Words by: Nina Zietman
Daggers of ice hang from the ceiling. Water roars past inches from your face. It’s -35°C outside, your hands have nearly frozen to your ice axe as you dangle 130m above the snow. One slip and you could tumble straight into the cavernous ice hole below.
This is the Helmcken Falls, a 131m high waterfall in the depths of British Columbia, Canada. No one has ever climbed a mixed route (on both ice and rock) here before. If there was anyone who was going to tackle this goliath, it was going to be Will Gadd.
“I get called crazy pretty much every day,” says Gadd when we speak to him from his home in British Columbia.
The roar of the water always makes your chest tighten. If you’re not nervous in there, there’s probably something wrong with you…
Gadd is widely regarded as one of the best ice climbers in the world. He’s won every award in the sport from the World Cup to the Winter X Games, and once climbed a 130ft ice wall for 24 hours straight. Then, one day, Gadd decided to try his hand at paragliding and broke the world record – three times over.
The 47-year-old Canadian knows what it means to take on a challenge, but as he tells Mpora this was by far the most difficult thing he’s ever climbed.
“It was probably the toughest two weeks of my life. I wanted to climb it because it’s the hardest mixed climbing route I’ve ever seen in my life.
What makes the Helmecken Falls so tough? “It’s just a nightmare place to climb really,” explains Gadd. The combination of sub zero temperatures, gushing water, bad visibility and a mixture of craggy rock and 10m long icicles makes for a hugely complicated and high-risk ascent.
“The waterfall is always flowing and the air temperature is -35°C. Whenever you mix cold and water together, it’s always a really bad combination. Ice breaks off and forms overnight from the mist. Ropes freeze. It feels more like ocean sailing than climbing,” says Gadd.
There aren’t many climbing environments like this in the world. It was only when Gadd stumbled across a photo of the falls online that the idea came into his head to climb it. “Somebody had actually written beneath the picture, ‘No one will ever climb this, except maybe some crazy guy like Will Gadd’”, he says laughing.
Seven years of preparation later, he finally did.
The Frozen Titans is Gadd’s new film, documenting the grueling 18-day mission to conquer the Helmcken Falls – from training full time for six months to worrying whether the weather would warm up and call the mission off completely.
“Just figuring out where to climb and put the safety gear in so you don’t die was hard. That took us two weeks of really brutal work. Climbing it was almost nice in comparison. But I honestly didn’t know whether this would work or not until the very end.”
I’m really happy to have done it, but honestly it kicked the shit out of me…
Despite intense training on some of the hardest single pitch mixed climbs in the world, Gadd feels it was barely enough. The ascent took a serious toll on his body.
“I’m still injured from that climb,” he says. “I’ve got elbow tendonitis. The finger I broke is only just starting to work well again. It really took a pound of flesh out of me.” One of Gadd’s team members, John Freeman, hasn’t climbed since.
Was there any part of it that he found enjoyable? “Well, the climbing is fantastic but for me the real satisfaction was in executing something that was extremely difficult in a tough environment really well. Some things are fun, but this probably isn’t one of them.”
Has anything motivated him to do more climbs like this? “No! I was destroyed after that. I’m really happy to have done it, but honestly it kicked the shit out of me.”
That’s not to say Gadd isn’t going to keep climbing. He’s jetting off to Africa this week to climb ice on top of Mount Kilimanjaro, plus there’s also some top secret plans in the works for this winter that he can’t reveal yet.
Despite the pain and obstacles Gadd faced in order to tackle the Helmcken Falls, he’s not deterred for good. “Climbing is essentially puzzle solving and that’s what I love about it. It’s the process of figuring out things on the fly that’s really interesting to me.”
“Sometimes in life, you’re willing to do drastic things to reach big goals,” says Gadd. “And this climb certainly was that.”
Watch Will Gadd’s film, The Frozen Titans, about his mission to climb the Helmcken Falls at the European Outdoor Film Tour next month. It kicks off in London on Saturday 1 November before touring around the UK. More information and ticket sales can be found here.