Tim wrapped in from the lip of the falls to see if the "ice" on the headwall was climbable. This year it isn't, mostly snow, but I've seen photos from years where it is. EJ and I bolted sideways for another 30 feet on the headwall before the spray pattern changed, and we had to bail before turning into a long-term feature on the wall. Tim redpointed pitch 4 and said, "I spent $1000 and four days of my life to change my tickets for this trip. That pitch was totally worth it!," And, "This is how BASE jumping used to make me feel." EJ worked the first pitch and said, "This is the best climbing ever. Dude."
I can talk about how good the climbing is forever, but their comments sum it up for me. The ice climbing in the Helmcken Falls cave is just over the top brilliantly good. On the last day EJ and I opened two short "practice" routes on the spray, "Dora the Explorer" and "Sabre." One is a rampy 3+ sorta thing, the other a Haffner-sized WI4 fun ride that goes directly up to the same anchor. I only give grades to encourage those who don't climb M10 or harder to visit the cave; there is opportunity for everyone who can handle the high-risk environment. Both the "easy" routes would make any ice climber smile for the day.
I'm now firmly convinced that grades on ice in general and at the Helmcken cave specifically are irrelevant. If you want to climb WIxx it's there; but a few pillars might grow that would allow no-hands rests, and it would be WIx... Horizontal ice climbing is about like horizontal drytooling, but with more technical feet, movement, and of course it's ice so you either have to swing or use hooks in the ice like any other route. Placements rip, it takes all the skills of normal ice climbing and the power of hard drytooling. The biggest thing I learned on the last trip is that at the "difficulty" end of the ice climbing spectrum is a return to the novice days of ice climbing: it's about the experience, the place, the movement. I know our route is way, way harder than anything I've ever climbed on ice, but harder routes are of course possible, and next year Spray On could be littered with pillars that would make it easier, but no less fun. And a harder route that didn't follow cool features just wouldn't really be any cooler... Grades are useful for rock, but for ice climbing beyond about grade 4 they are somewhere between annoying and irrelevant. Take a look at the photo, climb it or don't. Like surfing, kayaking, skiing, or skateboarding, it's all about the moves, the scene, your friends, life, fun, stuff that grades just don't measure. So, I'm done rating any ice climb after grade 4 with numbers. Words, sure--thin, hard, steep, bad gear, good gear, you can do it, you should maybe do something less serious, but not numbers. Helmcken just blew the building up that contained all the ice grading ego BS; it's harder than all of us, ha ha!
On our route (Spray On) you climb the first pitch, pull the rope through, your belayer walks out across the floor of the cave, climb the second pitch's horizontal roof, your belayer walks out across the floor of the cave again, drop the rope, repeat. Each pitch ends in a place where you can get a solid no-hands rest; the 3d climbing and ice features require relatively short pitches for rope drag and safety. After four pitches the rope is 30+ horizontal meters out from where you started, but you're only 35 meters off the deck! It's madness. Some pitches could be linked. With three or four ropes, a whack of slings and some jiggery you could maybe do the whole thing in one massive pitch, but would it be more or less fun? Harder? Better just climb!
There are hundreds of routes to do down there. It was raining and plus 5 when we left so there's likely not ice much left for this year, but come next year we'll be there. Other people are going to visit the place too I hope, so I'd like to offer a short set of observations we've found useful:
-Don't leave quickdraws or any gear on the wall, or permanent fixed lines on the route or raps on the way in (leave 'em in there for your trip, just not when you leave). This stuff is invisible from the viewpoint or anywhere else, but a few people do walk in there in the summer. With added traffic low-visibility should be a focus. Downclimb pitches so there's nothing on the anchors, etc... This adds work, but is important I think. I would regard leaving gear in there for the summer as a serious failing on the part of any climber. What we're doing is the same as climbing anywhere in a park so no legal issues, just using the best visual style and lowest impact on other users. Although the main complaint so far has been that we're near-impossible to see from the rim where we're climbing, ha ha!
-The whole place is hazardous. You can get complacent about standing under many-ton icicles, but someone is going to get hurt or killed down there, and evacuation will be an adventure. I'm in full "alpine" mode down there; what's happening with the temperature, where is the spray forming new ice, can the cone break off (generally it breaks off to the OUTSIDE), and if so will the car-sized blocks get to us, etc. It takes a few days to start to understand the place at all. Even the five-minute walk to the back of cave (no lie--that's how long it takes to get there from the trees!) could be lethal if you slid down the ice and into a crevasse. This isn't Haffner, it's more like climbing big alpine faces in terms of environmental hazard.
-If the temperature in there goes much above freezing for even a few hours you need to walk out the long way or risk getting smushed. The ice doesn't have the same insulation characteristics as fat water ice and will fall off the roof sooner. Beware.
-Spray ice is weaker than full-water ice, and breaks in odd ways. It only takes a whack from a tool to rip a 40-foot dagger, and that dagger can start other daggers ripping. Rope management is critical; never have your rope running under a big ice feature, even one that seems solid. I've broken out desk-sized blocks I was sure were solid... Putting up new routes is a battle of epic, epic proportions due to not only the angle but also the ice cleaning etc. Some days in the horizontal roof we would only gain about 20 feet for a day's effort. It's worth it, just work.
-The Helmcken Falls Lodge runs a winter special for $120 that includes a room with two beds, two breakfasts, two good dinners, and lots of great hospitality. That's only $60/person for a warm, nice room only 15 minutes from the falls. The owners are good people too, and have really helped us out over the last two seasons, say hello and treat them well 'cause if you go there once you're going to be going back a fair amount I bet...
We're done for the season, but game on for next year. A metal detector will be required to find our old bolts (even some on the upper pitch were getting covered with a light frosting when we left). We'll put up some topos and tricks for finding the base of Spray On (Dora and Sabre should be easy to find every year, far side of the cave)