‘The stars aligned’: Ice climbers make first-ever ascent of Canada’s tallest waterfall

A trio of Canadian climbers has mounted the first-ever successful ascent of the country's tallest waterfall. Courtesy: Peter Hoang

This winter’s frigid weather created the perfect conditions for three intrepid ice climbers to make the first-ever ascent of Canada’s tallest waterfall.

At 440 metres tall, Della Falls in Vancouver Island’s Strathcona Provincial Park has been an insurmountable climbing challenge — until late last month.

Over four cold February days, ice climbers Chris Jensen, Will Gadd and photographer Peter Hoang made the trek to the falls.

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Just getting to the base of the falls presented its own set of challenges.

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In a Facebook post, Gadd — an ice climber with 35 years of experience — said the climbers had to take a 35-kilometre boat ride across Great Central Lake, followed by a 15-kilometre snowshoe hike. Only then could they start scaling up the frozen falls.

Compared to climbing other icy surfaces, there are some unique challenges that waterfall ice climbing presents, he explained.

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“At Della Falls, there was water running behind the ice, and at one point, Chris actually punched through,” Gadd said.

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“I was being very light, but Chris, being grizzly-sized, punched through the actual side of the waterfall as we were rappelling down.”

Gadd has ice-climbed all over the world, from the Himalayas to the Andes, and called Della Falls one of the best climbing spots of them all.

“It’s really high-quality climbing,” he said.

“It’s steep, it’s elegant, it’s all the things that you want. It’s this blue streak going into the sky, and that’s what you want,” Gadd said.

Hoang, the photographer for the trip and an experienced ice and rock climber, was given eight hours’ notice to come shoot the trek. Originally from Hamilton, Ont., Hoang now lives in Canmore, Alta., and believes this climb was a rare one.

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“For a high-volume waterfall like that, you would need a really deep freeze, and especially on the West Coast like that, I would imagine that wouldn’t happen too often,” Hoang said.

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While the climb has now been proven to be possible, Hoang still thinks there is a risk that future attempts might not yield a successful climb.

“I think somebody will, somebody who is just totally psyched to go on an adventure and potentially not actually do it because you can’t see it with your eyes before so it’s a huge gamble,” he said.

It took the climbers two days and seven pitches to summit the waterfall. Pitches, or rope lengths, are the area between two ledges to which climbers anchor their belay points.

Jensen, who is a member of the Alpine Club of Canada Vancouver Island, had been looking forward to the opportunity to climb the falls for several years.

“We were stoked on what we found. Climbing conditions were ideal,” Jensen wrote in a Facebook post.

“The stars aligned to let us make the first winter ascent.”

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