North Face Climber Jess Roskelley: Pursuing the ‘ultimate dream’

Jess Roskelley

Jess Roskelley spent six weeks this summer in Pakistan’s Kondus Valley climbing two previously unclimbed 6,000-meter (20,000 feet) peaks. It was a journey that began in January with a $6,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the American Alpine Club and continued with a flight to the other side of the planet, a three-day hike to basecamp, passage through five military check points, and days yo-yoing between their basecamp and points higher up the Krakoram Mountains to get acclimated.

But it wasn’t until he returned home to Spokane at the end of August that his real endurance test began.

“I was home one week, then loaded up my welding gear and drove to a job in Telluride, Colorado, for a month,” said the 35-year-old Roskelley Monday from his home in Spokane. “Then I was back home for a week, then I went to do a presentation in Squaw Valley, then I was home for another week, then I was in Puerto Rico for two days.”

Welcome to the world of a professional rock climber, a world Roskelley, a The North Face Athlete, will share Thursday at 7 p.m. at our shop in Chapel Hill. 

Like father, like son

Rosskelley

The Roskelleys — Jess left, John right — on top of the world, on Mount Everest.

Roskelley knew what he was getting into when he decided to pursue a climbing life. His dad, John Roskelley, was one of America’s premier climbers in the 1970s and 1980s, and climbing was part of the younger Roskelley’s life from the get-go. They even did some climbing together: in 2003, father and son climbed Mount Everest, making Jess, only 20 years old at the time, the youngest American to ever climb Everest.

“He was the first American to ascend K-2 [the world’s second highest mountain, at 28,251 feet, and considered among the most technically difficult in the world] without oxygen,” says Jess. “So, I’ll talk about him, about growing up, about what it’s like to do what I do.”

One thing Roskelley likes to do is First Ascents — either climbing a mountain for the first time, period, or summiting via a new route (he estimates he’s done about 10). That was the goal of this summer’s trip to Pakistan, to summit 6,000-meter Karmading Brakk via Lachit Valley, and the goal than won expedition leader Kurt Ross, a 27-year-old climber from Boulder, Colo., the AAC’s Cutting Edge Grant.

One appeal of the trip — and one of it’s logistical challenges — was its location in the Karakoram Mountains, an expansive range spreading over China, India and Pakistan. Their objective was in Pakistan near the India border, an area that had been closed for years because of tensions between the two countries. A travel ban in the area was recently lifted, making the expedition possible.

Pakistan: a change of plans

Jess Rosskelley

Jess Roskelley climbing Baba Hussein (photo by Kurt)

Roskelley, Ross, and Belgian climber Nelson Neirinck flew into Islamabad, then took a smaller plane to Skardu. From there, they hired 30 porters to help with the three-day hike in. It was here that one of the challenges of First Ascents caused them to re-evaluate their plan. Despite compiling enough research to win a Cutting Edge Grant, despite intel from a climber who had made it into the area, it wasn’t until they were onsite that they faced the reality of their situation.

“Basecamp would have been at 11,500 feet, presenting acclimatization problems,” Roskelley says of a summit that would have been nearly 9,000 feet higher. “The locals told us if we kept going into the Kondus Valley, there’d be better basecamps.” So they kept going — and were glad they did.

“There was so much to do,” Roskelley says of the 6,000-meter first ascent opportunities. “You could spin with your eyes closed and point and find something.”

They finally agreed upon three previously unclimbed peaks. First was a 5,800-meter rock tower to get acclimatized. Next, a 6,321-meter (20,733 feet) peak that, Ross told Rock and Ice magazine, involved, “Three days round-trip of climbing through complex seracs, calf-melting ice faces with hours of backtracking due to route-finding difficulty and surprisingly tricky ridge terrain … .” Unnamed at the time, they christened it Chhoto Bhai, Urdu for “Little Brother.” Their final summit was the 6,250-meter Changi Tower II. They named their route up the latter “Hard tellin’ not knowin’”.

Figuring out a First Ascent

Jess Roskelley climbing Changi Tower II (photo by Kurt)

With scant information available on First Ascents, Roskelley says you mostly rely on one thing: experience.

In 2017, he and climber Clint Helander became the first to successfully climb the South Ridge to Mount Huntington in Alaska. There’d been one previous attempt on the route, by a Japanese team in 1978. That unsuccessful effort left only a four-word clue: “rock good, snow bad.” 

Roskelley and his partners didn’t have much more to go on when entered the Kondus Valley. 

“They didn’t have a lot of altitude rock and ice experience, but I have, I’ve climbed a lot in Patagonia, so I was able to look at it and say, ‘Yeah, we can do that.’”

Which brings up the curious way climbing partners come together.

“There are two types of climbers,” Roskelley explains. “There’s the guy who plans, who sees something they really like, they research it, they plan it — that’s their project. I’m the guy they call when they want to get something done, when they need someone and they need them now.” 

In the case of Mount Huntington, Roskelley knew Helander but had never climbed with him. As for Pakistan, Roskelley had climbed with Ross, but not with Neirinck. “But Ross had, and I trusted him.”

Less welding, more climbing

Fresh from Pakistan, Telluride, Squaw Valley and Puerto Rico, Roskelley is looking forward to settling in to Spokane for a spell after returning from his Chapel Hill engagement. He’s also looking forward to a 2019 involving less welding, more climbing.

This year is his first as a The North Face Athlete, a squadron of the planet’s top adventure and endurance athletes, from ultra runner Hillary Allen to climber Cedar Wright, whose job is to go on wild adventures, then go out and tell about them. Asked how many adventures he’s required to do in his new TNF role, he responds, “Required to do? It’s how many can I do?

His new role is also changing him from the guy waiting for the phone to ring to the guy making the call.

“I’m working on a proposal to return to Pakistan next year, and I’d like to do a couple trips to Alaska in the spring. I’d also like to return to Patagonia, but it’s just so expensive … the weather is so bad that you don’t get in a lot of climbing.”

But he’s not complaining. If he could just climb, only climb …

“That’s my ultimate dream, to just do this.”

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What: The North Face Athlete Jess Roskelley Talks Climbing

When: Thursday, Nov. 15, 7-8:30 p.m.

Where: Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Chapel Hill, 1800 East Franklin St. (Eastgate Crossing shopping center)

Tickets: They’re free, but to help us plan, get yours here.

Learn more about Jess Roskelley