One last thing before we head out,” Will Gadd says to the nearly 40-strong team of climbing riggers, photographers, paramedics, police and New York State Park officials assembled in the staging area a few hundred yards from the precipice of Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls. “We’re going at quarter time. Take it slow. Nobody gets hurt. Quarter. Time.”
And with those words, the world champion ice-climber strides out into the bitterly cold, grey morning. At full speed. Despite his admonition, Gadd does nothing at quarter time. The 47-year-old Canadian has abounding energy, and difficulty containing it. You tend to hear Gadd before you see him, clad in thin Arc’teryx climbing clothes, a scuffed blue helmet and a harness festooned with countless carabiners, screws, picks and pitons. The tools of his trade make the jingly-jangly sound of a skiff bobbing listlessly in a lagoon. But that would imply an aimless drift about him, and there is nothing aimless about Gadd. His life depends upon order, control and planning.
Today, his plan is to become the first man to ascend Niagara Falls. He is preceded by barrel riders, tightrope walkers, the suicidal and the just plain unlucky. But they’ve all travelled the falls in other directions. No one has ever tried going up.
But then, Gadd has always set his own course. He’s been winning competitions since the ’90s. If it can be climbed, he’s done it, from the vanishing glaciers of Kilimanjaro to abandoned Swedish mining caves 150 metres below the Earth’s crust.
Gadd is also a champion paraglider who has set two separate world distance records and was the first to fly across the US and the Canadian Rockies. No wonder he was recently named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year.
It’s no surprise that when last winter’s polar vortexes froze the long johns off North Americans and their beloved waterfall, the idea of climbing it crystallised along with the Niagara ice. “My friend and I thought about doing it,” Gadd admits, “but it wasn’t legal. I decided I didn’t need that on my rap sheet of life.” But when Red Bull approached with the same idea a short time later, it was a no-brainer, and the plan was set in motion. “Sometimes,” Gadd says with a laugh, “doing the right thing pays off.”
To be clear, the entire Falls do not freeze. After all, an endless tide of 681,750 gallons per second drains out of the Great Lakes and down the Niagara hatch at Horseshoe Falls, the section of the Falls that Gadd plans to climb. But under the right conditions, the mist that rises from that torrent does freeze on the 45-metre-tall rock faces framing the waterfall. It’s known as spray ice. It forms in thin layers like an onion and is wickedly unstable, unwilling to hold ice screws and prone to breaking away in huge chunks.
It’s a disorderly jumble. Will Gadd, father of two kids (aged four and seven) and hoping to continue doing that job, is not a fan of disorder or jumbles. Especially when he’s hanging by his ice tools above the swirling cauldron of water. “If I fell in,” he says, “I’d go under the ice and be dead within minutes.”
Another alternative is being splayed on a spire of ice like a martini olive on a toothpick. But then, climbing spray ice is something Gadd pioneered, discovering and refining techniques and helping develop specialised tools to tackle it. Still, the pressure is considerable. “We have a very narrow window,” he says. “We have to get it done, or it’s not happening. A lot of people are watching. If I break my ankle while climbing in the Rockies, no one will care. If I break my ankle here and have to be rescued, it’s likely to go global.”
Ascending Niagara Falls is a moment – “About as big and cool as it gets,” says Gadd – that almost didn’t happen. When first pitched to red-tape wielding officials, they flatly said no.
“I believe it was, ‘Hell, no,’” recalls Major David Page of the New York State Parks Police with a wry grin as he watches the day’s events unfold. The 30-year-old had managed the crush of thousands of spectators who gathered for Nik Wallenda’s televised tightrope traverse of the Falls in 2012, and he wasn’t eager for a repeat. But things change.
Team Gadd made another approach with a more comprehensive plan, one that ensured environmental sensitivity (“There won’t be a trace I was ever here,” he assured them), included training in ice climbing for the park’s search-and-rescue team, and garnering awareness of the winter beauty of the tourist attraction, which is all but devoid of visitors at this time of year.
