Traveling with the world’s best adventurers from the crags, to the slopes, and to the sea
By Chris Van Leuven
As a teen, Adam Ü learned to navigate the inner circles of the Bay Area’s climbing elite who took him to competitions, provided places to stay when on the road, and showed him the finest crags around. Later he joined the elite world of backcountry skiing. Today he’s a marine biologist, pro skier, musician, and full-time globetrotter.
Mickey’s Beach, California, summer 1994. Waves roll in from the Pacific, the waters pooling into a mix of green and white, filling the spaces between the enormous jagged rocks lying at the foot of the beach. A year before these rocks were attached to the upright 45-60 foot tall overhanging wall above, but a winter storm slammed the wall so hard the outer shield of rock broke free, exposing another layer of stone.
Sixteen-year-old Adam Ü is standing on the jagged platform, his gaze fixed on the wall before him, toward a line of new bolts placed in the scar of the fallen rock. He visualizes the sequence of holds—crimps, slopers, Gastons—and plays out the moves with his hands and arms like a shadow boxer. He’s dressed in climbing shoes so tight that his balled up toes press hard against the toe box. As he starts off the ground, his long hair flies free in the wind.
His peers root him on. “Go Adam!” they call out over the pounding seas. In a balance of determination, fluidity and power, he climbs through the sequences, releasing screams during the hardest moves like something out of the movie Karate Kid.
Twenty-four years ago, this is how Adam spent his youth: at the beach, or in a climbing gym close to his home in Mill Valley, either in San Rafael or in the East Bay 30 minutes away. In one of those locations he would connect with his crew, some around his own age, others decades older. These friends shared with him the intricate sequences required to ascend the rocks in world-famous Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra. Under their tutelage, he always knew where to stay, who to meet up with, and where to find the best places to climb.
Most of his crew weren’t dirtbag climbers with no direction or income; many worked jobs in San Francisco and Oakland, balancing their careers and activities. Through them he learned that climbing was more than a sport, it was a lifestyle.
In the ensuing years he would join these friends everywhere, crashing on a couch in Los Angeles one weekend for a comp, the next crawling into his sleeping bag in the dirt at Owens River Gorge outside of Bishop.
By 16 he was so immersed in the world of climbing, that he decided to finish his senior year at the boarding high school CRMS (Colorado Rocky Mountain School) in Carbondale, Colorado, a mere 45 minutes from America’s most famous sport crag: Rifle. Not only was CRMS one of the top rated schools for outdoor pursuits in the country, it also had a competitive climbing team and coach, and he believed training with them would make him better and stronger—and become the best climber he could be.
When Adam got to Colorado for his final year of high school he found the climbing team had disbanded (it came back a few years after he graduated—ed.) meaning there was no coach to arrange off-campus trips, leaving only the rudimentary artificial wall in the school’s barn to train. He needed a new sport (the school requires all students to participate), so he joined the telemark ski team since that was what his climbing friends had done back in California.
“Up to then I had skied only one day and snowboarded one day,” Adam says. “I had no idea what telemarking was, but I knew many of my climbing friends back in California were ‘telemark skiers’ in the winter. If that’s what climbers did, then that’s what I’d do,” he told Adventure Sports Journal from his house in Glacier, Washington, located near the base of the ski area Mt. Baker. “It was a giant slice of humble pie.”
At CRMS, he chose the telemarking racing team over the backcountry ski team because it aligned with his competitive background: “I knew to compete there’d be lots of reps and learning how to move under coaching and training.” Once out on the snow, “I was like, wait, this is fucking hard. I had no idea what I was doing.”
Everyone on the team had more experience than him, making him the weakest link, but that didn’t discourage him. He logged 90 days on the slopes that winter, and by the time he graduated, he was so hooked on skiing that it had mostly replaced his love of climbing.
For Adam’s senior project at CRMS, in 1996, he chose to pursue marine studies. He reached out to several organizations but the only one that replied was the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Washington, located north of the Olympic Peninsula. At this time they were stationed in the Bahamas, which is where Adam joined them.
For one month he studied whales and dolphins, spending his days in a field station and on research vessels. At the end of the internship the director asked if he would join them for the summer in Washington. After he graduated from CRMS he moved to San Juan Island for the summer. “I did a bit of everything, from boat driving to coordinating volunteers, to boat and house maintenance, to photo developing in the darkroom, to data entry,” Adam says. “From the most mundane tasks to taking pictures of killer whales.” By summer’s end, he’d fallen in love with his work on the ocean.
At 18, with merely 90 days of skiing under his belt and now another 90 days studying marine biology, he knew he wanted a life spent on the mountains, rocks and seas: He wanted to be a skier, climber, and whale researcher.
That autumn he enrolled in Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, eager to earn a degree in biology. Within three weeks he became discouraged. “My professor told me to choose a different major. To this day it pisses me off to think about what she said. Don’t tell something like that to a starry-eyed freshman during their first weeks in school. It was totally deflating.”
