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Away From The Wall: Will Gadd

Athletes in isolation during the coronavirus crisis. A new limited-run column from R&I columnist Owen Clarke. Follow along as he checks in with top climbers to see what they are up to in their quarantine. This week: Will Gadd.

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Will Gadd ice climbs in a moulin on the Greenland ice cap near Ilulissat, Greenland on August 26, 2018. Photo: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool.

COVID-19 is keeping us off the rock, pros and average joes alike. We’re all having to find ways to cope. For week number four of “Away from the Wall” I talked with ice guru Will Gadd. One of the strongest ice climbers in the world, the 53-year-old Canadian has broken the paraglider world distance record on three separate occasions and placed first at the X-Games and the Ice Climbing World Cup. He holds a tick list of hard climbs on rock and ice stretching the whole length of his 30+ year career.

Gadd, who has been staying home with his family in Canmore, Alberta for a month and half, avoiding all his usual outdoor pursuits, save for low-risk activities like hiking, admitted he hasn’t stayed in one place for this long (or not climbed for this long) in over 30 years. Nevertheless, he is adamant that it’s the right thing to do, and plans to continue to stay home as healthcare providers work to turn the tide of COVID-19.

(And be sure to read to the end of the interview for a video of Gadd doing some first ascent’s on Ireland’s Donegal Sea Stacks.)

Q&A with Will Gadd

So you’ve been home since mid-March. What’s your training set-up?

I have a fingerboard and a gym in my garage, and initially, maybe in early March, it was still okay to get out and climb around here, and I didn’t think it was going to take that long for things to open up again. Now I realize that’s not going to happen, so three days ago I finished a 12-by-12 foot, 26-degree wall in my backyard, with an ice climbing wall on the other side. That’s my Plan B.

This is the longest I’ve gone without some form of climbing or mountain sports since I was 18, for sure … but man, I’m a fast food climber, I’ll eat anything and climb anything, so just getting off the ground on that wall a couple days ago was amazing. I was so stoked. It felt great to blast out some moves.

Any tips for folks stuck at home without a wall, with maybe only a fingerboard?

I’m lucky enough that I can still get out and hike in the hills, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. One thing I’ve learned over my career is that keeping moving is really important. The key things I’ve been doing in my home gym are rows on rings, which simulate rock climbing really well. I’ve done high numbers of reps of those, and after getting on the wall the other day for the first time, I can see it’s really helped. I do the ring rows, deadlifts, some form of pushups and some form of squat. Then I do some form of front lever body tension stuff, which is critical for steeper climbing.

You mentioned this is the first time since your teenage years that you’ve taken such a long break from mountain sports. Have you learned anything during this time at home?

My biggest realization is how completely desperate my life was before this. It’s taken me almost a month to dig out all the projects I had going on before. I had six or eight writing projects, a book project… I was flying over 100,000 miles a year, going to the airport at least twice a month. I don’t want to live like that anymore. It was insane.

I have to get back to a simpler schedule. I was already trying to reduce my carbon footprint, I’d cut my flying from 125,000 to 75,000 last year, and I’m aiming for 50,000 this year. In two years I want to be carbon neutral, and this break has helped a lot. Besides, I honestly like this lifestyle better.

Will Gadd climbs new routes on Irish sea stacks in Donegal, Ireland, on 23 March, 2020. Photo: John Price / Red Bull Content Pool.

When you say you like this lifestyle better, do you mean just staying in one spot?

Yeah, I like being at home. This is going to be the year of the local for me. I have a lifetime of rock to do within 30 kilometers of my house, a lifetime of adventures. I still want to travel, but I’m going to focus on the reason I moved here in the first place. When things open up a little, I want to stick around.

What’s your opinion on the COVID-19 situation?

I don’t think anyone really knows what’s going on. Everyone has lots of opinions about what’s going to happen, but as someone who has spent a lifetime in the mountains, you adapt to what is, not what somebody else or the weather forecasts tell you is going to happen. Maybe you get to the mountain and the objective isn’t there, or it’s different, and you have to change course. The most important thing now is to adapt to where we are and stay stoked on what we can do.

Will Gadd poses for a portrait in Greenland on October 12, 2018. Photo:
Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool.

If people start going climbing like normal, you can’t social distance properly. You just can’t. Maybe eventually we mask up and use hand sanitizer like mad, to make it work, but we have to adapt. We have to start figuring out new ways to do our sport.

