Sports

This Will End Well

Our greatest daredevil stares down middle age

by
Photography by Jeremy Fokkens

• 4,656 words

Photograph by Jeremy Fokkens

The premise is simple. A man embarks on a quest. Before him, a waterfall, forty-three storeys high, frozen solid. It’s a gut-rattling gamble. If he can scale it in one push, he’ll emerge victorious. But that’s a big if: the weather is warming, darkness is falling, time is running out.

The hero’s name is Will Gadd. He’s in the far reaches of British Columbia, his face turned up at Helmcken Falls, which taunts him with its unclimbable crags. Ice chunks drop like anvils from the overhanging cliff as his team, in sub-zero temperatures, drills bolts into the climbing route Gadd will use—seven pitches, or sections, linked by rope. The goal is to manoeuvre up the fragile lattice in a more or less straight line, using crampons, pickaxes, and brute strength. Gadd is in the limelight for a reason. He’s one of the world’s most accomplished athletes. He’s also a firecracker, an ideal protagonist. During the lead-up to the climb, the temperature drops to minus-thirty-five degrees. The air is choked with mist that bonds to the ropes, and thousands of frozen pounds threaten to pull the bolts clean from the rock. Below, ice spikes shoot up from the valley floor, a sinister reminder of what Gadd is risking each time he kicks in a cramponed foot or notches his pick a few feet higher. Still, he climbs on. “This is the shit fucking conditions of all time up here today,” he shouts into the radio. “Just shit.” After eight hours, he’s swearing, yelling, hypothermic. And just when it looks as if he’s not going to make it, he’s over the lip of the falls: purple fingers, frosted red jacket, eyelashes crusted white.

The feat was filmed for Red Bull as part of its ongoing documentary series, in which elite athletes are paid to undertake never-before-seen exploits. But there’s a part of the story the energy-drink company didn’t include. The part where the weather got so cold that the anchors began unscrewing themselves from the ice. The part where the rope vibrated so hard near the top that the latch on the carabiner swung open. The part where Gadd, knowing he was too high up to survive a fall, looked down, barely able to make out the rope through his snow-caked eyes. The part where, by some luck, he saw it when it was just millimetres away from slipping out of the hook and letting him go. The abject terror didn’t make it into the movie, just the triumph—a narrative arc too perfect to be true.

Gadd watches the film for the first time last winter at the 2014 Banff Mountain Film Festival. When the lights go up in the auditorium and the applause shakes the walls, the microphone is passed to Will’s mother, Cia, seated several rows back in the crowd. Company reps were hoping she could say a few words about Will’s achievement, but she can’t speak for crying. She knows how close her son came to not making it home alive.

Gadd has one of the best jobs in the world. He dreams up an adventure no one has undertaken before, pitches it to one of his sponsors (Red Bull, Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, Scarpa), and then hops on a plane. He’s working on a Discovery Channel series that will send him to the world’s unexplored ends. He performs spectacular feats in the name of raising climate-change awareness, showcasing ice—such as the spires he climbed at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro last year—that’s rapidly disappearing. All in all, he prefers his sports high-risk and high-reward. He’s held world records and titles in rock climbing, paragliding, and kayaking. He continues to establish the world’s hardest ice-climbing routes, finding newer, more brittle icicles to conquer. Last January, he became the first person to ice climb Niagara Falls. Oh, and he’s forty-nine—ancient by elite-athlete standards.

As he gets older, Gadd is parlaying a decades-long career into a well-paid gig as Canada’s crash-test dummy. There’s historical precedent for the commodification of risk—think back to the sword swallowers of ancient India or the gladiators of ancient Rome. As modern risk-taking becomes an instantly shareable endeavour, athletes are finding near-immediate fame by pushing the boundaries of what they can do. Last year, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson made the front page of the New York Times after scaling arguably the world’s most difficult rock face, Yosemite’s Dawn Wall. Alex Honnold’s ropeless climbing antics have been featured everywhere from 60 Minutes to The Atlantic . Red Bull was one of the first companies to realize the marketing potential of adrenaline junkies: it sponsored its first athlete, Formula One driver Gerhard Berger, in 1989. Its sponsorship program has expanded quickly, from windsurfers to BMX bikers to skydivers. The company has an entire division, and millions of dollars, devoted to creating adventure movies. Gadd is perhaps the brand’s best pitchman. “I do dangerous things, but not because they’re dangerous—because they’re interesting,” he says. Either way, he might be the closest thing we have to a superhuman.

