Adam Ü is a professional skier, whale researcher and metal musician.
Spacecraft athlete, Adam Ü was featured on seven magazine covers in the 2017/2018 season. That’s the making of a pretty epic winter, but despite all that time on skis, Adam Ü has found the perfect balance of working, playing and playing some more. Two of the covers were shot by Kevin McHugh, photographer, friend and all around great ski partner at Mt. Baker, Adam’s home mountain outside of Bellingham, WA. Three of the covers were taken in Japan at Shiga Kogen on Honshu Island, by Grant Gunderson, who also shot two more covers at Mt. Baker. We sat down to chat with Adam Ü about his work as a whale researcher and professional skier, and his passion for playing guitar. Read on to tap into the full genius of Adam Ü, the uninfluencer.
Deep in the Glacier, WA woods, Adam is inspired to cranks on his Flying V.
Tell me about the ‘Uninfluencer’ Shoot you did with Kevin McHugh?
The guitar in the woods came to be because the weather up on the mountain that particular day was so shitty. We went out to the top of Hemispheres and then the clouds came in and we stood up there for twenty minutes before we gave up. The snow was crappy and the light was crappy so instead of scratching around in shitty snow and shitty light we decided to go home and do something completely different. We had both been laughing about the social media ‘influencers’ who are always like, “oh, when I go out I take my paints and I’m so inspired by nature” so I figured, I’m not a painter. I don’t get inspiration from the mountains to draw or paint. But I figured, fuck yea, I’ve got an electric guitar so when I go out in the backcountry, I’m so inspired that I whip out my Flying V and my 40 pound 50 watt tube amp and just crank out some riffs because it’s so inspiring that I just need to do this in nature.
Tell me about the whale research you do?
Usually what I do involves some sort of population-based question. Depending on the project, it’s what species are where, how many of them are there and how are they related to others of that species elsewhere in the ocean. For instance, last summer, I was in Hawaii for three months. We did an entire survey for the Exclusive Economic Zone; a 200-mile radius around all the Hawaiian islands. We drive on track lines and look for whales. When we see some animals, we then turn the boat and approach them to get a species ID and counts. We’ll try to get some photographs for species confirmation and individual identification, we might try to get biopsy samples for genetic information as well as stable isotope and toxicology studies, and depending on the species we might also try to put satellite tags on them to see how they’re moving and how they’re using the space. Satellite tags allow us to track animals through time and space in a way we couldn’t do with normal photo-ID studies. For instance, using photo-ID techniques we might know that we’re seeing the same animals in different places but we don’t know don’t know where they’ve traveled in between sightings. Using me as an example – Let’s say we randomly met up at Baker in early January, again at Baker a week later, and again at Baker in the beginning of February. If those were your only data points you might think I was there the whole time. But if you had a tag on me you’d know that in between the first two encounters I made a trip to Revelstoke, and in between the second two encounters I went to Japan. But you’d also know that I no matter how far I might travel, I’m always coming back to my home in Glacier. So over time you’d see these travel patterns all centering around a home area. Tags can give you a lot of information that you wouldn’t be able to know otherwise, and that can be helpful for studies of critical habitat, where you might want to protect areas that important for the animals.
“Stupidly ridiculous overhead insanity” in Japan.
I can’t say every trip now, because even though the snow was excellent, my February trip never got to the stupidly ridiculous overhead insanity. The January trip did so I can still say that every year I’ve skied the best snow I’ve ever skied in Japan. If I had to pick my deepest, consistently most epic pow days since my first trip over there eight years ago, they’re all from Japan. We’ve had so many great days at Baker but Baker pow days are a little different. There’s a little bit more of a rat race involved. In Japan, you can ski amazing pow, best ever, all day. Imagine if the first half hour of a Baker pow day lasted all day. Japan is a great place to go. I love it. The skiing is great. The food is great. Everything about it is great and it’s always an adventure.
Adam sends it deep at Mt. Baker.
As a whale researcher and skier, you’ve got one career that contributes to the broader world, and are still able to pursue a dream.
