Last spring, Caroline Gleich became the fourth person and the first woman to ski every line in Andrew McLean’s classic Wasatch guidebook, The Chuting Gallery. Anyone who ventures off Snowbird’s groomers knows that skiing in the Wasatch isn’t all blue skies and blower powder—steep, technical chutes that frequently call for mixed rock-and-ice climbing, mid-descent rappelling, and careful routefinding pepper the backcountry. This documentary from Duct Tape Then Beer follows Gleich’s journey from a childhood in the Midwest to becoming one of Utah’s most accomplished ski mountaineers—and the many trials she faced along the way.
Gleich picked up her first copy of the classic guidebook when she was a teenager who had never ventured into the backcountry. But she wasn’t blind to the risks inherent in this type of technical skiing. She had just lost a beloved half-brother to an avalanche in Stairs Gulch, one of The Chuting Gallery‘s classics, and a particularly avalanche-prone one at that. Her half-brother, Martin Gleich, introduced her to climbing and skiing, a “mountain life” that captivated her and shaped her future heavily.
“Some backcountry skiers are a little naïve when they start. I started my career from the opposite side,” Gleich told REI. “I had just lost my half-sibling and I saw the pain my family went through. I was fully aware of the risks. Any time I would leave the resort boundary or go into the backcountry, I had the mental image of my half-brother at his funeral. I just thought, ‘I can’t do that to my family, I have to come home in one piece.’ It’s a different place to start from than for most people.”
Shortly after Gleich began her mission in earnest, she lost her close friend and mentor Liz Daley, a professional snowboarder and mountain guide, to an avalanche. Daley and Martin’s deaths hung heavy over her quest to ski her way through the guidebook, and in the film, she frankly addresses risk and fear.
“I don’t believe fear is something to overcome, you don’t just suppress it,” Gleich explains. “You explore it, go into the nooks and crannies and deepen your relationship with it. I’m not immune to fear and I don’t ever ignore it. I accept it and listen to what it’s telling me. It’s there for a reason.”
Throughout her career, Gleich—whose first foray into the ski industry was as a ski model—has faced skepticism and full-blown stalking and harassment. Detractors claimed her success had nothing to do with her talents as a skier and mountain athlete, and everything to do with blond braids and a camera-ready smile. When she first expressed interest in skiing her way through The Chuting Gallery, she was met with laughter. She has worked hard to shed the image of a skier with just a pretty face and a clean turn.
“I didn’t feel that the Wasatch backcountry community was very welcoming to me. There were a lot of times when I would ask to go out with certain people or parties and they would tell me I couldn’t come because the objective was too gnarly—it was a boys day,” Gleich told Freeskier. “I wouldn’t be able to do it. Very few people invited me to do these objectives with them. I had to learn to lead my own party and recruit my own partners. And I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles women face in the outdoors, they are not invited in. They have to force their inclusion to these sports and these cultures.”
Martin and Daley were two figures in her life who never asked Gleich to prove herself—they believed in her and her abilities from the outset. She’s dedicated the film, and her achievement, to their memories.
Gleich is an athlete instructor at the Utah Avalanche Center, has AIARE level 1, 2, and 3 certifications and is a Wilderness First Responder, but her training and experience extends far beyond her certifications.
“I wanted to be able to put [these routes] up for myself,” Gleich said. “There is a big difference between someone who can get themselves to a rappel vs. someone who can build the anchor, throw the rope, get everything in place, lead the ice pitches and bring up seconds. And so my goal was to get to the point where I could lead it all. The ice climbing was one of the skills I really had to work on. It took me a while to get comfortable to the point where I could lead with skis on my back.”
After finishing this five-year project, Gleich has her sights set on bigger mountains around the world. She skied Rainier earlier this year and will continue to move forward with an eye toward safety and gradually building upon her skills.
“Losing Liz and losing a lot of other friends has made me hesitant to claim wanting to climb and ski all of these ambitious things,” Gleich told Backcountry Magazine. “I want to take it slowly and make sure my skills match my objectives—progression will always be part of my goal.”