The scientific community is divided on what makes someone like Gadd tick. In 2013, Cynthia Thomson, a kinesiology graduate student at the University of British Columbia, found what she called the “daredevil gene”—a genetic difference in skiers, climbers, and other adventure athletes that governs how their bodies regulate dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for producing feelings of reward and gratification. Extreme athletes seem to produce less dopamine, which, if true, would make them likelier to turn to risky activities for their adrenaline hit. According to newer research, however, such athletes may be driven by an entirely different set of traits. They are calculating, meticulous, detail-oriented. Eric Brymer’s work, conducted out of the Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane, suggests that Gadd and others like him channel a high level of focus, energy, and intelligence to push the boundaries of human capabilities. Their high comes not from the thrill-seeking but from the display of expertise, the flawless execution of deadly scenarios. In a study published in 2013 in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise , Brymer notes that the extreme athletes he profiled for his research had one thing in common: a desire for freedom—from constraints, fear, responsibilities. “Motivations in extreme sport do not simply mirror traditional images of risk-taking and adrenaline,” he writes. Instead, they reflect “fundamental human values.”

Gadd’s projects start with a flash of curiosity inspired by, say, a conversation with a fellow adventurer or an image of some unthinkable climb in some unthinkable place. He asks himself whether there’s an element of the unknown—success not guaranteed. Most plans take between two and ten years for him to execute. First, he scouts. “I spend a lot of time just turning it around. Turn it around, look at it, turn it around again,” he says. Then, he pitches, usually to Red Bull, a company for which no adventure is too wild. Once the money’s coming in, he gets to work. Niagara Falls took a year to plan and an hour to climb. There were 200 people to coordinate. There were permits to get. There were park staff hesitant to invite what they feared would be a media circus onto a roped-up waterfall. There were more than ten flights to attend meetings in person to show how serious Gadd was about the project. Police officers who couldn’t walk in crampons had to be trained to manoeuvre safely atop the falls. Rescue staff who’d never pulled off something like this before to prep in case Gadd fell or someone else got hurt. The spot on the climb that overlooks the so-called Cauldron of Doom? A place best avoided, lest you fall into it and go shooting into the water churning beneath the ice sheet. “Most people, when they meet me, realize I’m not completely insane,” he says. “I take care of the dangers.” Borrowing a term from psychologist Julie Norem, Gadd calls his mindset “the positive power of negative thinking.” If he breaks down every possible worst-case scenario, he’s much more confident—it’s not unlike the decision-making process you use to invest your life savings, or, on a smaller scale, walk your children across the street. Negative thinking is how he plans every project. Showing up is the easy part. He’s already drawn a mental map of all the ways there are to die.

Will Gadd was conceived at 12,000 feet, in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. His mother, Cia Langdon, was a student at Colorado College. She ran in the same circle of climbers as a townie named Ben Gadd but had never met him. Just before the start of her third year, Cia heard a group of pals was planning an expedition to the Valley of the Ten Peaks in Banff. She wanted in and returned to school a few weeks early, crashing on a friend’s couch. One afternoon, Ben walked through the door. Four weeks later, they were married. The decision was not without controversy—Cia’s mother and father flew out from Maryland to stage an intervention. Her father even dragged her to a psychiatrist. The couple was undeterred. They celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary last year.

A year later, in 1967, Will (“Willy,” to Ben and Cia and no one else) was born. Even as a newborn, he was supercharged—able to hoist himself up on his elbows to look around the room and needing so little sleep that Cia was run ragged. Two years later, Ben decided to leave for Canada along with thousands of other draft dodgers. “I’d refused to register, and in those days you could get more jail time for that than refusing to go,” Ben says. The couple settled in Calgary and decided early on that regular school wouldn’t work for Will. He was so active he practically vibrated with energy, and he had immense trouble sitting still. He was also fiercely competitive. So his parents joined a group of Calgary residents also seeking different education styles for their kids and started the first alternative school in the city. It was experience-based, which meant Will spent much of his time scampering in the backyard or doing carpentry in the basement. “Will would be out there jumping his BMX bike in ways that no other kid in the neighbourhood imagined possible,” says his younger brother, Toby. “He was driven by the physicality of it, by the recognition of it. Will wanted to be seen doing awesome things.”

