About 60 kilometres north of Whistler, Joffre Peak stands some 8900 feet high on the edge of Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. In a province with too many mountains to count, Joffre is relatively unknown to the average British Columbian. But for mountaineers, it’s a classic.
Joffre’s glaciated northeast face is dominated by several steep couloirs -- aesthetically obvious narrow passages that give climbers the feeling of being inside and part of the mountain. Of these, the Central Couloir is said to be Joffre’s crowning jewel, a straightforward but imposing 55 to 60 degree ramp that demands respect. Near the top is a head wall that steepens dramatically and is guarded by an overhanging cornice of snow and ice.
On Sunday, January 11, Stephanie Grothe, Neil Mackenzie and Elena Cernicka were on this final stretch of their ascent of Joffre Peak when they fell to their deaths.
While the Central Couloir is without a doubt a difficult climb, it was well within the perceived ability of these three highly experienced and diligent climbers. Based on coroner’s evidence, they appeared to have been making good time up the route and proceeding with relative ease. What remains unclear is what exactly went wrong.
Accidents like this always rattle the Canadian climbing community from coast to coast. But at UBC, this has struck right in the heart of the Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC), where Steph and Neil were two of the most active members.
Steph, who held an undergraduate and master’s degree from the RWTH Aachen University of Technology in her home country of Germany, fell in love with the mountains during an exchange at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. While she did not start climbing there, hiking in somewhat rough terrain in the Southern Alps stirred a deep passion in her.
“Once we returned to Germany, we pretty soon figured out that we want to be somewhere where there’s nature,” said Clemens Adolphs, Steph's partner of nine years who has known her since high school. “So basically, Steph knew about the VOC and what the VOC did before she looked up what type of physics groups UBC has and what research there is going on. It didn’t hurt that UBC is a good university, but [the nature] was the main drive for us.”
Within a week of arriving at UBC four years ago, Steph and Clemens signed up for the VOC and had already started going on trips. Keen to learn everything they could, the pair made an effort to go on as many trips as possible and pick up all of the VOC’s instructional events -- something both would later give back to.
As a club, the VOC functions in such a way that those that come in not knowing anything are taught by those with more knowledge and experience, and as beginners work their way up the levels they start leading trips and eventually teaching skills, thus continuing the cycle. Steph was a perfect example of someone who used this system to gain an extensive repertoire of knowledge and skills, and she made every effort to pass it on. She was club secretary for a year, then she was president last year, and this year served as the public relations representative.
“Steph was always very, very involved [in the VOC],” said Jens Vent-Schmidt, a friend and current VOC trips coordinator. “In the year she was president, and also probably the year before that, she always organized a lot of beginner-friendly trips. Like a mind-blowing amount. Essentially every weekend she would organize a trip for beginners and bring beginners out. I think she learned a lot from the club and gave a lot back.”
Like Steph, Neil made a very conscious decision to come to B.C. because of the climbing and skiing opportunities. Having already completed a post-doc in his home country of Scotland, he talked about quitting science and becoming a full-time climbing instructor in Canada. When the opportunity came to take on another post-doc, this time at UBC’s Centre for Blood Research, he decided to stick with academia and pursue outdoor adventures during his free time.
“I think his whole time as a scientist since he finished his PhD, he was always on the fence between trying to balance his career and his desire to be in the mountains. That was ongoing for sure,” said Elliott Skierszkan, a fellow VOC’er who lived with Neil from September 2013 until about a month ago. “I guess doing scientific research is an incredibly committed thing. It’s not your typical 9-to-5 job, and I think that was always difficult for him.”
No matter how busy work would get, Neil always managed to get away. “I always thought of him as a full-time mountaineer and a part-time post-doc,” said Emily Rossnagel, another housemate and outdoors enthusiast. She added that he was “super efficient” and his time at work was well spent. Neil was half way through a successful three-year term at UBC, had won several awards and published around a dozen papers. He didn’t know what he was going to do next, but was thinking about applying for Canadian residency.
