For about six years Will Gadd has been returning to Helmcken Falls, British Columbia, for its uniquely radical terrain.
“A lot of people talk big about Helmcken, but few show up,” Gadd explained when asked about the difficulty of finding partners for a project like Overhead Hazard
. “I'm lucky to have had a really strong crew of motivated people I trained and climbed with a lot here in Canmore. They are all alpine guides as well as really good climbers, so they understand dangerous and dynamic environments.”
Helmcken Falls is located in Wells Gray Provincial Park, about 30 minutes from Clearwater, BC, and is the fourth tallest waterfall in Canada [463 feet]. In the winter, spray from the falls turns to ice and coats the stadium-like wall, creating thousands of icicles ranging in size. According to Gadd, spray ice compared to waterfall ice, makes for more engaging, dynamic and very difficult technical climbing. Although Helmcken Falls is a popular tourist destination in the summer, winter access is limited. On his blog, Gadd explains that the approach to the falls is dangerous.
“Realize that you’re standing under serious overhead hazard,” he writes. “[I]f the sun hits the wall above you (and it does) big rock and ice blocks start falling off in short order. You are now in the land of Overhead Hazard big time.”
The start to Overhead Hazard
begins behind the waterfall.
“Death lurks overhead,” Gadd warns on his blog. “[L]imit exposure time and do the 'Helmcken Head Fake' and look up continually to see what you’re standing under.”
Gadd dubs the first pitch “The Warmup” and gives it a grade of M10. It follows the spray line “of least resistance” for 100 feet. Pitch two, or the start of “The Business,” is 65 feet of horizontal climbing. Gadd gives it a grade of “M fun and hard enough.”
“Modern mixed grades are basically irrelevant at the upper end of the spectrum right now,” Gadd elaborated, “but some good climbers have worked on this pitch and found it hard, and I've climbed enough hard routes to know it's hard also.”
Pitch three is also 65 feet long and can be linked with pitch two, which he did. Gadd suggests its grade is between M11 and M13+ depending on whether it is combined with pitch two, which is logical to do, he says. Gadd said that linking pitch two and three was harder than anything he had ever climbed.
Pitch four (M11) traverses right for roughly 16 feet and then trends left for a steep 130 feet, ending with a complicated "belly flop" onto a ledge. The steepness continues into pitch five, also M11 and 130 feet. It traverses about 16 feet to the right and then up to avoid bad rock. The fifth belay is behind the waterfall, making for the “coolest spot ever,” according to Gadd. Pitch six (M10+) traverses left for 65 feet and involves “watching out for overhead hazards,” and then up for another 30 feet. The final pitch is graded M7 and follows thin ice and spray for 100 feet to the top. The descent is a 20-minute walk back to the road.
Climbing Overhead Hazard
involved a few close calls according to Gadd. One such moment happened while he was cleaning icy ropes on rappel. He was being turned into a "human icicle" from the spray and lost his attention to detail due to hypothermia. The screw gate carabiner on his borrowed GriGri spun open from the vibration on his rope, something that he is usually very aware of. At one point he looked down to find that the GriGri was sideways and resting in the nose of the carabineer with the gate open.
“I thought of Todd Skinner as I very carefully placed a Hollow Blow prussic on the rope and then fixed the problem,” Gadd explained. “In all my time climbing I can honestly say I've only faced 'you could have died' gear issues once before. Maybe with a sharper mind I would have caught the error, but I was really hypothermic and just not totally with the program.”
When asked what he and his team felt when Overhanging Hazard
was finally complete, Gadd said, “Relief. We put so many days of hard work into the route, so much training, so many cold hours, so much suffering in -20-degree temps, so much of our selves. I don't think I'm ever going to find a better mixed line and also have the fitness for it, so in a way this is the capstone to my mixed climbing career I think.”