Instead of down in a barrel, duo become first to climb up Niagara Falls

National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Will Gadd and climbing partner Sarah Huenikin became the first people to scale Niagara Falls.

Extreme explorer Will Gadd’s icy ascent of Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls’ most powerful cataract, was a rediscovery of the fabled waterworks, an up-the-down-staircase moment that showed there’s room for exploration and discovery even in places like Niagara, where 12 million people tread every year.

Sponsored by the energy drink company Red Bull, Mr. Gadd, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, made three 150-foot ascents up the left side of Horseshoe on Tuesday. The sponsor had hoped to announce the climb after the Super Bowl, but word, not surprisingly, got out on Thursday.

His climbing partner and girlfriend, Sarah Huenikin, belayed the three climbs and then Ms. Huenikin made the ascent herself.

According to Mark Synnott, one of Gadd’s assistants, the climb took a year to plan, and political strings had to be pulled. The park manager's first thought when approached by Gadd about the climb was, "hell, no." But given the massive influx of state cash into the park as part of an economic plan dubbed "Buffalo Billions," Gadd found allies in Albany N.Y., who thought the feat could be an opportunity to showcase Niagara in winter.

So far, nine people have successfully gone over the falls in one type of barrel or another, and five have died trying. "No one ever ought do that again," Annie Taylor, a schoolteacher, said after becoming the first person to ride the falls in 1901.

The falls have drawn other kinds of daredevils, too, including Jean François Gravelet, a Frenchman known by his stage name Monsieur Charles Blondin, who famously said a ropewalker was “like a poet, born and not made.” In the 1850s, Mr. Gravelet traversed the Niagara River on a tightrope many times (sometimes in pink, bejeweled tights). He once accomplished the feat with a stove strapped to his back, stopping at one point to flip omelets for those watching below from the “Maid of the Mist” ship.

“This place has a kind of power over people,” Huenikin told National Geographic.

No one, however, had ever asked to climb the falls, even though going up is probably a better idea than down – albeit the technical aspects are daunting. Officials say Horseshoe Falls has never completely frozen, although some visitors reported that the cataract looked briefly iced-over at one point during last year’s polar vortex.

Gadd said his body shook as Horsehoe’s 3,160 tons of water a second bullrushed past him to his right. Mist turned to ice on his equipment as he found his footholds and swung his ax until it bit into the rotten spray ice. Gadd said he was hypothermic by the end of the adventure.

"The power of the falls is staggering," Gadd said after reaching the top. "It ... makes you feel very, very small. I've never experienced anything like it."

Gadd, a Canadian, won three ice-climbing gold medals in the X Games and has since gone on to become one of the world’s foremost explorers, often finding new discoveries in areas already well picked-over and documented by past adventurers. He has used his quest to climb ice on all continents to draw attention to global climate change, which he says is destroying some of Earth’s oldest ice formations.

Now in his third decade of exploration, Gadd has climbed ice on Mt. Kilimanjaro and has ice-climbed deep inside ancient Swedish iron mines, where he said he felt like a “vandal in a church.” He also holds the 263-mile world record for paragliding and has been the first to descend dozens of North American rapids. He is the author of “Ice and Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique.”

National Geographic will feature Gadd live at 1 p.m. Eastern time on Friday at this Google Hangout.  

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