Lessons learned in the mountains shouldn’t be kept to oneself.

will-gadd-red-bullRed Bull Photofiles

I travel to outdoor festivals around the world where I regularly speak to large audiences of outdoor sports enthusiasts — people like you. They all enjoy my shows, even the small percentage of them who are sober.


In this festival environment I could show pictures of falling icicles and people would be thrilled; in fact, I do show a video of a falling icicle and people react as if I'm actually riding the icicle myself. I also do corporate presentations, and the main thing I've learned is that it's a lot tougher to get people in suits to laugh — especially at 7:00 a.m. when they’re all sober. I recently did a corporate presentation on leadership and risk; two topics I figured I know something about as I usually lead when I climb and I'm still alive despite more than 30 years of continuously risky living.

In retrospect, my qualifications may not have been what the suits had in mind, but I showed them pictures and shared stories of climbing falling icicles, scaling mountains, paragliding at illegal altitudes and all the lessons I'd learned along the way (think negatively, adapt to the world, run away early and of course always bring a headlamp). I had high hopes that some of what I was saying would resonate with them — and the first few questions after the show were positive. But it all went sideways when an older lady in the back asked, "Why are you like you are, and what do your parents think of all of this crazy outdoor stuff?" My carefully prepared graphs of ROI on risky mountain sports hadn't meant anything to her; she wanted to know what my mom thought of it all.

"Well,” I said, “it's all my mom's fault.” This got a better laugh than anything thus far, so, flush with success, I charged ahead.

"You see, my mom once fought off a bear while camping in the mountains with me when I was three. She was by herself except for me and my three-month-old little brother, who wasn't any help either."

True story — a lot of who I’ve become is because of who my parents were and are. My father is the well-known naturalist, Ben Gadd, author of what anyone interested in the Canadian Rockies refers to as, "The Bible;" an extremely thorough guide to the rocks, animals and plants of the Rocky Mountains. While other children watched cartoons on Saturday morning I was treated to monologues on mountain geology and ecology from my father as he drove the family to the mountains every weekend, as well as mountain history from my mom. Before I know who Sir John A. McDonald was, I knew his wife, Lady Agnes, was so intoxicated with the beauty of the Canadian Rockies that she rode across them on the cowcatcher of a train in 1886. This story taught me two things: riding on the cowcatcher of a train sounded fun and that risky and socially inappropriate behaviour is justified by the sheer magic of the mountains.



When I was 12, my parents decided that what they needed to do was spend a winter running a youth hostel on Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. I slept most nights in snow caves that I dug around the hostel; I think of my own kids sleeping in snow caves repeatedly at -30 and wonder what my parents were thinking, but they considered this a good activity (it should be mentioned that I was likely what would later be known as “clinically hyperactive” and certainly incredibly annoying; my parents were likely suffering cabin fever and needed some peace). The ability to dig a snow cave fast has since saved my life at least once. There was also no school within 100 km, so most days I went skiing in the mountains by myself, or took one of the frequent avalanche courses guides taught from the hostel. I never looked at the thermometer, as it was irrelevant — I was going outside no matter how cold it was, and I had to be prepared for any temperature.

One of the biggest problems I deal with while teaching mountain classes is that people are afraid of being out in the cold; I lost that fear early. I respect the cold, but do not fear it. Well, I did fear the outhouse seat at -40, but that's understandable.

These mountain experiences shaped me far more than school, friends, or anything else. But when I turned 14, in the seemingly pastoral but actually the hardest-partying town I've ever known (Jasper, AB), I rebelled completely against anything my parents stood for. I turned my back on the mountains to pursue team sports and other, less-healthy pastimes… and my friends were not shining examples of future good citizens. But a loose collective of my own mountain-buddies slowly developed and we were soon back out climbing, kayaking, skiing and, I'm not proud of this, caving. I could rail against the ridiculous authority-imposed rules in school, but gravity did not discriminate based on age or acne. I could respect that, and so could my friends. The mountains were real.

It wasn't until I was much older that I understood the gift I had been given: the ability to look at the mountains not with the fear of the unknown, but to see them as stunningly beautiful, just as Lady Agnes had, and as what they were — as a harsh environment but also as a place where everyone could feel comfortable with the right skills. Today I take my own kids into the mountains, and they are always quieter, more focused, happier and more mentally if not physically comfortable there. I watch the same transformation in my friends as we leave the city and start walking in the mountains; their eyes light up, they stand taller and in some way they seem more at home than when at home.

I could tell this almost made sense to the well-dressed corporate lady in the back. Almost. I hope one day I can take her out into the mountains; the gift I received also comes with a responsibility to share it.
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