Expert: Will Gadd’s ice-cold competition moves

What does it take to competitively ice climb? Will Gadd takes us inside his mind, on the wall.
Ice-climber Will Gadd tops out at Bozeman Ice Festival in December 2013.
Climber Will Gadd tops out at Bozeman Ice Festival © Ben Herndon
By Hilary Oliver

The Bozeman Ice Festival in December 2013 pitted top climbers from around the world – some travelling from as far as Japan and Slovenia to Bozeman, Montana – against each other on a man-made climbing structure at the North American Mixed Climbing Championships.

Built of scaffolding and wood with plastic climbing holds screwed on, the tower is meant to mimic mixed climbing conditions, in which climbers use axes and crampons to ascend delicate ice and rock routes.

One section of the competition route was a real ice panel, and the final stretch to the finish was a horizontal boom hanging between two towers with no footing below at all. Only three of the male competitors made it across the boom to the final platform without falling.

Will Gadd's strong, controlled motions showed his decades of experience, and the crowd exploded with excitement when he pulled onto the final platform, finishing second behind Janez Svolijaak of Slovenia. Gadd breaks down the techniques and mental strength it took for him to top out – his words below.

1. Climbing is always mental first, physical second. This is where my head – not the route – is the biggest problem. My biggest fear in a climbing competition is falling off the route low and not getting the chance to climb to my potential. I'm focused on keeping the picks of my ice tools exactly square on the holds and maintaining my direction of pull exactly at all times.

2. This is where I can relax a little. The ice panel has nice, deep holds in it, and I climb so much ice in my daily life that there's no way I'm falling off this part. But the overhang looms ahead.

3. Now things are getting real. I can tell by the roar of the crowd that other competitors had some difficulty here, though I hadn't seen it myself because I was in isolation prior to my turn. But I'd been doing a lot of moves like this one – a big undercling reach move – so it felt OK.

From this point forward, the 'pump clock' is on. The route is so steep that most of my weight is on my hands, and the moves are now really difficult. With no options to really rest, I must keep moving, and hopefully hit the top of the wall before the pump clock explodes my forearms.

4. If I'm competing well, there's a point where I stop worrying about the crowd and falling off, it all just goes away and I start to purely climb. No hesitation, no fear, just pure giving it all I've got. As I climb onto the weird 'boom' section of the route, that's where I'm going mentally. All the stops are out, everything gone, just time to throw down.

5. It was tempting to rush this section – my forearms are burning, and it would be easy to rush a move and suddenly be in the air. Here, I'm in a figure four, which is a sort of human pretzel stunt that works well when you don't have any good foot holds.

I also campus part of this section, which is just moving by doing one-arm pull-ups. It's tiring, but can be efficient to solve a difficult section quickly before the pump clock blows you off.

6. Almost there! I can hear the roar of the crowd, and know once I get my feet on the wall I'll be good to go. But I'm pumped, the holds are sketchy, and it's a mind and body control thing to keep it all going.

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