Joe Terravecchia, Will Mayo and Anna Pfaff have completed the first ascent of the monstrous 1,260-foot vertical and overhanging spray
ice line to the right of Pissing Mare Falls, in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.
Dreamline (WI6+) finally came into condition this season. And we use the term ‘into condition’ loosely, as the line is composed of fragile, creamy,
spray ice. Spray ice, compared with typical ice formed from dripping water, is formed of accreted spray from a waterfall, which produces ice of less
solid substance (Read: Extra Scary). “Spray ice is different, the typical rules of ice formation will not be relevant here,” Mayo noted as
he stood beneath the towering frozen waterfall.
Over the last two decades Joe Terravecchia and Casey Shaw have voyaged—via various resourceful methods—to the waterfall repeatedly, patiently
waiting for the king line to come into condition. Despite the suitable condition of the route this season, bad weather earlier this month plagued Terravecchia
and Shaw and prohibited any ascent attempt by the duo. After Shaw had to return home, Terravecchia recruited Mayo and Pfaff to take advantage of a
window of great weather and conquer the beast.
Rock and Ice got in touch with the team and below we have Will Mayo’s account of the ascent of this long-awaited route, the technicalities of
the 400-meter monster, and his thoughts on the privilege of completing this coveted route.
When the rope stopped, Anna and I were silent. We were each praying for a solid belay. This belay could thwart the whole climb… it was the major unknown… could the ice on this pitch be too thin and unreliable for a solid belay?
When Joe yelled, “Off!” We whooped.
When he yelled “Bomber rock gear!” We screamed with euphoria.
We knew this thing was going down.
Climbing the giant wall of spray ice to the right of the Pissing Mare Waterfall, which pours into the eastern end of Western Brook Pond, was the dream of Joe Terravecchia and Casey Shaw for twenty years.
Since 1997, when the two men first saw the waterfall, the pair have established numerous climbs around the Gros Morne National Park, including The
Last Beothuk (WI 5) and White Drift (WI 6) and Spraylordius (WI 6+), which flank the left side of the waterfall. However, these two climbs were kept secret because the king line, the vertical and overhanging wall to the right of the falls, eluded them.
The prevailing westerly winds in Newfoundland make the left side of the falls more susceptible to formation of spray ice, but these routes are rarely in climbable condition, and the right side has always been too thin to be climbed safely.
The access is also difficult. Western Brook Pond is actually a fjord and so it rarely freezes well enough to allow safe passage across the ice. Joe and Casey undertook several adventurous activities to reach the waterfall, much to the delight and amusement of the locals—“What've you got this year... an Airboat?!” They bravely drove over the ice on snowmobiles, wearing survival suits just in case the ice failed; they tried an airboat with a giant fan on the back to navigate the partly frozen waters; they came in from the top via a 90-minute bush-snowmobile journey through the labyrinthine forests and mountains of the Gros Morne backcountry; they even tried a ski-plane. But year after year, over the course of half a dozen attempts, they were shut down: sometimes by access issues, sometimes by the notoriously inhospitable weather, and always by a dearth of ice.
This year, they got lucky… in part. When they descended a long snow gully to the west of the falls and caught their first glimpse of the wall this season, they were overjoyed to see it plastered with ice. This year, a prevailing easterly flow had loaded the wall with creamy golden spray ice. However, an easterly flow in this part of the world means one thing: the infamous “Nor’easter” low-pressure anticyclonic systems that sit over the northern Atlantic and hammer the east coast of North America with foul weather.
Joe and Casey climbed a couple of pitches from the bottom in “dirty weather” (the Newfoundlander term for stormy). They lowered into the top pitch and were convinced it would go relatively safely, but the weather was far too inclement for them to climb. The wind here regularly howls so hard that it can knock a person to the ground.
After eight days, Casey’s time was up and he had to return home to New Mexico. Dismayed, they returned to the village of Rocky Harbour just as a spell of perfect weather arrived.