Since he wasn’t a student, Neil couldn’t serve on the VOC executive panel as Steph had, but was always eager to help on instructional trips. “Neil came here knowing everything but still every time there was an instructional trip he would take his personal time to teach and share the passion,” said Jens. “He gave back a lot even though he never learned it through the club.”
“He was a really good teacher because anyone who was learning from him always felt really relaxed,” added Elliott. “He had this way of being funny and laughing at himself in this kind of self-deprecating way. So it was good to have him along because even in the worst situations he’d make a joke about himself and find it really funny. That makes everyone feel at ease.”
While he was usually the most experienced climber in a group and often could have chosen more difficult objectives than those around him were doing, Neil was the type of guy who was having a blast as long as he was outdoors.
“[Neil] was an incredibly skillful and experienced guy out in the backcountry, but he’d go on a trip with anyone,” added Elliott. “It didn’t really matter who you were. He didn’t care. He’d just hang out with anyone and make a good time of it. He had this really unique ability to connect with people.”
Described by his housemates as a very modest person with a bright and bubbly personality, Neil was usually nonchalant about trips beforehand, but when he’d get home on a Sunday night his excitement was always evident. “It was always the best hearing about [his trips],” Emily recalled. “I’m like ‘so where’d you go this weekend?’ It was always different. I think that was the cool part. There was such a variety.”
“He would arrive Sunday's at midnight, 2 a.m., whatever, and then he’d just show up for work on Monday morning, no problem,” added Elliott. “He was this incredible amount of energy and really full of life guy. Really, he was 31 when he died and he had lived like three lives in those 31 years, you know? I could count on a single hand the weekends that he spent at home.”
When he wasn’t out climbing, skiing, snowboarding, sailing, biking, canyoneering, hanging out at the beach or doing just about any other outdoor activity one can think of, Neil was an easy-going, laid-back guy who loved to be around people. Emily has fond memories of him in the kitchen, where discount bags of vegetables were a part of many meals.
“I always really liked also how often he’d come home and we’d all be in the kitchen starting to make dinner, and he’d be like ‘I got dollar bag soup ready!’ He wanted to be a part of everyone’s life, even if it was the little way of making soup to share.”
Elliott enjoyed their extended breakfasts together in the mornings, which often ended with pulling out a map and thinking of where they’d go next. He’s not sure how many mountains Neil climbed, only that he’d summited peaks in Scotland, the Alps, B.C., Washington, Alaska, California and Japan -- it was probably quite a large number.
“One per weekend for the last … I don’t know. Looking at the map here, you know, I don’t think it matters. And his answer would’ve been ‘I haven’t done anything yet.’ He certainly had his eye on all sorts of things.”
Elliott knows Neil had a list of mountains he wanted to climb, but if there was a pinnacle to that list, he didn’t know what it would be. “I’m sure [Neil] would be able to answer that without problems. My mind is confused by the breadth of the list,” he said. “Baker, Rainier, a lot of the summits between here and Whistler, things like Garibaldi, Judge Howay. But I think it’s kind of just all of the classic climbs, and some of the more adventurous ones. I guess for a lot of people it can be quite scary to get on a climb with very little information about it. There’s a lot of information out there now, like guidebooks have been written, but I think Neil would’ve been the one to try something new.”
Equally ambitious, Steph was on track to finish her PhD -- which her supervisor confirmed will be awarded posthumously -- in the next couple months. Anticipating graduation and pondering what to do next, she started teaching herself Spanish about a year ago. “She thought maybe Argentina or Chile might be nice to do a post-doc at,” explained Clemens, Steph successor as VOC president. “And again, [it was] ‘where’s the outdoors, where’s the climbing, where’s the mountaineering and how can I possibly go there?’”
If a post-doc didn’t immediately pan out, another one of Steph's ideas for after graduation was to ‘dirtbag’ through South America. “It basically means don’t have a job, live out of a car and climb,” explained Clemens. “It came up a few times.”
When Clemens tried to think of something that embodied who Steph was, all he could think about was how important the mountains were to her. “She would not stay in the city if at all avoidable. So typical city activities weren’t really a thing she would do. All I can picture is Steph going to the climbing gym to train climbing, buying food to dehydrate to have lightweight food for a ski traverse. [She was] very diligent in that way."
