Alberta ice climber helping climate science research

Will Gadd plans to climb 100 metres down a Greenland ice sheet

From climbing the frozen Niagara Falls to setting world paragliding records, Will Gadd is no stranger to adventure.

Rappelling into a hole to descend deep into the bowels of the Greenland ice cap, however, was a whole different matter.

“Safe is a relative term,” laughs the mountaineer based in Canmore, Alta. “These moulins (vertical shafts) are not safe. There are a lot of things that can go wrong.

“But for research, it’s worth it.”

Gadd has earned a reputation as one of the world’s top ice climbers. He has records, prizes, first ascents and personal achievements from around the globe.

Now he’s offering his alpine passion and skill to the research community by taking scientists into places they couldn’t reach on their own to study the impact of climate change on the high altitudes he loves.

“I’ve been in the mountains now for so long I’ve seen them change radically,” Gadd said in a recent interview.

“If I’m flying my paraglider over the mountains, all of our glaciers look like they’ve got a bad case of bathtub rings. You can very graphically see where they were in relatively recent history.”

READ MORE: Impact of ice sheet retreat on Canadian weather being underestimated

Old maps are wrong. Routes for popular climbs have changed.

“The way we approach the mountains now has to be different,” Gadd suggested. “The glaciers are changing so quickly.

“It’s not some abstract thing. It’s obvious. In our lifetime we’re seeing radical changes and it’s not something I can ignore.”

Gadd had long been climbing into moulins — holes in glaciers that drain surface water which sometimes carves extensive caves under the ice. Originally, it was just a fun way to ice climb in the summer.

But he grew curious about what was actually down there. He got in touch with a University of Alberta glaciologist and in 2016 the two began descending into the Athabasca Glacier in the Rocky Mountains.

Those expeditions found thin layers of micro-organisms living deep within the ice.

“Next thing you know, I’m involved in all these research projects under the Athabasca Glacier.”

Eventually, Gadd contacted U.S. scientist Jason Gulley, who works on the Greenland ice sheet — 1.7 million square kilometres of ice an average of two kilometres thick. The two worked out a plan to climb 100 metres down into a moulin in the hope of diving once they hit water.

They made their attempt last fall. The ice was too unstable to let them descend as far as planned — but they still got plenty deep.

“It is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been in in my life,” said Gadd. ”It’s this whole world that’s been sculpted by water in the ice.

“It’s just surreal and incredibly beautiful. It’s like the beautiful red sandstone slot canyons in Utah, but blue ice. It’s a magical world. It feels very alien.

It was challenging, too, he said.

“A lot of times you have to climb on the walls to get over water-filled passages. Who would expect open water at -30 C in a glacier?

“You need a hodgepodge of MacGyver-style trickery to move around in these places. It’s all slippery slopes leading to sure death.”

Those experiences have marked him.

“I’ll never look at a glacier the same way again. I used to think of glaciers as blocks of ice chundering down the mountain, (but) there’s life in there and it’s like Swiss cheese in there. There’s a whole world that you just can’t see from the surface.”

Gadd is planning to set out Monday on a cross-Canada lecture tour to talk about his work with researchers to understand the changing climate and alpine environment.

READ MORE: Sheet of ice covers BC Ferries boat during stormy weekend sail

Climbing for its own sake is great, he said. But, at 52, he’s hoping for something a little more from his prodigious skill set.

“Using some of those skills I’ve developed in my career to help people move around in the glaciers and further our understanding of the world is a good use,” he said.

“It’s a small legacy, but if you can make a little bit of a difference, I think that’s worthwhile.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

RCMP charge Langley man in connection with boat collision on Cultus Lake

A 67-year-old man allegedly operated a motor boat that collided with a woman paddling a canoe

UPDATE: Sts’ailes FSR Fire ‘being held’ at 12 hectares

Status changed from ‘out of control’ on Wednesday afternoon

Airlines dispute Dr. Henry’s claim they ‘very rarely’ give accurate COVID contact tracing info

Air Canada, WestJet say they provide names and contact information

‘We all have anxieties’: B.C.’s top doctor addresses return-to-school fears amid COVID-19

Dr. Bonnie Henry promises school restart plan safe for B.C. kids

Abbotsford mom worried about her two kids in Beirut following explosion

Shelley Beyak’s children were abducted by their dad in 2018

Young Canadians, hospitality workers bear the brunt of mental strain in 2020: report

A study by Morneau Shepell points to economic uncertainty in the pandemic as the cause for angst

Former high-stakes poker player from Mission missing in Nevada

Brad Booth last seen on July 13, told roommate he was going camping

Health Canada recalling more than 50 hand sanitizers in evolving list

Organization says to stop using products listed, and to consult a health-care professional

Airborne hot dog strikes Greater Victoria pedestrian

Police called to 4200-block of Quadra Street for hot dog incident

Mission’s 7-Eleven defaced with racist graffiti

Racist insults attacking Indo-Canadians ‘shocked’ manager

B.C. scientist, 63, protests in trees set to be removed for Trans Mountain pipeline

Tim Takaro is reaching new heights as he tries to stall the pipeline expansion project in New Westminster

Most Read