Behind the Shot: Will Gadd on Mixed Climbing Overhead Hazard at Helmcken Falls, BC
Climber Will Gadd and photographer Christian Pondella, a dream team athlete-photographer duo with 15 years of experience working together, worked together to get this shot on the first ascent of Overhead Hazard. Will claims it is the hardest route multi-pitch mixed route in the world so far and the coldest he has ever been—now that’s saying something, considering he a heck of a lot of time ascending ice … and he’s Canadian. Will, Christian, and their fellow climbers figured out a new way to keep warm despite the raging waterfall and huge falling icicles from above. Read on to discover how.
Adventure: What were you thinking at this moment?
Will Gadd: Mainly that I didn’t want to fall off. I’d just climbed more than 500 feet of really difficult and tiring terrain. If I fell off I didn’t think I’d have the strength or will to try again, so I was totally focused on putting all I had into every move. Plus if you fall off here and drop your tools they fall into what we were calling the “Cauldron of Death” directly below me, and you’re not going to get them out of there ever, so it’s expensive!
A: Where, exactly, are you?
WG: Helmcken Falls, which is in Wells Gray Provincial Park in central British Columbia, Canada.
A: We know you love Helmcken Falls. What’s special about this route? Does it have a name?
WG: This route is called Overhead Hazard, named for all the giant icicles hanging over your head as you walk around the base. It’s a constant “head bob” to look up and make sure there isn’t an icicle above you. They break off regularly, and weigh as much as a bus or something–they’d smush you pretty effectively.
A: Was this your first time on it?
WG: Yes, it was a first ascent I did with John Freeman, Sarah Hueniken, and Katie Bono. We worked three weeks on the route before I sent it bottom to top in one day.
A: Tell us about the waterfall. What challenges did it pose for you?
WG: The waterfall is both the reason for the incredible spray ice and the main problem in that it sometimes sprays you… I have never been as cold as I was on this climb, it was just brutal.
A: How did you deal with the cold?
WG: Bitter cold with a misting of freezing water. We had temperatures down to -35C; at that temperature the mist was actually less of a problem as it had already frozen by the time it reached us on the wall. One day the waterfall made about two feet of snow, pretty amazing. We dealt with the cold with the usual strategies, such as big down jackets, warm boots, careful heat management, down pants.
But we also came up with some new strategies, including using a portaledge and a sleeping bag at the belays to keep the belayer warm. If you had to hang in your harness very much your feet froze—we all froze our toes a little, something I’ve never had happen in more than 30 years of ice climbing.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A: Does this kind of scenery get old?
WG: Never. Every single day we would come into the waterfall and think, “Wow.” It looks wild in a picture and it is, but add in the roar of the waterfall, the freezing mist, and the difficult of the route. and we were never ever bored!
A: How many routes did you do over how many days?
WG: We did one route from the bottom to the top, seven pitches, and I think it’s the hardest multi-pitch mixed route in the world by a good margin.
A: You and photographer Christian Pondella are such a dream team. How many years have you been working together? What has changed over the years?
WG: We’ve been working together for about 15 years. Christian has shot some of the best and most difficult moments of my life, and I really trust him not only to do his job at a high standard but also to make my team stronger. Plus he’s got a great sense of humor, which is handy when the wheels have come completely off, which is pretty standard in settings like this. There is no “how to” manual for a lot of what we do together, it’s always a great challenge and pleasure to figure it out safely together.