Exploring the Greenland Ice Sheet With Pro Climber Will Gadd

Ice climber Will Gadd is no stranger to taking on dangerous terrain. Over his career, Gadd has explored remote areas in the Colorado Rockies, the shores of Ireland, Kilimanjaro, Canada’s highest waterfall, Utah’s Snow Canyon, and Niagara Falls, becoming the first person to climb the ice-covered rock wall there. But his most recent adventure might be his most thrilling yet.

For his new Red Bull TV film Beneath the Ice, Gadd traveled to the Greenland ice sheet to explore the deep caverns and holes in the ice cap, descending hundreds of feet in dangerous conditions to learn more about spots that basically no one in the world has ever explored. Working with professor and glaciologist Jason Gulley, Gadd hoped to find out how meltwater flows within glaciers and impacts the climate, including sea level rise.

“We wanted to understand how glacial meltwater moves from surface to the bottom of a glacier,” Gadd told Men’s Journal. “There’s all these models out there about glaciers and climate change, and we go look and see what’s really happening, and oftentimes it’s very different than the models. It’s been fascinating to use the athletic and outdoor skills I have developed to hopefully make a small difference in how we understand the planet.”

Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool

Gadd spoke with Men’s Journal about exploring the Greenland ice sheet, what it’s like living in minus-20 degree temperatures, his essential pieces of gear, and more.

How did this project come together?

I’d say the majority of my projects come from me as just ideas and stuff I’d like to do, and this was like that as well. But for a trip like this, you need help. It was great working with Red Bull on it, because they really can help with permits and logistical stuff, which can make or break a project like this. This story has a big science angle and that makes it a little different than what they usually do, but I was pleased they were into doing a hard-science story, and one that, to me, is so important for the future of the climate.

What were you hoping to find out there?

Scientists and explorers ask ourselves: “What’s over the horizon? We’ll take a look and see.” For this project, we wanted to get in there and see what’s actually happening in these glaciers. Around 70 percent of the Earth’s fresh water is locked up in ice, and the Greenland ice cap holds about 10 percent of the world’s fresh water, which is a huge amount. There’s models on how it works, but there’s very few people who have been down under the ice in Greenland or anywhere for that matter.

What did you learn from exploring the ice sheet?

We wanted to go out there and see how it looks and where the water goes. The models can be radically different than the reality you find. There’s a huge cavern down there under the Greenland ice sheet, and it impacts how water moves through the glacier. The time it takes for the water to go down through the ice is likely to be different than the models. The model says we’re going to hit water 200 meters down, and it didn’t work like that. It’s interesting to see how direct experience can affect what you see. The caverns and spaces in the ice sheet are much larger than previously thought and that was a big discovery for us.

What’s the day-to-day life like when you’re on the ice sheet?

Living up on the ice sheet is brutal. Just going to the bathroom, it’s minus-20 with 60 mph winds, so doing that and other everyday occurrences are tough and harder than your usual life. Everything is like that; you wake up in a tent with frost on it. In a way, it’s more like being on a mountaineering expedition. These research camps aren’t plush and nice, it’s not high living. If anything goes wrong, you’re far away from potential rescue.

Will Gadd exploring the Greenland Ice Sheet
Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool

What are some key pieces of equipment and gear you use on trips like this?

Mountains of ropes, ice tools, and hardware, of course, since you’re not going anywhere on the ice without those. And for these, just to say, I’ve paid for this stuff, it’s not any sponsorship deal or anything. The Garmin inReach Mini has been a game-changer. Being able to have satellite communications and weather forecasts are great. It’s become standard issue for me, because if you don’t have comms, you can’t get a rescue going. It’s also nice getting a text from your loved ones.

What’s your advice for people out there hoping to go on their own adventures?

Just go. It’s simple, but I think it’s key. You can get so wound up on everything being perfect and doing research, and of course that’s important to a certain extent, but just go out there and do it. My best adventures have sometimes been me just going. Obviously be safe, but just get up and go do it. My expeditions look very well put together, but most of the time it’s just us doing the best we can and going out and doing it.

What’s one thing to always have on these trips people might not expect?

Travel with hot sauce. Most food out there can be boring when you’re out on these remote trips and having some Louisiana-style hot cause is a life saver. Nothing fancy, but it gives you that extra flavor when you’re having so much camp food like your third plate of canned peas or canned food. Hot sauce is critical.

What do you hope people take away from the film?

I hope people hear the name Greenland and think about it a bit differently. It’s not just a chunk of ice, there’s a whole world beneath it. Even before I did trips to Greenland, I was the same as most people: You see it as this huge piece of ice way up north and these areas are not places you can just go and look at. It’s hard to visualize Greenland and what it really looks like. This area is a remote place that’s hard to access, and yet it’s so vital to all our futures. I wanted to put a face on this huge chunk of landscape for people.

You can watch the full Red Bull TV movie Beneath the Ice here.

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