Will Gadd—pioneering kayaker, world-record-setting paraglider and infamous professional climber is an all-around adventure sports superstar. He's also an outspoken critic of the commercial tourism that many refer to as “climbing Mt. Everest.” He’s written articles and blog posts on the subject and following his historic ice climb of Niagara Falls this past winter, he spoke with us about his personal accomplishments, future plans and why climbing Everest just isn’t worth it.
The Active Times: Congratulations on your Niagara Falls ice climb, how did it feel to be the first to do it?
Will Gadd: When I stood on top of Niagara Falls I was really happy to have done it safely, but I still had 20 people down in the gorge and another 30 at risk as part of the film, safety and security teams. I was very focused on managing the situation to be honest and making sure everyone went home that night. I thought, “Cool, now let’s get everyone out before someone gets killed on this project!"
Once everyone was safe then I celebrated with the team on safely accomplishing a very, very challenging climb. [From the] permits to the lousy ice conditions—it was an epic journey that took everything I knew to put together with a great team.
Gadd toward the top of Niagara Falls (photo by Keith Ladzinski / Red Bull Content Pool)
What’s next for you?
Greenland, Antarctica, the Rockies, so many great things! I got to where I am due to hard work and hanging out with good people, but I also know I’ve had a lot of luck, and am incredibly thankful to be where I am today.
Gadd climbing ice glaciers on Mt. Kilimanjaro (photo by Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool)
Everest still isn’t in your plans; could you explain why you’ve avoided it?
For me technical difficulty and climbing new technical lines is the most interesting form of climbing. The primary difficulty in high altitude climbing is often breathing. This just isn’t that interesting to me; I could put a paper bag over my head and replicate the experience. I find flying my paraglider at high altitudes a lot more interesting and enjoyable than climbing at similar altitudes. So I don’t think I’ve avoided Everest, I’ve just avoided boring high altitude climbing.
It might be a good career move to climb Everest in terms of speaking, but I refuse to climb for my “career.” If I did that I’d be no better than the dozens of Everest scrabblers on the speaking circuit, claiming to have learned deep life and business lessons while sucking oxygen and having tea handed to them by hardworking Sherpas. It’s just false, and would be funny if Sherpas weren’t dying to support the ego of the summiteers.
I also don’t think taking risks to climb a trade route makes any sense. Standing on the highest point in the world is less interesting to me than standing in the coolest places in the world, especially if no one else has been there. I’ve turned down at least a half dozen invites to work or climb on Everest over the years, mainly because the risk/reward/fun factors seem all messed up.
Group of unidentified climbers near Everest (photo from Shutterstock)
You’ve written that “the bar on Everest just keeps getting lower, not higher”—do you still believe that?
Very much so. If you’re sucking oxygen and following fixed lines it’s like saying you ran a marathon but actually rode a bike.
Do you think the general public has any major misconceptions about climbing Everest—or climbing in general?
I think many in the public now realize that climbing Everest as a tourist is not a huge accomplishment; it’s just another paid “trophy hunt” adventure. The understanding that using oxygen in sports is doping is also becoming clearer; we don’t tolerate dopers in sports, why should we in climbing? Messner and many others have climbed Everest without oxygen, why can’t we?
If someone wants to climb Everest on roller skates while sucking oxygen and wearing shorts (the oxygen is normal, the shorts part has been attempted) then right on, but don’t call it a significant climbing accomplishment. To do so is massively disrespectful to those who do actually climb it without relying on drugs and fixed ropes. Riding a bike in a marathon means you covered the same distance, but you don’t get a running time in my view.
And, while it’s the Sherpa’s choice to risk their lives so tourists can stand on the highest point on earth, it’s also clear to me that killing economically vulnerable Sherpas in pursuit of a summit achieved in incredibly poor style is the height of ego-stroking bullshit. And I’m enough of a sponsored athlete with my own hypocritical behavior and personal failings to recognize ego-stroking bullshit in myself and others.