Interview conducted by Ruaidhri Marshall
Today we are lucky to share a recent extended interview with talented climber, Adam Gellman. Studying at the University of Vermont, Adam is a lover of the outdoors and has been fanatical about all forms of climbing since an early age. He discusses how he got hooked on climbing, his inspirations and future climbing expeditions he hopes to take up in the future.
Could you tell us your background? How did you get into climbing?
I grew up in Jersey City NJ, a 10-minute train ride from the New York City. It is incredibly urban and very densely populated with virtually no woods or wild places anywhere nearby. I did, however, grow up going camping with my family and when I was old enough, I joined Boy Scouts and began to further pursue the outdoors. I loved backpacking and scrambling around boulders but it wasn’t until my Sophomore year of high school that I truly got addicted to rock climbing. I was 15 and my best friend bought a rope, harness and a “How to Rock Climb” book. Over that winter we obsessed over learning the techniques and after convincing our parent to drive us to a climbing gym, we decided we were ready to take our skills outside. Unfortunately, we were too young to have a driver license but we realized that we could get to a terrible little crag by taking our bikes on commuter trains from NYC, an hour north and locking our bikes to trees. We climbed here all spring and I got a job for the summer as a climbing instructor at a Boy Scout camp. By that fall I quit the Cross Country and Track team because I was missing most of the weekend meets to climb and hike. I started to make more connections with the climbing community and learned to tackle larger walls up to ~90m at a cliff called the Gunks about an hour and half outside of New York City. I began working my way up harder climbs and continued to work at the summer camp, this time as the director of the program, a job I worked until I graduated high school.
I am currently 19 and a sophomore in college at the University of Vermont. In the last year and a half, I have spent all my free time and money climbing and guiding. Last year I had more freedom than before and began taking budget trips with friends to climb all over the US on breaks from school. During the cold Vermont winter I learned to ice climb through my college’s Outing Club and after the semester ended I took a job working as a guide for a Boy Scout Camp in Colorado guiding 4000m peaks and rock climbing. Now I’m just repeating the same pattern of classes during the weeks and heading to the hills on the weekends (and before class when I can).
Climbing seems to have a huge influence over you! Could you tell us about some of your favourite climbing locations in the U.S and why these places mean so much to you?
The Gunks is an amazing climbing area that has had a massive influence on where I am in climbing today. This place was my go-to place in high school and forced me to embrace an old school style that is vastly different from the comp and gym climbing mentality of most high school climbers. Since this is the biggest climbing destination near to where I live, I was obviously drawn to it but this area is known for traditional or trad climbing. Trad climbing involves placing metal widgets into cracks as the climber ascends to stop the climber in a fall. This is a more serious and committing kind of climbing than sport climbing where there are pre-placed and permanent bolts that the climber can clip to. I was not interested in bouldering so I worked hard to make friends and learn the skills that would allow me to climb over 70m up these cliffs. I was not interested in bouldering so this area, besides having incredible routes, fostered my love for adventurous and occasionally scary climbing. This prepared me for bigger routes farther up in New England and of course out west in the Rocky Mountains.
The Tetons are surely the most beautiful and biggest mountains that I have had the privilege of climbing (worth looking up a picture to understand). After a summer of guiding in the Colorado Rockies, I managed to make my way up to Wyoming with a fellow guide, both of us in surely the best shape of our lives. Though big days in the mountains are always exhausting, we climbed over 2000 feet of technical rock climbing and scrambling on the full Exum ridge with relative ease. It was an incredible route, a taste of climbing in the big mountains and a moment where I felt like all my skills as a climber came together after years of work.
I am currently in Vermont and even though it is not a real destination, I absolutely love the gritty nature of climbing and the incredibly tight knit and welcoming community. People don’t wait around for good weather and certainly aren’t scared off by a little bit of choss (loose and rotten rock). There are local crags with trad and sport routes, multipitch routes on crumbly schist or granite slabs, world class ice climbing, and even a limestone sport crag stacked with 5.12-5.14s a bike ride away from campus. It’s the kind of climbing that allows you to explore a variety of styles all year long and push your comfort zone into new terrain. What’s even better is new routes are being established all the time and the position of Vermont gives access to the fantastic climbing in both New York and New Hampshire on either side.
