On February 26, 2019, professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich fell during a run in the Wasatch Range and felt a “gut-wrenching pop” in her left knee. It was the stuff of nightmares; in the tumble, Gleich had torn her ACL. “ I was completely devastated,” she says. “I thought my whole life was over.”
Compounding the severity of the situation was the fact that Gleich was deep into training for an expedition to climb and ski Mount Everest from its north side that would depart in two months—and she had just plunked down “ungodly amounts of money,” all of it nonrefundable, to secure her slot on the team. A significant portion of that was from sponsorship funds; if she had to bail due to an injury, she’d likely have to pay it back, which could tilt her toward bankruptcy.
“I’m trying to do a ‘climb for equality’ and I get the one injury that women are like five times more likely to have!”
Luckily, her doctor gave Gleich the go-ahead to dive into rehab and make the Everest attempt, and the expedition lead—Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions, who actually guided the peak a few years earlier with a torn ACL—was equally supportive. After a tough acclimatization period on the mountain—and one particularly blustery day that challenged her knee’s stability (“I felt like my tibia and my femur were separating in the wind”), Gleich and her fiancée, triathlete Rob Lea, reached the summit via Everest’s north ridge on May 24.
“The media shows some sides of Everest and there’s definitely places where mountain management can be improved,” says Gleich. “However, I think it’s pretty cool that people from all over the world come together to work on this goal and to share the mountain. It was a phenomenal experience.”
She was deeply grateful to stand on top, to be sure, but Gleich also recognized some irony in her situation. “[This injury] is super common with skiers, but it’s also more common with women, just because of the angles of our hips,” she says. “I was like, I’m trying to do a ‘climb for equality’ and I get the one injury that women are, like, five times more likely to have!”
Gleich wasn’t just chasing a personal dream up high; she was also hoping to harness the inevitable attention on her attempt (she ultimately wasn’t able to ski from the summit due to poor conditions) to raise awareness of gender inequity at the “top”—both in the mountains and in business—as part of her #climbforequality campaign.
“It’s great that women are getting into climbing and skiing, but I want to see more women reach the highest levels,” says Gleich. She was inspired to launch #climbforequality in part by the UN’s HeForShe movement, which rallies not just men, but people of all genders to support gender equality as a human right, but perhaps an even bigger inspiration was her friend, Flash Foxy and Women’s Climbing Festival founder Shelma Jun. When the two were lobbying for public lands support in Washington, D.C. on behalf of the American Alpine Club and the Access Fund, Jun pointed out that although there were women and people of color at the table, none of those present were in official leadership positions. “She’s like, before we give ourselves too much of a pat on the back, we need to have women at the top,” says Gleich. “It was such an inspiration.”
Gleich’s experience on Everest, whose Tibetan name, Chomolungma, roughly translates to “Goddess Mother of the World,” was unusual—over half of her team were female mountaineers, including their guide, Carla Perez, one of only a handful of women in the world who’ve summitted Everest without using supplemental oxygen. But as of 2018, only 18 percent of those who reach the world’s highest peak have been women. And far fewer serve as leaders up high; as of the American Mountain Guide Association’s last State of the Guiding Industry report, only 11 percent of guides are women.
On the business front, a report released earlier this year by Catalyst, a non-profit focused on workplace equity, shows that almost 45 percent of those employed by S&P 500 companies were women. From here, the numbers get progressively worse. Just over a quarter of those women sit in senior-level roles, only about 20 percent serve on boards, and less than 5 percent hold CEO positions. These statistics become downright grim when you’re talking about women of color. And for those women who dare to strike out on their own? Yep, it’s ugly. In 2018, women received 2.8 billion dollars in venture capital—an impressive number until you realize that it’s a scant 2.2 percent of the $130 billion total invested last year.
The reasons for the disparity have been well-documented in countless studies and reports: professional pay gap, few role models in leadership roles, lack of workplace support, harassment in the workplace and on the mountain, disproportionate parenting and household duties, and pervasive bias, even the unconscious kind, that says women just aren’t supposed to be running companies and scaling big peaks.
Gleich knows that it’s a lot to tackle. She’d like to see more women, including women of color and women who identify as LGBTQ+, join the ranks of professional mountain athletes and guides, receive equal pay for equal work, see themselves represented more equitably in media, offered more funding to pursue their own media platforms and projects, and ascending to the highest roles in business.
But as of 2018, only 18 percent of those who reach the world’s highest peak have been women. And far fewer serve as leaders up high; as of the American Mountain Guide Association’s last State of the Guiding Industry report, only 11 percent of guides are women.
Her first step with #climbforequality is to simply raise awareness of the issue via a hashtag campaign that already far surpassed its initial goal—over 300 people used the tag on social media by the time she’d reached the Everest summit; now Gleich wants to see that bump to at least a thousand instances. She’s also created a simple social media toolkit that includes imagery, messaging, and basic information on the language of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, along with a one sheet on how to recognize and interrupt internal biases courtesy The Avarna Group; more tools can be found here.
“I know a hashtag’s not going to change the world. We’re not solving cancer or curing poverty, you know? But I think it comes down to the subtle ways we think about a woman’s place; I do think the social influence campaign will hopefully change some hearts and minds,” she says. “I’m optimistic.”
And she know it will only get better—for all people—if everyone joins the cause, including people of all genders. In fact, Lea, who with Everest, knocked out one-third of his Ultimate World Tri challenge, is now training to swim the English Channel, then bike across the United States, and is dubbing his effort #triforequality to keep the momentum going.
Ultimately, Gleich hopes that the #climbforequality campaign can serve as part of a larger ripple effect to create a better world for people of all genders. When asked how she envisions this future, Gleich answered with no hesitation. “It’s a place where people are free to be the best versions of themselves,” she says. “It can be hard to work in the snow sports industry and I guess it’s just a breath of fresh air when you can let down your walls and take off your mask and just be yourself.”
all photos courtesy Caroline Gleich