BD Athlete Will Gadd Takes On Helmcken Falls with Natural GearThursday, November 15, 2018
Helmcken Falls redefined ice climbing for me and fellow BD athlete Tim Emmett the first time we visited, and almost 10 years later it’s still the standard I compare every ice climb to. The 450-foot falls will never freeze, but the billowing spray ice coats everything around them. It’s like a giant football stadium were cut in half and a waterfall poured off the ceiling; overhanging all the way to the top, wild spray ice gargoyles and demons hanging on until they release. If you’re an ice climber you’ll want to climb, and if you’re not it’s still beautiful in the same way tufas in Greece and Thailand beg to be climbed.
The rock is volcanic flakey junk, so natural gear doesn’t generally hold well, nor are there generally solid cracks to get gear in. Huge, like tennis-court huge, chunks of rock regularly fall off as the spray ice forms; one year I came back in and the full first pitch of a route Tim and I had started the year before was lying on the ground, pieces of rock mixed with the bolts and spray ice that had literally pulled the rock off the wall. Bolts are normally considered solid, but at Helmcken even bolts can be sporty! But for me bolts are always a sort of defeat; they make climbing anywhere possible, but it’s always cooler to climb on natural gear if possible. It’s like using a motor versus running or biking; it just feels better at the end of the day. Ethics are mostly about ego and posing so I don’t think natural gear is more ethical, just personally more interesting. I tried some ice screws at Helmcken, but they didn’t work in the soft ice, so bolts it was. But what if …
Three years ago, I climbed Niagara Falls with Sarah Hueniken, and BD made us some wild “soft ice” pro, Spectres with a small shovel blade welded onto the back. These were made off-hours by the BD design team—a bunch of stoked climbers who loved the idea of making wild new gear. I used the new Spectres in the very soft spray ice to safely climb Niagara, but always wondered, “What else could I do with these?” The answer came to me when looking at the wild spray ice of Helmcken: Climb it with the Niagara spectres, the new Ultralight Ice Screws, and whatever else I could come up with! I just needed someone crazy enough to believe in the idea.
Sarah Hueniken and I climb together a lot in addition to guiding and living together. When I proposed the idea of climbing at Helmcken on natural gear she invoked the Voice of Reason, which basically says don’t be an idiot. I hear this voice from her a lot, and it’s both annoyed me and saved my life. But eventually we agreed to go to Helmcken and try; when you’re really going for it you don’t just want a belayer, you want a partner, an equal. The difference is that a partner can see the big picture and tell you about it whether you want to hear it or not. I was worried about flying Spectres taking out an eyeball or worse as they zinged down the rope at me if I fell, so I got fully Canadian and bought a used CCM hockey helmet to shield my face. I like the Vapor helmet a lot, but BD doesn’t make a hockey face shield for it … yet. That market may be limited. Anyhow, I took a bunch of long falls backed up by the odd bolt at Helmcken, and the Spectres kept ripping, with painful results. I tested the new Ultralight Ice Screws, which are truly amazing on normal water ice, but they just ripped in the spray ice too. My back and chest soon looked like they had been pecked repeatedly by a monster chicken from all the gear rattling down the rope and smacking it. Success was looking doubtful.
Then I remembered I had some special 50cm BD screws from a Greenland project I’m working on. I used these screws to build very deep V-Threads in the soft ice, and like alpine bollards in snow or sand anchors in canyoneering they actually worked! Or at least I didn’t blow them up when I fell on them. The physics are still unclear to me, but basically, it’s force distribution over the curve of the rope against the ice. Yeah, it’s voodoo, but it worked!
I did a bunch of hard tests, and also tested a normal Spectre pounded into a crack. It seemed to hold … Game on!
I was also testing prototypes of the new Reactor Ice Tools, and three new picks. I truly believe we’re in the best possible era ever to be an ice climber; new thin picks (the Natural Ice) displace far less ice than any other picks. They flick in like arrows, a satisfying “ZZT” noise and all. Tools swing with greater ease than ever before, and the new screws weigh less than half of what my old ones did! I’ve been ice climbing for 35 years, and for sure we’ve never had it so good.
I finally sent the first pitch of wildly overhanging spray with some really unusual gear: a spectre tied to a fixed Cobra Ice Tool held down with a stubby ice screw, four v-threads, and Niagara Spectre that seemed pretty good, although I was afraid to test it after getting whalloped when the other ones blew. I had good faith the threads were solid, and although we ran out of time before questing higher, I think it’s possible to climb a lot more routes at Helmcken without bolts. I’m looking forward to testing more gear there next year and will again bring a Voice of Reason to help survive the experience.
A big thanks to Black Diamond for believing in wild new ideas and employing me to test products. It’s been a great 20 plus years of adventure, here’s to more wherever we climb!
--BD Athlete Will Gadd