Thirty years of ice climbing; that’s how long I’ve been at it. I was pondering retiring this year—30 years is just enough, really—but then I found the future of ice climbing: Helmcken Falls. I know it’s the future because I have lived the past.
In 1983 I climbed my first multi-pitch ice route, the Weeping Wall, with my dad. In 1984 I toproped thin overhanging ice smears in New Hampshire’s Flume area, and loved the technical movement; scraping a tool along a clear smear was just right somehow. In 1985 I soloed a broken-off icicle in Maligne Canyon, Alberta. I could just get one tool into the ice stub and desperately campused the opening moves—figure-fours hadn’t yet been invented. Later that year Ken Wallator and I climbed Polar Circus in -30 temps. Polar Circus was the testpiece of its era and I had only ice climbed perhaps 30 days total. Still, the crux was simply staying warm. I was 18 and wanted my ice and rock climbs to take everything I had to give; to be genuinely hard enough to break me. I wasn’t finding that challenge on ice in the 1980s, an era when people were climbing under seracs and on ever-thinner free-standing pillars. Pushing the envelope back then was dangerous, but danger does not make difficulty. I wanted big grades and desperate pumps, not just loaded-dice terror. Any 5.12 rock climber could, on his first day, toprope any ice climb ever. Or so it looked in my black-and-white world at age 18. I quit ice climbing and took up sport climbing and the acid-test of competitions.
In 1994 I quit hard sport climbing for much the same reasons I had quit ice climbing: I couldn’t see a future. Onsighting another letter grade harder was no longer interesting, and I was sick of living on rice cakes and mustard. Then I saw a photo of Jeff Lowe on Octopussy. I’d met Jeff through sport-climbing comps (there isn’t one sector of climbing Jeff hasn’t excelled in or helped create), and immediately called him for more information. Octopussy looked cool, and genuinely hard. At that same time I also started climbing with Mark Twight, who would drag me off on alpine epics, a game Jeff was over, instead stoked to reinvent mixed climbing. I was searching for new meaning in climbing, and Jeff and Mark both had their versions. Jeff’s won because it was more interesting, although I enjoyed the epic debates I had with Mark, who argued that ice was an aesthetic experience, not just about pulling hard. It pains me to admit this, but ultimately he would be proven right.
Jeff Lowe and I climbed out a gaping cleft high above the buzzing traffic of Glenwood Canyon in Colorado in 1996. The route was typical Lowe. Practically every ice climber in Western North America had driven by it, but somehow no one had seen what was the best natural mixed line of the decade. We didn’t know how special and good Deep Throat really was; and if it had waited undiscovered right off the highway then surely there were lines like it everywhere, lines out endless rows of hanging stalactites that involved as much mind-ripping ice climbing as drytooling, that pushed you to the limit on natural gear. Surely!
A week later, belayed by Jeff, I sent Amphibian, the world’s first M9 (with the caveat that Helgi Christianson was really the one responsible for Amphibian; he saw it, I just figured out how to bolt it and climb it before he did.) Long stretches of drytooling led to wild icicle encounters, and our minds were flung open. The first half of the route doesn’t even have ice, but it didn’t matter—a heretical idea back then. The object was to connect the drools of ice into a coherent line. “M” ratings, another product of Jeff’s mind, were expanding rapidly. The following season I climbed Reptile, M9+, which had basically no ice on the pitch and which other climbers rated M10 despite that grade not yet existing.
The trend was already clear; mixed climbing was drying up, but if the routes were becoming dryer, the energy for the climbing was exploding. I spent a fantastic decade traveling the world and climbing ever-harder mixed lines, which at that point were a nasty mix of engineering, free climbing and willful self-inflicted damage. Every place I went I searched for the next Deep Throat: I didn’t find it.
Ben Firth and I also realized that at a certain point hard drytooling could and was being reduced to something less hard through chipping intermediate holds. Ice climbers chip their way up ice routes, and the same thing was happening on rock, if not by the first-ascent party then by those who followed. Firth’s The Game was an ode to the game of ego and style we were playing. Technology regressed with spurs, leg hooks on tools, and other trickery that reduced any route to a series of rests. My love of hard mixed climbing temporarily died the day I hung by my spurs and smoked a cigar in the Cineplex in the Canadian Rockies. I needed a new game, and found it by cutting off the heel spurs and climbing harder. But it was a brief fling, like a reunion with an old girlfriend that is great only because of the history.