Are there any great climbers throughout history or even people close to you that have inspired you?
Tommy Caldwell has always been my climbing idol. When I was getting addicted to climbing in high school, Tommy had just climbed the Dawn Wall, a route up El Capitan in Yosemite that is widely considered the hardest big wall climb in the world. He spent 7 years working on that climb and to be a part of the excitement was incredible. The more I learn about him and about climbing, the more he inspires me. He is an incredibly well-rounded climber, able to climb incredibly difficult short rock climbs as well as long snowy alpine climbs in Patagonia. When he was 21 he was taken hostage in Kyrgizstan by a group of militant rebels with several other climbers and was forced to push their captor off a cliff in order to escape. After recovering from that he accidentally severed his index finger with a saw and only a few months later he was climbing at a world class level. He has a way of looking adversity in the face and clawing through it with sheer determination. If all this wasn’t enough, he is a loving father, husband and all-around incredible person.
I also have to give a shout out to Jay Green, my friend and mentor that first set me on my path toward where I am as a climber and instructor. Back when I was 16 and applying to work at a summer camp, Jay brought me on as a climbing instructor and taught me so much about outdoor adventuring and being an outdoor educator and leader. Jay suppled me with some discount trad climbing gear and gave me a push in the direction that I am going now.
There are different types of climbing (bouldering, ice climbing), what’s your preferred type of climbing?
I try to stay as well rounded as I can but I would have to say crack climbing, long multipitch/alpine rock climbs and ice climbing. I love crack climbing because of the beauty of the lines, the unique moves and that they are often safe to try hard on and take falls. Pure splitter cracks are gorgeous and it just looks like an incredible feature to climb. Long multipitch and alpine routes are fantastic because it’s like you’re rock climbing up a mountain. Its adventurous and often deep in the backcountry so it combines my love for hiking and enjoying the wilderness with my love for rock climbing in a great way. Ice climbing is something I’m still pretty new to but I love the learning process and feeling totally new at something. Ice climbing really forces you to focus on enjoying the whole experience and embracing some suffering, or type 2 fun as I like to call it. Yes, you need to be able to climb the ice but you also need to be able to appreciate long approaches and learn how to stay warm in some brutal places and frigid weather.
Do you engage in any other adventure sports? How do you keep healthy when you’re not on the walls or rocks?
I have dabbled in a few others but none of them have caught me the way climbing has. My dad was a passionate whitewater kayaker for decades so I grew up in that culture and of course he tried to get me into it but he started me when I was 9 and I grew to hate it. I’ve done a decent amount of mountain biking and instructed it for a few summers now but I never really got “good” and haven’t done it in a while. I also ski a bit but as a college student I couldn’t really afford to ski and ice climb. The ski resort scene isn’t really my thing but I hope to one day make the jump to backcountry skiing. I enjoy long runs and I love trail running but I don’t do either all that often. For cardio I try to get out on strenuous hikes before class or in the afternoons and I often choose types of climbing that involve a few miles of steep hiking. Too many fun things to do and not enough time or money in this lifetime!
Do you hope to pursue climbing in the future? What is your goal when it comes to climbing?
My goal is to become a well-rounded climber with the ability to tackle routes of many kinds in any area of the world. I am motivated to increase my rock climbing strength but I am even more interested in learning the diverse and complex skills needed for mountaineering, steep ice and maybe even big wall climbing. I want to be at the level where I can show up to any crag or mountain and have the skills to enjoy some of the best routes in that area, without being limited by my skill or experience. Crushing hard grades is somewhat less important to me though I feel like pursuing harder grades for practice will give me the skills to tackle big objectives. Right now I see the epitome of climbing as long routes in the mountains with a little bit of everything: glaciers, ice/mixed climbing and rock climbing to a beautiful remote summit. This winter I am working to become a solid ice climber, this summer I will hopefully be a guide on Mt Rainier and next winter, after a study abroad program in South America, I want to take my skills to the mountains in Patagonia.