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Deep Play

2/20/2009
Christian Pondella/Redbull

Deep play: a pursuit "in which the stakes are so high that it is…irrational for men to engage in it at all."
- Jeremy Bentham, philosopher, 1748-1832

"Another day at the office," Will Gadd sighs as he trudges along a tight, snow-covered, boot-packed trail. By "office," the 41-year-old ice climber means he's outside in the cold, in terrain that's less than hospitable. Could be a skyscraper-size frozen waterfall in Nepal, ice caves in Sweden or even an iceberg off the coast of Canada. On this December morning, he's on a trail in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park, a 45-minute drive from his home in Canmore, Alberta. A few ticks past 9 a.m., after a 20-minute hike, he enters Haffner Creek, a narrow canyon with towering walls of rock sheathed in blue, gray and white. Gadd drops his pack on the ground, slips metal crampons over his boots, grabs a pair of aluminum ice axes and grins.

"Could be worse, huh?"

It could be much worse. Gadd stands at the base of the 40-foot-high frozen waterfall and looks up. He kicks footholds with his crampons and swings his axes overhead, driving the points deep into the ice. He pulls with his arms and pushes with his legs, then kicks his feet and swings the axes again. Within minutes he's 20 feet above the ground and headed higher, without ropes or other protection in case his toes slip or the ice crumbles. Who would blame him for thinking of Chris Hunnicutt, the 32-year-old outdoorsman who, during a 2007 climb in Utah's Provo Canyon, slipped and fell to his death? Or climbing vet Ivo Minkov, who died at age 29 after a fall last March in British Columbia's Yoho National Park? Or Hari Berger, the three-time world champion ice climber who, at 34, was fatally buried under an ice collapse in 2006?

After a five-minute round-trip to the top of the falls, Gadd is back on horizontal ground, and back to talking. "I've known over a dozen people who were killed while climbing," he says. "I knew Hari. He was a good dude and one of the world's best climbers. That's why not a day goes by when I don't think about getting killed. When I stop thinking about it, that's when I'll worry."

Gadd is training here today—up and down a variety of Haffner's routes—to prepare for an even bigger, more dangerous climb up an uncharted, massive waterfall in British Columbia. He discovered the secluded cascade while poking around the web a week earlier. When he describes it, he sounds like Tom Sawyer crossed with Indiana Jones: "There's a cave, and frozen mist, and overhanging ice, and no one's ever done it."

Gadd knows that he'll scout the monster in a few days. What he doesn't yet know is that he'll then plan to return in February with a helicopter, ski plane, photographer, cinematographer and small crew of climbers, all to help document what could be one of the toughest ice climbs ever. And the most dangerous.

A day after Haffner Creek, Gadd is tucked into a booth at Canmore's Summit Cafe, a local breakfast joint with chalkboard menus on the walls. "Another of my offices," he jokes. It's 10 a.m., and he's just finished a large coffee and his second piece of Nicorette. Canmore is to ice climbing what Oahu's North Shore is to surfing, and just about everyone who comes through the door says hello to Gadd, one of the most recognizable climbers in town, with his beanpole, 5'11'' frame, Roman nose and bulbous knuckles. And he has a response for them all. While climbers generally fall into one of two categories—crunchy stoner or sullen loner—Gadd is a type-A yapper. He's also a thinker and a showman, as happy discussing Ayn Rand's laissez-faire philosophy as he is ushering Conan O'Brien up a mock ice wall during a visit to the latter's late-night show.

From the Editors: Check out Will Gadd's entire YouTube channel by going right here.

Gadd describes his parents, Ben and Cia, as antiestablishment "backcountry people." When Will was 13, the family moved from Calgary to the mountain town of Jasper, Alberta, about 180 miles northwest of Canmore. "I played basketball, volleyball and badminton, probably just to piss them off," he says. It was during Will's early teen years that Ben, a winter sports enthusiast, introduced his son to skiing, rock climbing and ice climbing. Eventually Will grew bored of traditional sports, but the ice stuck. "By 16 I wanted to do something exciting and serious," he says, "something that would engage me in real life." In 1985, after two obsessive years of climbing throughout the Canadian Rockies, he tackled Polar Circus. The 1,600-foot waterfall on Cirrus Mountain in Banff National Park was then considered one of the world's most daunting ice climbs. Gadd worked the route for 18 straight hours, much of it in the dark, in temperatures that hit minus-30°. He made it to the top, both satisfied and finished. "Circus taught me that ice climbing is cold, dangerous and masochistic," he says. "I didn't do another serious ice climb for seven years."

He did everything else. After graduating from Colorado College with a political science degree, Gadd traveled across the country. He kayaked, painted condos and washed dishes in New Hampshire, and got fired from a Dunkin' Donuts. He slept in his truck and lived off tuna fish and potatoes. He interned at Climbing magazine, covered contests for Rock and Ice, competed as a rock climber and won four Canadian sport-climbing titles. By the end of his 20s, though, he was burned out on the nomadic lifestyle, and he settled into a desk gig at Sports & Fitness Publishing in Boulder, Colo.

