Seasonally Confused: Humpbacks, Free Heeling and Heavy Metal with Adam Ü
Item: Adam U Interview
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Words: Cory Tarilton
It’s not uncommon for professional skiers to support their snow-habits with seasonal jobs during the summer: Hammering nails, throwing fish nets, waiting tables…or, in the case of professional telemark skier Adam Ü, tagging dolphins in the Pacific or counting endangered porpoises in the Gulf of Mexico.
While powder may have taken Adam around the world in the winter and put him on the covers of numerous magazines, his career as a marine biologist has taken him to both edges of the Pacific Ocean and onto TV shows like “60 Minutes.” Adam may be one of the most media-present tele skiers in the world, but he’s a scientist first—and it’s that science that has funded his winter adventures for over a decade and a half.
Adam’s career started with rock climbing, then tele racing and big mountain comps, and eventually across the globe with photographer and friend Grant Gunderson. Now based out of the Pacific Northwest, down the road from Mt. Baker Ski Area in the tiny town of Glacier, WA, his life is split between research vessels in the South Pacific and North America, Europe, Japan or wherever else the storms may be hitting. It’s a seasonally confused existence that’s taken him around the world, from sunny shores to snowy peaks and everywhere in between.
A little background about yourself? Where you from?
I Grew up in Marin County, California, mainly as a climber. That was my introduction to mountains.
Telemarking—why free heeling versus fixed bindings?
I started skiing when I was 17, and all these climbers I worked with and hung with were telemark skiers in the winter. I had no idea what telemark skiing was, but I just assumed if you were a climber in the summer you were a telemark skier in the winter.
I moved to Colorado my senior year of high school, to go to a boarding school with a competitive climbing team. I had to pick a winter sport for school, and so I joined the telemark racing team, having not even tele-ed before. With racing there was coaching, and as I didn’t have any experience I figured I should take advantage of that. And so pretty much immediately I found myself standing in the start gate with skis on, just thinking, “Oh crap.”
And that’s it. I started racing, and got on the World Cup circuit a couple of years later. I sucked. It was horrible. I never came in last though. I wasn’t on the national team or anything like that, but I trained with all the Canadian National Team when I was living in Whistler, BC, and skied and traveled with a lot of those guys. It was fun times.
I realized pretty quickly that racing required a lot more training and dedication than I was willing to put in. After races, myself and so others would go straight into the terrain park, wearing our speedsuits. People were looking at us like we were totally insane, “What the hell are these guys doing in a park or a halfpipe?”
When did you move to the PNW, and what’s kept you here?
It wasn’t skiing related at all; it was all family and whale research related. I’d been visiting the PNW with my family forever, because as my mom’s Canadian we had a lot of family up here. As for myself, I first moved up here straight out of high school, in the summer of 1996, to do killer whale research in the San Juan Islands. I volunteered with some researchers, and ending up spending the summer on crab boats around whales, even working with National Geographic and Discovery Channel people. It was awesome.
Then I started “College Take 1” at Lewis and Clark in Portland, OR. That lasted about three semesters before I moved to Bend to ski Mt. Bachelor. That wasn’t my thing, so I did a solo, five-week road trip throughout the West on the telemark racing circuit, from Bend to Whitefish, MT, through Stevens Pass, WA, back to Bend to do laundry, then Salt Lake City, UT to Crested Butte, CO, then back to Bend.
From there I moved to Whistler, but soon realized I really wanted to go back to school, and so I ended up attending Western Washington University in Bellingham—mostly because it was close to Whistler and San Juan Islands.
You work seasonally doing marine biology research. How did you get into your science work, and what do you do during the shoulder seasons?
I started taking marine biology seriously around the same time as I started to take skiing seriously: high school. Seasonal work was an extension of my undergrad and masters. It was convenient that many of the projects I worked on had a spring/summer/fall field season which left winters free.
I came to a point where I’d either need a Ph.D. to work in an office, or I could attempt to piece together field projects and keep skiing. Many years later it’s still working out, so I see no reason to sacrifice my freedom for a “real” job anytime soon.
