Ice climbers have discovered the spray ice behind Helmcken Falls and are describing it as the most difficult ice climbing in the World.
Photographs of their explorations have created a storm on the Internet and are featured on a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated magazine.
“I am sure of little in life, but of this I am sure: The Helmcken Falls spray ice cave is absolutely the wildest, best, most insane ice climbing area I’ve ever seen,” said ice climber Will Gadd. The Canmore resident along with British extreme athlete Will Emmett pioneered routes up the cave behind 141 m (463 ft) high Helmcken Falls last winter and this.
Gadd saw a photo of the falls several years ago and was intrigued. He was even more intrigued when he heard about the ice spray that forms behind the falls in winter and thought about the ice climbing possibilities.
“They said the waterfall was 450 feet high but I didn’t believe them. When I looked at the picture I thought it was more like 150 feet,” said Gadd. “It wasn’t until we got to the viewpoint that we got some idea of the scale of the place. Then when we got down to the base of the falls itself we realized it’s huge.”
Last winter he and Emmett based themselves out of Helmcken Falls Lodge and explored a route they called Spray On.
“It’s a very complicated environment. It took us about four days just to figure out how to climb,” said Gadd. “It’s like an Indiana Jones movie with spears hanging from the ceiling waiting to fall on somebody, except the spears are 40 to 50 feet long and made of ice.”
Just getting to the base of the falls requires skill and the proper equipment. Gadd described the ice cone as like a mini-glacier with crevasses. Climbers need to rope up in order to cross it to reach the cave with any degree of safety.
“If you fall in one of those crevasses, you’re not coming back,” he said.
This January Gadd and Emmett returned and climbed five pitches to reach the lip of the overhang.
Because of the risks involved, they used at least two bolts into the rock for all belays, and sometimes three.
Aware that the waterfall is a popular tourist attraction they are taking steps to endure minimal impact. All their bolts are placed where they can’t be seen from above plus the climbers are taking away any quickdraws and slings.
Gadd noted that even when they are climbing in the cave they aren’t usually visible to people at the viewpoint.
Gadd and E.J. Plimley, also of Canmore, were back at the falls last week.
“My wife is due with our second child in two weeks so I shouldn’t be here but it’s such an amazing place,” he said.
“I’ll be back in summer with my family,” Gadd promised. “This place is like an obsession.”
For more about the story and more photos, see Gadd’s blog at http://gravsports.blogspot.com/.