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Hard New Climb at One of Canada’s Highest Waterfalls

Insta-spray is the newest route at Helmcken Falls, getting a grade of WI9

Helmcken Falls, Canada’s fourth  has been a busy place this winter, with variable conditions, new routes, rescues and more. Over a dozen climbers have visited the remote waterfall, which is found in B.C.’s Wells Gray Provincial Park.

Emma Powell and Neil Gresham have just made the first ascent of Insta-spray, a steep new WI9. “What a journey of picking this route and then learning this new way of climbing, this ice is like no other in the world,” said Powell.

Last week, Canada’s international ice climb competitor Gord McArthur had to be rescued after being hit in the head with rockfall. He was left with minor injuries and a broken helmet. “Yesterday, while walking into the Helmcken cave, rock, or ice, fell and struck me in the head,” said McArthur. “The fact that I’m typing this, and not dead, well, it’s nothing short of a miracle. So many have not been so lucky. But for some reason, I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.”

In January, Ines Papert and Sarah Hueniken established a new multi-pitch route. They freed the first pitch, but have to return to redpoint the second pitch. Over the past 15 years, climbers from around the world have been establishing difficult routes up the steep rock. The routes are protected with bolts, but are often climbed purely on spray ice. To find the bolts each winter, climbers bring metal detectors.

Tim Emmett and Klemen Premrl have established two routes: Mission to Mars in 2020 and Interstellar Spice WI12 in 2016. In 2018, Dani Arnold freed a new hard line called Power Shrimp, which you can see in a film below. In 2014, Will Gadd, Sarah Hueniken, John Freeman and Katie Bono established Overhead Hazard M11, and later in the year, Gadd, Emmett and Premrl climbed Clash of Titans. Back in 2010, Gadd and Emmett established Spray On at WI10, putting the area on the map. The hardest climb to date is Mission to Mars, a 40-metre WI13 that overhangs more than 30 metres.

Gresham, a veteran U.K. trad and ice climber, shared these thought on grades at Helmcken: “Here is my view on the use of WI grades at Helmcken falls. Before visiting the crag I was sceptical about this on the grounds that the routes are protected by bolts and hence, M-grades might seem more applicable. However, as with all things in climbing, you need to actually experience them before you can make an informed comment. Having climbed at Helmcken and put up a new route I can see it both ways: on one hand, because the routes are steep, physical and safe they seem like ‘M-style’ routes, yet on the other, all the climbing takes place on ice, which makes them feel very different (principally because many of the placements are likely to rip and often do!) The one thing I really can vouch for is that a WI8 or 9 at Helmcken will be a harder overall proposition than a typical WI7, even taking into account the fact that it’s bolted (you can’t comprehend how fatiguing it is until you try it). Personally I’m not a stake-holder in this crag and it makes no odds to me whether M or WI grades are used (call this route of mine & Emma’s an M9 if you prefer, but you might get a surprise when you try it!) However I feel it’s respectful to honour the efforts of the pioneers of Helmcken (principally, Will Gadd, Klemen Premrl and Tim Emmett) who are amongst the best and most experienced out there. If these guys feel that WI grades are most suitable then that’s good enough for me.”