Overhead Hazard: Helmcken Falls 2014
200M, Helmcken Falls, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC, January 28th to February 13, 2014. Will Gadd, John Freeman, Sarah Hueniken, Katie Bono. M Hard, Alpine Chaos Grade.
Approach: From the viewpoint for Helmcken Falls walk toward the falls and down into the first drainage. Scramble down to the bottom or do a 15M rappel. Follow the drainage downhill to the lip of a 30M waterfall. Fix a rope. Most years there’s enough ice to climb out, fun grade 4. From the bottom of the rap follow the cliff band toward the falls for 10 minutes to the “grassy knoll,” which is actually grassi in summer. Say, “Holy SHIT, it’s way bigger than I thought!” when you see the falls from the knoll, everyone does. Realize that you’re standing under serious overhead hazard; if the sun hits the wall above you (and it does) big rock and ice blocks start falling off in short order. You are now in the land of Overhead Hazard big time. Descend the knoll, and head for the back of the cave around the carcasses of giant icicles and rock blocks. Realize that everything that falls from above slides down the ice from both sides toward where you’re walking. Walk faster. When you’re mostly behind the waterfall look for a big dish with icicles hanging out of it. That’s the start of Overhead Hazard. Knock all the icicles off above the start so you have a “safe zone.” Throwing ice works, the spray ice falls off really easily, and often starts a chain reaction. Think more of “start zones” and “safe zones” like in skiing and alpine climbing than mixed cragging, this place is fucking hazardous if not treated with total respect and care. Even with that it’s still hazardous, it’s just not a mixed cragging environment at all. Death lurks overhead, limit exposure time and do the “Helmken Head Fake” and look up continually to see what you’re standing under. The climbing is generally well protected, but beware of where you’ll swing if you fall off–hitting one of the big icicles after a longish fall would be bad. Icy ropes are a standard problem when moving around on the wall; realize that clearing the ice will take time, and may not be possible. Plan accordingly.
Descent: You’re already at the top on the river right (looker’s left or viewpoint side) of the Myrtle river. Follow the height of the land keeping the drainage on your left for about 20 minutes to the road. Snowshoes useful. It’s very difficult to rap the route as it overhangs about 70M…. Every single pitch is radically overhanging except the last one, it’s just overhanging.
p1. The warmup. M10, 30M. Follow spray ice up the line of least resistance. Belay on the right side of the water ice for warming up, or move around the icicle to another belay if continuing up.
P2. , 20M horizontal give or take. The Business, M fun and hard enough. Use the left belay at the start, pull the rope through the first pitch and bring a large pulley to reduce rope drag from the ground. A good ab workout, and the arms wont’ be spared either. Ends on the icicle, or keep going for more pump! An 80M rope may get you back to the ground depending on where the ice floor is… You’ll need to extend most bolts with long slings to cut drag, along with the pulley on the belay. The terrain is super 3-dimensional.
P3. (may and has been done with Pitch 2 for more fun). 20M. M11 or M13+/Hype if combined with P2. You can belay from the ground with a 100M (thanks Sterling! rope most likely.
Steep, positive holds, head right then back left to the small belay cave at the top. Nice. If you’re doing pitch 2 and 3 together skip a few draws on 2 plus the last draw on 2 and the first draw on 3, extend the second draw, the rope runs well.
p4. 40M, M11. Go right for a bout 5M then up trending left at the top. The fourth belay is mostly hanging, mad place! Still really, really steep… Enjoy the belly flop onto the ledge, it’s more complicated than it looks, ha ha!
p5, 40M, m11. Still steep, and some nasty long pulls when you’re starting to get tired… Go right about 5M below the belay, straight up is in incredibly bad rock. The fifth belay is right behind the waterfall, coolest spot ever.
p6, M10+, 30M. Still biting. Traverse left watching out for overhead hazard, then up for about 10M, belay at a two-bolt stance on the left.
p7. M7, 30M. To the top, nice thin ice and spray climbing with well-spaced bolts. A red camalot may be useful for the exit, but if you’ve made it that far you’re probably too tired to be scared anyhow. You can reach the trees with an 80M rope. See “descent” notes for how to get back to your car.
