THE ICE MAN
WILL GADD has scored plenty of personal bests in myriad adventure pursuits—first descents as a pro kayaker, two world records as a pro paraglider, three X Games golds and the first ascent of a frozen Niagara Falls as an ice climber.
Recently, though, Gadd has applied his prodigious skills to the greater good, working with scientists studying the impact of climate change. He has helped researchers explore caves beneath Canada’s Athabasca Glacier, an endeavor that discovered a new life-form (a biofilm on the cave walls). And he has climbed below the Greenland Ice Sheet with scientists to learn how ice melt might impact sea levels.
“As an athlete, a lot of what we do isn’t useful,” says 53-year-old Gadd. “I feel like I can be genuinely useful to these scientists in these harsh environments, helping them move around and conduct research.”
Gadd understands that climate change often can be an abstract. For ice climbers, it’s a harsh reality wreaking havoc on renowned destinations. Take Mount Kilimanjaro: Since 1912, roughly 90 percent of the glacier atop Africa’s highest peak has melted. In 2014, Gadd climbed Kilimanjaro’s ice fins, vertical slabs of isolated ice jutting from the sand. He returned in 2020 to reclimb those same fins, rebuild a weather station with a climate scientist and bag the last ascent of the Messner Route (the mountain’s famed ice route). But the fins were all but gone already.
Gadd sees the issue back home, too, with North American glaciers retreating at an accelerating rate. Montana’s Glacier National Park, the largest collection of permanent ice in the Lower 48, has only 25 remaining glaciers, down from 150 in 1850. The glaciers that crown Rocky Mountain National Park and Glacier Bay National Park are in the same sinking boat.
Sure, that loss of ice is a problem for climbers, Gadd says, “but the bigger issue is for cities that rely on seasonal ice- and snowmelt for their water.”