The Rope and the Line

Allison Roskelley reflects on her relationship with climber Jess Roskelley, who died in a climbing accident April 2019.

Jess Fenton Roskelley, my husband and life partner for the past six years, passed away in a climbing accident on April 16 in Alberta, Canada. As the memories continue to flood my brain and push me to tears in waves of pain, I can’t help but notice that each memory circles back to a common denominator—that Jess was so much more than just a climber. Although he is probably best known for three things—being the son of famous mountaineer, John Roskelley; the youngest American to summit Everest in 2003; and one of the best alpine climbers in world—there is so much more that I want people to know about Jess.        

For starters, I’d like to focus on a sport that connected the two of us from the very beginning: fishing. Jess’s middle name comes from his grandfather, Fenton Samuel Roskelley, who was a writer for “The Spokesman-Review” and “Spokane Daily Chronicle” for over 60 years. Like his grandfather, Jess loved fishing, and it’s one of the many reasons I fell in love with him. I, too, grew up fishing with my grandfather, Charles Adams, which made it a very attractive quality in Jess. Some of my fondest memories as a little girl are the times I woke up at the crack of dawn to meet Grandpa Chuck for a day of fishing on the North Fork of the Clearwater River. We’d fish all day long and stop to pick huckleberries on the way home.

Photo by Jed Conklin.

Jess and I got married on July 25, 2015, and we decided to postpone our honeymoon until we could save up some cash and make it our dream vacation. So, we went on a “minimoon” instead for five days after our wedding day. We packed up our pop-up camper, threw in a few of Fenton’s fly-fishing rods, and hit the road for Bozeman. Jess’s very best friend from high school, Tim, lived in Bozeman and had just bought a little fiberglass fishing boat, so he offered to be our Yellowstone River guide for the trip. Although I grew up to be quite the fisherwoman because of those times with Grandpa Chuck, I didn’t know a thing about fly fishing until this trip with Jess.

When we arrived in Bozeman, we popped the camper up on the side of the road outside of Tim’s house. Of course, we could have easily stayed IN Tim’s house, but we were a couple of newlyweds, high on love, and there was just something special about that little camper of ours; it was home to us. After we were settled in, we grabbed a couple beers and headed to the backyard, where Jess gave me my first casting lesson with a fly rod. I’m not going to lie; I was quite the natural from the get-go, and Jess was really impressed. Shout out to Grandpa Chuck for starting me out right!

The following days consisted of hours and hours of fishing, from the early morning dew until past the sunset when the bats came out over the water. We fished, laughed, and drank a few too many beers. It was perfect and was the start of many more fishing adventures together in our marriage. From that moment on, fly fishing became a part of nearly every one of our travels together. We rarely left for a trip without a couple of Fenton’s rods. I visited Jess on his climbing trip to Patagonia in December of 2015 where we fished ice-cold glacier run-off outside of El Chaltén. In spring of 2017, we traveled to Playa del Carmen for a wedding and booked a deep-sea fishing tour, where I caught a massive barracuda and Jess couldn’t catch anything but rockfish. He would tell you that I always seemed to find a way to outfish him, ha!

On our most recent vacation to Costa Rica, which would be our last trip together, we booked a deep-sea fishing tour on our final day. I reeled in a pompano and Jess caught a couple black tuna, which we took to a restaurant and had fresh ceviche made for us with homemade plantain chips and margaritas. We enjoyed our meal together on the beach as the sun was setting on our final night in Costa Rica. It was perfect and a memory I will hold onto forever. The climbing accident took place less than a month later.

I’ve realized there are commonalities between fishing and climbing. In fishing, the line is a common metaphor for attachment, partnership, trust, mutual connection, and faith. In climbing, the rope is also a common metaphor for these same ideals. In fishing, when a fish bites the hook, it signals the commencement of the hardest part of the fight, and from that moment, you have to fight harder than ever to close the deal. The same goes for climbing. When you reach the summit of a mountain, that doesn’t mean the climb is over. The hardest part of the fight is to keep strong and focused on the way down.

Our fishing excursions came full circle when Tim came to town to spend some time with me the week before Jess’s memorial service. He brought a gift—the fly-fishing rod that I used to catch my first fish on our minimoon. I plan to cast that rod into many rivers in the future, and I will hold Jess close wherever it takes me—although I’m not sure he’s the best luck when it comes to actually catching fish! /

Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Allison Roskelley has loved the outdoors since she locked into a pair of skis at the age of two. Her proudest accomplishment is paddling the first SUP descent of the Spokane River, covering 111 miles and 6 portages across 4 consecutive days. 

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