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Will Gadd Unplugged, Untucked, and Off the Hook

Editor's Note: TABthewriter got a chance to talk with the one and only Will Gadd, National Geographic's Adventurer of the Year, who infamously ice climbed up a frozen Niagara Falls this winter. One great quote in here: "I regard any sort of close call as a major, major failure." Thanks for putting this together and sharing with the audience, TAB!

Sarah Hueniken at the Dogtooth Climbing Gym, Will Gadd at right. Photo: Bruno Long

At the recent Golden Mountain Festival (this year’s theme being “Adventurers of Yesterday and Today”) TABthewriter was able to catch up with 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, Will Gadd.

Fresh from a morning of instructing at the Dogtooth Climbing Gym, Will was able to take a timeout before a mountain-bike session with partner Sarah Hueniken, Tourism Golden organizing a half hour audience with the Canmore-based ice-climber, paraglider, kayaker and adventurer.

TAB: I was reading about the Niagara ice climb that you and Sarah did, and I was wondering if there are additional dynamics to climbing with your partner, that is, someone with whom you’re romantically involved?

Will: Yeah, there definitely are, there’s good dynamics and definitely more challenging dynamics for sure, some cognitive differences, people who are male, female, my girlfriend or wife, people I’ve climbed with over the last 30 years- All the things that work well in the relationship if you’re climbing with your significant other tend to work better in the mountains, and all the things that are a problem tend to get exacerbated (laughs), and high stress situations bring out the good and the bad. But someone like Sarah, she has a very high level of competency and I know that she looks at the mountains differently than I do in some situations and I think we make better decisions together as a result, better decisions than either one of us would alone. She has such a good base of experience that it really helps me make decisions and together I think we’re stronger as a result. Her experience is guiding, and a lot of situations I’m in there are film people there and working with that and to have her there is a huge asset. And I work for her, I guide for her, too! It’s definitely something we do together, you know, at Niagara she was actually hired to do safety but we snuck her up the climb at the end (laughs), she wasn’t actually holding a permit to do that but kind of had to do it. Niagara Climb

You both travel a lot- Do you find it’s a real challenge to maintaining a relationship? Or do you find you’re working more and more together?

We try to plan trips and projects together and fortunately we have related interests. She’s all into mountain biking so that helps. And I have my kids pretty much half the time, two kids from a previous relationship.

And they’re young.

Yeah, I spend half the time daddy'ing so if we don’t plan our trips together we aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time together.

How integral is sponsorship to what you do, or what you’re able to do now?

Well, sponsorship allows me to do more of what I want to do. I would be doing exactly the same thing with or without sponsorship but I can do it three to five days a week versus one to two. If I was a single dad and didn’t have sponsorship and was working full time I might get a half day a week. With sponsorship I’m able to make this my job, it’s what I like doing, so I get sponsorship to do things and I love that, I’m really lucky that way. But I have a lot of other ways to make a living. I’ve been a writer, a film-maker… I’ve done all kinds of different things in my life. And when I want to do something different I will. I don’t do things to get sponsorship I have sponsorship in order to do things.

I find a lot of the younger generation coming up in skiing, mountain biking, sports in general, sponsorship is something they look to as an objective or end-point even when they’re first getting into it. When you started climbing and doing a lot of your different activities I assume that wasn’t the way things were- Was that even available?

No, when I started climbing there wasn’t much in the way of sponsorship. You could get some corporate sponsorship for some of the Himalayan projects, there’s certainly a long history of that, you know, a couple of polar explorers were sponsored by Grape Nuts and stuff so the sponsorship thing has been around forever, but in terms of technical rock climbing, the ice climbing that I’m passionate about that wasn’t really an option, but one of the reasons I think I’ve had a long career and gotten half decent at a few things is because I really like doing them and that’s why I’m doing them. Doing these sports and sharing the stories, that’s what I love doing, and occasionally my job is to pose or stop and get photographs or organize a trip, that’s when I go to work. I’m good at it, I’ve got limb separation figured out, I’ve got 25 different poses (laughs), I’m good at being a poser, that’s my job!

That answers the “tips for survival and career longevity” question.

