I'm just back home after climbing the coolest ice I've ever seen or climbed, anywhere in the world. Tim Emmett and I had a great trip, during which we climbed some insanely challenging and fun spray ice behind Helmcken Falls. There, I've said it, the rest is details in some ways, but here they are. It's a long read, but I'm just so psyched! I have seen the future of ice climbing, and it is sprayed on.
About ten or so years ago David Dornian and I started using the internet to look for big waterfalls. That's how we found Hunlen, which EJ and I climbed last spring (and that is the coolest waterfall I'll never want to climb again). I also saw a lot of photos of Helmcken Falls, in Wells Grey provincial park in BC. A huge quantity of water blasted off the lip of a supposedly 140M cave. Sick, but no way was that going to freeze, ever. But I found one winter photo, with the comment under it, "Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park. Even when it's -30C out this waterfall is too high-volume to freeze. The spray that turns to hoarfrost on the overhanging amphitheater walls could probably be climbed to give a really hard route though! (not by me) ." Drew B. posted that photo and caption, so in some ways he is responsible for the seed in the back of my mind.
But it's a long way out of the way to Wells Grey provincial park, and Helmcken. I just never got there, and didn't really believe the hype on the height anyhow. Finally, after years of scheming and thinking it could be worth checking out but not right now, my mostly English but slightly hybridized Canadian friend (he stole one of our women through marriage or the other way around, not sure) Tim Emmett showed up in Canmore (a day late--he seriously missed his flight by a complete day, amazing for someone who travels so much) and we were off at 4:30 a.m. to get to the falls in time to climb the route if there was a route. At 1:00 we stood on the rim and dropped our jaws. Helmcken is a stunning, complete bad-ass of a waterfall. There wasn't much white ice stuff on the back walls, but Tim and I sorted out a route down to check it out involving rapping over a really nice 20M column of ice. At least we'd have something to do on the way out.
As soon as were down at the bottom of the canyon our minds just flipped out. The scale is so hard to fathom in the pictures and even in person until you're down in the canyon. A pretty good-sized river rips off the edge of a massive cave and falls 141M (about 500 feet) to a pool below. You could play soccer (football if you're Tim) on the ice shelf behind the falling water. And the lower 100 feet or so were covered in the most insane ice formations I've ever seen. Have a look at a few of the photos and make up your own mind, but we were blown away.
But it's not all happy land; sharp daggers of ice line the ceiling of the cave, and the huge blocks of debris on the ice ledge along the wall told of serious death missiles falling from above. We sat on the edge of the huge (stadium sized, really!) cave and freaked out on the roar of the water, the mist, the ice along the bottom edge, the icicles in the roof, the whole scene. It was way too overwhelming to even think of climbing; we were afraid at first to even go into the cave. Or Tim was, I was up for it but Tim whined a lot. It would be funny if that were true, but if you know Tim at all then you know that hanging with Tim is like hanging out with the best dog in the world, a Labrador. And there was a very tasty stick to be had... An enthused Emmett is a dangerous thing, and he's always enthused. Soon we were moving again.
After figuring out a path on the ground through the dangers from above we headed in. It was warm, maybe minus two, and we found out right away that the huge spray ice formations were really unstable. If you just nudged them they fell off. We could push the little ones off the wall to make forward progress along an ice ledge on the side of the cave, but the big ones blocking our way forward were too scary to touch. We quickly figured out that a soft-ball sized piece of ice would knock multi-ton stalactites down, and carnage ensued as progress was made.
Eventually we were in the back of the cave in a relative safe zone. Huge banana-shaped icicles littered the walls and ground, and in fact blocked us from even getting to the back wall. It would have been suicided to walk under the danglers, but more thrown ice (Tim favored something called a, "Cricket Bowl Hurler" shot, while I was more of basketball shot kinda guy) cleared a path through the Indian Jones terrain traps and back to the wall. At that point we both sort of ran out of energy; how to climb the ice? For there was ice, but it was on a 45-degree or steeper wall, and not anywhere thick or strong enough to hold a screw...
