“I was amazed when I hit 40, and now I’m starring down the barrel of 50. Making it this far is a surprise to many, including me.”
Will Gadd, 47, has long been known for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in ice climbing—as well as paragliding and kayaking. Most recently he and Sarah Hueniken became the first people in history to scale the frozen face of Niagara Falls. Just before that Gadd won the Ouray Ice Climbing Fest. Just before that he was climbing slivers of melting ice at 19,000 feet on Kilimanjaro. And this is all within the last three months.
But the life of a consummate adventurer may not be what you’d expect. In this interview, Gadd talks about the Niagara climb and the surprising challenges of a life on the edge.
Adventure: You have done thousands of ice climbs. What was special about this one?
Will Gadd: It’s definitely a little extra sweet since it’s a bit of a forbidden fruit. And to be able to climb it legally, with the full support of the park and the state of New York, and to have had a positive outcome, it’s really special. And don’t forget that I shared this first ascent with Sarah, and in my view this was 100 percent a joint effort, involving not just she and I, but also everyone else from the park staff, the police, the riggers, the rescuers, the medical staff and everyone at Red Bull. We had a lot of moving parts, and I’m really proud that we pulled it off without anyone getting hurt, and that we left the falls exactly as we found it. I’m really happy from a pure climbing perspective, but to me it’s a lot bigger than that. I feel like I may have done something worthwhile here, not in terms of climbing, but in terms of showing my sport in a favorable light to the world.
A: Tell me about the genesis of this climb?
WG: About a year ago there was this polar vortex thing, and a friend of mine called me up and said: “Niagara Falls has enough ice to climb, do you want to do it?” I said: “Is it legal?” He said: “No.” And I said: “OK, let me think about that.”
I’ll admit I was tempted. I really wanted to climb Niagara Falls. And then I thought, no, that’s a stupid idea. If I ever need to go to a state or federal agency in the future, and I’d been busted for trying to climb Niagara, I’d be screwed. I have to respect the process. I’m a professional, so let’s try and act like one. As tempting as it was, it wasn’t the right thing to do. So I said no and that was the end of it.
But the pictures looked amazing. I was looking at the Sheraton Hotel’s web cam and I thought: Wow, you could climb the spray ice. How cool would that be? Who doesn’t want to climb Niagara Falls? But it’s so illegal, so it’ll never happen. Like one day I’ll date a super model, and one day I’ll climb Niagara Falls.
Then a few months later I get a call from this guy named Jenner at Red Bull, who I’d never met, and he said: “Hey, I’ve been looking at all these polar vortex photos, do you think you could climb Niagara Falls?” And I was like, “Hell, yeah, I can do it!” I’m just so glad I hadn’t done it illegally because it would have screwed me for this opportunity.
A: Do you think you would have gotten caught?
WG: It doesn’t matter. Even if I hadn’t, it would have been hanging over my head. It wouldn’t have been right. Now here I am, and I’m dealing with the state police. These are the kind of people you want to look in the eye and do the right thing by. And it’s kind of weird because no one here even knows any of this. I think this is just a testament that doing the right thing and showing respect matters.
Since then I’ve flown out here four times. It’s been almost a year’s worth of work to get this going. I’m for sure going to spend more time in an airplane seat than climbing Niagara. I always thought of Niagara Falls as a place with a casino and a really big waterfall. And then you get here and this gorge is full of mountain biking trails and running trails. This is a legitimately cool natural wonder of the world. It’s the only waterfall I’ve ever stood at the base of and you can feel it in your gut. It vibrates your intestines. There’s nothing else like it. It makes me feel very, very small.
A: How did you feel about your chances of pulling it off?
WG: We didn’t get the permit until three days ago. Parks said it was likely it would go through, but they had questions and revisions and they did a very good job of acting as what they are, which is the stewards of this park.
A: What were their primary concerns?
WG: They didn’t want to have a media circus. And neither did we. They wanted to know how we were going to make it safe. We wrote a really exhaustive safety plan to NIMH standards, which is something I’ve never had to do.
After doing all this work I’ve got a better understanding about all the intense things the park police have to deal with: suicides, people in distress, a lot of people making very bad decisions close to the edge of the falls. They asked me to assess their gear. Their police-issued boots with strap-on crampons weren’t really appropriate for this environment, so I called in a favor and got them a deal on those Scarpa boots they’re all wearing. I’m also going to do a little training with them tomorrow or the next day.
A: Tell me about the potential of this gorge as a climbing area.
WG: It is legit world-class ice climbing. There is zero doubt about that. I didn’t feel pressure about succeeding on the climb; I felt pressure not to screw this up for other ice climbers. This is an entre into a very closed world that we don’t have access to normally. And the park is not closed to climbing due to a bad attitude or anything like that—it’s closed because our sport is so far out of the norm. Now we have access to parts of government that we didn’t have before. One of my first conversations is going to be with the Access Fund to see if they can help me out with it.
A: Tell me about the climb.
WG: What’s weird about it is that the ice is formed from the sides, not the top. A lot of the ice accretion is coming in the form of spray and mist from the falls. So the ice isn’t formed in these nice organized structures that I’m used to dealing with. The ice here is formed in shells and repetitive onion skins, and if you hit those in the wrong place they can fracture very unpredictably.
