We scrambled up a small rib in the canyon below Hunlen Falls, the biggest waterfall any of us had ever seen. Looking up, we saw a football field of ice explode from somewhere high above, and crash down the canyon—right onto our tracks, 100 steps below.
The roar of the icefall made talking impossible, and we just looked at each other with the sort of blank faces people wear after losing a massive bet.
I have never seen ice and water in such a vast and volatile mix. Water poured straight off the top for 1,000 feet, and ice formed to its sides, behind it or wherever the wind blew it. The ice appeared to exist only briefly, as more water poured onto it, melted it, and sheared it off the wall in chunks the size of McMansions.
The scariest part was not the violence of the exploding ice or that the falls were so big we couldn’t even tell where the ice had come from, or even the voice-eclipsing roar of falling water. It was that I still wanted to climb it.
To reach this remote, half-frozen waterfall, Dave Dornian, Andrew Querner, E.J. Plimley and I had driven 15 hours northwest from Canmore toward the coastal Bella Coola Valley, jolted another hour up a sketchy winter four-by-four road, and walked two days through the British Columbia bush.
In Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, where the falls are located, we found the crystal-clear silence of one of the world’s remotest areas, and camped there on New Year’s Eve without so much as a drop of alcohol. Only the occasional odd bugle of trumpeting swans, an endangered species, sounded. We awakened to find mysterious tracks in the snow; twin divots, six feet apart, cut like children’s paper snowflakes.
The next morning, we watched trumpeter swans beating their way across the snow in a fight to lift off south. We headed back home, too. It took over 24 hours of constant walking and driving to reach the comfort of my couch. I heard the roar of the falls the entire way.
We spent the next month watching the weather with the devotion of stockbrokers following the market, hoping for colder temps.
On February 12 E.J. Plimley and I loaded the truck again and punched it northwest toward Bella Coola. After nine hours of driving, we had to stop at an E.R. in Williams Lake so E.J. could get some antibiotics; after two hours inside, he came out and said between hacking coughs, “Well, I’m not pregnant.” I wasn’t in good shape either; less than 24 hours before we left I’d been teaching ice climbing in Japan, and I was jetlagged and already on antibiotics for a sinus infection. There is commitment while climbing, and then there is the more important commitment to going climbing.
Dornian and Querner had made horrible decisions to go to work or something. So be it. They were missed.
My good friend Scott Simper came along to shoot some video, and the ever-entertaining Christian Pondella was stoked to shoot stills. I’ve done a lot of crazy projects with these guys over the years. On a rig this big you want people you can trust both to get the shots and not kill you or themselves.
On Friday the 13th, we met our ski-plane pilot, Nick, in nearby Nimpo Lake to fly into Turner Lake, conveniently located at the top of the falls. This alternate approach meant we would avoid the two-day walk through the brush and, more important, the exposed march up canyon. From the lake, we would rap in to just above the canyon floor and climb out. It seemed like a perfect plan.
Approaching over the falls in the plane, we fervently hoped to see a monolithic frozen popsicle. Yet the falls looked even worse than the last time, sort of like a super-sized Slurpee being poured on the ground. Yes, there was a lot more ice, but there was still a lot of water. One ski of the plane went through the lake ice when we landed; despite the coldest weather in decades, with daytime highs in the low 40s F, the lake wasn’t totally frozen. In the Rockies, winter is a guaranteed deep freeze; in the more western Coast Ranges winter often includes rain.
After tossing our duffels we put on snowshoes and ran like spastic ducks to the top of the falls to look down. Insert your own swearing and expressions of awe here—I’ve used all mine up.
Hunlen is so big it’s hard even to figure out what’s going on. Within 20 minutes, we saw at least three huge pieces of ice detach and explode down the falls and into the canyon, over 1,000 feet below. We stood and schemed for several hours that felt like minutes, at first flinching at every sound, and eventually not even turning around to look unless the earth literally shook. We decided Hunlen itself was unclimbable, so turned our attention to a stellar ice line on the south-facing side wall of the canyon, about 1,000 feet to the right of the falls.
The next morning I threw a 70-meter rope off the edge, thinking it would easily get us to some lower-angled ice. No chance; it hung free. A 100-meter rope reached the ice, but then the sun hit our proposed route and all hell broke loose. Falling icicles the size of totem poles pummeled our planned line. We stayed on the rim and watched the chaos on Hunlen and our side route for the rest of the day. Watching falling ice is fun if you’re not in the way of it.
Back early the next morning full of caffeine-induced confidence, we found that morning rap to be heart-stopping, especially without having gotten used to the exposure by climbing from the ground. Exposure is like alcohol; there’s a big difference in effect between 10 shots of tequila in five hours and 10 in two minutes.
We wanted to reach the bottom of the canyon, but the sun was faster than we were so we only climbed one brilliant pitch of ice out a golden cave before having to escape the impact zone up an alpine mixed corner. Our icy world deteriorated into a melting madness, so we again called it a day.
The weather in Canada’s Coast ranges normally sucks. We had splitter blue skies, the absolute last weather we wanted. Anywhere else in the world our two-pitch route would be the premier line; in the Hunlen Gorge it was a minor sideshow. We cursed the sun as we lounged in it, and began to develop a plan that involved dashing from safe zone to safe zone on the right side of Hunlen. It all seemed pretty logical from the safety of the rim. The same thing happens when you’re looking at a big drop you’re thinking of kayaking. If you stand there long enough you start to see a line, a way to move through the lethal obstacles. Normally if you spend more than a few minutes to see a safe line, you probably shouldn’t run the drop; you’re just imagining you can do it. We looked at Hunlen for hours, and created a line in our minds. Was it pure imagination or reality?
