Sunday, January 31, 2010

Spray On

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.


Anonymous said...

A 30-metre route with 12 bolts?! Wow, that must have been an incredible adventure....

Anonymous said...

spray indeed

mark reeves said...

Tim, must have missed more flights than anyone else I know.

Looks incredible BTW, and sounds epic.

Ian Parnell said...

Ha, ha youre right Mark, its probably something like 50/50 that he'll make any flight. Great effort you two, a real example of how things happen when the right people get together.

Anonymous said...

In reply to the other Anonymous: wow how amazing you must be mate, don't forget to feel superior as you bumble up your next massively easier but more traditionally protected route, and try not to have any fun cos that won't bolster your ego as much as pain

Anonymous said...

Anon #1: Steep routes require more bolts in order to keep from slamming into the deck. Would you prefer that Will used fewer, and died?

Anon #2: Yep, it's spray. Maybe you should try giving this route a go. Seems that Will thought that it was fun--and a new way of climbing ice. Have you ever done anything original like this?

Will: Be safe. Have fun. In that order!

Will Gadd said...

It's super fun, you all gotta try it!!

I'd have preferred to do it on natural gear, but let's face it, I'm not the most bold climber on the planet (Dave Macleod, Ueli Steck?). However, I don't think it's over-bolted given that you'd definitely hit the ground while clipping any of the first five bolts, and that would be very painful at best due to the ice blocks and upside down daggers. Really steep routes do require more bolts low, but I did a couple of aid moves between every bolt--I put one in when I started to really worry about decking, and that's as bold as I'm going to get.

As for the "spray indeed" comment, yes, the name has multiple meanings. Have some fun with it, spray on indeed!

Mark and Ian, funny, Tim swore that was the first time he'd missed a flight.

Romeo & Juliet Wedding Films said...

Hmmm...Tim also told me he'd never missed a flight before...I'll have a word with my man. But hey flight aside, looks mental- that climb! Nice one guys!

Adam Long said...

I've also missed a flight with Tim, after he dropped our hire car keys off a big wall. Legend.

The route looks amazing.

Anonymous said...

What a silly comment above about choosing between less bolts and death! I think the point is that if Will wasn't capable of climbing the route cleanly then it should be left to someone who can, someone with a more pioneering spirit. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with what Will and Tim have done, it's just that it should be classed differently, as some kind of fairground ride, not a climbing route. Still, I'm sure the self-congratulatory and sycophantic comments will continue to pour in from those who live in their own little insular world!

Anonymous said...

I thought that the bolting wars were settled years ago. Seems that Will completed a cool and innovate climb in a reasonably safe manner. Bolts were a good choice. Nice style.

All climbing is pretty much a carnival ride of some sort. Hop on, enjoy the ride, and quit whining about somebody having more fun than you!

Will Gadd said...

Anon 12:00, I hope you get a hug and some new cornflakes soon man! We love you, it's OK.

John Box said... Definitely looks like it freezes up more. I'm interested to hear what the ice is like when its colder. If you have one it would be rad to see a picture of where the route goes looking at a picture of the falls itself.

Matthew Agarwala said...

Anon 12:00:

I'm totally with you - Gadd is such a douche...

1. His ice & mixed technique book sold fewer copies than Harry Potter.

2. If he had any real balls he'd swim from shore out to those icebergs in the middle of the ocean, wearing his gear, and towing the camera crew behind him, and then start climbing. Otherwise he's just another chump.

3. His 'endless ascent' was only 25,000ft in 24 hours... boring - we've all been in planes that can climb that high in 2.4 minutes.

4. He only raised enough money for the dZi foundation to build ONE school in Nepal. It's not like school is gonna help those kids anyway - just like it didn't help you.

5. Anyone with enough money and sponsors could go find some abandoned mine with ice to climb. It's not like he was the first... um... wait... what?

6. He should ditch the tools and crampons. If you can't climb it naturally, you shouldn't climb it at all, right?

Maybe Gadd could learn something from your pioneering spirit. Maybe someday he'd have to balls to actually leave his name when he questions someone's climbing style. Gadd is father - he has more important things to worry about than some weak ass armchair alpinist thumbing his nose at the most epic climb ever completed. I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand this, but climbers feel a sense of community. We've just lost Bachar and Lacelle - we're lucky we have Gadd to honour them by continuing on where they left off (because I seriously doubt you're capable).

