With ski season finally upon us, I couldn’t think of a better person to interview for my Wild Ones feature than Caroline Gleich. As a professional ski mountaineer and avid environmental activist, Caroline has made a career for herself out of her love of the great outdoors and uses her success as an athlete to fight for the preservation of our planet and the mountain regions that she lives for. Her work with non-profit environmental organizations such as Protect our Winters is inspiring in itself, but coupled with Caroline’s impressive skiing accomplishments (Caroline has skiied some of the steepest mountains in the World and this year became the first woman and fourth ever person to ski all 90 lines in Andrew McLean’s ‘The Chuting Gallery’), she’s fast becoming an iconic figure for both men and women in the world of adventure sports. I caught up with Caroline last month to talk backcountry adventures, embracing fear and protecting our winters…
Hey Caroline! What initially drove you to pursue a career in the mountains and in particular ski mountaineering? Growing up in Minnesota, I had a deep longing to be in the mountains. I think growing up without mountains made me want to pursue a career in them even more. I grew up in the 90s, the golden era of steep skiing and ski mountaineering. When a rock gym opened up in my hometown, I remember picking up copies of Climbing and Alpinist and looking at the pictures. I also loved reading Powder magazine. Two or three times a year, my family would take a trip out West, mostly to Utah. I loved it. It was all I ever thought about… it was the place in life I felt most free.
What’s been the highlight of your career so far? Every day I get to go to work outside is a highlight! But honestly, that’s a tough question because there have been so many highs and lows. Of course there have been specific mountains that I’ve climbed and skied that have felt like huge accomplishments, but for me, the best part is the people I get to meet and work with. I love being able to come together with people from different backgrounds over a shared love of the outdoors. The people, and the mountains, give me energy.
A lot of the lines you ski look awesome but terrifying! How do you mentally prepare yourself before a trip and stay focused whilst you’re on the mountain? I spend a lot of time visualizing the routes I’m going to climb and ski, and thinking through all the minor details. By the time I get to do it, I’ve already done it 10+ times in my own mind. When I set my sight on a goal, I become obsessed. All of a sudden, it just puts everything else in my life in perspective.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into backcountry skiing/snowboarding? Learn the recognize avalanche terrain (measuring slope angles, and learning how to plan routes), and learn the basics of avalanche rescue. Always make sure you and your partners have beacon, probe and shovel, and do a beacon check at the trailhead. If there’s ever a question, or if you don’t know, turn around or do something else. Be flexible in your plans and be patient. Take an avalanche course, read a book, and then take another class 2-3 years later (or sooner if you wish).
Who or what inspires you to continue pushing the boundaries of your sport and career? I’m inspired by many of the ski mountaineers and climbers who have paved the way, especially the women. Ultimately, I’m inspired by the natural environment and a deep desire and curiosity to be immersed in nature.
Earlier this year you became the first woman to ski all 90 lines in The Chuting Gallery. What did that achievement mean to you? What was your biggest challenge? I love traveling to ski, but there’s something special about the lines in my backyard, that I can see everyday. It took me five years to finish that project. It’s a different feeling than finishing something that takes a few weeks or months or even a year. That achievement represents a love affair and an intimacy with the mountains. It’s a different type of relationship than most people will understand – it’s not a fling, but it’s a lifelong relationship. The biggest challenge was learning to be patient, and that things wouldn’t always happen on the timeline or the way I wanted them to happen. Two seasons ago, I had a nagging foot injury that left me unable to ice climb. I worried I might never be able to ice climb again. That entire season, it was painful to wear crampons. But then, the next season, I had my best ice climbing season of my whole life. But I had a wait an entire year for my foot to heal. The thing I learned from the whole project and experience was that you can’t be in a hurry to have a lifelong career as a mountaineer. You have to be patient, and be willing to walk away and try again when conditions are right.
What do you think has been the biggest contributing factor to your sporting success? Resiliency and the fact that I’ve always been focused and committed to making my career as an athlete. When I was 18, I knew I wanted to be a pro skier. And for over 12 years, I’ve been working diligently towards that.
I love seeing your continued work with Protect our Winters and other environmental organizations. Can you tell me a bit about your work with these companies and your goal? I’ve always been a committed environmentalist. It comes with the territory of being someone who loves being in nature. It breaks my heart when I see mountaintop removal projects, or other types of natural resource extraction that are impossible to undo. My work with Protect Our Winters and other environmental organizations is about preserving the human-powered experience for future generations, whether that’s skiing, hiking, running or climbing.
If you could give one piece of advice to those who are yet to fulfill their dreams, what would it be? That you need to take responsibility for the life you want to live. The only person you can blame is yourself.
Is there a motto that you live by? You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take -Wayne Gretzky
And finally, what’s in store for you for the rest of the year and 2018? Bike touring from Maine to Vermont, visiting Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah are in the next month! Beyond that, planning more projects that merge adventure and conservation!
To keep up with Caroline’s adventures, check out her website www.carolinegleich.com or follow her Instagram page here. Also check out Caroline’s short film Follow Through, which documents her journey to become the first woman to ever ski Utah’s 90 most difficult ski lines.
Happy shredding everyone! xo
Photo Credit: All photographs via www.carolinegleich.com