Here most businesses are closed, essential stuff is open, but people get it. Numbers are down in Alberta. We’ve definitely flattened the curve hard. My friends who work in the ER, many of whom are climbers and skiers, they’re pretty stoked. People have done a good job, but we don’t want to blow it by opening back up too quickly. Young and healthy people, they may be okay, but we’re all in this together.

I’m grocery shopping for a lot of old people in my neighborhood because if they get it… they’re pretty likely to go down. I’m trying to help keep those people in the game, they’re somebody’s mom, dad, grandparent. That’s more important to me than going climbing. But I’ve certainly taken a financial shit-kicking (laughs), so I understand that side of it too. My career as a professional climber is pretty much shot for a while.

Climbing and travel have been big parts of your life for decades. Mentally, how are you handling being stuck at home?

I’m trying to apply the same strategies I use when I’m stuck in a tent on an expedition or something. You can’t change it, you just make your situation as good as you can, and hopefully make the situation as good as you can for everyone involved. I’m trying to be helpful or at least not be part of the problem, and stay out of the way of the people who are working to fix it.

That mindset of “How can I make it better?” is really important for me. If I’m doing things for other people I generally feel better about what is going on.

Besides training and working, how are you passing the time?

I’m homeschooling my kids, which is pretty ironic given my academic past (laughs). I’m also just building stuff around the house, like the new wall, and writing a lot. I’m just trying to make my home environment better, like you do when you’re stuck in a tent on an expedition. I’m not going to lie, my bourbon consumption is up this month, but yeah, my main focus is trying to figure out how to move forward professionally and then trying to make the home environment as best I can.

I’ve been able to move my presentations online, which in some ways has actually worked better. You can interact with people faster, they can ask questions easily. I’m even coaching people in ice climbing online. There are always ways to adapt.

Will Gadd climbing ice around Kilimanjaro. Photo: Christian Pondella.

Some climbers are questioning why they need to stay off the rock and ice during this time, particularly when “there’s no one else at the crag that day” or the area they’re climbing at is remote, like a desert tower, for example. What would you say in response?

Everyone has to make their own decisions. Of course, I can theoretically go climbing right now. It’s just… Do I want to be that person? If everyone goes climbing, the social distancing thing falls apart. Any one person can say ‘fuck you’ and go climbing, but if everyone does that it’s not going to work. We don’t know how long the stuff lasts on holds, we don’t know how transmissible it is on nylon.

There’s that argument, and then the other thing, especially if you’re going out and doing desert towers or into the alpine, sure, maybe you’re away from other people, but statistically that’s going to go wrong occasionally. I’ve seen it. Accidents happen. People are going to come get you, they’re not going to leave you for the buzzards. It’s pretty fucking selfish in my view. There have already been three avalanche rescues in North America in the last month. Then you’re in the system and people are going to have to risk exposure and you’re taking up a bed in a hospital that maybe someone who is really sick could use.

As climbers we tend to be independent and renegades to some extent. That’s awesome, but it’s not about us. One of my neighbors has a preexisting health condition, and if she gets it, she’s done. I respect her enough to not add to the problem at this point. This is for our buds. I’m doing this for my friends and community, that’s what matters.

Also Read

Away From The Wall: Molly Mitchell

Away From The Wall: Adam Ondra

Away From The Wall: Ashima Shiraishi

Conquering Ireland’s Unclimbed Coast | Donegal Sea Stacks w/ Will Gadd

Owen Clarke is a columnist for Rock and Ice magazine.Owen Clarke, 22, is a writer and climber from Alabama. He is waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic in his parents’ house, subsisting off of Hormel Chili with Beans and triple sec, trying to learn Arabic from a 20-year-old textbook he bought online, watching anime and doing pull-ups. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.

Also Read John Long: The Jump | Ascent 2013

The COVID-19 pandemic sent the world into upheaval this spring, and climbing was thrown for a loop along with everything else. Our sport’s popularity was on the rise, the Olympics were on the horizon and now it’s all come to a halt (although things aren’t all bad). In some ways, COVID-19 has served as an equalizer. No matter who you are, how hard you climb, how much you have in the bank or where you live, most likely you’re stuck at home, away from the rock just like the rest of us. This is true for gumbies, trad dads, weekend warriors, and pro climbers alike. We’re all in this together. In Away from the Wall, I’m talking with pro climbers to get the lowdown on their experience isolating: how they’re spending their time, how it has affected them, and any advice they can offer other climbers, whether tips on training, diet or simply staying sane in a life without climbing.