Will Gadd said...

John Box, that is INSANE, thanks for that link, awesome! You are an internet Ninja, I looked a fair amount and never saw that.

So there's the "optimum" conditions. Our route is micro compared to that, so stoked for next year, thanks for the inspiration!

Matthew, thanks, I'm just making this stuff up every day and trying to have some fun, all good. Other people have climbed in the caves in Sweden, we just went after it a bit more, crazy fun, you gotta try it!

Ian Parnell said...

ha, ha this nameless crew have got to be Brits, surely theres no other country that gets its knicker in a twist as much as we do over bolts. Believe me I'm one of the ring leaders but only where its appropriate. This place looks like a concave version of the death star on full attack mode - not the ideal place to be fiddling with your RPs!

Will, this is what you get for climbing with a Brit.

Ian Parnell

Unknown said...

I just saw a pic of you doing the endless ascent on Crossfit's main page! You are the man.

Spiny Norman said...

"I think the point is that if Will wasn't capable of climbing the route cleanly then it should be left to someone who can, someone with a more pioneering spirit."

The dude telling you to sack up is too chickenshit to type his name into a web browser. Spray on, indeed.

Butch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
iggy said...

amazes me how fools get caught up in asides. they miss the awesome places, the unclimbed routes, the full on approach, the mind-bending decisions, the unprecedented moves, the insane headspace of being somewhere outside the frame doing something outside the cube, the application of untried ideas with your ass on the line.....then whine about bolts.

bolts aint the problem.
daft fuckers commenting from their cosy living rooms whilst others do the work are the problem.

wiseguys who let the pro get in the way of the climbing can stay in their bitter, pedantic little worlds.
let the rest of us get on with it.

stand and be counted

Unknown said...

Wicked Will!!!!

The Internet trolls are you.

See you in jasper some time again.

chris bovard

kelly cordes said...

absolutely awesome, Will. any semblance of controversy -- over the bolts on an otherwise unprotectable route? over the over whether the moon is, in fact, made of cheese or not? -- is so absurd as to be outright laughable. enough to where i wonder if they're just trolling us all.
regardless, way to go, being a visionary yet again and raising the bar. nicely done.

Anonymous said...

i do not know how to spell!!!. sorry.

"The internet trolls are on you!!"..


Anonymous said...

Has this route been given a WI10 classification? If so what or where are the WI9 routes?

Anonymous said...

in the glorious days of fruity french climbing movies, fluorescent spandex tights, mullets and ponytails, i remember an issue of climbing (or was it rock and ice?) where will and kurt smith got into a fairly heated debate about chipping on one of kurt's (or was it will's?) sport routes at rifle, colorado. i remember grinning at those two going at each other in print like two curmudgeonly old men and thinking 'if there's one thing climbers like to do ALMOST as much as climbing, it's arguing!'

i thought i quit climbing a long time ago but found myself at the base of a 10 metre waterfall on a toprope with tools in hand this past weekend and i loved it so much that today i'm combing the internet for gear, eager to go out for a few more rounds before the season's out. a google search for 'ice climbing' yielded a youtube video of will's 24 hour marathon in ouray (geez!), and that led me here.

i just realized this: it's 2010, nearly 20 years after that feisty argument, but things aren't so different. those fruity french movies are all over youtube, and mullets and pink spandex have made a comeback in the past 3 years against all the odds. on top of that, here's will gadd, still climbing hard and still attracting controversy. it's like i never left!

the only thing that would make this delightful return to the climbing community complete was if kurt smith was anonymously slamming will in his blog comments over a 20-year-old grudge. well....dare to dream!

spray on folks, spray on.

Riel M said...

Im from clearwater, near wells gray park. I've only been down in the canyon during summer and can only imagine the experience in the winter. Think those bolts could be used for a unique rock route in the summer??

Will Gadd said...

Hi Riel, PM me with your email, be stoked to hook up next time we're through there, or if you're out in Canmore.

I sorta doubt you could even find those bolts in spring/summer/fall due to the large quantity of water splashing around (without the ice cone water goes everywhere). But, if you could get to 'em, and they weren't too high up on the wall then you could wear goggles or something and climb there? On second thought, there are better options for climbing in the Clearwater area, ha ha!

And Anon, yeah, I remember the Kurt debate, I'm not real proud of it as I could have handled myself better. Kurt and I got over it. But it would be funny!