Sending the World's Hardest Ice ClimbThursday, December 15, 2016
Climbing at Helmcken Falls is out of this world. It’s an incredible experience being surrounded by thousands of ice daggers and a raging waterfall. It’s such a powerful place, the cave feels alive and the 50-meter ice cone that the waterfall drops into changes constantly.
Usually ice climbers place ice screws in ice as a form of protection. Climbing on ice with bolts in the rock is unique, as is climbing at Helmcken Falls. The climbing here is vastly overhanging and the ice is created by spray from the waterfall and then freezes onto the side of the cliff. This ice is much softer than normal water ice and as a result ice screws placed in it are not strong enough to hold a fall … hence the use of bolts.
Helmcken Falls has a vertical drop of 140 meters and overhangs by about 45 degrees, depending on where you climb. Every year the ice forms in its own unique way. It requires consistent temperatures below freezing for six to eight weeks for the ice cone to grow high enough to allow climbing in the cave without getting drenched. If you go there before this, it’s like going ice climbing in a shower, with the water freezing on anything it touches.
This year, getting to the base was like going on a magical mystery adventure through slots and crevasses. It was mental! And the scale of Helmcken Falls always blows you away. It’s much bigger than it looks.
Every year the spray ice covers up the bolts placed from the years before, so it takes time to find them. We borrowed the secret weapon (a metal detector) from a friend of ours, Will Gadd, which we used to find bolts. Sometimes the ice is 3 meters thick so locating bolts in this wasn’t an option. The ice formed by the freezing spray is much softer than water ice and screws don't hold, so to climb past the thicker sections you have to run it out and climb without additional protection!
One of the advantages of the soft ice is that the huge 10-meter daggers hanging from the ceiling can be knocked off with minimal force. So we “cleaned” the pitch before trying to climb it.
Our dream was to climb to the top of the ice, just below the lip of the cave in one giant pitch. Conditions were ideal. We uncovered eight bolts from Clash Of the Titans (WI 10+), a route we established in 2014 and went left and added another 20 bolts to the top of the ice.
We had four days before the temperatures were forecasted to go above freezing, which would make climbing in the cave too dangerous. Everything was set, but the question was … could we climb it? We spent two days trying to climb the monster pitch, both falling in different places.
The first 40 meters of the route is the crux, with 16 bolts before you reach the upper headwall covered in ice madness! The route starts up a 45-degree wall with thin ice placements sometimes only 8 to 10 millimeters thick. The first crux is pulling around a roof on ice that was so thin you could see your pick through it. Keeping your feet on is crucial so that your body stays still and doesn’t swing around. Any change in direction of the ice axe breaks the placement so you have to engage your core and climb with poise … otherwise you fall hard.
The upper 40-meter headwall is covered with thick ice, climbing over multiple ice roofs, hanging daggers and mushrooms. General outrageousness leads to the final crux, where everything becomes even steeper and the ice turns into snow.
We knew the only way to get to the top was by making no mistakes. Every placement had to be perfect.
After 28 bolts and 80 meters of overhanging spray ice, we had established Interstellar Spice WI 12. We both think it's the hardest, steepest and coolest ice route we've done and sets a new level of difficulty for any route of this style. Possibly the ultimate winter climbing experience!