That evening the temperature dropped to minus 25 F. I burned the hell out of easily $1,000 worth of high-end technical clothing by getting too close to the fire in an effort to warm up before turning in to sleep. The alarm went off in the black and nasty cold the next morning, and I hated to crawl out of my sleeping bag, fight the frozen boots on, and get moving. It’s one thing to get out of a warm truck and go climbing in the cold, but doing the same thing without the warm-truck part sucks. E.J. coughed and hacked into the blackness, pouring straight shots of Buckley’s cough syrup down his throat along with his coffee.
We rapped down two fixed ropes just to the climber’s right of Hunlen; the ice was sketchy but looked climbable, if not protectable. I tried to ignore the mounting tension as I pounded pins for rap/belay anchors. If the whole thing fell off I wanted to be attached to bedrock. The ice was generally shit for screws anyhow. Three more raps down and well into what E.J. was calling the dragon’s teeth, we had to choose whether to go deeper or call it good.
I asked E.J. what he wanted to do. Continuing down meant taking a gamble. He looked down, looked at me, and said, “Let’s do it.”
I radioed our friends on the surface to please let us know if anything really big busted loose. Four raps later we stopped about 50 feet above the bottom of the canyon. A skateboard-ramp-shaped snow slope led down to a continually changing talus field of blasted ice. It looked like the impact zone beneath huge seracs, only this ice was falling down a lot more regularly. I realized with horror that the Olympic-luge-run-sized marks in the snow directly under our feet had been carved by blocks falling and bouncing from far overhead. We had set each rap-belay station under shelter and felt confident that we were in a small right place in the middle of a very large wrong place, but as we pulled and stacked the ropes we were both fully redlined mentally. The only way out was up. It was show time; and time to be fast. As I tied in, a series of van-sized ice blocks crashed down 30 feet away.
I once thought that speed ice-climbing competitions were totally irrelevant to actual ice climbing. I was wrong about that. The vertical spray ice on Hunlen accepted tools and crampons well, though no solid protection. I went into total speed-climbing mode—move the right tool and right crampon simultaneously, then the left tool and left crampon; repeat—but on lead with bad gear. My mind screamed to climb faster, then not to fall off, then to get a pin, for God’s sake. I did all three in some sort of triage system and gunned for the relative safety of the belay.
A section of beautiful caramel ice took a couple of good ice screws, but for the first time in years I got a tool stuck, just as I pulled over a lip and into a firing range. At first it was kind of funny, then it wasn’t. I extracted the tool and moved again just as a huge piece of ice broke off Hunlen and smashed down into the canyon to my left.
Our friends on the surface couldn’t see us, and radioed down to find out if we were still alive. I couldn’t hear the radio clearly over the roar of the falls, and had to stop, standing there exposed, to understand their radio calls. I didn’t have the mental range left to be calm anymore, and yelled back on the radio, “Let’s shut the fuck up unless something comes off the rim toward us!” Radio silence prevailed as I reached the next belay in deep aerobic debt. E.J. ran up the pitch, arrived at the belay, and pulled his ever-present bottle of Buckley’s from his jacket for another hit. Commitment comes in many forms.
Each pitch took us into safer terrain, but the ice got even weirder. In the first 600 feet I had placed only four screws I thought were solid. The rest of the gear was pins, cams and pounded nuts that took all of my 25 years of ice and trad-climbing experience to engineer. I have never climbed anything before that demanded such a broad mental and physical foundation: mountaineering, ice climbing, sport climbing, granite cragging, big-wall alpine climbing, ski touring. Even poker. A card game is not normally a climbing skill, but this climb was all about calculating the odds.
After four pitches we were back below what looked to be the crux of the route, a series of overhanging spray-ice features. E.J. had some more Buckley’s, and eyed the belay’s collection of blades and angles suspiciously. I told him they were truck, which was good, since the next 30 feet of climbing was unprotectable.
In ice comps they build the “ice” by spraying overhanging scaffolding with a snow gun and injecting water into the mix. The spray ice on the upper pitches had exactly the same consistency, yet not enough solidity to hold a screw. I remembered hanging by one tool in a comp in Italy as I found myself doing the same one-handed move over and over, five pitches up Hunlen. Somehow the Italian memory was comforting amid the thunder of the falls. E.J. and I both relaxed more when, 30 feet above the belay, I finally found a beautiful crack that ate a yellow Camalot and a bomber nut. If the whole falls were to cut loose, at least we might still be attached to the wall.
When we had rapped down that morning there had been no large cracks in the ice. Sometime during the day, a two-foot wide, 80-foot-long fissure had separated the last two pitches from the wall. This meant that thousands of tons of ice was sooner rather than later going to rip off. Even the ice on the wall above the crack had separated, and it was pulling table-sized slabs of rock out of the wall. I had never seen anything like this except in glacial moraines.
Eight hours after starting, we topped out via a dangling log covered in snow-ice, much like a log I climbed in a comp in Russia. I had to smile one more time about what the route was demanding. I didn’t just tie into a two-foot-thick pine tree, I worshipped it and the safety of flat ground. We had wanted a beautiful frozen waterfall. Instead we had found something much wilder and more complicated. Maybe we risked too much, but the relative safety of our line had worked, though it was a push. As we walked away from the falls we heard the roar of something huge busting loose. Neither one of us looked back.
Postscript: In mid-April, E.J. was hitchhiking home one night from a Mount Waddington trip when he caught a ride with a man who had run a trap-line near Hunlen for 15 years. The trapper had never seen the falls entirely frozen, and 2009 was the coldest year he’d ever known in the area. We likely had the best conditions possible.
Will Gadd has climbed dozens of new ice and mixed routes in the last 25 years. He also makes films, writes books, gives presentations, kayaks, paraglides and backcountry skis. He is always looking for the ultimate waterfall—please send any ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.