I did find glacial ice caves, beautiful tubes and overhanging swells that remain when the rivers that sculpt the ancient ice disappears in winter. The climbing is overhanging, powerful and wild, and for a while it was a grail to me. But to climb on terrain past about 29 degrees overhanging, you have to carve peg-board-style incuts since the top of your picks simply lever out of the ice at that angle. I also had a few close calls with collapsing caves. Then my friend Hari Berger died when a cave collapsed on him on the same day his wife went into labor with their first child. I couldn’t stomach the stuff anymore and quit. No future.
In 2006 I returned to the roots of ice climbing and started chasing big-game frozen waterfalls in Norway. They aren’t as hard technically as drytooling, but Norway had first ascents that were steeper, wilder and longer than anything in North America—and they weren’t under seracs, and they took everything Andreas Spak and I had to get up them. Fresh, hard ice requires swinging and swinging; tools with light heads bounce, and climbers raised on a diet of hooking up climbed-out routes quickly realize there’s a world of difference between following a well-broken trail up a route and putting one in. Only one of the big routes Spak and I climbed has ever been repeated. The ultimate measure of a climb is the quality of its line, and Norwegian ice climbs have the best lines on the planet. No scattering of pockets on rock can compare to 2,000-plus feet of blue stripe into the sky. It was back to the past, and I accepted that I would never find my dream cave with hundreds of feet of icicles.
Then in 2008 I saw a photo of Helmcken Falls. A climber had taken it and captioned it, “The spray that turns to hoarfrost on the overhanging amphitheatre wall could probably be climbed to give a really hard route.” That statement was both prescient and a massive understatement. For two seasons I tried to entice friends to make the eight-hour drive. They would look at the photo and say, “Doesn’t look that big, not much ice.” Excuses were made, action avoided, and Helmcken remained untouched.
In 2010 I destroyed my body during another trip to Norway for its addictive, aesthetic (Yeah, Mark, I know now) ice and a 24-hour climbing effort at the Ouray Ice Festival. After 30 years I was starting to run out of new things to do with ice climbing. Icebergs, ice mines (underground ice climbing), huge new routes in Norway and Canada—what next? As hints of spring popped I moped around the house feeling old, injured and surly. A late-night internet surf brought me back to the Helmcken Falls photo, and coincidentally I got an email from my good friend Tim Emmett, who wanted to go climbing. I called a few local friends to see if they wanted to join us in a mission to Helmcken, but as usual none felt it worthy.
If you want to do something wildly difficult, dangerous and fun, Emmett is the ideal partner. I met him during the 2000 ice-climbing World Cup, and nearly died when he enticed me into doing an inverted tequila stuntman from the second-story roof of a bar in Austria. I fell headfirst toward a sea of half-full beer glasses, but Emmett somehow managed to rotate me just enough so I only broke a couple of ribs and several hundred Euros worth of bar glasses. He’s a good partner.
Besides being versed in stunts, Emmett has done enough Scottish climbing to believe you could climb frost-caked walls. Ten hours after he arrived in Canmore we stood at the tourist viewpoint overlooking the top of Helmcken Falls. It was a cool waterfall for sure, but rather underwhelming—not that big, and with not that much ice on the back wall, maybe only 30 feet. Still, we had to check it out after the drive.
Tim bounced through the snowy woods for a better look. When we rounded the corner on the buttress that guards the entrance to the cave behind the falls, we both just sat and stared. What we had thought was 30 feet of ice was 10 times that. The cave was so huge a skilled Cessna pilot could fly around the falls with room to spare. Icicles formed by mist from the falls dangled everywhere, but what really blew our minds was the strange white ice smeared on the overhanging rock.
“Mate, it’s a bit like the World Cup, isn’t it?” said Tim, noting that the wall behind the falls was similar to ice-comp routes where they use a snow-making machine and a hose to spray overhanging scaffolding and form ice. We’d just found the natural equivalent on a much larger scale.
Our path in was blocked by fantastical icicles many meters high. I tapped the first one, and it ripped off and sent us scurrying like mice. We started throwing rocks at the icicles and realized that this ice was less stable and more aerated than normal. There were a few places where the ice was plastered directly on the gently overhanging lower wall. I swung my tool into it and “thunk”—it was good, and I knew instantly that for me ice climbing would never again be the same.
