The first day of December 2018 was a bluebird day in the Banff backcountry. Ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich and her fiancé Rob Lea hovered on the shoulder of Dolomite Peak as their companion, guidebook author Marcus Baranow, enjoyed powder turns in the steep bowl below. Although they were in obvious avalanche territory, the forecast showed low danger that day, so Gleich felt comfortable asking Lea to take photos from a rocky fold just below the top of the line as she made her own run. Not long after she dropped in, however, she heard Baranow shout, “Avalanche!”
Gleich had triggered a remote slide about 50 feet below. She joined Lea on the ridge and all three watched from safety as the slab rumbled down the slope, the sort of thing that happens with far more regularity than is reported. But when Baranow said that he planned to write up his account of the incident, Gleich was reminded of her own commitment to transparency. You can read both of their reports via her Facebook page.
“I just want to kind of break the stigma for pro athletes and industry professionals of reporting their near misses, and even accidents,” says Gleich, whose friend Liz Daley was killed in an avalanche in Patagonia four years ago. At the time, Daley’s family requested that the accident report not be made public. “Maybe it’s just something I’m holding onto because it’s been really hard for me to heal from that, but part of me feels like if I had an accident report and if people had written the story about what really happened, it would have given me more of a sense of closure.”
It hasn’t always served Gleich well to be quite so honest and open herself. Despite her talent and skill in the alpine—or perhaps, because of these things, because she is a woman who dares to share her impressive athletic accomplishments with the world—Gleich has attracted a particularly virulent strain of troll. Search for her name online and you’ll find repulsive message board threads peppered with sleazy sexual innuendo along with the obnoxious musings of faceless keyboard warriors who dissect her appearance and diss her athleticism. She is a perpetual target.
In fact, two years ago, Gleich was chastised after reporting an intentional avalanche she triggered in the Main Chute of Mt. Baldy in Utah’s Wasatch Range. She could have subsequently chosen to stay silent on the recent slide, but she didn’t. Gleich is an expert skier and an accomplished alpinist, but she also remains a student of the mountains, open to their teachings while being committed to sharing them, any hint of wounded ego—and trolls—be damned.
Teamwork makes the dream work.
Earlier this fall, Gleich and Lea set off on an expedition to climb Cho Oyu and ski down from the summit. They succeeded—and Lea even accepted Gleich’s marriage proposal while standing on top of the world’s sixth-tallest peak—but while trying to match her group’s “aggro” pace instead of acclimatizing on her own terms, Gleich began experiencing the early signs of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Hypoxic, nauseated, and racked with a chest-cracking cough, with her condition deteriorating despite being placed on oxygen, she nearly abandoned the summit attempt.
“I was like, I have to go down the mountain. I was pretty terrified, but at the same time, I wasn’t in a place where I could really make many decisions. This was the first 8,000-meter peak trip that [Alpenglow Expeditions founder Adrian Ballinger] hadn’t personally been on, so he’s texting me. The high altitude doctor [Monica Piris] texted me. Jim [Morrison] and Hilaree [O’Neill] on Lhotse were also texting me. Adrian told me that Emily [Harrington] had gotten HAPE on Ama Dablam and she recovered, so he kind of set the stage for me that I could recover.
“I thought for sure, I’m going home, but after four days, the high altitude doctor was like, There’s no medical reason why you can’t go back up. The next two weeks were crazy. I did it. Honestly, I’m really glad how we set ourselves up for our first trip to 8,000 meters, because it was really hard for me to make the decision to go as a guided client; I feel like I’m more experienced than that. But for this trip, I’m so glad we had the team and support we had. If it was just me Rob, I definitely would have gone home, because it was not easy decision making.”
Trading leads is important.
“Rob was never too proud to let a woman lead him in the mountains. I loved that he would let me make my own mistakes and he wouldn’t try to micromanage because it’s so important for leadership to be able to make a route-finding error and then correct it. I love that he let me just be who I am in the mountains. I wouldn’t do the same thing for him, because I was so afraid. I’d be like, No, you can’t go skiing with that person because they’re too risky, you might make a mistake and get caught in an avalanche—so micromanaging him. It was becoming way too much about me and my goal. After three years, we actually broke up for a few months. What I really learned is that you just have to let people be who they are.
“Cho Oyu was leading up to this huge project that he’s going to do next year where he’s going to climb Everest, swim the English Channel, and ride his bike across America—he’s calling it like the ‘Ultimate World Tri.’ When he first said he wanted to do Everest, I was so pissed. I was like, No, that is not happening. But part of why we went to Cho Oyu is because it’s such a great training peak for Everest. Now I think we’re going to go to Everest together. It’s really come full circle. He did a lot of the Chuting Gallery with me, and I’m excited now to be the supporter.”
Have a plan for the hard stuff—the really hard stuff.
“After Liz died—I mean, I could go off on this whole topic for a while—but, she was engaged at the time, and her fiancé told me, Make sure you have a will. So, one of my big goals last year was to make sure all my end of life stuff is really in good shape. I made my living will, I set up a trust, and I got life insurance. That was actually really hard. I just didn’t want to be a burden to my family if I die. That’s another thing nobody talks about, but it’s something you should consider if you’re making your living doing dangerous things. People always talk about environmental responsibility, but I think that’s a social responsibility. Even if you don’t own a lot of stuff, even if you just own a van, someone still has to deal with that when you die. Just think about your parents and your family and the people who are going to be dealing with that, and make it easy for them.”
The mountains can offer a path to self-love.
“As a young woman, especially when you hit the awkward teen years—I just hated myself for so long. I think a lot of my drive in the mountains when I was younger came from that place of self-loathing. Sometimes I would train to punish my body. Skiing was like a drug for me, it was an escape. Using skiing as a drug and escape like I had after Liz died resulted in overtraining injuries. I had a broken foot and I had these setbacks where I was forced to confront all my demons.
“That was one of the hardest times in my life. Liz was someone I loved so much. Losing her and then confronting my own hatred of myself, the punishment, this unhealthy train of thought, the way of escaping and using mountaineering as a drug—having to come full circle, learning to approach it from a place of health and love and wellbeing. Not like a coping mechanism, but as a choice, rather than a need.”
Be true to yourself, even when it’s difficult.
“I’ve always felt like I’m sort of a late bloomer in life. I’m 32; I’ll be 33 at the end of the year. It took me a long time to have the confidence to go after these projects that I wanted to do, to really get to this point in my life. I think this is a struggle for a lot of people.
“I think so often in life, we’re ruled by all of these external forces, by our family’s expectations or our partner’s expectations. Even with Cho Oyu, one of the hardest things about it was just telling my parents I was going, because I was so worried about their reaction and how they would cope while I was on the mountain. It was a heavy burden. I mean, my half-brother was killed in an avalanche when I was 15. My dad will always ask me, Where do you want your ashes spread when you die? before I go on these trips and now I’m like, Well, dad, it’s all outlined in my ‘death book’—in my will. So I finally have the perfect answer! [Laughs] But anyway, it’s just a hard thing in life to be true to yourself. I think that’s the hardest thing of all.”
Top Photo: Marcus Baranow