An Inside Look at ‘Mission to Mars,’ the World’s Hardest Ice Climb

Helmcken @jonglassberg @louderthan11
Tim Emmett approaches the crux of Mission to Mars. Photo: @jonglassberg / @louderthan11 Jon Glassberg - Louder Than Eleven

Just over a week ago, professional climbers Tim Emmett and Klemen Premrl ascended the world’s hardest ice route. Their February 9 line, Mission to Mars—the first climb ever rated Water Ice 13—follows spray ice frozen to the wall. The bolted line climbs out of the center of an overhanging amphitheater and gets progressively steeper until it ends.

Helmcken 2 @jonglassberg @louderthan11
The stunning setting of B.C.’s 460-foot Helmcken Falls. Photo: @jonglassberg / @louderthan11 Jon Glassberg - Louder Than Eleven

Mission to Mars is as other-worldly as it sounds, with the drastically overhung route along naturally formed ice for 130 feet out the ceiling of a cave, with the hardest three moves coming at the very end. Its location lies behind Helmcken Falls, in British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park at the wild, southern end of east-central B.C.’s Cariboo Mountains. The fall is 460 feet long, and the amphitheater behind it overhangs 45 degrees.

“Climbing [here] is out of this world,” Premrl wrote on his website. “It’s an incredible experience being surrounded by thousands of ice daggers and a raging waterfall. It’s a powerful place!”

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To succeed at Helmcken Falls, dynamic movement and the precision of a surgeon is needed to hit the ice just right. “The ice is really thin and fragile in places,” Emmett says. “You do have to be incredibly delicate.”

Emmett on the surreal Mission to Mars. Photo: @jonglassberg / @louderthan11 Jon Glassberg - Louder Than Eleven

Beginning in 2010, Helmcken Falls has been center stage for the hardest ice routes in the world. Emmett and Canadian Will Gadd put the area on the map. New, hard routes here include Interstellar Spice (WI 12; 2016) and Nadurra Dura (WI 12; Feb. 5, 2020). Mission to Mars is a four-bolt extension to Nadurra Dura.

Helmcken 3 @jonglassberg @louderthan11
Photo: @jonglassberg / @louderthan11 Jon Glassberg - Louder Than Eleven

Emmett’s additional first ascents here include Spray, Spray On Top, Wolverine, Interstellar Spice, Clash of the Titans and Nadurra Dura. “Of all the ice climbs at Helmcken, [Mission to Mars] is the steepest and overhangs approximately 30m,” Emmett wrote on Instagram.

Emmett, from England but residing in British Columbia and Slovenian climber Premrl made back-to-back ascents of Mission to Mars. Jon Glassberg of the film company Louder Than 11 captured ascents of both Nadurra Dura and Mission to Mars.

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“The climb will be on my mind for a while. Not just because it’s one hell of a route, but because I had to dig really deep, to pull the last hard move on Mission to Mars,” Premrl wrote on Instagram.

Added Emmett, “Climbing in this cave is like a dream.”

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