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Ice Pro and Glaciologist on the Future of Ice Climbing

"Feast-or-famine attitudes throughout the ice-starved portions of Europe have already bled into Canada"

Photo by: Takeshi Tani

Will Gadd is in trouble at work. Work is steady, sure, but his future is uncertain. He’s the best in class no doubt — perhaps that’s why he’s still in the game. His colleagues across the pond haven’t been so fortunate; an unpredictable market liquidated most available products and forced them into North American business trips.

When Gadd clocks in for a winter’s day of work he can’t help but notice a redecorated office. The pathways to summits and across ridgelines have changed. The mountains maintain a similar rarified air, but its character is scarred. Glaciers crack and boom more frequently than he remembers. They slip then crash down rotten limestone faces, ruining classic ice routes and creating new Rocky Mountain horror shows. But Gadd can’t ask a secretary to order new curtains or shove his pedestal desk into a different corner. Rolling down the thermostat won’t solve this one. It’s a tough world out there in his industry. And ice climbing guides know best.

Ice climbing in Canada is world class. The Rockies, poised on the high point of the B.C.-Alberta border, play host to steep and sustained flows in a spectacular alpine arena. Follow the TransCanada further west and you’ll discover the Coast Mountains, divulging its serrated granite peaks and ephemeral rainforest ice lines. You could even trade one coast for another — and set aside any predilections for the alpine — to explore the expansive sea cliffs of Québec’s Gaspésie Peninsula. While Canada houses some of the world’s best mountain terrain now, as climate change wreaks havoc on the crème de la crème of yesteryear it’s only a matter of time before we, too, feel the heat.

Gadd, world-renowned ice climber — and yes, the author of Niagara Falls’ first winter ascent in 2015 — travels the globe searching for climbable ice. If it’s bobbing in the North Atlantic, beneath Greenland’s ice cap or on top of Africa’s tallest peak you can bet Gadd has swung an axe at it. But he prefers to travel less these days, even before the pandemic. Gadd struggles with his carbon footprint as a professional athlete — it’s hard to turn down photoshoots and corporate talks when they pay the bills. But an ice climbing trip to Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m) demanded he confront the haste of climate change, “I realized that this isn’t just the Rockies, not just the Andes, or the Himalaya,” he tells me. “When the ice on the top of a mountain — that nobody thought would go away — is going away, I realized I needed to make a change.”

Gadd notices the injurious effects of climate change whether at home in Canmore or in any number of mountain towns abroad. He clocks in 50–100 days of ice climbing each winter; setting up top ropes, gunning steep pillars and leading ragtag groups of scientists into Alberta’s glacial depths. Each time Gadd steps into his office he neatly scribbles down observations about the day’s conditions and hazards encountered. A lifetime of work in this field gives him a startling perspective of ice climbing’s past and where its future is headed. Twenty years ago, Gadd wouldn’t think twice when booking a flight month in advance to the French Alps. It was a given — a certainty — that the infamous alpine playground would provide iced-up goods for his clients in January. These days he’s hesitant to pull the trigger.

Marko Prezelj comes from a similar era as Gadd, albeit across the Atlantic. The legendary Slovenian alpinist is a (begrudging) four-time Piolet d’Or recipient residing in the Julian Alps. After he downed a few beers at the Adirondack Mountainfest last winter I cornered him post-slideshow to ask what had become of his home turf’s ice season. Prezelj smiled broadly and reminisced of the glorious fat flows in the 90s. At the very valley bottom in his hometown of Kamnik, ice formed each November and stayed put until April. Now, he says, ice down low materializes for two short weeks while fervent locals race to climb it all before it comes crashing down.

This is old news to Gadd. He says feast-or-famine attitudes throughout the ice-starved portions of Europe have already bled into Canada. As we are one of the few countries with reliable ice conditions throughout the winter, guides and recreationalists alike are eyeing the Great White North as the ice destination du jour. “We’ve had an explosion of people coming to the Canadian Rockies. That would have never happened without the ice globally getting hammered,” he says. This traffic influx creates a new set of dangers for climbers in Canada. In the Rockies, it is customary for only one party to climb a pitch at a time — unless the route is so wide that parties can safely climb side by side. This system works well in an ice mecca with plenty of Plan B’s and C’s if you get scooped. But with a spike of climbers coming from ice-ravaged destinations, an air of impatience follows to the base of each climb.

