PROfile: Will Gadd

Gary Fallesen
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PROfile: Will Gadd

‘Howse of Cards’

By Gary Fallesen

Howse Peak and Chephren as seen from the Icefields Parkway. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)

The drive along the Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic anywhere, something you might take for granted when it’s your road to work. Will Gadd grew up here, moved away looking for something better, and came back when he realized just how good he had it in the Canadian Rockies. “It’s a rare place,” he acknowledged.

“Anyone who drives the Parkway gets whiplash.”

Look at that. No, look at that. Wait, over there.

Not only are there numerous beautiful mountains to ascend and inviting rock faces to climb, but in winter there are endless ice routes. Or so it would seem.

“There are only so many waterfalls, even in the Canadian Rockies,” said Gadd, who was born in Jasper in 1967 and made his first ascent of 11,452-foot Mount Athabasca when he was 8. Will’s father, a prominent naturalist (Ben Gadd), moved the family to Hilda Creek Hostel along the Parkway when Will was 12. Frozen waterfalls were his playgrounds. “I’d climbed a lot of them.”

He was growing tired of the game when sport climbing broke out. He took it up, becoming a world champion. “But for me, a 13C or 13D wasn’t a massive breakthrough or paradigm shift,” said Gadd, who also has dabbled at the high end of competitive paragliding.

As his interest in climbing again began to wane, lord-of-the-ice Jeff Lowe told the young Gadd he ought to give ice climbing another chance. There was something new to be found around those finite waterfalls that Gadd had thought were mastered. It was called mixed-route climbing: using ice axes and crampons to scale rock (known as dry tooling) as well as ice

“With mixed, every wall with drips of ice and rock became a climb,” Gadd said. “My universe was wide open.”

For a short time, anyway. Then even his penchant for mixed climbs seemed to dwindle. His ability had “reached that point of incremental improvement,” a point at which boredom starts to drag Gadd down. “It needed to be applied to bigger things,” he said.

This day had been predicted. Sean Isaac, who wrote the book Mixed Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, had said: “The future isn’t just short routes. It’s mixed climbing in really big mountains.”

Such as the East Face of 10,793-foot Howse Peak, across Chephren Lake from the Icefields Parkway.

“I’d driven by that face probably a hundred times, but never had the guts to try it,” Gadd said. “Basically, it took all the crazy mixed stuff I’ve been doing for the last few years and put it into a big alpine wall.”

The East Face is nearly 4,000 feet high. It was nearly 4,000 feet of mystique. “Barry Blanchard almost died on the thing,” Gadd said about the Canadian legend who was ripped from the mountain by a collapsing snow mushroom after climbing a new route, “M-16,” with Scott Backes and Steve House in March 1999.

In late November 2002, Gadd led Kevin Mahoney and Scott Semple through “the most dangerous climbing I’ve ever done. I approached it as a hike with camping gear to see if there was anywhere to go on it.”

There was a way up, though it was hard. The Face’s third and fourth pitches were 200-foot crux pitches that consisted of thin ice that reached an overhanging dry tool groove with a 60-foot-fall potential. “They were very serious pitches,” Gadd said. “At some point I didn’t know if I could climb back down. The only solution was to keep climbing.”

The threesome climbed for three days, ascending halfway up the face – and through the most difficult climbing – before deciding to bail. As they rapped down, Gadd kicked at some ice on the first pitch, and a 100-foot curtain fell off.

“We ran out of time,” Gadd said about the retreat. “I felt we almost succeeded by walking over and tickling the dragon with the sword.”

But almost wasn’t good enough for Gadd once they were back on solid ground. “We had to go back up,” he said. “It took a few days to get our courage up.”

Three days later, on Dec. 5, 2002, the threesome returned and climbed free as a team to the summit of Howse. It took them two days to complete the route they named “Howse of Cards.” They named it that because of the Face’s mystique. Howse of Cards shares the first two pitches with M-16.

“(Howse is) one of the few big walls that’s been done up here,” Gadd said. “It’s probably one of the more difficult free alpine routes in North America.”

Sean Dougherty wrote in the guidebook, Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies: “Howse Peak and its companion Chephren are an awe-inspiring sight for climber and tourist alike. Once you walk in to the base of the mountain, the walls that look big from the highway become quite awe inspiring.”

If you’ve driven the Icefields Parkway, you’ve likely gawked at the Howse of Cards in the same manner that Gadd did all those times.

“I’ve done so much climbing along the Parkway, I think I just got sick of looking at it,” Gadd said. “Some things in life you look at enough, you have to do something about.”

Gadd had looked at his surroundings in the Canadian Rockies and tried to find better.

“I was always looking for the best place to live that had the best climbing,” he said of a quest that took him to Colorado and California before he moved back home to Alberta. “It happened to be the place where I grew up.”

March 4, 2003

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