Our newest jumper is professional big mountain skier and mountaineer, Caroline Gleich. We caught up with her to get her thoughts on what it’s like to be a woman in the ski industry and what drives her boundless passion for the outdoors!
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Quote: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Wayne Gretzky
You’ve been skiing and an avid outdoors-woman since you were really little, how did you start? My parents were always frugal travelers, so naturally, they took me and my brothers camping for our family vacations. I grew up in Minnesota, and my mom made sure we all learned how to ski. Winter sports are inherent to the Minnesotan culture. You have to learn how to deal with the cold there if you ever want to go outside. In the summer, we would take road trips to the west, to Utah, and Jackson and Alaska. There are these pictures of me when I was two or three years old camping in Alaska or playing by Jenny Lake in Jackson. I think even as a toddler, I was inspired by steep alpine terrain that stood in stark contrast to Minnesotan’s flatlands.
When did you move to Utah? I moved to Utah when I was 15 with my family.
You obviously skied as a youngster, how old were you when you did your first work as a ski athlete? I did my first photo shoots when I was 18 years old.
Was there a moment when you said to yourself, “I want to be a professional skier”, or was it a more long-term lifestyle that evolved? I always wanted to be a professional athlete, when I was 16 I thought I wanted to be a professional climber, because I thought I was too old to become a professional skier. I didn’t realize there was another way beside ski racing and competition to become a professional skier. But when I was 18, and saw that there were ways to make it work, I decided I wanted to become a professional skier.
Who was the first photographer you ever went shooting with–was it for skiing, or something else? One of the first photo shoots I did was for Delta’s Sky Magazine at Solitude Ski Area. One of the first professional ski photographers I shot with was Steve Lloyd.
You shoot with some of the best photographers in the world, do you have any funny or embarrassing stories from trying to “get the shot”? I remember one of my first photo shoots with Scott Markewitz at Alta Ski Area, it was a huge powder morning after a 2’ storm. It was later in the springtime and we headed out of bounds to a really steep area. I was so nervous and intimidated, on my first time dropping into this steep slope, I crossed my tips and did a faceplant. I stood up, covered in powder, and was like, “I’m ok, I’m ok.” It was so embarrassing. But that’s what I love about skiing powder, sometimes you fall. But to really dive in, you have to be willing to take that risk.
You have recently been doing a lot more ski mountaineering. Can you tell us about your progression in ski mountaineering and what it has taught you–as a skier, an athlete, and a woman? I’ve always looked at the mountains through the eyes of a ski alpinist. When I look up at a mountain, I think, how can I climb that? What line could I take up and ski down? It took years to develop the skills and confidence to learn how to manage all the risks. There are so many pieces to the puzzle: there’s snowpack and avalanche hazard, route finding, weather forecasting, fitness – endurance, technical climbing skill, steep skiing skills, gear, picking the right gear, managing gear, nutrition, rope management skills, partner selection, decision making, etc… My half brother perished in an avalanche while mountaineering when I was 15 and this had a huge effect on me. This event instilled a lot of fear in me and that was reiterated by my family – I wanted to be sure that I was doing things safely and conservatively.
What I’ve learned from my progression into ski mountaineering is to believe in yourself and your vision and never ever give up. I used to think I was too small and weak to climb all day with a heavy pack. If you believe you are too small and weak, you will make that into your reality. I’ve also learned to surround myself with partners who believe in me. As a petite, young woman, I’ve encountered people who strongly doubted my ability in the mountains. If someone thinks you are going to fail, they will collect every piece of evidence to make that true, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Supportive mentors and partners are key! But ultimately, it comes down to you. I’ve learned to train hard, prepare myself, visualize the journey and realize that it doesn’t matter if you summit or not. The mountains will always be there and there will always be new challenges.
Photo by Tobias MacPhee
This past season took you to Ecuador, Canada, Alaska, and Chamonix to accomplish some pretty big objectives. What was the most challenging of all these places in the 2013-2014 season for you? Alaska was probably the most challenging of these places because we were snow camping on the glacier from a plane drop and hiking/climbing to ski our lines. I hadn’t done much snow camping, so the element of sleeping in the snow took me a few days to adjust to. Also, we encountered really variable snow conditions, and we were self-guided. That trip basically pushed me way outside my comfort zone, both in the terrain and the trip logistics, but it was an important learning experience for future ski mountaineering objectives. By the end, I learned to love snow camping!
How do you mentally prepare to ski something really steep in challenging conditions (basically, the skiing part of mountaineering!)? I personally find the climbing much more challenging than the skiing, but for both, I am big into visualization. I study my lines in as much detail as possible, taking photos, doing recon, reading other people’s recent (or older) trip reports. I try to find out where the cruxes are, and visualize myself skiing before it actually happens.
Who do you look up to? What inspires you in both the athletic world and everyday life? I look up to anyone who has the fearlessness to follow their heart and chase their dream, especially when their passion lies outside the status quo. Artists, environmentalists, photographers, filmmakers, actors, journalists, skiers, climbers, etc, we all share this ability to live on the fringes of society. It takes a certain boldness and rebelliousness.
In the athletic world, I’m inspired by the training of masters of their sports, the rigorous discipline athletes put their bodies through to master a specific movement. In everyday life, I’m inspired by the patterns and natural rhythms of nature. I love rocks, trees, and flowers.
If you weren’t a skier–and didn’t live in the mountains–what would you do? What are the other things in your life that bring you joy? If I weren’t a skier, and didn’t live in the mountains, I could see myself as an actor or a surfer. Other things in my life that bring me joy – vintage clothing, folk art, arts and crafts, good food, gardening, and cooking from my garden.
How do you feel that women are portrayed in the ski and outdoor industry? Do you think it needs to change? Based on my experiences in the ski and outdoor industry, women are often pictured in cute lifestyle shots, or in portraits. While I’m not opposed to selling the fun side of skiing and outdoor sports, I always push for media outlets to include an actual ski shot of me, as well as lifestyle shots. For example, onthesnow.com approached me about doing a photo shoot and gallery for their website for their “women of skiing” feature. We talked about a number of ideas, and I said, yes – it would be great to do a couple shots in the lodge getting ready, but I want to be sure to be photographed skiing and I want to be sure the gallery include action photos of me skiing.
That afternoon, we went out to get some sunset turns, and the one of the shots ended up being on the cover of Powder Magazine and winning Photo of the Year. If I hadn’t spoke up, the gallery could’ve easily been a bunch of lifestyle portraits in the lodge. It’s easy for media portrayals of athletic women to focus on the fantasy – and skiing itself is a sexy, glamorous sport – but it’s important to fight for more photos and portrayals of women actually skiing! Sending big lines, hucking cliffs and making beautiful turns.
Photo by Tobias MacPhee
What’s the best thing we can do to encourage young women to stay in sports? For me, I find it can be easy to give up when the going gets tough, but all it takes is one person to believe in me, to invite me to try something again or hold my hand as I get back into it, or get through a crux. I think direct mentorship and meetup type groups are one of the best things we can do to encourage young women to stay in sports. When a female friend invites me to participate in something, I’m usually hooked! Skiing and playing outside are great by yourself or with the guys, but it’s a truly special experience with a group of like-minded women!
Photo by Tobias MacPhee