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

Chemainus Thrift Shop undergoing renovations to improve efficiency

Customers won’t see more room for goods, but office space and storage an important focus

North Cowichan looks to keep tax increase below 3%

Finance team asked to find ways to drop increase to 2.95%

Ladysmith mayor considered running federally, decided against it

Aaron Stone filed papers with Nanaimo-Ladysmith NDP to be vetted as a candidate

Roundabout plans at River Road in Chemainus moving forward

Land issues still being resolved before details revealed to the public

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

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

UPDATED: Three dead in Surrey crash: police

Single-vehicle crash occurred around 10:30 a.m., police remain on-scene

Eviction halted for B.C. woman deemed ‘too young’ for seniors’ home

Zoe Nagler, 46, had been given notice after living in the seniors complex in Comox for six years

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

Coroner’s inquest announced for Victoria teen’s overdose death

Elliot Eurchuk was 16 years old when he died of an opioid overdose at his Oak Bay home

Military officer accused of sexual misconduct, drunkenness in B.C., Alberta

Warrant Officer Jarvis Kevin Malone is charged under the National Defence Act

Stranger climbs onto B.C. family’s second-floor balcony, lights fire in barbecue

Incident in Abbotsford terrifies family with two-year-old boy

Howard the giant gnome finds new home on Vancouver Island

Iconic attraction will move from Nanoose Bay to Galey Farms in Saanich

Harbour Air to convert to all-electric seaplanes

Seaplane company to modify fleet with a 750-horsepower electric motor

Most Read