A: I heard you had some secret proto type gear for the climb. Can you tell me about it?
WG: Ha! I did have a secret weapon: Spectre hooks with t-shaped picket style wings on the sides to increase their holding power. It’s like the world’s ugliest six-inch fishhook made out of stamped steel. Looks like it’s made either for torture or fishing.
S: So you trusted your life to a fishhook?
WG: Hey, it protected me from falling into the Cauldron of Doom. You fall down there, you’re done. When I asked Black Diamond to make this piece I made it very clear that these were prototypes, and if they failed its my own damn fault. I’m just trying to stack the deck slightly in my favor in terms of safety. I really didn’t want to use bolts here because it’s a special place, and even though there’s been a lot of industrial things done here, the best standard that I can set is to climb with zero bolts and all natural removable protection in the ice. There are times when I just go for it, but not here. I have to have a higher standard of safety because of where I am.
A: Why do you do extreme things?
WG: Because it’s more interesting than anything else I can think of. I think I do better in environments when things really matter than in environments where they don’t. I’m not so good at getting my invoices out.
A: Sorry, but that really doesn’t answer the question. What is about these sports that you find so interesting?
WG: Everybody has something in their life that they do well. The more I travel the world and meet people the more I realize that everybody has something that fires them up. If you’re a sales person and you close that deal, it’s awesome. Or maybe you’ve got that car in your garage that you’re restoring. One day you’re going to turn that key, and you’re going to drive that car out, and that’s the spark that gets you through the day. Maybe it’s your kids, you’re trying be the best dad or the best mom. For me sports are the most interesting, involved, engaging thing I can think of doing.
A: Are you an adrenaline junkie?
WG: No. I don’t like being scared. I don’t like adrenaline. It’s a sh—- drug for me.
There are much simpler ways to get an adrenaline rush than what I’m doing. If I just wanted adrenaline I would go and run back and forth on the freeway for an hour. I quit base-jumping because there was way too much adrenaline involved. I did a bunch of it and was finally like, ‘you know, this just isn’t me.’ But on the other hand people like me are not happy with repetitive, low stimulus stuff. I need big things coming over my bow. I think a lot of young men and women need powerful, captivating, meaningful things happening in their lives – and unfortunately, the standard options are not that great. The dark side is that these sports are hard on people. If I ever quit doing this stuff its not going to be because the sports lose their interest, but because I got sick of losing friends.
A: Do you mean you would quit because you’re sick of your friends dying or because you’re worried the risk will eventually catch up with you?
- Nat Geo Expeditions
WG: I think both. I expect to do die sooner or later. No one gets out of here alive. I was amazed when I hit 30, I was amazed when I hit 40, and now I’m staring down the barrel of 50. Making it this far is a surprise to many people including me. This is my job, this is who I am, this is what I love doing, but its super dangerous, and I’m always going to do the best job I can to make it back to my kids.
A: How do you balance a life like yours with being a husband and a father?
WG: I think the short answer is that I haven’t always succeeded in balancing things very well. Kim [Csizmazia] and I have two children age four and seven, but we’ve been split up for two years now. There’s always this idea of balance and what that looks like for me is that I irrationally lean to the left and almost crash, then I irrationally lean to the right and almost crash. The net effect is that I end up keeping the bicycle moving forward, but at any one moment things are wildly out of control, and I’m all over the road bouncing off light poles. But when I look at a lot of my friends who aren’t living this lifestyle, I see that their lives aren’t that different from mine. Everyone is dealing with the same battles and issues that I am. The positive side is that when I’m home I get to focus on just being a dad. A big part of my job is writing and organizing things, and I can do that from home when the kids are at school and day care.
A: It’s true that a lot of people travel, but I think what’s special about professional climbers is that we travel all the time, but we don’t actually make much money.
WG: There is that. People might be surprised to hear that I don’t make any money on these jobs. I’m probably the only person here who is not getting paid. I have a retainer from Red Bull that sorts me out for the year, but it doesn’t matter if I do nothing or everything, I still get paid. There would probably be a way to get a bit of money out of this, but honestly I just want to climb the waterfall.
A: Would you want your kids to do what you do?
WG: I wouldn’t want to be my mom. I’m sure I’ve given her a lot of grey hair. Some people just need this type of experience. And if my kids are like that I hope they do it well, I hope it lights them up, and I hope that they get what they’re seeking out of it in some way that’s positive. Really, I hope that my kids become successful tennis players. Get paid a sh–load of money to swing a racket – that would be rad.
A: Do they play tennis?
WG: Not yet, but I’m going to sign them up for some lessons, and I’ve got rackets lined up.
A: Do your kids understand what you do?
WG: My oldest one came home the other day and she was like, “Hey daddy, you were in the newspaper.” They’re starting to understand that their dad doesn’t do the same things that other dads do. But I don’t know if that’s a net positive for them. They just care about whether their dad is around. For them my waffles are more rad than anything else I do. “Oh dad, you climbed Niagara Falls, that’s rad, but where’s my waffle?”