Ben and Cia continued climbing as often as they could, introducing Will and Toby to the cliff faces surrounding Calgary. They were also avid hikers and cross-country skiers and often towed the kids along in a box behind them as they swooshed down the trails. When Will was six, he climbed a mountain called the Wedge; at age nine, he climbed Mount Athabasca. Three years later, his parents decided to move to Jasper, where Ben got work as a guide for Parks Canada. It meant they’d be closer to the mountains, but it also meant Will would enrol in public school for the first time. “It was a disaster,” Cia says, citing the town’s drug problem.

Cia’s father, a doctor, offered to pay for prep school, so the family went down to New England to look at some options. Will decided on the White Mountain School, in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, because of its focus on outdoor education. After two years there, he went to Colorado College, like his mom. “He couldn’t major in climbing and kayaking, so he took the easiest thing he could find: political science,” Ben says. He toyed with the idea of going into law, a profession he thought would fit with his competitive personality. But after a clerkship that bored him, he headed off to Stanford University for a summer to do a journalism program. He married Susy Levin, a dancer he’d met in college, and settled in Boulder, Colorado, where he worked at outdoor publications such as Rock and Ice and Climbing .

Then, one day, shortly after he turned thirty, he left it all behind. “Susy wanted to have kids, and Will wanted to be adventure boy,” Cia says. He was spending most of his time in an office, and his weekend-warrior lifestyle was making him restless. He wanted to be out doing the things he’d been stumping in his magazines. He moved into his silver Toyota van and travelled the country, putting up routes all over unclimbed ice and rock. In 1998, he won his first Winter X Games as an ice climber. Black Diamond came calling, and, eventually, so did Red Bull. (The company now pays him a retainer, but Gadd won’t say how much money he earns annually. “It’s not anyone’s business how much money I make,” he says. An ESPN magazine article published in 2009 reported his income in the low six figures.) In the spring of that same year, 1998, Will flew to Iceland to make a climbing movie. Also starring in the film was Kim Csizmazia, the world’s best female ice climber, who’s known for being a firecracker herself. The shoot lasted three weeks. They came back a couple.

Almost immediately, Gadd began to apply his high standards to climbing culture. “In the days when the World Cup circuit was just getting started, Gadd got a full sense of the scene where climbers drank beer, looked down on training, thought of climbing gyms as a good place to practise your knots in the rain,” says long-time friend and climber David Dornian. “Will brought a full-tilt athletic sensibility. He enlisted a gymnastics coach. He was bringing an arsenal of tricks to the game.” Gadd doesn’t see himself as having any inherent anatomical advantage: he considers his churning, obsessive mind the key to his success. As a teen, he’d climb laps on the climbing wall at a gas station in Jasper until his fingers bled. “It’s not always the healthiest obsession, but you don’t get really good at something unless you’re a little bit obsessed with it,” he says. Gadd got really good. He would go on to win every major ice-climbing title in the world, including the World Cup and two more X Games gold medals.

Since then, no challenge has seemed too daunting. Gadd has paraglided over the Grand Canyon and climbed bobbing icebergs off the coast of Labrador. He’s explored underground mines in Sweden and stunt-doubled for Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne films. His self-styled job description? “Find the wildest, steepest, craziest ice on the planet. Climb it.” Last year, he placed first in the Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado after competing against climbers half his age. But Gadd long ago lost interest in competing against other people. He shows up to win against himself. “Will judges his self-worth on the most recent thing he’s done,” Toby says. “He has to constantly raise the bar. It will never be good enough until it’s good enough for him.”

Photograph by John Price
Photograph by John Price On Thin Ice Earlier this year, Will Gadd ascends a frozen waterfall on the Japanese island of Honshu.

Will lives in a small grey A-frame house in Canmore, Alberta. His parents live directly behind him one street over—they took down the fence between their backyards. Faded Nepalese prayer flags flap over a swing set. Until 2012, he shared the house with Csizmazia, his long-time partner, and their two daughters, Marie, eight, and Rose, five. The couple broke up around the time Will began seeing Sarah Hueniken, also a World Cup–competing ice climber and a friend of Kim’s. Will now shares custody of his daughters with Csizmazia. Their relationship is tense.“If I have one thorn in my life, it’s that situation,” he says.

The day I arrive, Will has just returned home from an unexpected trip to Ontario, where Hueniken’s mother has died. He hopped on a red-eye to get back and is clearly itching to move. The first thing he does is stop by his parents’ house. The second is go for a run. Then he’s back, wandering through the house with its fiery yellow, orange, and red walls. He takes off his neon-green pullover and drops it in a crumpled heap in the front hallway before vanishing again, off to a custody meeting with Csizmazia’s lawyer.

