Published: July 1, 2015

As a senior math instructor and avid rock climber, Bernard Gillett appreciates how mathematics relates to climbing. Both disciplines involve mental concentration, problem solving and tenacity, although an erroneous math calculation is considerably less hazardous than an error in judgment made while scaling a sheer rock wall.

“I can see a correlation between climbing and mathematics,” said Gillett. “With climbing you take a piece of rock and start at the bottom and you try to get to the top. There’s a successful feeling in solving the problem that a particular rock face puts in front of you.”

He sees a similar feeling of accomplishment on the faces of his students when they succeed on an exercise in the classroom.

Gillett taught undergraduate calculus in the Baker Residential Academic Program for many years, and is currently teaching quantitative reasoning in the Farrand RAP; he is also co-author of a suite of calculus textbooks for high school and college students. He views his textbooks as an opportunity to share what he teaches at CU-Boulder with students around the globe.

Being able to explain difficult and complex math equations to students in a way that they can grasp comes easily to him. His thoughtful teaching style has garnered numerous teaching awards, including twice receiving the CU-Boulder Parents Association’s Marinus Smith Award for having a significant impact on students.

“I don’t expect all my students to walk out of here as mathematicians,” he said. “Most people don’t solve quadratic equations in their job. But it’s important that students learn how to solve problems logically and that they become lifelong learners.”

It might seem as though destiny had a hand in Gillett becoming a math instructor: his father was a math professor at the University of Wisconsin and also wrote calculus textbooks.

“The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,” Gillett explains. “I didn’t set out to follow my dad’s path at all, but I had a real affinity for math, so it became a natural choice for me.”

Gillett’s lifetime love of rock climbing developed early, during summer-long vacations spent in Estes Park with his family. Gillett and his brothers spent idyllic days hiking and learning to climb the peaks and alpine walls that are the backbone of Rocky Mountain National Park. When he was nine, Gillett climbed Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s more challenging mountain peaks above 14,000 feet. Since that first climb, he’s summited Long’s Peak more than 100 times, often via the world-famous Diamond, which is the vertical wall on the northeast flank of the mountain.

He came to CU-Boulder for graduate school with the intention of a career in research mathematics and to immerse himself in what he considers the “climbing playground around Boulder.” Gillett soon realized he wouldn’t be able to focus properly on graduate school with the temptation of world-class climbing all around him.

“Boulder is one of the centers of the universe for the climbing community,” he said. “I knew I needed to get climbing out of my system so I could come back to graduate school and concentrate on that part of my life.”

After taking a year off to travel around the country on his motorcycle to rock climb, which he claims was “one of the more engaging years of my life,” Gillett returned to the university ready to finish graduate school. But he was no longer interested in research mathematics. While he was working on a master’s degree in mathematics, Gillett found that he enjoyed interacting with students in the classroom as a teaching assistant. And he was good at it.

With encouragement from one of his professors, Gillett decided to pursue teaching as a career. Since 1992, he has taught nearly every course in the undergraduate mathematics curriculum through third-semester calculus.

For Gillett, one appealing aspect of teaching at CU-Boulder is its proximity to climbing opportunities. He can teach in the morning, go for a climb during lunchtime, and return to campus energized for his afternoon classes. 

Based on more than three decades of extensive rock and ice climbing, and summiting the heights of Rocky Mountain National Park, Gillett has written and published a number of climbing guides for the park and its environs.

His goal is to continue scaling the sheer walls, to stand atop the craggy peaks for as long as he is able.

“Climbing tends to attract people who want a physical and mental challenge and who aren’t afraid to fail,” said Gillett. “It’s a dangerous sport, but I haven’t found anything as electrifying as climbing.

“When I finally hang up my climbing gear, I intend to become a concert pianist,” he said, jokingly. “OK, that dream is about as realistic as becoming an astronaut. On the other hand…why not?”