I've put up a lot of mixed climbs on lead, and after a while the solution became obvious if not really what I wanted: Bolt it. I wanted it to go on natural gear and screws, but the compact volcanic rock wasn't having any of that. I stood on a huge fallen stalactite and the first bolt went in. The next one went in while I was hanging on two equalized ice tools in the soft ice, as did the third bolt. I got the fourth in after ripping a tool and slamming violently off the wall when I fell. Did I mention that Tim is an experienced British "trad" belayer? Good thing, as I would have decked it hard without him being on the rope. Nice one Tim, thanks.
After that Tim and I sat on the ice and looked up; the fourth bolt was directly overhead, and they were spaced well enough to prevent a groundfall while climbing but barely. We climbed out of the canyon by headlamp that night with smiles, and the realization that there was no way in hell we were getting to the lip without a week's worth of effort and time, likely more. Our psyche was massive, just running around in circles massive. Now I know how Labradors feel all the time, it was just awesome to discover something so damn cool!
In the morning we were back at it. I got about four more bolts in then turned the sharp end over to Mr. Emmett, who was nearly ready to levitate up and help out. Despite never having aided off ice tools before (Tip: put short tie-offs around the upper grip of the new Fusions for extra reach) he did a great job and got us to an alcove at the end of the continuos spray ice, about 90 feet of climbing from the back wall, but only about 40 feet off the ground!
And then it was time to send. Our fallen pillar had unfortunately broken, so you had to stand on the stump end and literally jump through space to latch a couple of blobs on the wall. Seriously, that was the mandatory start! I have never had so much fun climbing ice; sometimes you'll get a big roof from a broken off pillar or something, but this was just mental. You had to be really careful to swing accurately in the blobs of ice, and test the placement each time. This is incredibly strenuous when hanging locked-off on a 45-degree wall. Poor placements would rip, which was funny if you were belaying but not so funny on the lead. I've been doing a lot of endurance training this year but not so much power training... I got so damn pumped my forearms are still hurting, but a combination of desperate tricks (hooking an elbow on my ice tools) and a really wild stemming rest at the mid-point got me to the anchor, and then Tim had a nice battle but pulled it off (nice work for your second ice route of the year amigo!). We sat around eating and talking about the grade; it is a whole hell of a lot harder than anything I've ever climbed on ice. The only thing I could compare it too is M10 or harder drytooling, but you have to swing for placements instead of just hook. WI 10 is the lowest grade I can give it with a straight face; many people who can drytool M10 will find the ice climbing a lot harder I think, it's real, honest, cuts-on-your face ice climbing. Not one single drytool move in the whole pitch; pull up, lock off, work for a placement. Just like normal ice but on a 45-degree wall. So much fun!
On day three we were back in the stadium to see what we could see, but the temperatures were jumping every hour, and massive danglers were cratering into the floor of the cave like something out of a bad movie where the whole evil-guy palace blows up and the heroes run away. Or something like that, it was sketchy and we ran away.
It's been a very warm year in Clearwater and Wells Grey Park, so apparently the spray ice is a lot smaller than it normally is. It may all re-form, or the sun may be too high already for it to come back, nobody knows. What I do know is that I'm going to be back next year for sure. You could theoretically do a drytool route with the odd bit of spray ice to the lip right now, but there are pictures where the whole thing is spray ice... That's the future to me; another hard drytooling route is just that, but a 500-foot route on the spray ice? Magic.
I'm always looking for evolutions in my favorite sport, ice climbing. Mixed climbing was one step for me, now I've seen the possibilities for another development. Thanks for a great trip Tim, yeah!!!
In winter the Helmcken Falls lodge offers rooms for two people (two beds) with breakfast and a hearty dinner for $125 (total--not each, total. $62.50 per person per night with food). It's a really cool lodge, friendly owners, and a great place to base out of. There are other possibilities in the area for climbing that warrant a visit, let's leave it at that... Happy Exploring!
PS: The height of most waterfalls is exaggerated. Helmcken is supposed to be 141M high, but I figured that was an exaggeration. In the photo it looks about 100 feet high. But those trees on the lip are BC trees, not spindly little Alberta trees... It's fucking huge. Cool photo here.