“It’s always a challenge to wake up and climb in the dark, but the glow of sunrise makes it all worthwhile. These are the moments I live for,” says Utah-based, big-mountain skier Caroline Gleich of this moment on the south ridge of Mount Superior in the Wasatch Mountains. She and her climbing partner, Nate Smith, had bootpacked up the couloir to gain the ridge, then skied down Suicide Chute. Here Caroline tells more about Zen moments skiing, why she is so passionate about skillful ski mountaineering, and what’s next in 2014.
Adventure: What were you thinking at this moment?
Caroline Gleich: After what seemed like weeks of high pressure with endless blue skies, I was stoked on the clouds and the sunrise. The fast-moving clouds and brisk wind showed me a much needed change in the weather was near. It’s always a challenge to wake up and climb in the dark, but the glow of sunrise makes it all worthwhile. These are the moments I live for.
A: What was the journey like to get to this moment?
CG: We spent a bit of time the previous day scouting our line and the approach because we knew we’d be climbing in the dark. We wanted to get a sense of conditions so we could be adequately prepared. When possible, I like to get a visual on an objective the day before. I was glad we had photos to review.
We approached directly up the couloir to gain the ridge, bootpacking up steep, chalky snow. I’d been talking with my climbing/ski partner Nate Smith and photographer Jay Beyer about doing this route for a few weeks. With patience and determination, we made it happen.
A: Where is this, exactly? Had you been there before?
CG: This moment was captured on the South Ridge of Mount Superior just above Suicide Chute in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. This rock ridge is directly across the Little Cottonwood Canyon road from Snowbird and Alta. I’ve skied the chute before, and climbed the rock ridge in the summertime, but this was my first time on the ridge in the wintertime. It’s a great training zone.
A: Did you ski down? What was the line like?
CG: We skied down from this point through Suicide Chute on to the Mount Superior apron. The snow inside the chute was surprisingly smooth, chalky, and carveable. The wind tends to buff out the snow within the line, keeping it in good shape, while the rest of the south face of Superior was the texture of frozen coral reef. The line itself maintains a steep and continuous angle with a narrow exit at the base of the chute.
A: You are an accomplished big mountain skier. Are these quiet moments as valuable as shredding down a face?
CG: As a professional skier, a lot of my time in the mountains is devoted to work—whether it’s filming, shooting photos, or skiing with various groups. Moments like these rejuvenate my soul. They keep me focused on my personal and professional goals and keep me motivated. I love the quiet stillness—it’s one of the few times in the day I find true mindfulness. Of course, I find the same Zen focus and mindfulness on the way down, but there’s something special about the up. It’s slower and allows you to concentrate on putting one foot in front of another, especially on an exposed ridgeline like this one.
A: You are working on building up your ski mountaineering skills. Why?
CG: I’ve always wanted to be a ski mountaineer. When I was 15, my half brother was killed in a glide avalanche while climbing a mountaineering route in the Wasatch. He was my mountain mentor. He taught me how to climb, backpack, and ski from a young age, and we always bonded over the mountains. I think about him every time I go into the backcountry. Since then, I’ve lost countless friends.
For this reason, I spend a lot of time seeking out training and mentorship, taking courses and practicing skills because I want to learn the most safest and most efficient ways to move through the mountains, whether it’s for powder turns in an open bowl or a technical mixed climbing objective. I want to talk about risk and how to mitigate it with my partners and with the larger outdoor community. For example, with snow safety skills, it’s taken me years of taking avalanche classes and walking around in the snow to learn about the snowpack. There is still much more to learn. I always keep the attitude that I’m a student. The mountains don’t care who you are. I want to climb and ski high peaks in far remote places. A lot of my big-mountain dreams involve some aspects of technical climbing. It’s important for me to be adequately trained and prepared.
A: What are you most excited about for 2014?
CG: For 2014, I’m excited to put some of the pieces of the puzzle together to tackle some bigger, more technical ski mountaineering objectives in both my backyard—continuing my personal ski mountaineering project to ski all the lines in Andrew McLean’s steep skiing guide to the Wasatch, The Chuting Gallery—and places I’ve never been like Chamonix, Alaska, and Peru. I spent a lot of time researching my objectives via guide books, Google Earth imagery, and reading trip reports. When I decide on an objective, I like to cut out maps and pictures so I can visualize the climb and ski descents. For me, the planning and anticipation is a lot of the fun. The night before a big climb, I often have vivid dreams of how the day will play out. When you build it up and create the desire, it makes the pay off much sweeter.