A cheerful and kind person, Steph was always more interested in the aesthetics of a particular mountain or route. She was particularly keen to go to the Bugaboos as well as Patagonia. “She didn’t care if it was the highest or something. I don’t think she ever would’ve been interested in Everest for example. It wouldn’t have been her style. It’s more about the experience than saying ‘hey I climbed the highest mountain.’”
Overjoyed anytime she was in the mountains, Clemens remembers Steph singing a lot during trips. “[She’d sing] whatever came to her mind. Things like the “I feel pretty” from West Side Story, but the mocking version from Anger Management,” he said with a smile. “That was her favourite. Or [she’d] just blare out the Lord of the Rings theme when it was particularly scenic.”
While Neil was also an avid music fan, specifically of hip-hop and bluegrass, he liked to celebrate in a slightly different way. “Whisky was definitely one of his passions. Whisky and haggis. [He was] very conscious about his Scottish-ness,” Jens recalled. “We did a pre-work trip together and we realized neither of us brought a whisky and we were like ‘f***ing shame.’ A little flask was always there. I guess it’s a general mountaineers thing, to bring a little shot of something. But if you know you have a very technical down-climb, you’d probably not have it at the top.”
The group of friends had all kinds of ideas for the winter. On a backcountry skiing trip in November, Elliott, Neil and Steph made a goal of discovering huts not found in any guidebooks. “We had identified a whole bunch of places where we thought we’d find some huts, ‘cause there are a lot of huts that aren’t official up there,” Elliott said. “We were kind of reading between the lines of the guidebooks thinking 'yeah this is a good promising spot.'”
On Saturday, both Neil and Steph contacted their friends to let them know that their plans had changed. Due to a road closure, they couldn’t drive up the logging road used to access Mount Fee. Instead, they decided to head to Keith’s Hut for the night and climb Joffre Peak’s Central Couloir the next day. Steph had hiked Joffre Peak in the summertime, but neither had climbed it before, so Neil asked friends for information, while Steph took photos of a guidebook.
“Keith Hut is like a two hour hike in and Joffre Peak is an absolutely gorgeous mountain,” said Clemens. “Why this particular route? I guess that was the most similar in quality to what they were planning to do initially -- some steep snow and ice with bits of rock in between.”
As Steph's designated emergency contact, Clemens started to get worried on Sunday night when he hadn’t heard from her or gotten any messages from the SPOT satellite device Steph was carrying. Still, delays are not uncommon in mountaineering, and at this point his thought was that maybe the climb took longer than expected and they just went back to the hut for another night because it was getting dark. He sent Steph a text message asking her to let him know when they are back and telling her that if he did not hear back he would notify authorities.
The next morning, Clemens still hadn’t heard back from the climbers. Upon discussing with a mutual friend, Piotr, who was Steph's second emergency contact, they agreed that if the climbers were at the hut overnight, it would take them a few hours to get back out. If they still hadn’t heard from them by afternoon, they’d call the authorities. It wasn’t until the media emailed the VOC for comment about an accident involving at that point unnamed climbers that they learned anything had gone wrong.
“When I heard that, I knew she was in that area climbing with friends, and that was when I realized that there might be a bad situation, so I looked up the news report,” said Clemens. “I kind of tried to convince myself that the descriptions of the victims wouldn’t match. So I thought okay maybe they are just there helping out.”
Elliott, on the other hand, read the story and immediately expected the worst. “I thought right away that this is them,” he said. “Just from the clues, the little hints that the press dropped about the size of the party, the nature of what they were doing, having heard that they were headed in that area.”
The climbers’ names couldn’t be released until their next of kin were notified, but by Monday evening friends learned from the RCMP that the families were in Scotland and Germany, which was enough to confirm the worst.
“I think it took a couple of days for it to become real. It’s still making its way slowly,” said Elliott. “I mean I guess it’s been a week now and I was back at work today and able to focus for longer periods of time than I was last week. Life goes on but I guess there’s still always this funny hope or feeling that we’ll see him again, or I’ll walk over to the house and he’ll be there, or I’ll get a phone call saying ‘hey you wanna go skiing this weekend?’ It’ll take a while for that to go away I think.”