Your most recent ocean research project has been garnering quite a bit of media attention outside of the science world. What is the project and what makes it so intriguing?
I’ve been working with the Mexican and US Governments on a project studying the Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), which—with less than 100 surviving individuals—is one of the most endangered cetaceans [ocean-living mammals that include whales, porpoises and dolphins] on the planet. They are also the smallest cetacean, measuring only about five feet long and weighing about 100 pounds. They only exist in a tiny area in the northern Sea of Cortez. One of our goals was to get a precise abundance estimate, using visual and acoustic methods.
The Vaquita story is pretty interesting. They were first described in 1958 and now, barely 60 years later, they’re nearing extinction. Their main threat is getting caught in legal nets for shrimp as well as illegal gillnets for Totoaba, a large fish that is also endangered and is poached because their swim bladders are worth big money in China. So even though this tiny porpoise only lives in a tiny corner of Mexico, the reasons for their plight are international. The illegal Totoaba catch has drug cartels involved, and there’s international trafficking. It’s all pretty dramatic.
Since we’ve been down here we’ve had media attention and visits from National Geographic, Discovery Channel, 60 Minutes, Wild Aid, Wild Lens and many other international news and media agencies. They’re all covering what is likely a “now or never” effort to save this species from extinction. If nothing is done to save them now, they will probably be extinct in less than five years.
You can see a full overview of the project including weekly reports and some of our recent photos and video of vaquita here:
What’s it like moving in and out of the two different worlds? Is there ever any crossover?
Well, an example was when I moved to Alaska in 2002 for a killer whale research job, and the entire TGR film crew was on my plane on the way up. I was super excited for the job and the experience, and to this day it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, but at the same time I couldn’t believe I was coming up to Alaska in early April, primo heliskiing time, and I don’t have a single piece of ski gear with me.
It’s weird how sometimes my existence is very binary. I’m on the same plane as half the ski industry, but the day before I had switched gears to research mode to do whale research for the next six months. If it was a different time I’d be on the same with all my ski gear, going to do the same stuff. It’s like my Clark Kent/Superman transformation. Or Jekyll and Hyde, whatever you want to call it.
I have these two subsets of people I work with and live with depending on the season. And there’s like a 99 percent difference between the two, with very little overlap—I mean, I go from Hawaii or Guam or the Marianas, to snowy mountains in the PNW or France or Japan.
Where haven’t you been?
So far I have skied throughout North America, Argentina, Scotland, Norway, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Albania, Kosovo, India and Japan a bunch. The main places I haven’t skied are Austria, Alaska and New Zealand, New Zealand because that’s usually when I’m working. I gotta pick a work season, and I’d rather have a North American winter than a South American one.
You’ve been traveling to Japan for quite some time—what were your most recent adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun?
In previous years I’ve focused on one Japan project, but this year I was able to take part in two projects back-to-back. The first was two weeks on Honshu with “The Band”: Grant Gunderson, KC Deane and myself on a project for The Ski Journal, along with editor Sakeus Bankson, local Baker shredder Mattias Evangelista and filmer Colin D. Watt. We’ve spent four of the past five years together in Japan, and each year we bring some guest stars.
After that, I flew to Hokkaido for two weeks to work with photographer Freya Fennwood, writer Leif Whittaker and Tess Golling on a Backcountry Magazine project.
In the half decade that you have been travelling to Japan, how have things changed? How do you feel about helping to popularize Japan as a ski destination?
The biggest change is that I’m getting better at getting around and figuring things out—it’s not exactly obvious the first or second time around. Some of the places we’ve frequented have become more crowded with Westerners, with more people getting after it than previous years.
On one hand it is kind of annoying to see “our” zones get discovered, but on the other hand we can only blame ourselves. On our first trip to one area we sat down with the tourism board and explained what we could do as far as exposure. They were really looking to increase their winter tourism so they were all for it, so away we went. Five years later, hotels have gone from nearly empty to fully booked, so I guess we were successful in getting the word out. Once it does, there’s no way to stop it.