Gadd says climbers in Europe can become frantic when a classic ice route has formed. The pressure to climb when conditions are “in” has drastically increased ever since the medium became a precious resource. “When guides and climbers come here, they think it’s the same way. They think, ‘I’ve got to do this. It’s the only option,’” he explains. This mindset causes climbers to take unnecessary risks. He is especially concerned with climbing alongside the uninitiated while guiding. Climbing can be a thrilling game of risk and he accepts that some folks have higher tolerances for it. But climbers charging up below him will inevitably be struck with falling ice — forcing him to descend and rescue them.

Paradoxically, warming winters favour Canadian ice conditions in peculiar ways. Gadd remembers the brutally cold Januarys in the Rockies when he swung his first tool over 30 years ago. For a (seemingly) endless month, temperatures would plummet, taunting exposed skin with instant frostbite and the infamous screaming barfies — forcing even the most grizzled of alpinists to dry heave in pain.

“In a lot of ways, the ice is actually better here in the Canadian Rockies than it used to be. More warmth means more water,” Gadd explains. Just like flooding your backyard hockey rink, well-bonded ice requires a stream of running water to form. When temperatures plummet below -30C for many days in a row the ice stops forming, becoming brittle and aerated.

While Canadian ice climbing venues may not experience the same liquidation as its European counterparts, we certainly haven’t dodged the bullet. Gadd says high volume routes like Cascade Falls (WI3) in Banff now take much longer to safely freeze and take its post as a well-travelled classic. Radical swings in temperature are now common throughout the winter, creating dynamic ice conditions and heightening danger on avalanche-prone slopes. And though January’s cold snaps are not quite so brutal anymore, the temperate reprieve forces warmer autumns and shorter winters. Gadd believes the ice climbing season in the Rockies is reliably starting one month later than when he first entered the sport.

David Phillips, the senior climatologist at Environment Canada, says he believes these trends are going to continue. “People think we’re going to [become] the Miami of the north. We’re not. But winter won’t be the five- or six-month horror story it currently is,” he says. Phillips is based in Ontario and studies mountain climate data like a hawk. After poring over figures released by the Winnipeg-based Prairie Climate Centre, he is certain ice climbers are destined to face a new set of future challenges. Forget clearing away chandeliered icicles for a solid hook; future cruxes may include finding November ice at all.

The town of Banff, nestled in the heart of the Rockies, will see its average January temperature warm by 5C in the next 50 years. And Phillips says Banff’s “average winter day” — where temperatures stay below -15C throughout the day — will be cut almost in half, from 59 days to 30 within the same period of time. When asked how Canadian ice climbers may treat their season in the future, Phillips sounds eerily like the fervent European ice climbers jostling for limited resources, “My thought [on ice climbing] is you can’t procrastinate. If you see a good window, go for it.”

Canada’s forecasted ice woes are not just a concern for ice climbing enthusiasts. Alison Criscitiello, executive director of the Canadian Ice Core Lab at the University of Alberta, sees the big picture. She has applied her extensive mountaineering and glaciology background to the tallest peak in Canada — Mount Logan (5,250 m) — whose summit plateau holds crucial information for our planet. Her team drills ice cores into its several hundred metres-thick glacier and peeks tens of thousands of years into the past. By looking into the past, the data her team collects helps predict the Earth’s future climate.

If climbing thousands of vertical feet and dodging crevasses and avalanches to get to work isn’t complicated enough, Criscitiello’s office on Mount Logan is about to get seriously stressful; the window to collect data is shrinking rapidly. With enough warming, liquid water will move through the snowpack and obliterate these important climate records. Criscitiello says it is only a matter of time before Canada’s ice records are forever altered.

“As an ice core scientist, it’s devastating to think the climate archives [on Mount Logan] could be sitting up there and are on the brink of being ruined,” Criscitiello says. There is a growing sense of urgency within the ice-coring field for a strategic triage — prioritizing the glaciers that will soon be on their way out of our valleys and into written memory.

When Gadd looks back at the last 35 years of his climbing career he can’t think of a single ice or mountaineering route that has remained unaffected. As an eight-year-old, he climbed Mount Athabasca (3,491m) with his father, opening up a world of ice and snow that has unquestionably changed his life. But now he is unwilling to guide the passages that initially brought him to this paradise, and he can’t help but wonder what the future of ice will hold.

This article appeared in Gripped’s December/January 2020/21 issue. To subscribe visit here.

Lead photo: Takeshi Tani