Anna Pfaff and I were in town, working on a direct start to our route Apocalypse Now (WI 7 M9) above the more accessible Ten Mile Pond. A fortuitous meeting with Joe at the Gros Morne Cabins, which is the customary lodging for visiting climbers, ended in an invitation for us to join on an attempt of the route. Joe has been a role model for me for decades, assuming a somewhat mythical status among North American ice climbers. He is the epitome of the undercover hardman. In our eyes it would have been preposterous to decline such a proposition from Joe Terravecchia!
It was clear that Casey was sad to leave, but his goodwill toward Joe and the generosity of spirit was palpable. Casey wanted the route to go down for Joe, regardless of whether or not he was physically present for the send. We knew then, as well as we know now, that this route is more his and Joe’s than it is mine and Anna’s but his benevolence is a fine testament to his character.
After describing the overwhelming intimidation factor of the wall with wild eyes, and wishing us a hearty, “Good luck,” Casey left. Joe, Anna and I packed up and made final arrangements with our guides and Joe’s long-time friends, Frank and Mike, for a 5 a.m. start the following morning.
In darkness early Tuesday morning, the five of us snowmobiled for an hour and a half through the scraggly forest and rolling mountain tops of Gros Morne to reach the top of the falls at first light. We descended the long snowy gully and reached the shore of Western Brook Pond at 8:30 a.m.
I gawked at the massive frozen mass of bizarre ice formations. Our intended climb was adorned with giant medusa heads and bulbous daggers, which seemed to defy the laws of physics; the giant formations hung by scrawny appendages, like Popeye’s forearms from his emaciated upper arms.
"Spray ice is different, the typical rules of ice formation will not be relevant here," I thought.
We ascended the slope to the base of the wall, which was a giant talus field of ice boulders and an indicator of how volatile this ice climb is. We resolved to move fast. We roped up at 9 a.m. and simul-climbed smears of water-ice up the 500-foot protected ramp to the right of the lower icefall to reach the wall adorned with golden spray ice.
We quickly climbed the 230-foot second pitch of grade 4 spray ice up into the safety of a spacious ice cave. I climbed as fast as I ever have, the hair on the back of my neck standing erect in fear of the looming, bizarre and Dr. Seuss-like, giant twisted icicles that hung precariously, like time bombs, hundreds of feet above our heads. The third and fourth pitches, each 100-feet long, were about grade 5, but the ice was different, comprised of mottled, bulbous ice that exploded when struck with our tools to expose strange layered ice beneath with a core of white snowy crystals. Joe led the 100-foot fifth pitch, which was the crux and involved an overhanging bulge to gain the broad upper corner system and the ultimate finishing headwall. The ice here is thin and it was here that Anna and I waited with baited breath to hear whether a belay would be possible.
The sixth pitch was the icing on the cake, 230 feet of perfectly vertical, thin grade 6 spray ice with the texture of a brain: thin but mostly just thick enough for stubby screws and a healthy runout at the top to reach the frozen moss and the trees.
After topping out, we hiked up through the frozen fog to reach our snowmobile at 4:30 p.m. We felt overcome with disbelief… almost numb, like in a dream. We threw around some names while we waited for our guides to arrive with the other two sleds and our way back to civilization. They arrived and pulled the bonnets off their sleds to reveal muffler pots stuffed with smoked native salmon and trout and a bottle of scotch.
Over the years, Joe has almost always chosen names with Newfoundland meanings, as tributes to this unique land and its people. We ran through a series of ideas, but Joe kept referring back to ideas Casey had had over the years. The name was important, Anna and I realized, and soon fell silent leaving it up to Joe and his memories of all those years with Casey. Finally, it came to him: “Dreamline”.
This climb had been the obsession of Joe and Casey for two decades, and rumors and conjecture of their taciturnity was often discussed in hushed voices over drams of scotch by many of us “new b’ys” (Joe’s fond name for the next generation of ice climbers), always wondering where it was that Joe kept going each year. Joe and Casey had devoted the primes of their careers to this climb, with unwavering devotion.
Finally, this week, Dreamline came to pass. And the three of us agree that this was the most adventuresome and satisfying ice climb of our careers.
Watch the First Ascent of Dreamline (WI 6+):