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.