One last thing before we head out,” Will Gadd says to the nearly 40-strong team of climbing riggers, photographers, EMTs, cops and New York State Park officials assembled in the staging area a few hundred yards from the precipice of Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls. “Quarter time. Take it slow. Nobody gets hurt. Quarter. Time.”
And with that, world champion ice climber Gadd strides out into the bitterly cold, gray morning. At full speed. Despite his admonition, Gadd does nothing at quarter time. The 48-year-old Canadian has abounding energy and difficulty containing it. Clad in thin Arc’teryx climbing clothes, scuffed blue helmet and a harness festooned with countless carabiners, screws, picks and pitons, he tends to be heard before he is seen. 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 on 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 traveled 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 500 feet below the Earth’s crust.
He’s also a champion paraglider who has set two separate world distance records and was the first to fly across the U.S. and the Canadian Rockies. No wonder he was recently named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
So it’s no surprise when last winter’s polar vortexes froze the long johns off Americans and their beloved waterfall that the idea to climb it crystallized along with the Niagara ice. “My friend and I thought about doing this, but I decided that because it was illegal,” Gadd admits, “I didn’t need that on my rap sheet of life.” So 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 tsunami of 681,750 gallons per second drains out of the Great Lakes, down the Niagara hatch at Horseshoe Falls, where he’ll climb. But under the right conditions, the mist that rises from that torrent does freeze on the nearly 150-foot-tall rock faces framing the falls. It’s called spray ice. It forms in thin layers like an onion and is wickedly unstable, unwilling to hold ice screws and sometimes calving off in chunks hundreds of pounds at a pop.
It’s a disorderly jumble. Will Gadd, father of two kids ages 4 and 7 and hoping to continue in that job, is not a fan of disorder or jumbles. Especially when he’s hanging by his ice tools above the roiling cauldron of water. “If I fell in,” he says, “I’d go under the ice and be dead.”
That might be a pleasant alternative to being splayed on a spire of ice like a martini olive on a toothpick. But climbing spray ice is something he pioneered, discovering and refining techniques and helping to develop specialized tools to tackle it. Still, the pressure is considerable. “We have a very narrow window,” Gadd says. “We have to get it done, or it’s not happening. A lot of people are watching. If I break my ankle climbing in the Rockies, no one would care. If I break my ankle here and have to be rescued, that likely goes global.”
Ascending Niagara Falls was 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,’ ” Major David Page recalls with a wry grin as he watches the day’s events unfold. The 30-year New York State Parks Police vet had managed the crush of thousands of spectators who gathered for Nik Wallenda’s 2012 televised tightrope traverse, and he wasn’t eager for another go. But things change.
Team Gadd re-approached with a more comprehensive plan, one that would assure environmental sensitivity (“There won’t be a trace I was ever here,” he says); include training in ice climbing for the park’s search and rescue team; and promote awareness of the winter beauty of the tourist attraction, which is all but devoid of visitors 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 their own such project: Don’t. But if you must, be sure to pack along consultants like ex Military Special Ops guys who talk the law-enforcement talk and production company vets who know how to pull a permit.) Gadd, in typical fashion, conducted every step of the way. “Climbing is what I love,” he says. “When I tie into the rope and I start climbing, I love it. But the rest of this stuff—it’s my job.”
It’s January 27. After months of planning, ascension day has arrived. A large camera jib has been carried to the cliff’s edge by the safety-roped crew. Gadd’s longtime lensman Christian Pondella has set anchors, roped in and leaned way out over the abyss with his camera in hand. More photographers are positioned at the base and across the river in Canada. Gadd’s climbing partner, Sarah Hueniken, has suited up to belay, i.e. feed out rope during the ascent—and quickly stop feeding it in the event of a fall.
“You do what you can to stack the deck in your favor,” Gadd explains. “And even with all that, 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.”
Just after 11 a.m., Gadd begins, 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 10- or 12-foot vertical advance is followed by a crazy-legged traverse to one side or the other, followed by another advance, ice chunks raining throughout. Eventually he reaches an ice cave, where Hueniken will second up to and 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—Niagara Falls roaring between his boots. He reaches his ice tool into the torrent, and it delivers an unexpected shot of water down his 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 the waterfall; Gadd’s actual climb is slightly shorter due to accumulated snow and ice at the base.
Equivalent weight - in 18-wheelers - of the water passing over the falls each minute.
Distance Nik Wallenda walked across a high wire stretched over Niagra Falls in 2012.
The age of Annie Edson Taylor when she went over the falls in a barrel in 1901. Yes, really. She lived.
At the bottom of the column, he traverses to his right and begins a new line up. 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’s got the strength to pull himself up and over. But this is Will Gadd, the man who does one-armed pull-ups. Standing at last on horizontal ground, he raises his arms triumphantly. His reaction is reverential, the magnitude of the feat washing over him like water over the falls.
That night at his hotel lobby bar, the climber 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, thankful, appreciative of his team and tells them so repeatedly as they, in turn, exchange back slaps and hand shakes. “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 whir of his internal GPS searching for far-flung coordinates.
“I mean … what do you do after this?”