Any worthy outdoor adventure must also be a quest. Whether physical, emotional or geographic, the art of exploration and discovering the unknown is what distinguishes historical importance. Being the first to ascend a newly formed frozen waterfall contains a lot of unknowns and, as a result, is quite a prize. This is exactly what Aurora contributor Kennan Harvey witnessed and photographed while he was visiting Banff National Park in Canada with his close friend and professional athlete Will Gadd.
After giving a talk at the postcard-perfect Chateau Lake Louise, Gadd walked out onto the ice and the snow-covered Lake Louise to the base of the frozen Lake Louise Falls which tumbles steeply down a side creek. Intending to just gather his thoughts for another motivational speech, he noticed a slender and elegant column of ice had recently formed along the right side of the 330-foot cascade. Being a local, he knew this was a rarity – and an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
Harvey was also visiting the area, so Gadd asked him to go along the next day to photograph while he climbed the icicle. The resulting images appeared on media outlets and outdoor websites including Daily Mail, and one image from the series was even chosen as the official photograph to represent the 2014 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival sponsored by National Geographic and The North Face.
We caught up with Harvey to hear about the images he produced and to find out more about his experience documenting one of his closest friends perform a very perilous climb.
What kind of gear and what technique did Gadd use to climb the ice?
Will used rigid boots with metal spikes (called crampons) attached to the soles. Gripping an ice tool in either hand – a hammer-like metal shaft with a down-sloping, sharp metal pick – he swung them above his head, very much like a carpenter hammering a nail, often several times until each pick was buried “securely” in the ice. The technique for incrementally moving upwards involves securing both ice tools for hand-holds and then kicking each cramponed foot into the ice to provide enough balance and purchase to stand up and reset each ice tool a little higher. Will also used a rope secured to a waist harness. Occasionally, he would stop and twist in a threaded ice screw with a carabiner, or a metal oval with a spring loaded gate, to attach the rope to the ice screws.
Was there anyone else or anything else supporting him?
At the other end of the rope his partner, or belayer, used a friction device to lock off the rope in the event of a fall. Assuming the ice screw is solid a climber only plummets twice the distance he or she is standing above the last ice screw. As compared to rock climbing, ice climbing falls include many more variables and are phobically avoided. During a successful ascent the rope is never weighted, however, as a “clean” ascent requires that Will holds on and climbs only with his own hands and strength.
How did Gadd originally approach the climb, and what role – besides photographing – did you play in helping him succeed?
The climb is about 100 meters tall, or two climbing rope lengths. The pillar was formed near the middle. I hiked around and rappelled down from the top, kicking the icicle to make sure it was strong enough to hold a climber.
Will is very experienced and although the climbing was not at his limit, he is always very cautious and careful and delicate. There is a saying that “there are no old and bold climbers.” Will has his eyes on the former and believes that the mental aspect of risk assessment is paramount!
Although equipped with ice screws for protection Will decided the slender pillar was not strong enough to use them for that section of the climb. So, as a result, he had to climb for a long length without any protection in case he fell. Essentially he was soloing.
Wow. So, clearly falling was a very real possibility. What else could potentially go wrong? What were you worried about most?
I needed to be very careful not to knock any ice down upon Will while leading but our biggest worry was that the pillar would break under Will’s weight. He climbed it like a rat steeling cheese from a trap.
How did you approach this situation from a photographer’s perspective?
I believe the essence of climbing is the grand outdoor environment so I looked for perspectives including the surrounding mountains and the powerfully sparkling sun which sharply defined the newly formed icicles.
What were some of the challenges you faced when trying to get these shots?
Ice climbing photography is cold, often wet, and vertical. It is important to become as intimately familiar as a blind person reading Braille with ropes and climbing equipment in order to be perfectly positioned and ready to react quickly when the perfect moment arises.
What kind of gear do you use and why?
I really appreciate the DX camera format as it has wider autofocus coverage which I find valuable when operating my camera with only one hand while dangling above an ice climber. I also used a prime, fisheye lens as a prime lens has less sun flare when shooting directly into the sun and the wide angle coverage was important to show the vast environment. Thin gloves made from Windstopper Goretex are also vital.
About Will Gadd & Kennan Harvey
Will Gadd is a multifaceted athlete – climber, paraglider pilot, kayaker and author who has been competing and exploring at the top level for almost 30 years.
Kennan Harvey is even older than Will! After a productive career of climbing and photographing remote granite spires around the world he now specializes in capturing the artistic passion of all outdoor adventurer’s, especially his ten year old daughter, beyond the reach and format of Instagram.
Gadd and Harvey have known each other for many years. In addition to being close friends, the duo often work together to capture the thrill of climbing for Gadd’s sponsors and fans.
See more of Harvey’s work here.