Will runs a morning climbing clinic at The Dogtooth Climbing Gym, Golden BC. Photo: Bruno Long

Well, you know, it’s true. I went kayaking five to seven days a week when I was fourteen years old and that’s what I loved doing. I had a list of people taped to the wall next to the phone and I’d start at the top and call everybody on the list and if nobody would go I’d start back at the top. Again. Eventually, maybe the next day, someone would cave and say “Just somebody take the fuckin’ kid kayaking,” you know, “This is getting obnoxious.” (Laughs) Somebody would break and I’d go kayaking. And, literally, thirty some years later and it’s what I’m still doing. I get to go outside pretty much every day and do something fun. Doesn’t matter what it is, mountain biking, climbing, skiing, kayaking, paragliding, whatever, I get to go outside and do it.

But we’re not doing land-lines and rotary phones anymore- How has the changing technology enabled you to do what you do?

Ahh, rotary phones! Well, technology is both a positive and a negative. I can communicate frequently now over my cell phone or my sat phone or my data connection on my cell or sat phone or whatever, but I have to. That’s part of my job. If I go climbing all day part of my job when I get home is punch out a little bit of information or whatever. I don’t think it’s net positive or negative. Net positive is getting rescued. We used to lose people in the mountains and now there isn’t really much of an excuse for using resources like that anymore. You go out, you bring a SPOT, you bring an InReach, people are supposed to be able to find you. So I think that’s a positive. But a few people are like, “Technology is destroying the wilderness!” Then they break their leg and they say, “You got that sat phone?” Nobody wants to stay pure with a broken femur. They want to get the fuck out of the mountains.

We had two last year where SAR had to be called in for injuries. We had a bad year in the backcountry.

You had a SPOT with you?

Yeah, but in one case the SPOT actually failed, supposedly the whole system was down for something like 36 hours. We sent a SOS out via the SPOT not knowing the system was down, but we were also able to get a weak cellular signal. If we’d only had the SPOT we would have been waiting a long time.

That’s really lucky.

You’ve probably had some close calls.

Yeah… I regard any sort of close call as a major, major failure. Just shut it down and don’t get going again until I figure out what went wrong and how to deal with it. I can honestly say there’s been thirty years of doing this work, a lot of it at this level now, and there’s been less than a half dozen times where I’ve thought, “Wow, I almost died.” And that still can happen, but I run away a lot. You know, if it’s not right I leave. I’ve been doing this now for three plus decades and I want to be doing it at least another twenty years. I’d like to do it the rest of my life. So I run away a lot. I push really hard, I’ve broken it down and I’ve got really good systems in place, when I can understand the situation I’ve got good, good odds. Then I’ll hang it on the wall. Or, I’ve decided at that point in time, or at that day, that it’s worth it, I’ll push really hard. And I’ve taken some colossal risks that could have killed me over the years for sure. I’ve judged it at that time and I know what the risks are and I’ve gone for it. I’ve decided to do it. I think where… situations that I read about is when people don’t know the deck they’re playing with and they get axed, that to me is more of a… that really works me up. You know, you get a school group in the mountains and someone gets killed, it’s like… they can’t truly understand the risks. And that’s a tragic mistake. Where, somebody’s out backcountry skiing, and that’s what they’re really into, and they get killed- I feel for their families, it’s a huge hole in the community and a shitty situation, but they knew the game.It’s not like, heroic that they died doing what they loved- They died, and that sucks. But, at least they knew what… they knew the deck that they were playing with. That’s how it works.

Something that’s struck me recently is that a lot of accidents, injuries and fatalities in skiing and snowboarding have occurred while there are film crews present. I’m wondering if you ever feel, like, not “Kodak Courage,” but additional pressure to perform because of the resources behind it.

It’s an interesting situation. I think… there is pressure to perform any time you’ve gone out in the mountains with a film crew, it changes the dynamic, there’s no question about that. I think for me, at this stage in my career, a film crew often slows me down. I can’t operate at the speed I want to because I have to both keep my game on and help keep the film crew alive. If there’s anything I’m proud of through my twenty some years of professional athleticism of one variety or another, it’s that nobody has been killed on one of my trips. Be they film crew or people with me or anything like that. I’ve had to do a bunch of rescues and I’ve seen a lot of carnage in the mountains, but I’m pretty aware of what’s going on and try to keep everybody safe. Filming, I have to operate at a lower level because of who’s there, I’m not worried about my safety but theirs. We hire guides, we hire riggers, something goes wrong and somebody gets hurt, it’s my fault.

It’s your brand.