It took us almost an hour to scramble from the edge of the cave to a position directly behind the waterfall, where two things were notable: First, it was dry because a giant ice cone blocked most of the spray, and second, the entire ceiling of the cave bristled with icicles for hundreds of feet. Tons of them. I was reminded of the classic scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where spikes come out of the ceiling and Jones says, “This is serious!” Indeed, broken-off icicles were scattered across the ground like ancient marble ruins.
For once Tim had few words, and his normal wagging demeanor was replaced by the look my dog used to give me when I tried to get him in the canoe. I could tell Tim didn’t see how we could climb through the icicles, much less protect them, and to be honest I didn’t either. After lunch I tentatively pounded a Spectre into the soft ice, but it did not inspire confidence. A screw was completely useless in the frozen ice meringue. I searched for cracks, but the compact volcanic lava flow didn’t have any. There really was just one solution for pro, and soon a power drill whirred against a backbeat of falling water.
I bouldered 10 feet up, clipped a draw into my waist loop, hooked into an ice tool, and cautiously hung from it. Tim gave his best gritstone belay as I placed a bolt in a small patch of bare rock. Ten feet higher I felt more confident. This time I clipped into both tools and hung. Suddenly I launched into the air with the drill still running in my hand. Smacking back into the wall knocked the wind out of me, but I was thankful I hadn’t drilled myself a new porthole.
“Nice one, mate,” said Tim. “You’ve got it now!” Back up I went.
A pattern emerged: Knock off the huge, lethal icicles, climb the remaining stubs, find bare rock, drill a bolt, repeat. It sounds simple, except that you have to bash the icicles while you are locked off with one arm, and direct them so they don’t catch you or your rope. While it was clear that the climbing was going to be amazing, after 60 feet I’d had enough and lowered, touching down 30 feet out from the wall. I walked back to Tim, stepping over the carcasses of icicles I’d killed, being careful to keep the relatively safe, cleaned strip of ceiling directly over my head. We were learning.
The next day Tim was up for battle and despite having only ever placed a few bolts, he was he soon hanging off his tools on the sharp end and getting the job done. This pattern would repeat itself over and over during our trips to the cave; one person would reach his limit, and the other would step up. Tim stopped where the wall went from really overhanging to horizontal, and we could get a total no-hands rest stemming in an icy alcove. Time to climb! Then the temperature went from a few degrees below freezing to a few degrees above freezing, and icicles the size of tanker trucks started ripping off the ceiling and exploding onto the cave floor. We knew our little cleared area was relatively safe, so we huddled under it and watched the chaos. I’ve been humbled a lot in the mountains, but seldom felt so exposed. We left our gear and did a high-speed run over the rough terrain and out of the cave, continually looking up.
A year earlier I’d spent a week camping nearby in -30 temps to do the first ascent of Hunlen Falls. This time Tim and I drove 15 minutes to the Helmcken Falls Lodge, which for $120 offers a room with two beds, breakfast and two dinners. And they have cold beer. The owners, Andrew and Lynn, introduced themselves and asked if we were skiing.
“No, seriously, you’re not climbing down there,” they said. “That’s mad!” We agreed, and had another beer with our cannelloni.
The next morning was just below freezing, so we went back in. The ice was softer from the previous day’s warmth, but still climbable. Tim and I both managed to redpoint our pitch after failing due to a combination of pump, fear, ripping tools or (and I’m not making this up) taking too much time to trip out on the climbing to maintain upward progress.
It was the best single ice pitch I’d ever climbed. Technical, powerful, fun, intricate, steep and not one dry-tool move on the whole thing. As I clipped the chains on Spray On (WI 10) I gave a silent shout out to Jeff Lowe—we had found the dream. There were 10 different ways to do every move on the climb; no chipping, just climb the near-horizontal natural ice features. Unlike glacial ice, the broken- off icicle stubs allowed first-swing sticks. Spray On had everything I loved about ice climbing, but was technically really, really hard like mixed. This is what I’d wanted at age 18.
The forecast was for more warm weather. We stripped the draws and vowed to return with next year’s first cold front. The trip out was another Indiana Jones adventure run, one we later took to calling the “commute from hell.”