After that brutal suggestion from his teacher, his focus in school waned and he began spending more time with his crew near Bend, Oregon, on the slopes and in the backcountry of Mounts Hood and Bachelor, as well as on world-class sport climbs at Smith Rocks. He tried changing majors. The longer he stayed, the less interest he had in his studies and by his third semester he dropped out. Later that same year, in the middle of winter, he moved to Bend. Unable to get work on the mountain due to his long hair and all the jobs in town being filled, he continued skiing. That time on the slopes got him connected with a crew of ski racers that invited him on a five-week-long road trip to telemark races in the US.
“I liked how the telemark skiing world was like the climbing world, especially in those formative years,” he says. The group shared with him the secrets of getting reduced price or free lift tickets, and where to couch surf so he could live on the cheap while skiing at the best areas in the country. With them he saw Big Mountain, Montana for US Nationals, Stevens Pass, Washington for the Pacific Northwest Regional Championships, and Salt Lake City, Utah for the World Cup Finals and Championships.
The following summer he reconnected with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, where he continued to work with the scientists studying killer whales. At the end of the field season he moved to Whistler, BC, to spend a full season focused on skiing. While in Whistler he skied and trained with members of the Canadian National Telemark Team and traveled with them to compete in World Cup races in the US.
After a full season spent skiing and now three semesters out of school, he was ready to give school another shot. That autumn, Adam enrolled in Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, where his professors supported him in becoming a marine biologist. He also connected with the professional skier and photographer Carl Skoog (1959-2005).
“Once I started skiing with Carl, I really started to see that the skiing world had more to offer than racing. We started going on incredible backcountry adventures and he introduced me to my first sponsors with companies like Patagonia and K2.”
Over the next several years he repeated the cycle of going to school, skiing in the winters, and working on research vessels throughout the summers. But between skiing and research there was little time to spend at the crags, and “sadly,” he says, climbing faded from his lifestyle. “It was a drag. There wasn’t a gym in Bellingham at the time so there was no place to train. The rocks were all soaking wet or covered in snow in the winter and in the summer, when they were in prime condition, I was on a boat.”
After he graduated from WWU he began picking up work on research vessels for the US Forest Service and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). He continued his education, earning his masters degree in marine ecology in Scotland in 2009.
In the winter of 2005 he and Carl traveled through India and Europe, one month in each location. Later that year they planned to reconnect in Argentina but in October, Carl, then only 46, died in a fall while ski mountaineering on Argentina’s third highest peak, Cerro Mercedario (6,770m). “He was a hero of mine—badass ski photographer and ski mountaineer,” Adam says.
While an undergrad at WWU, Adam’s expert-level skiing coupled with publicity from his photographer friends gained him the attention of sponsors; this led to companies giving him gear, covering his travels, and picking up the tab for his races.
Fourteen years later he’s still doing the same thing.
He’s since traveled all over the world following his passions. To date, he’s been on the cover of over 40 ski magazines worldwide, including Ski, Skiing, Backcountry, and Telemark Skier, to name but a few. He was on seven magazine covers this year alone. His sponsors include Lib Tech Ski, Backcountry Access, LEKI, Zeal Optics and a host of others.
Walking with him this summer through his quiet neighborhood in Glacier, located an hour’s drive from Bellingham, he shows me Mt. Baker through the clouds, pointing out lines he and his girlfriend, Tess Golling, have skied. The two pro skiers have lived together for six years. Skis, bindings, gloves, hats and ski helmets fill the first floor of their house. Adam keeps the upstairs, dedicated to music, filled with speakers, mics and everything needed for rehearsing with his (now defunct) metal stoner rock group Metalmücil and his current group, the Season Passholes, where he sings and plays guitar.
Adam’s black hair still extends down to the center of his back, but today gray peeks out in wisps behind his ears. Now 40, Adam sees that his role in skiing has changed, and he’s become the experienced elder to the next generation, just as his Bay Area climbing friends were for him back when he was a teen. He and Tess prepare 20-something crushers for international ski trips, heli-ski outings, and media events by showing them everything they need to know.
“These are coveted spots; a helicopter only fits so many people, and you can’t bring a huge crew on an international media trip. These trips don’t come up every day,” Adam says. “I’ll never be as good as some of these young rippers coming up, but there’s a lot more to it than just being a great skier. I use my experience to help show them the ropes so they can become valuable members of the team.”
He describes a scene from the previous week when he was skiing in a terrain park on Mt. Bachelor for a shoot. He watched as a skier just over half his age threw himself so hard at the biggest jumps to get the shot that he spent part of the day crashing and slamming on the flats. That night his young friend had to take an ice bath to bring down the swelling on his bruised and battered body; Adam focused on smaller features and made it through the day unscathed. As a professional, he knows you can’t force a shot, but he’ll stay out for as long as it takes and jump big when conditions are right. He knows when to turn it on and when to back off to keep injury-free, and freely passes that knowledge on to the next generation. “I definitely admire the younger generation’s abilities and many of them are super dedicated to make a career for themselves in skiing. I just don’t think it’s worth it to be injured or killed in the pursuit of a photo or a film segment. It’s happened to too many friends that pushed it too hard. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I hope to still be skiing when I’m 80.”
Adam’s world travels continue: In July and August he returned to the Mariana Islands (east of the Philippines and south of Japan in the Central Pacific) where he worked on two different NOAA projects to study whales and dolphins. And this winter he and Tess are planning to return to Japan to ski, an area he’s frequented over the years due to its legendary powder.