Men killed in Alberta avalanche died doing what they loved, partners say

·3 min read
Andrew Abel (left) and Nathaniel Johnson (right) often climbed together. On Sunday, the friends were killed in an avalanche on Mount Andromeda. (Andrew Abel, Nate Johnson/Facebook - image credit)
Andrew Abel (left) and Nathaniel Johnson (right) often climbed together. On Sunday, the friends were killed in an avalanche on Mount Andromeda. (Andrew Abel, Nate Johnson/Facebook - image credit)

Nathaniel Johnson and Andrew Abel went to the mountains in order to live life to its fullest.

That those mountains became the scene of their tragic deaths Sunday in an avalanche near Jasper brings consolation to the loved ones they left behind.

"Nate always joked around saying that 'I'm here for a good time, not a long time,' wrote Johnson's fiancée Hannah Christiane in a public social media post. "He loved the mountains and all the adventures they held.

"It feels so right that he was doing a mountaineering project with his closest and most trusted friend."

The two Alberta men were scaling Skyladder — a popular, moderately difficult ice climb — when a slab of ice and snow on Mount Andromeda fractured and gave way at about 7:45 a.m.

The slab was at about 3,000 metres of elevation and triggered a 2.5 avalanche, said Peter Tucker, executive director of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG).

"It struck them and carried them all the way down the route right to the glacier below," Tucker said.

"It was unsurvivable."

Their bodies were recovered in the Columbia Icefield shortly after 8:30 a.m.

'Passion for wild spaces'

Abel, 29, was a Red Deer-based rock climbing guide. He grew up hiking, fishing and canoeing with his father and had been climbing in Alberta for more than a decade.

He was training to become an alpine guide, honing his skills on the ice and snow.

He worked with Girth Hitch Guiding, a Red Deer adventure therapy program that leads climbing expeditions in the David Thompson Corridor.

Recently, Abel helped organize a trash clean-up in the David Thompson area, enlisting around 100 members of the climbing community to keep the mountains he loved pristine.

"He spent every free moment climbing and sharing that passion for wild spaces with those around him," his wife, Brinnae Erb-Abel, wrote in a public post on social media.

"I am taking solace in the knowledge that Andrew was pursuing what he loved and doing so with someone he loved."

Johnson was an energetic man with a wide smile. An indoor climbing instructor and a Red Seal mechanic, he was also doing an apprenticeship in accounting. He volunteered as a downhill hill ski instructor and a fencing coach.

His passions were varied, but his heart was in the mountains, said Christiane.

My heart is buried under the snow. - Hannah Christiane

She shared that passion and they often climbed together. In 2017, when they reached the summit of a peak in Peru, he proposed.

They planned to get married in 2022 in a quiet ceremony in rural Alberta.

"I'm so lucky and blessed that I got to have Nate in my life for eight years, he was my best friend," she wrote.

"My heart is buried under the snow."

While there are always inherent risks on the mountain, Tucker said, there were no obvious clues of the danger that day.

"The difficulty is that even on a given route, all within the same route, the conditions can be extremely variable," he said.

"But that day, there was no reason to think that group would have created that situation."

Tucker said both men, who were members of the ACMG, were well known in Alberta's mountaineering community. Their deaths are an unimaginable loss, he said.

"Whenever there's a loss to tragedy, there's a hole in the community that really can't be filled."

Andrew Abel, shown here, and Nathaniel Johnson frequently climbed together. This photo was taken by Johnson during one of their adventures.
Andrew Abel, shown here, and Nathaniel Johnson frequently climbed together. This photo was taken by Johnson during one of their adventures.(Nathaniel Johnson)