If the pictures of Spray On excited people, the grade pissed off just as many, especially in Europe. Tim and I gave the route the new rating of WI 10 because we felt that the climbing was at least as hard as M10 mixed: You don’t have a hope of getting up it unless you can climb M10 and lead top-end water ice as well. Second, ice grades are increasingly irrelevant even as climbers strive for bigger numbers. For example, a couple of friends of mine climbed a new route in Austria and rated it WI 8, only to have it repeated and downgraded to WI 6. Ice grades higher than grade five are simply more about ego than reality. I’ve done dozens, maybe hundreds of the hardest ice routes in the world, but until then I’d not climbed anything harder than that broken-off icicle I did 30 years ago. Either I was the world’s best ice climber at age 18, or the ice-climbing grading system is bullshit. I’m betting on the latter, and our grade was a straight poke in the eye of the hype monster.
As we drove home from Helmcken Falls, Tim and I considered the big problem we’d been avoiding: The spray ice would surely cover our bolts. When we returned next season to add more pitches, how would we find them? Putting in new bolts each year for the same climb just wasn’t cool even for a prize this large. Various theories were advanced, from painting the bolts red to radio-frequency tags. We didn’t have a good answer.
A warm summer passed and the level of hype and roar about the grade finally dropped with the temperatures. We both locked in the entire winter for a serious rematch, refusing speaking engagements and skating around work and family responsibilities, believing that if big-wave surfers could keep their schedules open to chase waves, we could do the same for ice.
Helmcken Falls sits right on the border between the cold continental air mass and the relatively warm Pacific air mass. The average winter temperature is 23 degrees Fahrenheit, but the temperature can swing dramatically depending on which air pushes in. Normal ice lasts for days in warm temps, but the spray ice is less insulative and pops off the rock surprisingly quickly.
The fall was unseasonably warm in Canmore, yet I needed to be ready for action the day Helmcken Falls came into shape. I tilted my plywood “ice” wall 45 degrees overhanging and trained on it until I could do 10 laps straight without resting. One-handed Tabata intervals made my shoulders ache, and I pulled off a hard front lever for the first time since 2008. Still, no matter how hard I trained I didn’t believe I’d be able to climb the even steeper terrain above Spray On, through the remaining cave at Helmcken Falls.
Andrew at the Falls Lodge finally emailed in early January and said the ice was in. Within three days we had a crew from across North America assembled at the falls. I wanted to make a film about climbing Helmcken and asked the filmmaker Josh Lowell if he was interested. Filming would be easy, I said. No, he didn’t need any special skills. Josh hadn’t worn crampons much at all, and his brother, Brett, who would also come out to shoot, was even less experienced on ice. Perfect. They bought tickets and my photographer friend Christian Pondella who was supposed to shoot supermodels in Iceland (he seriously does that kind of thing), cancelled that gig to show up.
Our first view of the cave from the viewpoint was mind-blowing; there was 10 times as much ice as the year before! Our first order of business was to re-climb to our high point, but it took us almost 30 minutes just to find a bolt on the wall. So much ice had formed that the floor of the cave was 15 feet higher than it had been the year before, and most of the bolts were buried under the ice. We had known this was going to be a problem; chipping the ice off randomly to find the bolts would take days.
Josh looked at me and said, “Ah, how is this going to work?”
I pulled a metal detector out of my pack. Beep, Problem solved.
The second pitch is just steep for about 15 feet, then dead horizontal for another 20 feet, but that wasn’t apparent when we started bolting it. An upside-down pincushion of icicles blocked our path and we had to break our way through them. Tim and I came up short searching for analogies to describe the upside-down icicle forest, but we dubbed it The Death Star.
A rhythm soon developed: Clean off huge icicles in spasms of destruction, climb a few moves, clip into a precarious tool, clean to the rock, bolt. The third pitch was more horizontal, and took another two days to bolt. We did relatively short pitches (20 to 30) feet due to rope drag around the icicles, belaying on a rock step or on a big icicle where we could get a no-hands rest. Soon our line out the ceiling began to look like an inverted trail through an ice forest.
While we climbed, Christian and Josh shot for about an hour from a location near the side of the cave, then relocated. Minutes later their tracks were covered with car-sized blocks of ice.
After a week we had pulled the lip of the cave in five pitches. The temperatures were rising again, and the forecast was for even warmer days. After we had both climbed the first and second pitch again, Tim and I decided that the best option was to team free the rest of the pitches to at least get them all done, then improve on that style if we had time. I was slated for the fourth pitch. For the lower cave pitches we developed a new belay technique where the leader would climb a pitch, then at the anchor he pulled the rope through while the belayer walked out on the flat ice floor of the cave to belay the next pitch. We used an 80-meter 9.2 rope to make all this work.
