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.

Just Posted

Castlegar council meetings will soon be online

Council chambers will be getting new microphones and cameras.

Slocan Valley to be ‘lit up’ with high-speed internet in 12 months

125 kilometres of fibre-optic cable to be laid from Nakusp to Playmor Junction

Vigil re-affirms belief in peace, acceptance in wake of New Zealand massacre

Nearly 100 show up for solemn event at Mir Centre for Peace

Police bust drug operation in Castlegar

Man charged, will go to court in August

Zoning mix-up nixes Shoreacres property sale

Man says the RDCK’s listings online don’t match his property’s official zoning

The good, bad and the unknown of Apple’s new services

The announcements lacked some key details, such as pricing of the TV service

Video of ‘brutal, shocking and chilling execution’ opens B.C. murder hearing

Sentencing underway for Brandon Woody after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in Nanaimo

Is it a homicide? B.C. woman dies in hospital, seven months after being shot

Stepfather think Chilliwack case should now be a homicide, but IHIT has not confirmed anything

SPCA seizes 54 animals from Vernon property

Animals weren’t receiving adequate care

Morneau unveils principles for Indigenous ownership in Trans Mountain pipeline

The controversial pipeline was bought by Ottawa last year

Refugee who sheltered Edward Snowden in Hong Kong arrives in Canada

Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter Keana arrived in Toronto this week

New UMSCA trade deal getting a boost from Trump, business groups

The trade deal is designed to supplant the North American Free Trade Agreement

Trudeau says he, Wilson-Raybould had cordial conversation last week

Trudeau denies anything improper occurred regarding SNC-Lavalin and the PMO

SNC-Lavalin backtracks on CEO’s comments surrounding potential job losses

Top boss had said protecting 9,000 jobs should grant leniency

Most Read