When I first heard about Helmcken Falls like a lot of people I focused on the number. Will Gadd and Tim Emmett, who pioneered the first route on the overhanging spray ice in the cave behind the falls, gave it the unprecedented WI10 grade. Knowing Will (and having since come to know Tim) I did not doubt the difficulty of the climbing, but I questioned to what extent a bolt-protected route up some icicles dripping from the ceiling of a cave could be called an ice climb. Whenever people asked me when I would go and check the place out, I answered that while it was undoubtedly very cool, I had better things to do, thank you very much. It was not until last month that I finally made the long drive to Wells Gray Provincial Park. There were a few other people going, so I figured at the very least it would be a fun social time. And it was January in the Rockies, not exactly prime time for going high.
The waterfall looked big from the viewpoint, but it was not until I stood on the spray cone behind it that I grasped the scale of the place. And it was not until I lowered off from my first route, pumped silly from swinging at ice the consistency of styrofoam on a near-horizontal roof, that I felt the magic of spray ice climbing. Every day for the next few days we would wake up at a civilized hour and head down into the canyon. There we would frontpoint with our crampons above our heads, attempt to keep the pump at bay by throwing knee bars behind slippery blobs, have picks slice through cold cotton wool, and lower off with helmets glazed with frozen spray. After a while I could not care less about the numbers but, to quote Ben Firth, I just wanted to "get amongst." Simply put, spray ice climbing is the most fun - exhilarating, addictive fun - one can have as an ice climber. I cannot wait to go back.
Helmcken Falls from the tourist viewpoint. A few "moderates" climb the ice-plastered buttress left of the waterfall, but the real business lies hidden behind it. The only route to date to climb all the way to the rim tops out right of the waterfall.
The waterfall looks big from the viewpoint, but it is only when you are standing below it that you can appreciate that it is a small river, not some piddly stream, that launches over the lip.
One of the coolest features of the falls is the giant spray cone. In many ways it behaves like a glacier (one that forms and melts every year!): it flows and so develops crevasses and seracs. At its centre lies a witches' cauldron where the waterfall pounds down from 140 metres above.
You would have a hard time climbing these pencil-sized drips...
... but even the biggest ice feathers tend to break off with a light touch. One has no choice but to clear them out of the way and climb on what is left.
Climbing on the 30-metre long routes in the cave felt like cragging at the base of a big wall.
It is ice climbing? Mixed climbing? True, after a few goes at a route you are hooking more than swinging,...
... but provided you can maintain tension through your core, you can kick into the blobs stuck to the ceiling,...
... and unlike hooking a solid drytool placement, you never know when a pick will slice through the soft ice.
Tim Emmett climbs Wolverine (Spray Ice 11 or so), while Klem Premerl belays and Wiktor Skupinski shoots.
The highlight of each day: dinner at Helmcken Falls Lodge. Given the quality and quantity of the food, it is no wonder we were ripping those ice blobs off!