“From everything we see, there is nothing that we could take out of it and learn from it, so I didn’t come up with any conclusions,” said Jens. “Elena, being a mother of two, she would be very very conservative, even more so than Neil and Steph. And if anything would’ve been only somewhat sketchy she would’ve said ‘okay stop, we’re turning around.’ And so by all of those facts I’m pretty sure they did everything they could correctly.”
“We cannot say oh they should have simply done this different or that different. We all wonder. I guess in the most general sense is that it was a risky place to be, but then we all knew them to be conservative in that regard,” said Clemens. “Risk is relative. They weren’t pushing hard at their limits. Was it bad luck or did they make a bad call? We can’t really tell at this point, and I don’t know if we ever will. We know they were making good time up the route up until the point when the accident happened. It didn’t appear to be very difficult for them up ‘til then. It’s something we’re still puzzling over, in terms of what there is to be learned.”
“I think when you go to the mountains you know that you can leave your life. It’s a dangerous place and I guess the more into it you get the bigger the stakes. I think that’s on the back of everyone’s mind,” said Elliott. “It never really hits home until you lose someone I guess. You know now we’re living with the impact of a loss, we’re seeing people grieving and we’re seeing the big hole that you leave behind. I think it takes a while to process that. But I think also mountains is where you feel alive, more alive than anywhere else. That’s certainly how Neil felt. It’s a place that requires all of your energy and your focus and your attention. I don’t think there’s really words to describe the rewards. There’s always this talk of why. I don’t think that it’s possible to put words. I think the only explanation is achieved by going out and experiencing and then you just know. The mountains are this beautiful place. Dangerous, for sure, but beautiful.”
“I think a type of reaction could be to be now more cautious or more scared of the mountains and not want to go there, but I don’t feel that way at all,” explained Emily. “Maybe the cautious part, but he lived his life to the fullest. He was always giving it 100 per cent and doing what he was passionate about, and it makes me want to do what I’m passionate about. It makes me want to go skiing and try my hardest and do the things that are the most fun and the most full of adventure, and to share that adventure with everybody.”
Prior to his death, Neil organized a VOC trip for the weekend of January 30 to celebrate Robbie Burns Day, a Scottish holiday. He called it “Burns and Turns” -- photos from last year’s event show him snowboarding in his kilt. For friends who have spent the past couple weeks grieving and putting together a public memorial service, this will be an opportunity to get together and have a good time in Neil, Steph and Elena's memory.
“Neil was like ‘there’s gonna be music, haggis and whisky!’” said Emily. “I think it’ll be nice to do that in his honour. It’s sad that he won’t be there but I think he’ll be there in spirit. Who knows, to think that far in advance, but it would be nice for it to be a yearly tradition.”
In terms of what else the VOC does moving forward, Clemens said the club try their best to keep doing what they do while also being mindful to focus less on objectives of climbing and more on enjoying the process. “We still want to get people excited about the outdoors. We all have to ask ourselves how much risk are we willing to take for the privilege to experience the outdoors in this way,” he said. “But I think ultimately it’s worth spending time in the mountains. [Steph and Neil] wouldn’t want us to stop enjoying the outdoors.”
“If anything it just inspires us to keep going out. We’ll be thinking about them while we’re out in the mountains, maybe getting a bit closer to them in some ways,” added Elliott. “They were where they liked to be, where they liked to live. I haven’t seen them but I know there were pictures recovered from Steph’s camera. And I can guarantee that if you look at those pictures you’ll see all three of them smiling, living.”
“We kept going back and forth. It was an interesting conversation to have so close to his actual death because the gist of it was that he would keep on living life to his maximum and he would do everything he does. He wouldn’t change a thing.”
Author’s note: The VOC has put together an online fundraiser in Neil and Steph's memory. 100 per cent of donations will go directly to B.C. Search and Rescue, a volunteer-run organization that performs search and rescue operations free of charge, 24/7. To donate to this cause, please click here. To donate to a separate fundraiser to help Tomas Cernicka and his two young boys, please click here.