There's not much that needs to be said about the 200m high Helmcken Falls other than this: it is currently the hardest mixed-route ice and rock climb in the known world.
The fourth-highest waterfall in Canada is backdropped by a massive, upside-down amphitheatre of overhanging rock. Spray from the waterfalls hit the wall, covering it in a thick (and sometimes thin) layer of ice. Canadian Will Gadd (currently nominated for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year) put up an incredible first ascent on Helmcken Falls earlier this year.
Gadd first spotted the climb over six years ago, and had his eye on it ever since. "Years ago I walked into Helmcken and I said 'somebody's gonna climb that line'," says Gadd. "I knew it had to be done." He also knew right away it would be the ultimate challenge. "There's no manual on how to climb at Helmcken Falls," he says. "You make it up. You solve it. And that's a big part of the attraction for me."
Just getting to the climb is no easy task. Even though it's not far from Clearwater, British Columbia, in Canada, you can't exactly walk there – to get to the bottom, you rappel in from the top.
The climb required that Gadd and his team would spend two weeks rigging and bolting the climb, deep in the middle of winter. But before they could do that though, Gadd first had to check it out during the summer. "I wanted to rappel off the edge and see what's down there," he says. "There's a lot of questions about what we were putting our bolts into – you have no idea if the only holding that rock into the wall is a thin layer of ice."
With the route properly scouted, Gadd and team returned in winter, ready to attempt the route he calls Overheard Hazard – the hardest mixed climbing route in the world. Days of sub-zero temperatures went by as they drilled and bolted the route, first from the bottom up, and then the top down, finally connecting them in the middle on a wickedly cold day.
When the weather cleared the next day, Gadd and the team returned to go for the non-stop link-up of all seven pitches. To climb it 'clean', Gadd would have to do each pitch without falling – or go back and start that pitch again.
After eight hours of navigating rock and ice, Gadd climbed over the ledge and radioed down to his team: he'd made it, and it was one of the best moments of his life. "Hundreds of hours, all those years of climbing, just to get right here, right now," he says. “Right here, right now, I'm really stoked."
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