Andrew McLean’s Chuting Gallery is in many ways considered to be the ski-mountaineering bible of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. With 90 descents, finishing every line in the book is a feat many skiers take a lifetime to complete. But on April 6, 2017, 31-year-old Caroline Gleich became the first woman to finish all the lines in McLean’s skiing tome. To hear about this achievement and what it means to her, we caught up with Gleich at her home in Cottonwood Heights. Here is what she had to say.
Backcountry Magazine: What inspired you to take on the Chuting Gallery?
Caroline Gleich: I moved to Salt Lake when I was 15 years old, and shortly thereafter, I picked up a copy of the book for the first time. I thumbed through it, and at that point I had no backcountry experience. When I was 15, my half brother was killed in an avalanche in one of the chutes that was described in the book. So I instantly had an emotional connection to the book, but it was so out of my frame of reference at that point—something that just existed in my imagination—that it seemed untouchable. But at the same time, every time I drove up into the canyons above Salt Lake, I saw these chutes in front of me.BCM: What did the process of skiing these lines look like?
CG: What kickstarted my backcountry skiing career was losing a brother and being the oldest child in my household. Seeing the pain my parents experienced from losing a child to an avalanche was hard, and it made me take a really slow progression to getting into the backcountry.
I have had many great partners, but I never had a mentor, and I had to save up all of my own money to buy avy gear and take avy courses. I worked at REI—it was my first job in the outdoor industry—when I was 18, and I got a discount on my first avy beacon. I then took Avy I, and a few years later took Avy II, and took my Avy III this year. But I was always very conservative about how I wanted to approach the backcountry.
When I was 18 or 19, I looked at the Chuting Gallery, and was like, “I want to ski all these lines in the Wasatch.” I was on a lift around this time with another pro skier when I mentioned this, and he just laughed at me and said, “Well, that would take a lifetime.” And because of that, I decided not to talk about this goal for a while. I didn’t want to hear what other people thought about what I wanted to do.
BCM: When did you start skiing Chuting Gallery lines?
CG: Four years ago, I decided to ski all the three-star lines in the book. There are twelve classic lines, so that was my springtime project four seasons ago. Then, over the past four yeas, I slowly kept ticking away at the lines. This year, I was really close to finishing and we had a really great year, so I was able to complete the book.BCM: What are the lines like?
CG: In the book, there is not just skiing, there’s also climbing and ice climbing. So I wanted to not just follow the lines; I wanted to be able to put them up for myself. 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.
BCM: What were some of the ascents or descents that made an impression on you?
CG: Well, my favorite line in the whole book is the Northeast Couloir of Long Peak. That was one of the last lines in my Spring 2013 project. It took me a couple tries, because it’s really far away, really remote in the Wasatch backcountry. So it was having the fitness to get out there, get up the climb and then still have gas in the tank to ski down. It is steep and committing, and it starts out on a face and then funnels into a narrow couloir. You’re skiing above a pretty big cliff the whole time, but you can traverse above it, and you don’t have to rappel. It has a really exposed, high-consequence feeling, but it doesn’t have all the rope work and other shenanigans.
But, I guess, the last couple of lines that I did this year were just really technical. The Triangle Couloir and the Great White Icicle both involve multi-pitch ice climbing. They were such a fun challenge. With the Triangle, I went out with a really good friend who is also a guide, and he led it first, and then I re-led it. I really didn’t want to be overconfident in my skills, I wanted to do it right. I didn’t want to fall. And then on the Great White Icicle, it is four or five pitches of water ice 3-4, and that was a day I led all of it, which was such a fulfilling experience to put both of those lines together in my repertoire.BCM: What other part of the process of making these climbs happen do you love?
CG: I love the avalanche forecasting; because you have to be really discriminating about what day you decide to try which line. A lot of the lower elevation lines have a really limited window, so you have to be poised and conditioned to tackle an objective that may be skiable only one day out of the year. I also had to have good forecasting skills, like reading weather and wind and being able to tell when to go and when to turn around—and when to not go.
BCM: Did you ever get shut down?
CG: I got shut down lots of times. There was one day I went out to ski the Northeast Couloir of the Pfiferhorn, which is another really hard, technical line, and I went up with this other woman named Emily Drinkwater—she’s a total badass—but the first time we went up to ski that line was just after a storm was hitting, and it was a spring storm. I thought the weather was going to be stabilizing, because it was heavier spring snow. But as we started going up, we remotely triggered a slab and had some other red flags, so we turned around and went back at a later date to nail it.
With a lot of these lines, you really can’t take any risk. This kind of terrain has big consequences.
BCM: What’s next?
CG: I have a lot of mountaineering goals, but I guess that I would like to take the skills that I have acquired here in the Wasatch and take them to the bigger mountains around the world. I am tentative about exactly how I set up my trips and how I go about tackling these objectives, because I have lost a lot of friends who were great ski mountaineers. Halfway through this project, my friend Liz Daley died. She was a huge inspiration to me and was the first person in my life who showed me the image of a female mountain guide/mountaineer. I really looked up to her and a big part of this project was trying to build my skills to match hers, so that I could be a better partner for her. 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. I want to take it slowly and make sure my skills match my objectives—progression will always be part of my goal.
BCM: What tips would you give other women who want to tackle something like the Chuting Gallery or even objectives on a smaller scale?
CG: You can’t expect someone to hold your hand all the time. It is great if you have a mentor, but not all of us have someone in our lives who is inviting us to participate and learn. There are a lot of great clinics and camps that are affordable. But even just reading a book about alpine climbing and backcountry skiing can be helpful. The best thing to try to do is learn in a course or from a certified guide. But ultimately, you need to break it down into what skills you need. What are your deficiencies and what do you need to work on?
And most importantly, you need to not listen if someone says, “it’s a boys day and you can’t come.” You need to find your own partners who believe in you. Search out your own network and don’t listen to that rhetoric. I heard that a lot and it was really disappointing, but it was a learning experience. If someone doesn’t invite you, don’t let it deter you. Make your own group and learn slowly, but be persistent. No one else can tell you what you are ready for. You have to assess the conditions and what you are capable of on any given day.