Gadd's fire for ice walls was reignited in 1994, after climber Jeff Lowe blazed a trail known as Octopussy, in Vail. Lowe's route took him over rock and ice, in a form known as mixed climbing. To complete Octopussy, considered the hardest mixed climb in the world, Lowe traversed loose, rocky crags to reach frozen tentacles. After hearing of the ascent, Gadd was suddenly eager to climb again, knowing that previously unreachable ice formations were now accessible. At Haffner Creek, for example, climbers once limited to four main ice routes could now choose from more than 50 mixed routes. "Will became one of mixed climbing's pioneers," says Duane Raleigh, publisher of Rock and Ice. Gadd and Lowe were among a handful of climbers who revolutionized mixed technique, even popularizing the use of ice tools on rock.

Gadd also refocused on pure ice climbing—with a vengeance. He won the world's major ice climbing contests, including the X Games in 1998 and '99 (two of the three years in which ice events were held at X) and the ice World Cup in 2000. But it wasn't gold medals that lured him into the cold. Gadd was constantly seeking bigger and better projects, more exotic locations, the most difficult routes, climbs that had never been attempted—on ice and on rock. He was the first to open some of the hardest routes in the world, including Alberta's Musashi, in 2002. He named the route after the samurai warrior who perfected the art of fighting with two swords.

But the question remains: Why ice climb in the first place? Forget that climbers die. What about the misery? A dinner-plate-size chunk of ice once broke off above Gadd and busted his nose. Following long, tedious climbs, he has gotten the "screaming barfies"—the pain that comes when warm blood returns to frozen hands. His wife, Kim Csizmazia, the women's ice climbing world champ from 1998 to 2000, has been stabbed in the leg with a crampon. Then there are the little hassles, like cuts, bruises, frostbite and hypothermia.

"Ice climbing is the most engaging, beautiful, challenging use of my time," Gadd says. He's sitting on the couch in his three-bedroom Canmore house in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies. Sure, thanks to sponsors such as Red Bull and Black Diamond, he earns in the low six figures. But he's driven by something other than the dollar, not unlike rally-car racers, alpinists, ultramarathoners, bull riders and free-divers. According to Jeremy Bentham's theory of deep play, the risk of certain pursuits far outweighs monetary reward. The British philosopher, who also founded utilitarianism (the belief that what benefits the majority is always right), felt deep play was immoral. Gadd disagrees. "It's about the meaning of life," he says excitedly. "Choosing what you want in life. I'm always looking for the most interesting path to take."

Do all of Gadd's pursuits pit risk against reward? Well, consider: He's a Class V kayaker, held the paragliding world distance record (263 miles) for five years and in 2007 hosted Discovery's Fearless Planet, in which he dived with sharks in Australia and sand-skied in Morocco. His family photo album? No wedding pics here. "This is the time I kayaked down a melt stream on a glacier," he says. "This is when I got hypoxia paragliding for two hours at 18,000 feet."

As Gadd sees it, there's a difference between risk and recklessness. "I'm not an adrenaline junkie," he says. "If I were, I'd just go run on the freeway or play Russian roulette. If I'm full of adrenaline on the ice—tweaked, buzzed—I've done something wrong." He speaks of measured risk. He tries to control variables and recognize danger before getting into trouble. In day-to-day life, that means driving fast on snowy roads, but only with studs on the tires, his seat belt fastened and no one else around. When climbing, it means carefully reading the ice for strengths and weaknesses, knowing if it's melting or if it's not bonded properly with the rock underneath. "He's not a daredevil," Kim says. "He's actually a conservative climber."

Will nods to his wife and starts talking again.

"I don't need to take risks every day," he says. "But I need to do something interesting a couple of times a week." Still, need has its limits. In July 2005, Gadd and Canmore buddy Ben Firth found themselves climbing icebergs 10 miles off Canada's Labrador coast. "It sounded like a good idea when we thought of it," Gadd says. With the Discovery cameras rolling, he realized that icebergs unpredictably shift and fall apart. "Nervous?" he laughs. "I was horrified." After a few takes, they quit. "I run away a lot," Gadd says. "Especially when it's stupid to be there. Of course, if I said that all the time, I'd never get anywhere."

The weekend after climbing Haffner Creek, Gadd explored the hidden B.C. falls. For two days, he and three friends bushwhacked through snow, ice and thick brush, camping in minus-13° temps. While the hike in was brutal, the falls lived up to every expectation. "Truly amazing," says David Dornian, one of the climbers. "At 800 feet, it's probably the world's longest single-pitch falls that can freeze." Gadd and his friends examined the face, figured out potential routes and resolved to return this month. (The trip is scheduled for Feb. 12-21.) But they did not get to swing an ice ax. "The ice was a little too slurpy," Gadd says. "We watched a piece that was two times the size of a tennis court break off and shatter."

Will he make it to the top on his return? "I wouldn't put money on it," he admits, fully understanding the scope of the climb. "Of course, I wouldn't bet against me, either."

In other words, just another day at the office.