The help of a few New York state assembly people and the Governor’s office didn’t hurt. (Note to anyone considering a similar project: don’t. But if you must, be sure to take along the right consultants – former Military Special Ops guys who are well-versed in law enforcement, and production company veterans who know how to get hold of the correct permit.) Gadd, in typical fashion, conducted every step of the way.“Climbing is what I love doing,” he says. “When I tie into the rope and start climbing, I love it. But the rest of this stuff, it’s my job.”
After months of planning, January 27 arrives: ascension day. A large camera jib has been carried to the cliff’s edge by the safety-roped crew. Gadd’s long-time lensman Christian Pondella has set anchors, roped in and leaned out over the abyss, camera in hand. More photographers assemble below and over the river in Canada. Gadd’s climbing partner Sarah Hueniken belays, feeding out rope during ascent, and ready to stop if a fall occurs.
“You do what you can to stack the deck in your favour,” explains Gadd. “But even then, things are still gonna get western occasionally.”
“He’s all about safety, and he won’t hesitate to call it,” says Bryan Smith, a videographer who has documented several of Gadd’s adventures. “If it doesn’t feel right, he’ll pull the plug straightaway.”
Gadd begins just after 11am, and it’s then that the awesome scope of the task sinks in. He is utterly dwarfed, a red-jacketed speck among otherworldly ice formations and swirling spray that freezes on contact with his clothes and face.
At first, progress is quick, as if he’s trying to outrun the cold. But he often stops to study his line. A three- or four-metre vertical advance is followed by a crazy-legged traverse to one side or the other, followed by another advance, ice chunks raining down. Eventually, he reaches an ice cave which Hueniken will belay from.
Gadd then finds a shelf that he can step onto and actually get behind the rushing water. He straddles a section of ice beneath which water races. He reaches his ice tool into the torrent and it delivers an unexpected shot of water down this sleeve that would later induce hypothermia. But it’s worth it. “You’ve gotta touch it,” he says. “It’s Niagara Falls!”
Gadd pushes on, tackling a massive column, only to retreat as he nears the top and work his way back down. “It started to sound hollow,” he would later say. “I didn’t like it. My biggest concern is that a whole section breaks off. I have to make sure that where I am is well bonded to the rock.”
Amount of water pouring over Horshoe Falls every second.
Height of Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls from its highest point to the surface of the river; not the tallest waterfall in the world by a long way (that’s Angel Falls in Bolívar, Venezuela, at 979 metres), but it is the most powerful. Gadd’s actual climb is slightly shorter due to accumulated snow and ice at the base.
The distance that American Nick Wallenda, then 33, walked along a high wire stretched across Horseshoe Falls in 2012.
The age of retired schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor when she went over the Falls in a barrel in 1901. On her birthday. Yes, really. She emerged with only minor cuts and bruises.
At the bottom of the column, he traverses to his right and begins a new line upwards. Cramponed boots slam the ice in search of a solid toehold. Arms reach high to plant ice tools, and Gadd swings between them like a chimp between branches.
Finally, 60 minutes later, he nears the crest. You can’t help but wonder if he has the strength to pull himself up. But this is Will Gadd, the man who does one-armed pull-ups. Standing on horizontal ground, arms raised triumphantly, there is no end-zone prance. Gadd’s reaction is reverential, the magnitude of the feat washing over him like water over the falls.
That night in the hotel bar, Gadd unwinds with a tumbler of Knob Creek, no ice. He sports a wide grin and an ever-present twinkle in his blue eyes. He is relieved, appreciative of his team and tells them so repeatedly as they trade back-slaps and handshakes. “Niagara Falls is pretty much a holy grail for me,” he says reflectively. “As falls go, it’s off everybody’s map, because they’re never gonna get permission…” As he trails off, you can almost hear the whirr of his internal GPS searching for far-flung coordinates.
“I mean…what do you do after this?”