Personal and professional journeys are largely measured by key “once in a lifetime” events. But Gary Hammer says these “big inflection points in life,” like obtaining a degree, getting married or having a baby, occur so infrequently and sporadically it is a challenge to obtain daily sustenance from these milestones.
Hammer, the Millie Schembechler Professor of Adrenal Cancer in the Medical School and the director of the Endocrine Oncology Program in U-M’s Rogel Cancer Center, finds his daily and weekly doses of dopamine by filling his life with the small victories that unfold while rock climbing.
“Climbing demands mental focus on the wall or on the rock while you figure out a little physics problem for the body and of course the mind,” he said. “And when you unlock the ‘beta’ or solution for a route or boulder problem, that little victory is a small accomplishment of will — a creative, physical, mental and, in its own way perhaps, a spiritual connection to the Earth.
“And so, climbing ironically keeps me grounded. I really find joy in that.”
Hammer stumbled across the climbing world 15 years ago when his eldest son, Max, visited Ann Arbor’s Planet Rock climbing gym. Max, who was 11 years old at the time, was instantly hooked, and his interest drew in the rest of the family.
Hammer said he and his wife, Lisa, instantly took to climbing as former college gymnasts. Their two younger children, Maggie and Zach, developed passions for climbing as well.
“The beautiful thing about climbing is when you’re on the wall or on a rock, you can’t think about anything else,” Hammer said. “You have to be completely present in the moment. So, you can — and indeed must — leave all your worries aside. They dissolve because you have to focus on the problem at hand, which is both incredibly physical and incredibly mental.”
All three of Hammer’s children have competed on the U.S. national team for climbing. Their competitions have taken the family across the globe to compete at USA Climbing and the International Federation of Climbing competitions.
Zach Hammer is training to compete for a spot on the 2024 U.S. Olympic team. Throughout the past six months, Hammer has traveled with Zach to compete in Korea, China, France and Switzerland.
Several family vacations have centered around climbing as well. Hammer’s favorite climbing destinations include free water soloing over the Mediterranean Sea in Mallorca, Spain; and bouldering in Magic Wood in Switzerland together with Arco, Italy; and Fontainebleau, France, just south of Paris.
The Hammer family was featured in the film “Reel Rock 13” in 2018. The annual Reel Rock films showcase “the biggest stories from the world of climbing, celebrating the human side behind the sport’s greatest adventures and achievements,” according to the Reel Rock website.
Like most sports that people engage in for many years, a challenging aspect of climbing, other than the enjoyable problem solving and focus required, Hammer said, is grappling with injuries big and small. Throughout the past decade, he has undergone three shoulder repairs, as well as neurosurgery on his spine in 2021.
In one particularly painful memory, Hammer dislocated his shoulder and sliced the skin off his hands on a piece of tight rope while operating unfamiliar equipment belaying his son training for a World Championship in Imst, Austria. But that doesn’t stop him.
“I think climbing is a great metaphor for life because most of climbing is actually not the ‘send’ but the fall, meaning that most of climbing is ‘falling,’ which is indeed ‘failing,’” Hammer said. “Similar to the life of an academic researcher, you have to be very comfortable with your own failure because the only way you’re going to improve or succeed or get better is to fail often.”
Despite the frequent injuries and frustrations, Hammer said, he above all finds joy in the many friendships he has found in the climbing community.
“Climbing, perhaps like a few other sports, dissolves boundaries of age, body type, race, culture, etc. And that’s a beautiful thing,” Hammer said. “That, I think, is the most enjoyable part of being in this community — the mutual respect, the indifference of age, style of climbing, ability of climbing. It’s just the joy of being with others and working together to solve these little challenges — these little victories — with each other.”
As an acclaimed doctor and researcher with decades of adrenal gland research under his belt, Hammer recognizes how his work connects with his passion for climbing.
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“The academic life of a physician involves an intense focus and problem solving coupled with presence and mindfulness in your daily work with patients and your team. Whether in the laboratory or in the classroom mentoring trainees, similar skills are prerequisite for ‘success’ and, I would argue, for finding your daily dose of joy,” he said.
“And of course the adrenal gland makes cortisol, which gives you fuel and adrenaline, which throws in that flight-or-fight mojo. So for sure my work is intimately connected to climbing because what we study in the lab and in the clinic is front and center when you climb.”
Recently passing his 60th birthday, Hammer has no plans to slow down. He hopes to one day climb in Thailand, New Zealand, and the Rocklands in South Africa.
“Climbing has really been a big part of our life now for a decade and a half, and we’ll probably continue doing so until we can’t use our five fingers — when we simply can’t hold on to a ‘crimp’, ‘sloaper’ or ‘jug’ anymore,” Hammer said with a laugh. “My goal is that by the time I’m 80 or 90, I’m just held together by tape, super glue and gum, but still climbing onward and upward.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
After 24 years at U-M, I have been blessed with many “wonderful” moments but being invited to give a short TEDxUofM talk titled “Vulnerability and Presence in Science and Medicine” a few years back was perhaps most memorable because it was the most challenging — forcing me to “walk the talk” as I delivered the message of the title.
What can’t you live without?
Climbing, of course, or coffee.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
Slack-lining in the Diag with my kids.
What inspires you?
Young people who are bold and fearless in the face of adversity and opposition.
What are you currently reading?
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Legendary football coach Bo Schembechler jump-started the adrenal cancer program by supporting my hire as the Millie Schembechler Professor of Adrenal Cancer in honor of his wife, Millie, who died of the disease. Indeed being interviewed by Bo during my recruitment might be the other most memorable moment of my career.