I first saw this line years ago when Tim Emmett and I visited the cave for the first time. There are actually some traditional water ice daggers lurking out of wild mini-caves and scoops, and connecting them looked really hard–so much radically overhanging terrain for so much vertical gain, just too much… Plus at that point I was interested in spray ice, but swore I’d be back for the wildest mixed line I had ever seen. In January and February of 2014 we put 21 days of work into getting Overhead done. Twenty plus days where we all literally froze our feet at -30, took whippers bolting on lead, got turned into icicles by the spray, and generally put everything we had into the ascent. I literally almost died on this line due to hypothermia and the resulting cloudy mind, it’s full-on.
To climb pitch after pitch of this sort of steep climbing I trained harder than I ever had in my life (with the FA crew, the mojo was strong), and had my best fitness level ever. But that wasn’t enough–it took four of us working together for more than two weeks to get this line established and climbed. It was a true team effort in the same sense as an alpine route, and the FA credit reflects that. To climb this route takes not only the climbing effort but also just unearthing the holds, scraping the new rime and spray ice off the upper pitches, etc. etc. Just organizing the route to climb even with it bolted is a multi-day effort. All pitches were redpointed bottom to top in order in a day, with one fall on pitch 4 that required doing the pitch again before continuing on to the top with no falls.
“Overhead Hazard” is also in a really serious environment—it’s much more like an alpine big wall than a standard mixed or drytooling crag; you’ll need to be constantly monitoring hazards, temperature, rockfall, water flow, etc. This is why I gave it an only half-joking alpine grade in addition to a mixed grade–you’ll need to be both solid at recognizing alpine hazards and able to climb technically hard. I’d says this is the most complicated environment I have ever climbed in–this place can kill you faster than most climbing areas if you don’t bring a solid game to the table. But the climbing is so much fun that it’s worth it!
The first three pitches are relatively accessible and fun, and they are crafted to be enjoyed–good bolting, standard rad fun mixed climbing (once you’re in your safe zone at the start!). Bring some coloured children’s sidewalk (please no paint like is common in Europe, this is a provincial park) chalk, there are hundreds of hold possibilities, having the right holds ticked makes a big difference. Most of the “good holds” are solid and cleaned well, but some require frozen mud to hold together. Make a safe zone at the bottom, go hard!, But if you got hurt on the upper wall a rescue would be very complicated–there isn’t a manual on how to long-line someone off from behind a waterfall. A 100M rope is a nice safety feature as you can lower to the side of the spray cone from the top of the 4th with a 100M rope. After that you’re on your own.
Take care with big temperature swings–too warm and some of the blocks the bolts are in might come apart, and the ice definitely will. This place needs to be frozen up HARD to be reasonable. If it gets too cold then icicles start firing off and landing in the approach area… Spicy. For safety it’s best to minimize your time exposed to overhead hazard.
We made a film of the effort with Reel Water Productions. Can’t say enough good things about these guys–they were shooting in conditions I found really challenging to even climb in, solid effort and a big part of the team. The best part of a trip like this is often in working together to keep it safe, and coming home better friends. We did both.
Helmcken Falls is located in Wells Gray Provincial Park, about 30 minutes from Clearwater, BC. Kamloops is the closest airport. The road is well-mainted to the falls viewpoint.
The Helmcken Falls Lodge is the place to stay. They know a lot about climbing at Helmcken, and are a great resource. Their winter rates include breakfast and a three-course dinner and are a total bargain. They aren’t always open in winter as it’s their slack season, best to check ahead of time, and book on their site directly–they don’t use the web booking sites during the winter. Say hello to Andrew, Lynn and Carly for us, great people who will treat you well.
Finally, none of this would be possible without the help from Red Bull, Arc’teryx (thanks for the emergency shipment!), Black Diamond (we used every one of the 50 draws Holly, thanks!), Scarpa, Sterling and Smith Optics. Thank you.