Canadians Climb Gigantic Half-Frozen Waterfall


Will Gadd climbing the right side of Hunlen Falls in British Columbia. Photo © Christian Pondella.

Will Gadd and EJ Plimley have climbed 1,000-foot Hunlen Falls in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, east of Bella Coola, British Columbia, the first ascent of Canada’s third-highest waterfall. The climb was remarkable not just for its size but also for its remote location and extreme danger from falling ice. As in: Much of the climb was in danger of collapsing. 

In late December, Gadd, Plimley, David Dornian, and Andrew Querner drove 15 hours from Canmore, Alberta, toward Bella Coola, followed by another hour of four-wheeling on a snowy road, and then two days of walking to base camp below Hunlen Falls, which plunges in a single drop into a narrow canyon. The climbers were dismayed to discover the waterfall wasn’t completely frozen; they watched a huge ice avalanche and decided to bail. “I have never seen ice and water in such a massive and volatile mix,” Gadd said. “Ice forms on the sides of the falls, behind the falls, and wherever the wind blows the water. The water then eats the bond that holds the ice to the wall, and it all falls off.” 

Gadd looking a little dubious at the top of Hunlen Falls, the third-highest waterfall in Canada. Photo © Christian Pondella.

Will Gadd and EJ Plimley, happy to be alive. Photo © Christian Pondella.

On February 12, Gadd and Plimley drove northwest again, this time with photographer Christian Pondella and filmmaker Scott Simper. The new plan was to fly in a ski plane to Turner Lake, at the top of the waterfall, and then rappel down the side of the falls and climb back out. But the waterfall still was not well-frozen, and huge ice avalanches pounded the canyon. After a day of observing the chaos, they climbed a two-pitch line on the side of the canyon’s upper walls and then scoped a line on the right side of the main falls, hoping for cold temperatures overnight. 

In the morning, with temperatures well below zero (F), Gadd and Plimley rappelled down the wall, leaving bomber anchors and plotting a line they hoped would be protected beneath “blocking features.” The two stopped 50 feet above the bottom of the canyon and started climbing as quickly as possible. With Plimley sucking down cough syrup to mask the effects of a nasty cold, Gadd led the whole way. 

Enormous blocks of ice pounded into the canyon to their left, but the climbers were untouched as they raced upward. Gadd found only four solid ice screws in the first 600 feet; the rest of the protection was placed in nearby rock, which fortunately was solid granite. “I’ve climbed ice and on trad gear for more than 25 years, and every single nut, pin, and cam I found and placed involved every other climb I’ve ever done,” Gadd said. Near the top, they found an 80-foot-long, two-foot-wide crack in the ice that hadn’t been there when they rappelled down the route. The frozen waterfall had “pulled table-sized slabs of rock out of the wall that were still stuck in the ice, sort of like what you see in a glacial moraine but on an ice climb,” Gadd said. “It’s just hard to figure out how that even happens.” 

After six long pitches and eight hours they were on top. Gadd gave Hunlen Falls the standard Canadian Rockies rating for unratable climbs: 5.9 A2. “Maybe 5.10 A2,” he said. “It was kind of hard.” 

Date of Ascent: February 2009 

Source: Will Gadd, Gravsports.blogspot.com 

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Watch helicopter video of towering Hunlen Falls in summer on YouTube:

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