Maybe we’re taking too much credit for the Japan boom that’s been happening recently; it doesn’t take much to figure out that Japan is a powder paradise and we certainly weren’t the first media crew to go there. The fact is that there are somewhere around 500 ski areas and immense backcountry options in Japan, so if one place is too crowded for your liking figure out somewhere else to go. That’s part of the fun of traveling anywhere.
Those two careers take you away from home a lot. How much are you actually in the PNW during the year?
It varies from year to year. I probably spend four to five-ish months, give or take, doing whale research work, and that almost invariably takes me away from home, as most of my work is fieldwork based. Most of this fall I was in Mexico, and then I spent two and a half months in the Mariana Islands. Then I was in Japan for a month skiing, then I was in Norway for almost two weeks. Then did some travel up to BC. I don’t want to be gone if I don’t have to be gone, but that’s kind of the nature of the beast.
For a number of years you had a metal band, called Metalmucil, and have written numerous songs with some…interesting…subject matter. However, Metalmucil recently disbanded. What happened, and are you currently working on anything musically?
There was a bit of drama which caused one member to leave, and their replacement brought more drama and another exodus. When they left it was pretty much game over. I will say the album we made is one of the accomplishments that I’m most proud of (and it’s free at metalmucil.bandcamp.com).
Now that I’m without a band, I’m writing and playing as the Bonin Petrels. I’ve got some ski industry-related songs from last winter and some marine research-related songs that I wrote while on a boat last fall. Don’t expect cutting-edge performance and recording but you can listen in at Boninpetrels.bandcamp.com.
What is it like to have seen a close friend become one of the most successful action sport photographers in the business?
It’s pretty cool to see how successful he has become, and it’s especially fun since our careers have followed a very similar timeline. We met at Western Washington University, when he was learning how to use his first camera. We started shooting together almost immediately, following in the footsteps of our mentor, Carl Skoog.
I remember when Grant was waffling hard about getting an opportunity to be a photo intern at a major ski magazine in 2003 or 2004. He was worried about not using his plastic engineering degree. I asked him “What do you want to do?” He said, “I want to take photos of skiing.” I told him if that was the case, he should probably do that. I remember his send off at a restaurant in Glacier, WA. It was fun to be like, “Alright buddy, this is your foot in the door. Don’t fuck it up.”
We’ve been shooting together for so long that we don’t really have to discuss a shot. We just look at the terrain, then each other, then I do my thing and he does his and it’s done. More often than not, it works.
Telemark for life?
I skied with my heel fixed today, actually. I ski alpine stuff fairly frequently. It depends on the snow. I’m not one of those people that are super diehard tele-for-lifers, where every turn has to be a tele turn and you’re totally cheating if you’re not making tele turns. That’s bullshit. If you want to live that way, that’s fine. I consider myself a skier, and just because I learned on and feel very comfortable on tele gear, doesn’t mean every turn I ever will make is on tele gear. It also doesn’t mean I’ll never ski on alpine gear.
As far as goals, I would love to ski in Antarctica. That’s the only continent I’ve yet to visit and I keep wondering if skiing or research will get me there first. Maybe I can pull off a combination trip someday! I’d also like to visit New Zealand and that’s another place where I’m not sure if skiing or research will get me too first.
Skiing wise what’s next? I don’t know. I like to ski, I like to take photos, I like to go travel and work. One of these days I’m going to buy a pair of skis and spray paint the top sheets black, get an all-black outfit and be one of those Mt. Baker ninjas that lurks around and is completely out of the spotlight. But until then I’m having fun. It’s one of those sick and twisted things where I actually enjoy being out there and taking photos and working on projects and media things and help putting them together and organizing them then seeing the result.
It’s very similar to some of the research work I do, putting together a project and hopefully seeing the results at the end of field season. Or the end of many field seasons. It’s similar to that as in…skiing around is rad, but I like to have more going on than just that. Whale watching is rad, but I like to be more involved than just doing that.
I would have not made the one percent and would have starved long ago if I was only trying to live on skiing. Somehow I can still make it happen. Let’s just say I’m glad I have a day job.
Japanuary 2015 from Bird Robot on Vimeo.