Yeah, it’s… I don’t think of myself as a brand. It is my name on it, and I want people to be safe. A few years ago I walked on a $500,000 shoot because it wasn’t right. And at the time I got some, you know, grief and that from people, not so much my sponsors, they got it, right? You know, Redbull was like, “It didn’t work out, we gave it a burn, it didn’t work,” and they threw a lot of money into it… but uh, five years later they don’t care, we got a lot done together so it’s all good. For me, at this point in my career the pressure is just part of the process. But if you’re a young person and it’s your first film segment and you want to throw down a big line, then I think that’s more difficult. If you want to have a long career and you blow that line because you go too huge or whatever it is, that’s what people remember. No one wants to work with a loose cannon. You know, nobody wants to work with somebody that’s going to get killed. You’ve got to balance both the radicalness of it with the fact that everyone wants to go home at the end of the day.

No one tends to see the behind the scenes stuff, what actually goes into orchestrating a shoot.

Yeah, and I work on all kinds of different stuff as well, I do a lot of rigging, safety stuff, so I’m always seeing different sports from the inside and outside of the shoots. There’s a lot that goes on there, and it’s really interesting, but if you want to have a long career you gotta do what you can. You get a good, clean line in kayaking or paragliding, skiing, climbing, whatever, to do a good job you don’t need to huck your… you don’t need to huck at the highest possible level where you have only a remote hope of sticking it. Like a friend of mine says, 75% of looking good is way better than 95% of looking like a rag-doll.

In terms of influences or mentors, is there anyone you cite as having a real impact on you?

I first started getting out a lot with my Dad and he had a pretty conservative approach. And I saw that approach pay off several times where we would be in situations where… I was eight years old the first time I saw a body bag loaded in a helicopter, and I remember being part of the help in getting that helicopter. That kind of shit will make an impact. So I’ve always come at the mountains as, sort of, true knowledge of exactly how fragile we are in that environment. Mountains aren’t just dangerous or not dangerous… I think, growing up with seeing both the joy, I loved going backcountry powder skiing with my Dad when I was ten, that was awesome, you know, but I also saw body bags and carnage. Both those things are part of the sports that I do and I try to respect those.

Sarah Hueniken (far right) coaching at the Dogtooth Gym. While not in the spotlight as often as Will, Gadd credits her with much of their success in the mountains. Photo by Bruno Long

On the subject of Dad, Father’s Day is coming up pretty soon- What do you have planned?

(laughs) Probably going to the wave pool or something.

They’re not buying you a tie?

No, I don’t think ties are on the list, I don’t have a lot of use for ties. But I wore a tux! I got to go to this huge Vanity Fair Oscar party thing in L.A and that was pretty fun.

The National Geographic coverage has obviously augmented your…

Yeah, it’s been a crazy year. If you look at the last sixteen months it’s just been insane. It’s been an amazing, amazing ride.

And you haven’t let yourself go despite what you were saying at the climbing clinic.

Well, I go for different fitness levels. I came out of the winter season with a bunch of injuries like I usually do. I’ve got a hamstring pull, I broke a finger a year ago and I’ve been compensating for it so now I’ve got a tendon pulled. My neck is all jacked. I’m always injured.

How do you approach rehabilitation and physio?

I go to physio. It took me a long time to find a physio I enjoy working with, but most of my rehabilitation I just do another sport. If my leg is jacked, OK, I’m going paragliding or kayaking. My shoulder’s all messed up I’ll fly my paraglider or ride my mountain bike. But yeah, I mostly rehabilitate by doing other things. I just always do something. Just because my shoulder is jacked doesn’t mean I’m going to sit on the couch and chase Cheetos. Which a lot of people do.

In terms of the ice-climbing you do, have you seen landscapes changing?

Yeah. Ice all over the world is a good measure or a good metric for what’s happening in our climate. The glaciers I used to get out of the car and walk to on the Columbia Icefields when I was a kid are like a kilometer or more up the valley now. Some of my maps are useless because the glaciers are not where they’re supposed to be. So I see that, some of the access routes to climb have become quite different, more or less hazardous. Sometimes there’s no glacier at all there anymore! You’re like, “Wow, we used to get on the glacier here, and now there’s no glacier!” I literally see that. It’s quite obvious that things are changing very quickly. Less than six months ago I was in Africa.

Kilimanjaro?

Yeah, and I wanted to climb ice up on top of Kilimanjaro, I thought, “how cool would that be, ice in Africa?” And we showed up and the ice had changed so quickly, disappearing at such a radical, radical rate. There isn’t going to be much of any ice there in five or ten years, it’s just disappearing. They’re not getting the glacier there that they used to. Everyone thinks of climate change as a global warming issue but it changes the atmospheric patterns, moisture transport, we may even get a lot more snow in Western Canada than historically, I’m not sure, but we’ll wind up with less water in the Summer, it’s warmer and… So there’s all kinds of good and bad, but what it means for most the glaciers in the world is that they’re retreating, the permafrost is melting, they’re having all kinds of problems in the Arctic with permafrost, and you know, I’m not some rocket scientist guy, I’m a climber. Let’s face it, I’m not going to change the world with my views on climate and weather changes, but I can show people what it looks like by coming back and doing presentations on my experience in those places.