I jugged a fixed line to the start of my pitch and told Tim and Josh that I’d just have a look at the hard climbing, then move some bolts that were in the wrong places and pull up a fixed line for Josh to shoot down from the top of the pitch for the redpoint effort. But even though I’d bolted some of the pitch, and knew the bolts were in the wrong place, I suddenly saw a line, and just had to climb it. Some switch in my head flipped and it was game on. Before long I’d climbed too far to back down. Tim knew what was up right away, and the look on his face on the ground far below told me to get after it. Kneebars on ice stalactites led to campusing up one-inch ice that should have ripped, which led to milking a rest on a 40-foot icicle that should have broken. When you see the potential for a dream to become real you do not back down. In several places a fall would have resulted in a leg-breaking swing into a massive icicle only to have the icicle break off and hit you like a 10-ton baseball bat.
It was risky, but I fought through to the belay, and the pitch was the best I had ever done. Deep Throat, Norway, the Flume, Musashi, my plywood ice wall, it all added up to only just being able to do that one pitch. Satisfaction is normally momentary, but the buzz from that pitch would last weeks.
Tim whooped in his English accent, and to his credit, Josh merely said, “Well, I was totally unprepared for that. Nice. Could you do it again for video?”
Tim is a natural-born grappler, but his pitch, the third, had some new moves to teach him. Tim fought a horrendous game of inverted Twister, throwing figure 8s, 9s, and 11s (I’d never seen that one before) while fighting for tool placements in the delicate ice. Just as he was about to reach a no-hands rest, his tool ripped. It’s not enough to be strong, you also have to climb the spray ice carefully. Tim took a long rest, settled down, and sent. That night we vibrated from both the exertion and the joy of the climbing, but once again the temperatures were rising.
We just had time to finish the fifth pitch and strip our gear before a warm rain put the fear of falling ice in us again. The circus scattered.
But then it got cold again. For a week I watched the daily highs and lows from three weather stations in a triangle around Helmcken Falls, and finally emailed Tim. Although my wife was due with our second child in two weeks, she simply said, “Go.” Tim spent $1,000 changing plane tickets. My good friend from Canmore, EJ Plimley, took one look at Pondella’s photos and was ready in an instant despite having a new job.
EJ was the first dedicated ice climber that Tim and I had brought to our “secret” area, and it was his reaction to the cave that confirmed our feelings. It took him over an hour to settle down when he saw the monstrous icy maw. I’d told him it took five minutes to walk from the front to the back of the cavern behind the falls at a steady pace, but he didn’t believe me until it took him 10 minutes. EJ tried the first pitch repeatedly and exclaimed, “Dude. You’ve been totally understating this whole place. This is the best ice climbing ever!”
Amazingly, the ice had not only survived the warm snap, but was building everywhere in a mist of ice droplets. We wanted to push our line to the top of the cave, 450 vertical feet above the ground, but at least twice that distance when measured from the back of the cave. It took a full day just to get the quickdraws up. Once we did that, Tim climbed the fourth pitch, then sprinted out the cave to catch a flight to England. I redpointed the third pitch after Tim left. While it wasn’t perfect style, we had both at least climbed all the pitches; the priority became pushing the line higher, which EJ and I tried to do the next day.
The climbing on the upper headwall is only about 30 degrees overhanging, and we made quick progress until the spray shifted and caught us. Thanks to a large “volcano” spray catcher, the cave is normally dry, but we had gotten high enough to reach the spray cloud. Soon I was encased in a shell of ice, and we packed it in before becoming seasonal fixtures on the wall.
As an afterthought and to make a point that there is room for routes at all difficulty, EJ and I quickly bolted two short pitches on the side of the cave as darkness loomed. Both are easier than WI 5, but climb beautiful spray ice for 60 feet. As I lowered off from the FA, my rope knocked off a football-sized chunk of ice that smacked me in the leg so hard I thought it was broken. EJ lowered me, and I lay on the icy ground twitching and whining until it was clear my femur wasn’t broken after all. After sending down so many tons of icicles I’d gotten slightly casual, and nearly paid dearly for it. But at least there are two pitches easier than WI 10, and the potential is there for dozens more routes. I expect the Helmcken Falls Lodge will be busy next winter, and for decades to come. The past invents the future.
Will Gadd is a Senior Contributing Editor for Rock and Ice, and is now the proud father of his second child, Rose.