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

IHIT has been called to a home on Nelson Court in Maple Ridge on Thurs. Oct. 29, 2020 (Neil Corbett/ The News)
UPDATE: Man dead, woman injured in stabbing incident in Maple Ridge

Investigators were called to home on Nelson Court and have one person in custody

The Service Canada office in downtown Maple Ridge reopened on Wednesday. (Neil Corbett/The News)
Dalton rises in House of Commons to ask for Service Canada office opening

Office in Maple Ridge had been closed since start of pandemic, opened Wednesday

Maggie Coles-Lyster leads the pack during the annual racing of Jeremy’s Roubaix on Sunday.
After long break due to pandemic, bike racing returns to BC

Rock the Ridge brings racing back to Pitt Meadows Sunday

BC NDP candidate Lisa Beare said her party would replace Pitt Meadows secondary if re-elected. (Special to The News)
Election promises should bring new secondary school to Pitt Meadows

School board will be talking to new education minister soon: Carreras

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

A deer was spotted in October 2020 in Prince Rupert, B.C., with a bright pink yoga ball stuck in its antlers. (Kayla Vickers/Chronicles Of Hammy The Deer Official Page)
Hammy 2.0? Prince Rupert deer spotted with bright pink yoga ball stuck in antlers

The BC Conservation Officer Service is aware of the deer roaming around the city

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna Mountie hit with 2nd lawsuit in 2 months for alleged assault

Const. Julius Prommer is accused of breaking a woman’s knee during while responding to a noise complaint

Hirdeypal Batth, 24, has been charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement in relation to an incident in August 2020. (VPD handout)
Man, 24, charged with sex assault after allegedly posing as Uber driver in Vancouver

Investigators believe there could be more victims outside of the Vancouver area

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee arrive for annual Cascadia conference in Vancouver, Oct. 10, 2018. They have agreed to coordinate the permanent switch to daylight saving time. (B.C. government)
B.C. still awaiting U.S. approval to eliminate daylight saving time

Clocks going back one hour Nov. 1 in Washington too

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Most Read