An Interview with Sarah Hueniken
Editor: First of all, congratulations on your FA of the Niagara Falls (technically, the area on the side of Horseshoe Falls)! People all over the world are beaming with pride at this phenomenal achievement by you and Will Gadd.
You belayed Will, so I have to ask your opinion on what grade you’d give this first ascent.
Sarah Hueniken: Thanks for the congratulations! The climbing is steep and pumpy and the ice is unpredictable in nature. It isn't like your normal waterfall ice, as a lot of it is formed from the continuous spray of the waterfall. Hard to give it a grade, especially as someone who followed it and didn't lead it, so I would defer to Will’s opinion on that. He gave it a grade 6.
Editor: This first ascent obviously would mean more to you because you live about 20 miles from the area and it was a childhood tradition in your family to go up to the gorge on Father’s Day.
After your first female ascent, reports state that your father was there waiting to receive you. I can’t imagine pride he must have felt at that moment!
Sarah Hueniken: Well, my Dad was actually on the Canadian side watching from over there...so we didn't get to see each other until the next day. It meant a lot to me though, that he came out to witness the event and be interested in it.
I can imagine it must have been a bit nerve wracking for him to watch from a distance like that. I took him ice climbing for his first time last year though, so he had a bit of an understanding about it all!
Editor: The falls are so beautiful and magnificent, so as a child, you probably had the chance to take in the beauty more often than tourists.
Can you describe this allure that the falls have over people, and how magnetic it is to be there?
Due to the overwhelmingly enormity of the falls, there is a palpable power there. Would you agree, Sarah?
Sarah Hueniken: Niagara Falls is a super powerful place. On the Canadian side, there is a point that you can stand and be quite close to where the water rips over the edge. I remember being pretty amazed by this spot, as you can really feel the draw of gravity on all that water there. It kind of pulls at your gut.
I was fortunate enough to belay Will out of a small cave only feet from where the water was pouring over on the American side, but about 100 feet down and over the edge. To see it from that new vantage point and get (somewhat) comfortable there, was a pretty cool experience. Niagara Falls is one of those amazing natural wonders that everyone in the world can appreciate for its power and beauty.
Editor: The rigging must have been done extremely carefully. Mark Synott was in charge of that, I believe.
The presence of the rapids near the start of the climb must have been quite unnerving.
What did that area look like to you?
Sarah Hueniken: The rigging was a combined effort. Kevin Mahoney rigged from the top. Mark and I both rigged from the bottom. I rappelled from the top a few times to clear ice for the photographers while both Kevin and Mark kept all the film and other crew safe in the two zones. Will of course also did a bunch of rigging work.
The walk over to the climb was along the river which was mostly frozen, but still showed plenty of signs of how big and real the river is. You certainly wouldn't want to walk somewhere that you weren't sure about.
I was amazed with the potential along the cliff walking towards the falls for other ice and mixed climbing areas. The whole gorge below Niagara has a wealth of opportunity for ice climber if it ever could be accessed.
To get started on the climb itself, you have to down climb a bit and skirt across towards the Falls. At this point, you are pretty much directly over a huge swirling maul of doom, where the Falls lands in a cauldron of unfrozen water. That wouldn't be a place you would want to find yourself... :)
Editor: How long did it take Will to complete the ascent?
What was it like being inside a cave while he climbed up the falls?
Sarah Hueniken: The first time he climbed it, it took about 45 minutes. He climbed it a few times so I had some time to get acquainted with my belay cave. It was just enough room to stand in with my shoulders pressed against rock on one side and ice on the other.
It was nice and dry and sheltered so it was pretty ideal in terms of an ice climbing belay! I had a perfect view of the water falling over the falls and a constant roaring sound. The strange and sometimes scary part was that at times, you could feel and hear surges of water, which of course made you stop and wonder why and how big of a surge would come next!
The pillar of ice that I was squished behind also had a few settlements throughout the day, so that was a bit unnerving as well. There is a lot of unknowns when you are the first to do something, so that can play with your head a bit.
You go through some worst case scenarios...but you also rely on all the past experience you have and are able to see things more realistically again.
Editor: Sarah, at what point during the climb when did you know it was time to exit the cave and begin the process of removing the ice screws Will had used for protection?
Sarah Hueniken: Will and I and the whole safety crew had radios. We communicated via radio.
Editor: How old were you when you picked up your first ice tool?
How did you know that ice-climbing was for you?
Sarah Hueniken: I started climbing over 20 years ago, but not ice climbing until about 15 years ago. At first, ice climbing was uncomfortable. I was always cold and getting bruised knuckles and scared. Something about it though, kept me coming back and before I knew it, I was pretty hooked. Now, I guide ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies, 6 months of the year!
Editor: Did you ever think you’d be the first woman to ascend the falls? This occurred only a few days ago, what does this ascent mean to you emotionally?
What feelings are going through your heart and mind, Sarah?
Sarah Hueniken: When Will asked me to join him on this adventure, I immediately said yes. I thought I would be coming mostly as a safety person. Will and I have climbed a bunch together in some scary and crazy places, so I knew that he trusted my opinion on things and as a fellow climber and Alpine Guide, would help keep the climb safe.
I really didn't know if I would get the chance to also climb it until the day before and even then things can change, so really not until the moment that the rope went tight on me and it was my turn, did I really appreciate the fact that I was getting to climb the Falls. I just feel fortunate.
Any ice climber would tell you that they likely have dreamed of doing this. It took the life experience, safety record, and reputation of Will Gadd to get the "ok" to pass through all the redtape and be trusted to do something like this safely.
To be a part of the team is a real honour and I have a lot of gratitude for that. I don't think I understood at the time, what climbing Niagara Falls would mean to the world, but now, to see it being appreciated in the way that it is...is really exciting. It is a great way to share a pretty fringe activity like ice climbing with the world!
Editor: Thank you for your time, we are so honored to have had the chance to talk to you.
Thank you also for all the hard work you’ve put into this beautiful sport, for your vision and for sharing this magnificent first ascent with us.
Sarah Hueniken: Thanks for the interview, and being interested in this story!
Interview conducted by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Editor of the Facebook Page: 'An Interview With'.
Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
Interview © Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
All images © of Redbull and Christian Pondella, the designated photographer and used with Sarah's written permission.
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On the Cover: Sarah Hueniken
Cover Date: January 30th, 2015