NIAGARA CLIMB A SHOW
OF GADD’S TRUE TALENTS
By Lynn Martel
Will Gadd’s ascent of Niagara Falls on January 27, 2015, may have been a climb up one of the world’s most famous waterfalls, but the climbing was just as difficult as the logistics of getting it approved. Here’s why Gadd’s climb was a culmination of a lifetime of learned skills – a perfectly executed professional adventure.
When people around the world watched Will Gadd climb a 46-metre-high strip of rotten spray ice at Niagara Falls earlier this winter, some saw a crazy man, some saw a skilled athlete and others saw a talented entertainer.
But what millions actually saw on their smartphone and iPad screens was the culmination of Gadd’s 30-year career as a professional adventurer. From his specialized ice tools to the positions of the cameras and the safety crew members on the ground, the event showcased a complicated, choreographed production supported by Gadd’s experience pushing climbing grades, winning competitions, setting paragliding records and knowing exactly how to make his sponsors look great for the camera at exactly the right moment.
“I pitch about ten ideas a year,” said the 47-year-old Gadd, also dubbed Captain Adventure. “I’m lucky if I get to do two of them. It’s a continual process of failing forward. As an ice climber, climbing Niagara Falls is something I’ve always thought about. I’ve always thought it would be really cool to ride my bike on the moon, too, but that and Niagara Falls were always like, ‘well, that’ll never happen’.”
Niagara Falls is off-limits to all but the most highly regulated activities – think high-wire walking. To gain permission, Gadd and Red Bull, his main and long-time sponsor who “have really good resources for doing things like permits,” underwent a rigorous process. Gadd flew to meetings four times to discuss every possible logistical and safety issue with the US National Park Service. The process took eight months.
“And I couldn’t talk about it to anybody! That was tough,” Gadd admitted.
Potential for climbing the falls increased last winter when a polar vortex consumed the Niagara region and severe winter conditions revealed how ice forms there. Another contributing factor was experience Gadd gained over multiple trips to 141-metre Helmcken Falls in BC’s Wells Gray Provincial Park, where after repeated efforts he succeeded in climbing a massive roof of over-hanging spray ice. Spray ice, Gadd explained, forms and climbs differently from traditional waterfall ice frozen in a cohesive vertical column.
“Niagara Falls is never going to freeze in a traditional sense,” Gadd said. “But Helmcken is such a wild place, it taught us a lot about working in an environment that’s spray ice. It helped us figure out how to work in that foreign environment and operate safely.”
JUST ANOTHER COMPLEX SITUATION
Helmcken is just one of many dozen high-risk adventures Gadd credits for his education. Others include ice climbing in abandoned underground Swedish mine shafts, kayaking on a glacial melt stream in Alaska and fly-camping his paraglider the 600-kilometre length of the Canadian Rockies over 35 days, which earned him and Gavin McClurg National Geographic’s “2014 Adventurers of the Year” title.
On the day of the Niagara Falls climb, the team numbered 50 people on site and internationally, including emergency medical personnel and ten NPS police, whose job involves rescuing would-be-adventurers, and “dealing with the aftermath.”
“It was a really complex situation,” Gadd said. “But I do this on TV shoots all the time. And going through the [Association of Canadian Mountain Guides] guiding process has really given me a better depth of skills.”
A key team member was Sarah Hueniken, Gadd’s girlfriend who is a certified ACMG alpine guide and arguably North America’s strongest female ice and mixed climber. Her role included belaying from a frosty nook where she was protected from ice chunks dislodged as Gadd climbed.
“I was there for about three and a half hours,” Hueniken said. “It was a pretty sweet belay actually – great views, totally sheltered. I could definitely feel the pulse of the falls in my feet in my belay cave; they were only feet away. I couldn’t move around much though, so it was hard to re-warm after standing in there during the day.”
Fortunately for Hueniken, part of her rewarming process involved climbing the “steep and pumpy” route.
“It wasn’t planned that Sarah would get to climb the falls,” Gadd said. “But it worked out that she was lucky to. Her name will also be on the record as the first ascent party.”
While Hueniken insists she felt no need for any attention for her role, for Captain Adventure, whose usually obscure exploits are followed by the relatively small adventure community, having this project go viral was a bonus. Red Bull’s release date was actually accelerated after a tourist posted photos online.
“They’d wanted a few days to make the film look really beautiful, but we got busted,” Gadd said. “I thought if we got a few national newspapers, that would be great. For sure, there was pressure to have everything go well. If I break a leg on the [Icefields] Parkway, that’s a pain, but having anything go wrong at Niagara Falls – that would not be good!”
“Normally, climbing only makes the news when there’s an accident or someone dies on Everest. That’s one of the best things: to be able to show climbing in a positive way, to show how it can be beautiful and exciting and graceful and safe.”
A CERTAIN TYPE OF PERSONALITY
So, was the climb adventure or entertainment?
“I’ve worked on TV shows that were entertainment; this was definitely adventure!” Gadd declared.
“The water is pounding, you feel it in your gut. By comparison, Helmcken is about 1000 cubic feet per second. Niagara – well you’ve got the whole Great Lakes coming off the lip – it’s like 6 million cfs. It is loud and powerful. And if I fell, I would have landed in what we called the ‘cauldron of doom.’”
While other climbers had illegally top-roped sections of ice at the falls, Gadd’s is the first official Niagara Falls ice climb, accomplished on lead, bottom to top. His success has helped encourage the NPS to consider opening nearby Niagara Gorge to ice climbing.
At the end of the day, Gadd said he’s happy to encourage people to spend time outside playing in nature, as his parents did.
“Everybody needs to spend time outside,” Gadd said. “Generally, the world just looks better when you spend time outside, like playing with your kids on the toboggan hill.”
And should parents worry playing outdoors might inspire their kids to emulate Captain Adventure?
“It takes a certain type of personality to want to do this,” Gadd said. “I’ve got the personality type that’s not happy if I’m not planning big, crazy, difficult challenges. This is what I’m good at.”
Author of two books of adventure and nine mountain biographies, Lynn Martel explores the Canadian Rockies backcountry by skis, boots, camera and the written word.
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