Caroline Gleich is a professional ski mountaineer, an adventurer, and an advocate for wild places. Her job involves climbing up and soaring down some of the world’s most heart-thumpingly vertical places on skis in a manner that suggests she’s been given a reprieve from the limitations of our plebeian existence. But when you see her on the cover of Powder magazine, enveloped in a magical crystalline suspension of pristine snow, it’s important to bear in mind that both the photo and Gleich’s life are indeed fully grounded in the real world.
“That was almost the last shot of the day. We’d been out there for 10, 12 hours and it was really cold, minus 10 or so,” Gleich recalled about the image that was eventually awarded Powder magazine’s 2013 photo of the year. “The sun was just going down, the light was all of a sudden just right, and I had about 10 seconds to get back up the mountain and hit that turn. It’s not like just going skiing; you can’t do whatever you want to. You have to bring home the deliverables.”
Her modeling fee for that 14-hour day? Zero dollars.
But no complaints from Gleich, 30, who held back on the gnarly-isms — “stoked to shred deep pow” — during a recent phone conversation from her Salt Lake City home base. “I like going to these incredible places where most people don’t get to go, to have the skill and fitness to do that. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted, but I can’t wait to do it again. It’s a combination of the challenge, the endorphins from pushing my body, and the mental focus, the mindfulness of movement that I love.”
That deep connection with the outdoors and, ironically, obsession with big mountains was established in Rochester, Minn., where on a clear day you can see Iowa. Gleich and her three brothers enjoyed a typical Minnesota childhood, playing hockey (“She was fast and fierce,” Gleich’s mom, Kristin Leiferman, recalled), riding bikes, and walking to school surrounded by trees and lakes. Gleich started rock climbing at a gym in Rochester. Gleich’s parents made sure the children knew how to ski, a lifelong activity they could enjoy as a family.
“Caroline took to skiing pretty much as soon as she could walk,” Leiferman said. Day trips to Welch Village and Mount Frontenac were enhanced by a once-per-winter trip to Utah, until the family relocated permanently to Salt Lake City when she was 16.
“I had this fascination with mountains, maybe because we didn’t have any in Minnesota,” she said. She made skiing her “number one priority” after high school, such that she took spring semesters off from University of Utah to ski. After graduating cum laude in anthropology in 2010, Gleich thought about law school, but her business as a ski mountaineer was ramping up. She already had sponsors and was making (some, not a lot of) money doing something she loved. To borrow a skiing term, this line seemed pretty clear.
Ski mountaineering, as the name implies, is a backcountry, human-powered pursuit — no chair lift, no helicopter, no groomed runs. It means hiking in — sometimes a two- or three-day approach — ascending the mountain using gripping skis or crampons, ice ax and ropes, as the terrain demands, and skiing down a line that might include extreme vertical, rocks, trees, ridges and crevasses. Everything you need, you carry on your back. Gleich quickly reeled off, “Skis with special bindings, boots, skins, crampons, ice ax, ski poles, ropes, water, food, clothing layers, sunglasses, helmet. ... It adds up. Usually 30 to 40 pounds.”
Gleich had done some modeling during college for the Patagonia catalog, and in 2011, submitted a proposal to the company to work with product designers, test clothing and gear, appear in Patagonia films, and blog about her adventures. That is the job description for a ski ambassador.
“It’s a lot of hard work. Working with a photographer to get high-quality photos is slow and tedious, moving through the mountains with a lot of heavy equipment. After a whole day of skiing, I come back and input my feedback, edit photos, document everything. Then I write about my experience — that alone takes me hours.”
An Instagram video on her feed (@carolinegleich) shows what her job is really like. Videographer/human-powered camera puller Joey Schusler had just met Gleich moments before one shot. “Her stoke and energy is truly infectious. Her level of professionalism and attention to detail was like few athletes I’ve ever shot.”
She now gets a salary and the latest clothing and gear from Patagonia and other sponsors like Jaybird, REI, Julbo eyewear and others, but like a lot of up-and-coming athletes, she had to achieve before she received. That meant traveling to far-flung locales with a lot of equipment, on the cheap. After 10 years, she’s got it down.
“All this equipment has to get checked. It’s not like I’m on the U.S. ski team — I’m my own travel agent and logistics person. I’m a one-woman show. But once you’re on the mountain, the costs are minimal. It’s mostly airfare, because you’re basically camping. For example, I went to Alaska for two weeks for $1,200. We got dropped off at Costco, bought a bunch of food, and camped and climbed. Sponsors sometimes help pay for the cost of a trip, but it’s hard to plan when you have to wait for approval. Trips that inspire me personally, I’ll pay for out of pocket so I can go with a clear mind. When I make a decision about going for a summit or turning around, I don’t want that decision to be based on being indebted to a sponsor.”
Becoming an environmental advocate was a natural result of firsthand experience with remote and fragile places, a responsibility she felt she couldn’t shirk. “I love to take my own photos. Then I can show the world these beautiful places so other people will be inspired to help protect them. I’ve skied plenty of places — Peru is one example — where I don’t think people will be able to ski in five years.”
Gleich is an avalanche instructor and volunteers extensively with environmental groups — Protect Our Winter, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Heal Utah, Utah Rivers Council and others — and articulated what it’s like to be David lining up against Goliath.
“I don’t have a 9-to-5 job, so I can go sit in an all-day meeting waiting for my two minutes to speak. These meetings are on weekdays. They make it really hard for people to be active, engaged citizens, and I feel that’s intentional. Coal companies will pay 500 miners to sit there all day; I’m taking time away from my business so I can be an advocate.”
Snow has fallen in the mountains around Salt Lake City, so Gleich is back in the office. First on her agenda is to video document all 90 steep lines in a Wasatch backcountry skiing guidebook. Bigger picture, her goal is to visit and document highly glaciated areas, and ski the most challenging mountains on earth. Remember, it’s harder than it looks.
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.