Canadian adventure athlete and motivational speaker Will Gadd likes telling the story of how he became the first (and so far only) person to fly a paraglider over the Grand Canyon. Gadd, who is in town for an extreme sports event, knew that when he embarked on this stunt in 2004, there was no shortage of risks.
He had to achieve enough height without a motor to avoid getting caught in the violent winds inside the canyon, which would spell certain disaster. But if Gadd flew too high, he might not have had the oxygen to remain mentally sharp enough to complete the mission. And he couldn’t land on the other side of the canyon in a U.S. national park, where paragliding is illegal.
Then there was the thorny issue of the Federal Aviation Administration. “They don’t want you flying in there,” Gadd, 46, says in an interview at the Georgia Straight office. “They’re hard-core. That’s crazy airspace—a lot of helicopters, a lot of traffic.”
For Gadd, the key to success was finding rising columns of air—known as thermals—to enable him to reach his destination. This required intensive advance scouting over a six-month period.
“You watch hawks thermal- and ridge-soar,” Gadd says. “I do exactly the same thing on my paraglider.”
He began his ascent 30 kilometres back from the canyon, catching three thermals along the way. At an altitude of nearly 18,000 feet, he concluded that it would be safe to glide over the massive ravine.
“You have to make that decision quickly,” he says. “I spent a lot of time beforehand thinking about it, being organized about it, having done the homework.”
Gadd, a three-time gold medallist at the X Games and winner of the Ice Climbing World Cup, is a student of risk. This has enabled him to survive climbing icebergs off the coast of Labrador and exploring ice-filled mines in Sweden.
The Alberta-raised Gadd has also been the first to kayak down numerous North American rivers. And he ascended Mount Robson in a day, the first time anyone had climbed the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies so quickly.
“People always think of risk as a negative. ‘Risk is bad. Let’s play it safe,’ ” Gadd says. “But if you don’t take risks, you don’t get anywhere. Nothing happens.”
He bluntly rejects the notion that happy thoughts inevitably lead to positive results. Gadd is no Pollyanna. “The universe is basically out to kill me,” he says with a laugh. “Before you get to that point where you’ve got to make fast decisions, you’ve got to spend a lot of time where you can make slow informational decisions.”
On Saturday (June 8), Gadd will participate in the Red Bull Divide and Conquer race. According to him, the three-pronged event includes a “really heinous” mountain-biking section on Mount Fromme, a two-kilometre mountain run that includes nearly two ascents of Grouse Mountain, and a kayaking route along the Capilano River. Gadd, who is a Red Bull–sponsored athlete and an outdoor-adventure journalist, says that anybody who participates in this event should figure out in advance what they want to get out of the experience.
“If you’re there to win, then you’re probably going to race at a higher level,” he states. “You’ve decided that’s worth taking really big risks for, probably, and you also have a massive amount of skill. If you’re there to compete in a cool event…ride fast, be competitive, you don’t need to push that extra 15 percent to the edge. That’s not what you’re there to do. You want to go home with all your appendages attached.”
He says there are a lot of people like him who require “high-stimulus activities”, such as Red Bull Divide and Conquer, to be happy.
“I suspect a lot of kids who are having a hard time in life need these sports,” Gadd suggests. “I think our jails are full of people who have found a relatively unhealthy way to have big, intense experiences.”
Gadd also suspects that a majority of people involved in adventure sports have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He points out that those with the condition can really focus their minds on what interests them, especially when the stakes are high.
“There is no bullshit with these sports,” he states emphatically. “If you do it wrong, you die.”
Like many who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, Gadd is sensitive and astonishingly modest, and has a wicked sense of humour. He doesn’t boast about his remarkable athletic achievements.
“There was a doctor [when I was] in university who…prescribed Ritalin for me,” he reveals near the end of the interview. “I realized the main problem was I wasn’t getting enough exercise. I’m like a Labrador. I need to run.”