That’s how I kind of found myself going down this path. My big turning point was when I lived in Whistler. I had been in school in Oregon, but dropped out to climb and ski and moved to Whistler for a season. It was an amazing season, but I realized at the end of it that I had this other thing that I wanted to do - whale research and science-y stuff - which was a completely different scene. I had been involved with research for a few years already, but I could see myself getting distracted by living in a ski town. Don’t get me wrong; skiing is amazing. But I knew that being involved in the scientific community was also something that I wanted to do and I could probably make a living doing so, not to mention it’s also contributing to society. I don’t really consider ski photography something that will really save the world. I enjoy it, I do it for personal reasons but I realize it’s pretty first-world, privileged stuff. Skiing for me is purely selfish and I accept that. People often comment on how lucky I am, but I busted my ass to put myself – and keep myself – in these positions.
Adam Ü and partner Tess Golling, toast some well-earned turns.
You had a great season this year with seven covers, despite not necessarily taking the biggest risk.
I’ve never taken the biggest risk. Risk is a relative thing with a different scale for each person. That’s another thing I’ve realized over the years and it’s become way more apparent in recent years as I see these hungry young people, or even established veterans that are out there and getting after it. I want nothing to do with going the biggest or being the best. I used to do free skiing contests back in the day but quit after two season because I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t like being in a new place and having Thursday-Saturday to learn it and get rad in whatever the conditions were on those few days. I realized that no matter what the conditions were, my comfort level of on-sighting some rad line and trying to be cool is lower than a bunch of guys I was competing against. So even if it’s a beautiful pristine powder day and my comfort level increases, their comfort level also goes up. The conditions might be shit, or they might be awesome, but whatever they are, what I’m willing to risk and put up with is less than most of the people on the tour. It was fun to see new places and a cool community to travel with, but I saw a lot of people get hurt and I realized I was never going to be competitive. I started taking photos around the same time and realized that photos were way easier because you could pick and choose when/where you do stuff. If it’s backflip the cornice time, fucking A, send it. If it’s not, ski around it and don’t come back until the conditions are ready. You have a whole season to come up with stuff, versus a four-day contest where you hope it’s good and if it’s not you have to send it to hard pack. That sucks.
If it’s not taking the biggest risk, what’s the recipe for success?
It’s really about the team. You can go out and take the best photos ever, but if that photographer doesn’t submit those photos or do anything with them, it’s a total waste of time for both people. Grant Gunderson is one of the most prolific submitters out there. If you shoot with him, you know it will get out there. It may or may not get chosen, but he will get it out there. I have to give him a lot of credit for getting stuff out there.
Kevin McHugh is great. We met last year and it’s been refreshing to work with a new person. We can ski the same piece of terrain that I’ve skied a million times and he’ll suggest we do something different and I’m not on auto pilot any more and it’s a collaborative thing. He’s also a former oceanographer. We have a lot of the same stuff in common. It’s kind of fun working with someone who’s eggs aren’t all in photography. Who isn’t relying on this one photo or one shot to pay their mortgage. I’ve found him really receptive to communicating about comfort levels. There’s no pressure when we talk about choices. It feels like a team thing. There’s no ego, no drive to get a shot at all costs. He’s just fun to hang out with. If I’m going to spend time in the mountains with someone, it has to be a collaborative, team effort with mutual trust and respect and have things to talk about besides ski photos.
Speaking of bands, what’s happening with your music?
Yes! The Season Passholes! Our first gig was a couple of weeks ago at Chair 9. We’re a group of Mt. Baker instructors, ski patrol, and Glacier locals who formed a cover band. Mt. Baker management asked me to put together an 80s band for their Retroactive Weekend. I made a few phone calls to folks I knew that played and might be interested and we took it from there. We had our first “practice date” and realized we were all fairly musically compatible. None of us are pro musicians by any means, but it’s been fun. We started out just playing Ramones covers. They’re straightforward, loud and fun to wail on. We learned 16 songs for our first gig and are constantly adding more to our repertoire. Our covers are not note-for-note renditions. We take all these songs and make them our own. We started learning stuff from the 80s but immediately expanded to include stuff from the 70s and 90s. There are no rules; it’s our band and if we want to play it we will. At our first show we started with Immigrant Song and ended with Kickstart My Heart and there was a bit of everything in between. The Trooper, Long Train Running, We Come From A Land Down Under, Jane by Jefferson Starship, some Journey, some Eddy Grant, Queen, Ramones, Police… We’ve got an eclectic set list. It’s pretty hilarious.
Photos: Kevin McHugh
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