On the kitchen counter sit two half-eaten loaves of bread, speckled with mould. Four cobs of corn, husks brittle with age, are in the fridge. Deflating Disney balloons sink into a corner of the living room, relics of a birthday party thrown for a friend of his daughter’s a couple of weeks before. A tangle of climbing gear rests in front of the woodstove, alongside crusty Tupperware, the remains of a backpacked lunch. He’d been gone for an hour before I realized he’d left the front door wide open.

After a stop at the climbing gym to blow off some post-lawyer steam, he reappears. Back at home, he wants to get a half-hour workout in before the day is out. In contrast to his house, Will’s garage is an exercise in precision. A dozen Red Bull helmets, each screaming with a different logo, hang near the ceiling in a neat row. Bolts and carabiners are nailed to the wall in a perfect grid, each organized by size and type. Camping gear is piled in boxes at the side, a hunting bow leans against a shelf, and Rubbermaid tubs of video footage are stacked in one corner. (“I hate watching myself,” Gadd says. “I almost never do.”) If the rest of his life is a mess, he jokes, at least his garage is a safe haven.

Hanging from a tall, thick tree in the backyard is a cardboard plank, a training board Gadd uses to practise when he can’t get out onto the wall. It’s carefully notched and at an inverse incline especially designed for maximum suffering. He calls it Plywood Ice, proudly mentioning that he made the world’s first version back in his thirties. As I watch Gadd flick his tools from hole to hole with serpentine fluidity, leg over arm, crunching and uncoiling with each forward motion, I begin to appreciate just how much strength is required to hold your entire body weight with your arms while dangling from two picks. “It’s like Twister with lethally sharp implements in your hands,” Gadd says.

Mixed climbing, which Gadd focuses on these days, is a combination of ice and rock climbing. What began as a mountaineering tactic in Scotland became a sport in and of itself at the end of the 1960s, when Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard developed a curved, Grim Reaper–style ice pick that could also work on rock. It wasn’t until Gadd’s friend Jeff Lowe established a route (slyly dubbed “Octopussy”) in Vail, Colorado, in 1994 that the sport’s technical challenges began to attract daredevil athletes bored by ordinary rock climbing. Between the fragility of the ice faces, the changeable environment, and the strength required to complete the moves, Gadd was hooked. Since then, he’s completed first ascents of some of the world’s most challenging routes. He continues to revolutionize the sport—simply by doing it better, and longer, than anyone else. When he completed the route at Helmcken Falls, he’d pulled off the toughest mixed climb known to anyone in the world. (He’s since bested his best effort: in December, he finished a route with a higher difficulty rating, the day after winning a competition in Colorado.)

He moves back into the garage, where two gymnastic rings hang from the ceiling. He grabs them, propelling himself off the ground. I watch his gargoyle hands, which are wide and swollen, as if someone’s pounded them with a mallet. He’s training for the Red Bull White Cliffs competition, to be held two weeks later at the White Cliffs rock formation in Dover, United Kingdom. He’s not sure he’s going to go—the last week has been stressful. But he trains anyway, just in case. Red Bull White Cliffs will pit him against climbers barely out of their teens. As he begins a series of exercises for his shoulder, which has been giving him trouble lately, I wonder how grim the looming prospect of retirement feels for a world-class athlete with a shelf life longer than most would have thought possible. By comparison, an NHL player will have a career that averages 5.5 years. A baseball player in the MLB, 5.6. NFL stars average just 3.5 years. Gadd is on year twenty-six.

“I’m fucking geriatric,” he says with a tight smile and the forced grunt of a tennis player. He takes another push. Soon after, he stops, and the rings swing slowly as he walks to the door around 7 p.m. “I’m feeling a bit burnt out,” he says. He’s been up since 2:30 in the morning.

Later, over sushi and a beer, I see it for the first time—what near-failure can do to a person used to raising his personal bar a bit higher every year. After talking about feeling excited, energized, turned on to all the “rad” projects he’s got “in the bag,” his voice lowers as he recalls that lead-up day at Helmcken. It nearly destroyed him, he says. He came back in rough shape. All close calls are tough, but this one was different. It was so violent, so painful. Made a mess of his head. For a while, he couldn’t do anything. Hueniken didn’t understand; they’d talk about it, analyze what went wrong from every possible angle. He beat himself up until he understood how and why he had almost missed the open hook, how and why he had come so close to a fatal fall. He had to slow things down. He read a lot. He retreated. “At Helmcken, my margin was too small,” he says, softly. “It wasn’t good.” He still feels an ache in his right index finger, the one he broke that day, when he climbs.

