“It shakes your guts.”: TOK knowing in an adventurous ice climb

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Ice climbing to precipitous heights is not everyone’s idea of a good time. Certainly – most certainly – not mine! But while I find adventurer Will Gadd’s ascent of frozen Niagara Falls essentially horrifying, I’m intrigued at the potential for a stimulating TOK class that emerges from the videos of his climb in January and a video/audio interview he did in June of this year. In this blog, I often suggest fresh material for TOK classes. This time, I’ll go into some detail on how I imagine using it – and please feel free to pick out anything useful to you.

TOK Discussion Activity:  Climbing the Frozen Falls


“Will Gadd, the man who climbed Niagara” highlights an interview by Shad on the program q, on Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), June 3, 2015. Will Gadd is National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2014/2015 and climbed Horseshoe Falls of Niagara Falls in January 2015. The CBC webpage features two small video clips of the climb, a video version of the interview, a short article with links to earlier stories, and a link to full version of the interview on radio.  Several clips of his climb and the interview with Shad are also on YouTube  (see references at the end).

Purpose in using this material

An ideal use of this video interview is to stimulate Theory of Knowledge discussion on different forms of knowledge – either to generate some distinctions or to apply to an example some distinctions already established in class. Early in the interview, Shad prompts climber Will Gadd to speak of knowing through first hand experience and aspects of knowing how to climb. The interview also brings up numerous ways of knowing, such as sense perception in direct experience and emotion and intuition regarding about fear and its positive contribution to his evaluation of a dangerous situation. In the final 7 minutes of this 16-minute interview, Gadd reflects on communicating his personal knowledge to others and sharing knowledge.

The appeal of this particular material

Appeal for students: adventure and reflection. A young and trendy interviewer questions the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year about his death-defying adventure – the challenge of climbing the ice bordering a thundering waterfall, the fear of plummeting into “the cauldron of doom”, feelings over sharing stories, the changing world as icefields melt, and finally “trying to live life”.

Appeal for teachers:  The video resources prompt discussion but don’t themselves consume much class time.  Besides, the ice climb is sufficiently memorable that it will be easy in months after a discussion to recall for a class the ideas established through it.

Sequence for discussion

1. Preamble. Play the short (2:24) video clip “Will Gadd Climbs Ice on Frozen Niagara Falls ” (the clip with which this post opens) for background on the climbing project about which Gadd will be speaking in the interview.  Before pushing on, touch the following questions lightly with the class for some immediate response — to draw their thoughts into Theory of Knowledge.

  • What does Will Gadd know that you and I almost certainly do not? Do you think his experience of feeling the “visceral pounding of the water” is a kind of knowledge? Is his reflection on the sensations of his direct experience essential to our calling it “knowledge”? Would you call his skill in climbing a kind of knowledge?
  • When he yells at the top of the climb, what emotion does the video narrator declare that he is feeling?   Do you agree?  How do you know?

2. Interview by Shad of Will Gadd, adventurer

Now play the interview (15:47) below, ready to pause it at points for class discussion.  (It’s SO satisfying when an interviewer asks the questions we’d want to ask in his place!)  I follow the interview below with a timing outline to make it quickly accessible and questions that you may want to use to stimulate discussion in your TOK class.

Interview Section 1

0:00 opens with background of the project secrecy and excitement. Q: 0:55“Tell us what the preparation is like.” Q: 1: 35 “How do you get up a 150 foot sheet of ice?” 3:00 “What did it feel like?”

For TOK, start at the beginning and pause the video at 3:28 for questions and comments. Section 1 contains a lot of comments on KNOWING HOW to do the climb – in planning, technique, attitudes…. and KNOWING through direct experience (“It shakes your guts”. “It’s so powerful.”)

Questions to class: 

  • What kinds of knowledge is Gadd talking about in this section we’ve just heard?
  • What are the consequences if he puts his knowledge to the test – and is wrong?

Interview Section 2

Q: 3:30 “Hearing this story made me think that in this day and age we have so much access to information. We can learn so much. But it’s a different kind of knowing when you know with your body. You experienced Niagara Falls physically in a way that the rest of us would not…. What’s that like?”

For TOK, restart from 3:28 and pause the video at 4:47 for questions and comment. In Section 2, Shad pushes Gadd for details on learning and knowing, and Gadd responds about experience leaving an “imprint”.

Questions to class:

  • What TOK ways of knowing does Gadd mention as contributing to this “imprint”?
  • Do you think you know what Gadd’s talking about? Have you played sports or had other experiences that have left you with such an “imprint”? We’ll never have his personal knowledge. But to what extent do you think it’s possible for unusual personal knowledge like his to contribute to shared knowledge?

Interview Section 3

Q 4:48 “The story also made me think about the different kinds of fear you must feel. You must know different kinds of fear…”

For TOK, restart at 4:47 and pause the video at 6:50 for questions and comments. In section 3, Gadd speaks of different ways of knowing, especially emotion but also (although he doesn’t name it) intuition.

Questions to class:

  • What TOK ways of knowing does Gadd talk about in the section we’ve just heard? What does he think he learns through fear? What does he think he knows through intuition? What other ways of knowing are involved in his experience?
  • Shad asked Gadd about whether he felt different kinds of fear. Does this question and the answer make sense to you?

Interview Section 4

Q 6:55 “You go around and share these stories.”

For TOK, pose the question below as one to think about before restarting the video at 6:54, and then play it right through to the end at 15:47. If they don’t have the question in mind, there are bits that students might miss connecting (whether experience can be communicated to others, what Gadd learned from his father; a larger view of the world more generally with its ice fields melting).

Questions to class:

  • What do you think the relationship is between personal knowledge and shared knowledge? As you listen to the last part of the interview, think about what Gadd has taken in from others’ knowledge, and what he is contributing himself to a common knowledge pool.

Summary in class

If students have responded to your questions, then a lot of basic TOK distinctions and vocabulary will have come up through the discussion. Still, I’m always inclined to debrief lightly at the end of a class, just to clinch the TOK points, link them in with past discussions, and plant them for future discussions.

  • different but interconnected kinds of knowledge: experiential knowledge as personal experience (with reflection), skills of knowing how, and knowledge claims that can be shared (knowing that…)
  • different but interconnected kinds of knowledge: personal knowledge, shared knowledge, and their interaction
  • ways of knowing: how they work together in learning, knowing, communicating

This particular material is likely to prompt some personal connections and anecdotes, so you might want to balance the other way at the end with questions on how athletic skills become shared knowledge – and the process of sharing through different forms of communication and training. After all, considering that process of sharing pulls together several ways of knowing and contributes ideas toward a larger discussion of the methodologies of the areas of shared knowledge.

And for me, scared of heights and not so very athletic, there is a final knowledge question that I can’t escape: Is there some knowledge that we DON’T want? There could be a lot of different ways of answering that one!


“Will Gadd, the man who climbed Niagara”, q with Shad, CBC, June 3, 2015. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/schedule-for-wednesday-june-3-2015-1.3097370/will-gadd-the-man-who-climbed-niagara-falls-1.3098198

“Ice Climbing Frozen Niagara Falls – Will Gadd’s First Ascent”, YouTube. Jan 29, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jU5i1WjRBhE&list=PLzxgkaTxbUsRiiLQsiVbmN283VPnMjXws&index=1

“Will Gadd Climbs Ice on Frozen Niagara Falls”, The National, Canadian Broadcasting Company.  YouTube, Feb. 2, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SOQwTGOMnY

“Ice Climber of Niagara Falls, Will Gadd, on q”, YouTube. June 9, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_D4Zvhub94