Will's presentation at the Golden Civic Centre, Golden BC. Photo: Bruno Long

Do you have a sense of urgency to get to any of these places?

I think what I’m interested in now is traveling around the world and going to places that are disappearing and will be gone in relatively short timeframes. Five years at the most. Business and dam projects, different places around the world being affected by climate change and…

Terra-forming.

Yeah, we are, it’s an interesting experiment. As you say, we are terra-forming Earth right now and I don’t think we know what we want the end result to look like or how to control that.So yeah, the old science fiction concept of terra-forming, here we are, doing a really big experiment on our planet and I don’t think anyone knows exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t think the big problems are entirely going to have to do with climate change, more likely it’s going to be from political structures and societies falling apart and famine and things like that. I expect to see a lot of that in my lifetime.

With that in mind, do you see a lot more people getting into the backcountry, finding some solace in, say, unspoiled wilderness with recreation?

It’s interesting, I see a lot more people in the readily accessible areas of the backcountry, around ski areas for example, I see a lot more people using established trails and paths, a lot more people in the play-park… I do see more people generally in the backcountry, but if you do get out into a real wilderness place there aren’t that many people around. Ever (laughs). There’s definitely a lot more in the woods, but not in the wilderness, you know, a lot of people are buying more gear, which is great ‘cause I’ve got a job, but it’s not crowded out there. It’s pretty big. Like, if you ski that way out towards (Revelstoke) a few valleys, there are not a lot of people that way! At (Roger’s Pass), yeah, but not so much now towards the end of the season.

Right. So, “Explorer of the Year,” what does it mean to you to be considered or labeled an explorer?

Well I… I don’t know how much… I guess I’ve discovered some new cave passages in the world for sure, and technically I’ve done some exploring when I’ve been on glaciers where no one has ever been.

That was Sweden, right, the caves?

No, that was more as a kid, climbing and caving in the Canadian Rockies and other areas. And exploring glacial ice caves, places where it truly is exploration, nobody else has ever been there. And then there’s exploration in terms of finding how things work in different environments or an operating environment nobody’s ever been in. Nobody’s ever operated in that environment, so that’s exploration in that sense. And there’s lots of that out there. Really, every time you go into the backcountry you’re going exploring because you don’t know precisely what the snowpack is going to be like, you don’t how your objectives are going to work. You go ice-climbing you don’t know what the ice is going to be like, it’s always hard to know, but as you go someplace over and over you get better at operating there. For me it’s most exciting to go places I haven’t been and I don’t know and trying to figure them out. It’s like a puzzle.

Will with his presenter hat on, Golden Civic Centre. Photo: Bruno Long

What is that satisfying in you?

I guess I was just born curious. I’ve always wondered what’s over the next ridge, what’s in that river canyon… if I fly my paraglider up that wall what’s going to happen? It’s just interesting, I just find that the world is a really interesting place, it’s cool. And I’ve always wanted to, ever since I was a kid I was into that, “oh, where does that drainage go, and how does that relate to that? How does it all work together?” And I used to spend hours just looking at maps. I love Google Earth, I spend hours tripping out on that. I get to cruise around and look at the world. And I get to do the same thing on my paraglider. We flew from McBride to the border last summer just connecting places along the way, camping on ridges and peaks. And there’s a big lake just north of here, I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but a fucking huge lake! (Laughs) Kinnibasket Lake, we flew the whole length of that! That’s huuuge. If that was close to the border or the U.S or whatever there’d be vacation homes all over. I think we saw one boat on that thing the whole time we were above it… I don’t know, I guess being labeled an explorer doesn’t do much for me versus just getting out and exploring and doing things. It’s a lot more fun. Getting recognized by National Geographic is nice, I know some of the guys that give out that award and they’re legit, it’s a legit award. I’ve won some awards in the past where, “thanks very much” (laughs) but it might have been arguable!

Thanks very much.

Good talking with you.

Will's Website

*Thanks to Tourism Golden and Kootenay Mountain Culture, Coast Mountain Culture and Mountain Culture Group for helping arrange the preceding interview.

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