On the day his eldest daughter, Marie, turned three, Will took her out on a summer hike through the woods just outside of town. The premise was simple. A girl was given a task. Marie looked down at a long log stretched across a river. “What’s going to happen if you go across that log?” Will asked. She told him that she’d reach the other side. “What about if you fall off the log on the upstream side?” he asked. She wasn’t sure. “Could you get back on the log?” She looked at the water. She didn’t know. It was moving pretty quickly. So he started to explain what it meant to take a risk. Remember these three things, he said. Bumps and bruises. Hospital. Death.

That was six years ago, but it’s still the rubric Gadd uses to assess his kids’ behaviour and tell them about his. “They recognize that things are lethal,” he says. Fall out of a tree? Bumps and bruises. Hit by a car? Hospital. Helmcken Falls? Death.

The morning after his training session, Gadd picks me up at 6:45 a.m. in his black Mazda 3. He is all business, preparing to speak to doctors at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, in Calgary—a group of people who repair others for a living—about why he does what he does. The sun hasn’t yet brushed a streak across the prairie, and we talk about his favourite book, The Crossing , by Cormac McCarthy. The novel is about a young boy on a quest—three times, he crosses the border from Texas into Mexico, attempting to return a wolf he’s trapped to her rightful home in the mountains. The journey seems impossible and yet fated, as though something he can’t quite reach is propelling this little boy forward. I ask Gadd why he likes it, as his car flies faster and faster down the empty road. “Because,” he says, “it’s about people at the end of their rope.”

Off the record, those close to Gadd describe a man who controls his public image with acute ferocity—we see only the Gadd who’s been packaged and sold to us. And whose exacting standards, when applied to others in his life, make it impossible for anyone to measure up. He isn’t a person who makes the people around him feel good. One friend recalls Gadd screaming “shut the fuck up” at a crewmember on a set. Another describes the damaging effect being with an elite athlete had on both Levin and Csizmazia. Mikhail Baryshnikov once observed that the artist’s life is a comparatively easy one. It’s those around him who suffer the most.

In this life, bills go unpaid, food goes uneaten, relationships go untended. Sacrifices are made. The bar is set another notch higher. And for what? Gadd has set up a competition against himself that he can’t win. There will always be another waterfall to climb. Gadd laughs darkly when asked what an average day’s worries look like. “I worry about everything,” he says. “It’s my job.” For anyone leading such a life, letting go becomes the real Herculean task. “That’s the one thing I want to ask him. Dude, are you happy with all this?” says Gavin McClurg, a paragliding pilot who, along with Will, was awarded National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year award last year for a trip the pair took through the Canadian Rockies. “I wonder where his snapping point is.”

On the final push that day at Helmcken Falls, Gadd is climbing up pitch seven, the last stretch of the toughest ice climb in the world. The triumphant music picks up; the camera pans out. Gadd’s breathing turns to panting, heavy and consistent. His picks move like sledgehammers, slicing through the air and frost and moisture. When he reaches the top, he lies face down for a moment in the snow, motionless. Slowly, he stands back up and, with a gloved hand, grabs the yellow radio hanging from his harness. “Hey, Sarah, I’m on top,” he calls down to his girlfriend. He pauses, allows himself a second-long laugh, a burst of pride.

He turns to face the camera. “I’ve never been so beat up in my life. Totally destroyed,” he says, a grin plastered to his face, pearly whites on display. “My arms feel like Jell-O, my forearms are cramping, my back is fried, and I’m about as happy as I’m going to get. All the hundreds of hours, all the years I’ve spent climbing, I spent to get right here, right now. Right here, right now, I’m really stoked.” But there is no cheering, no whooping, no hollering. Later, he’d call that day one of the best days of his life, a satisfying cap to his mixed-climbing career.

But he didn’t stop there. He never does. There are caves to scout in Hawaii and paragliding records to break in Saskatchewan; there’s a television series to film in Antarctica, new ice to be found, to be climbed, in Japan. The question is, does Gadd have enough rope?

This appeared in the April 2016 issue.

Katherine Laidlaw (@klaidlaw) is a senior editor of The Walrus.

Jeremy Fokkens is the creator of a Canada-wide photography project called "Back to the Land."