon in late May, I went to visit with Joyce and John at their home a few miles north of Spokane Valley. They live in a Tudor-style house on 20 acres overlooking a riparian wetland, with beautiful views of nearby Mount Spokane. It was a bright, breezy spring day, the kind you wish you could enjoy without an asterisk.

The family had recovered Jess’s phone, on which they found a handful of photos from the climb. John, who many years earlier had worked for the Spokane medical examiner analyzing accident scenes, pulled a few images up on the computer in his study. He had used the metadata on the phone to trace the climbers’ route, which had begun on M-16 before they veered left and put in a new line to the ridge. A summit image, the three of them crowding into the frame and grinning, was captured at 12:43 P.M. “I could tell from the summit photo that Jess felt really good about himself,” he continued. “I mean, he was beaming. I knew right then that he had measured up.”

The men were descending when the avalanche hit. Another climber in the area, unaware that the three were up there, had been scouting potential climbs on Howse from the road. He reported seeing a cornice collapse and crash down the face at around 2 P.M. It didn’t seem like they’d done anything to cause the accident. “They got wiped somehow,” John said. “That’s my impression. But we don’t know. It’s all speculation.”

I asked if Jess had been worried about keeping up with the Austrians, given their fitness, speed, and comfort soloing big routes.

“He talked to me about it, and I said, ‘Hey look, Jess. Hang with them. Carry less, go lighter, but don’t take any chances. If you need a rope, or if you feel more comfortable with a rope, put it on. Don’t let them push you to a point where you don’t feel comfortable.’ ”

Whatever issues Jess grappled with as a teenager about climbing with his dad, they had developed a cherished partnership. They teamed up for many climbs after Everest as Jess built his own life as an alpinist. “He always called John to ask advice about routes,” Alli told me. “They were constantly talking about those things.”

“When Jess was younger, I never pushed him,” John said. “I really didn’t want to encourage him to be a climber just because I was a climber. My philosophy was that he needed to find his own way.”


So many people showed up for the memorial, held at a large theater in downtown Spokane, that the organizers directed the overflow to a ballroom in a nearby hotel where they live-streamed the proceedings. The stage was filled with flowers and draped with Tibetan prayer flags. Timothy Tate, the grief counselor, was the emcee. Jess’s elder sister, Dawn, who lives in Reno, Nevada, sang a duet with Jordan of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that left many in the audience weeping. Anker reminded us that Jess’s life was about humility and humor. Alli bravely recounted their too brief time together, ending with a favorite Jess-ism. “Nighty night,” she said through tears, pointing at Erdmann, who was sitting in the front row and clasped his hands over his heart. “Keep your butthole tight!” A raucous after-party ensued, stretching late into the night.

The parents of both Auer and Lama had released statements on social media, noting the love and passion both men had for climbing, but remained out of contact with the public.

The week after the memorial, Alli and I had lunch at the Flying Goat, a tavern a few blocks from her and Jess’s home. On the menu, the owners had renamed one of the couple’s favorite items—a deep-fried dough ball containing sausage, jalapeño, and goat cheese—the Roskelley Dumpling.

Alli and Jess had met when Jordan set them up on a blind date in 2013. Jess wore a T-shirt and his usual ball cap, and he had a flight of wine waiting for Alli. “Whoa, you’re even prettier in real life,” he said when she sat down. In her twenties, Alli had lost a previous partner in an automobile accident, and she understood the brevity of human life. She and Jess were engaged eight months later, and they married in 2015.

Alli didn’t grow up a climber—Jess led her into it. She is strong and fit, rode horses as a kid, and became an expert downhill skier. But climbing steep, wild mountains was a new kind of experience. She immersed herself in a three-month program with the Spokane Mountaineers. “I had become part of this climbing family, and I wanted to be able to speak the same language,” she said. 

After lunch we walked through the house, a craftsman bungalow perched near a bluff in a leafy neighborhood northwest of town. Mugs the bulldog came wiggling up to me so enthusiastically that I wondered if he thought I might be someone else. “One thing you have to know about Jess is how much he loved being at home,” Alli said. It would take him a couple of weeks to transition back to domestic life after a trip—he could be aloof and unsociable—but soon he’d be painting the house and shopping at Costco. They had so many plans: buying a van, traveling, settling down and starting a family.

Alli led me out to the garage in back, where Jess had recently installed a Treadwall—a rolling apparatus studded with plastic holds—to help him train. The space was stuffed with gear and apparel. Mugs followed us and curled up by the door. “That’s his spot now,” Alli said. “He’s always there, waiting for Jess.”

The recovery team from Parks Canada had told her a few more details about what they believed happened on Howse. The climbers had fallen a long way, carried by the slide. They found a rope, frayed and nearly snapped in half. “I’m hoping it would have been quick,” Alli said. “It wasn’t like they were buried under the snow and suffering. I’m holding it in my heart that Jess maybe looked up and was like, ‘Oh fuck,’ but that would’ve been it.”

I asked her if they talked much about the risks involved in Jess’s line of work.

“Oh yes, we talked about it,” she said. “I was aware from the very beginning. I fully accepted the possibility that this could happen. But you can’t really prepare for it. There’s this belief that it’s not going to happen to you.”


That afternoon, on my way back to my dad’s house, I stopped at the small crag where I learned to climb with the Mountaineers more than two decades ago. No one was around. I remembered it as pristine, but now it looked scruffy, with graffiti on the rocks and broken bottles in the weeds.

My heart ached for the Roskelleys and their friends. I never knew Jess, but the grief of all those who did had been intense and unrelenting, and the past few weeks left me deeply unsettled. I walked up to the base of the rock where I’d wrestled through my first climb, a short, simple route called Open Book. I’d spent many hours at the crag but climbed it only once, as a neophyte, when it seemed terrifying and impossibly difficult, even on top rope.

I’d never gone very far with climbing. My tolerance for exposure, risk, and danger was always wimpy compared with those who took the sport seriously. But I loved being in the mountains, and I’ve hiked, climbed, and skied all over the world. These were relatively low-grade adventures, but I’d dodged a close call or two. It struck me that you never really know how lucky you are until your luck runs out.

A few moments later, I was scrambling up Open Book in my running shoes. It wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t easy, either. You wouldn’t want to fall. After about ten minutes I was sitting at the top, 40 feet off the deck, heart racing, lungs heaving, legs dangling over the edge. It was a dumb move, but it was over now, and it was a low-angle walk off the back. I returned to my car and sped down the road, both hands on the wheel, jittery with adrenaline. I couldn’t remember the sky there ever looking so blue, or the air being quite so clear and redolent with pine. I drove right past my dad’s place. I kept driving for a long time.

Contributing editor Nick Heil (@nickheil) profiled Kilian ­Jornet in July 2018.

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