Pair of climbers make historic ascent of Niagara Falls

Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken become the first to climb the Falls


Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken became the first people to ice climb Niagara Falls on Jan. 27. The pair of ice climbers ascended 148 feet up overhanging ice that formed on the left side of Horseshoe Falls, the largest of three falls that make up Niagara Falls.

“Nobody is ever going to see that view of the ice,” Gadd said. “It’s a wild place.”

At the top of the waterfall, Gadd, 47, and Hueniken, 34, watched 600,000 gallons of water fall every second 170 feet over Horseshoe Falls with a force of about 2,500 tons. Gadd said he could reach out and touch the falling water with his ice tool.

“It’s a rare thing,” Gadd said. “[The water] was right there.”

The enormous amount of roaring water is what attracts over 20 million visitors a year to Niagara Falls. While most visitors come during the summer months, the winter offers an icy alternative.

Cold winter air causes mist spraying from the waterfalls to freeze and form ice walls and formations along the base of the waterfall. Due to especially harsh winter conditions this season, Niagara Falls is mostly frozen and has developed spectacular ice formations.

This frozen mist formed the wall which Gadd, a Canadian ice climber and paraglider who was named as National Geographic’s 2014-15 Adventurer of the Year, and Hueniken, a professional ice climber, scaled.

“Mr. Gadd’s achievements are very inspirational,” said Brian Johnson, a junior communication major. “He is pushing the boundaries of ice climbing.”

Gadd worked for eight months to get permission from Niagara Falls State Park to climb the waterfall. Red Bull sponsored Gadd and helped organize the climb. Gadd made four trips to Niagara Falls, talking to New York State Park and local police, going through the legalities of the climb, attaining a permit for the climb and determining a safe spot to make the ascent.

While visiting the Falls over the summer, Gadd chose the spot he would climb based on the terrain. He said the ice needed to “stick to the wall and not kill me.”

“It’s the coolest thing you can see: ‘I’m going to climb that’,” Gadd said. “There’s nothing else out there that looked that cool to me.”

Niagara Falls State Park is made up of three waterfalls – Horseshoe, American and Bridal Veil falls. Horseshoe Falls, where Gadd made his historic ascent, has a brink length of 2,600 feet, making it one of the largest waterfalls in the world.

“I am impressed we’ve had such an accomplished athlete showcase his skill in our area,” said Kevin Van Hine, a freshman environmental engineering major.

Every ice climber has thought about climbing Niagara Falls – his team was just the first to ask, according to Gadd.

“You see the pictures on TV of when it gets really cold, and you’re interested,” Gadd said. “When [Red Bull] approached me about it like, ‘Hey could you maybe do that?’ I was immediately in.”

The climb, which took an hour to complete, became a first for the Niagara Falls State Park, which has seen plenty of professional daredevils attempting to make history. Annie Taylor was the first person to go over the Falls, and survive, in 1901 and Nik Wallenda crossed the Falls on a tightrope in 2012.

Gadd’s climb wasn’t only for a place in the ice climbing history books. He helped the New York State Park Police learn about the area at the base of the Falls in the winter, a place no one but Gadd and Heuniken have explored.

This vital information of the frozen topography at the bottom will help the park police for when non-professional daredevils make “bad decisions right on the lip of the biggest waterfall on earth,” Gadd said.

In addition to being a professional ice climber, Gadd spends his time paragliding, rock climbing, mountain biking and Nordic and backcountry skiing. Gadd said he has a lot of “cool things” going on right now, including upcoming trips to Antarctica and Greenland.

In August, he completed the longest air journey in a paraglide, traveling more than 400 miles down the spine of the Canadian Rockies.

Gadd will be returning to the Western New York area in May to run in Red Bull’s Wings for Life World Race, which donates 100 percent of the money raised to spinal cord research.

“I’m very lucky to live the life I do,” Gadd said.

Despite Gadd’s experience and skill, sometimes, nature takes hold of the situation.

“I actually got a bucket of Niagara Falls down my neck when the water changed course a bit and hit me in the back of the head,” he said.

But he made it to the top as part of the first pair of people to ever scale the Horseshoe Falls.