Caroline Gleich ’03 is a queen of the majestic playground that is the Wasatch Range.
She runs it, climbs it, bikes it, skis it—and fights to preserve it. She recently received accolades for being the first woman and fourth person to ski all 90 lines listed in The Chuting Gallery, a backcountry-skiing guide to the Wasatch. And Outside lauded her for taking activism seriously. Caroline's skill, tenacity, and positivity have attracted the attention of popular outdoor brands: she's sponsored by Patagonia, REI, Clif Bar, Specialized, Snowbird, Alta Ski Area, and more. She's carved out a career doing what she loves. She visited Rowland Hall's Lincoln Street Campus during Earth Week to tell middle and upper schoolers they can do the same.
Caroline moved with her family to Salt Lake City from Minnesota at age 15 and attended Rowland Hall for her junior and senior years of high school. She later graduated magna cum laude from the University of Utah with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. Though Caroline was a Winged Lion for just two years, she told current middle schoolers Rowland Hall had a lasting impact on her: "You guys are lucky to be at this school," she said during an April 20 assembly led by Protect Our Winters. "I learned a ton about environmental activism from being a student here. It really inspired me."
Leading up to her Lincoln Street visit, Fine Print chatted with Caroline about her time at Rowland Hall and her career as a mountaineer.
This Q&A has been edited for context and length.
What are your fond memories of Rowland Hall?
It was really different than my other high school. At Rowland Hall, they thought it was weird when I asked for a hall pass to go to the bathroom. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy. I wasn't used to having so much freedom. I came from a Catholic high school, so I really enjoyed learning about other religions, like Buddhism, and celebrating all the different holidays, like Ramadan. And I really liked Interim and winter sports Fridays.
How did your two years at Rowland Hall impact you as a person?
It was nice to be treated like an adult and to have so much freedom. Another thing I vividly remember is reading Canaries on the Rim in my English class, and we had the author come in and speak to us. It's all about Utah's tragic history of environmental abuse. When I moved here, I was shocked to see strip mining and mountaintop removal so close to where everybody lives on the Wasatch Front. In the Midwest, where I grew up, any mountain of that size would be a treasure because there are no mountains there. In my geography class, we watched the movie Chinatown and learned about water issues in Utah and the West. I was already of the mindset that nature needs to be protected, and so I became a serious environmentalist.
What's your tie to Protect Our Winters?
I've been part of their rider's alliance since 2011. They have a network of athletes who are committed to fighting climate change.
You're out and about a lot for work. How has climate change tangibly impacted your career, if at all?
In a lot of different ways. On my international ski-mountaineering trips, climate change is making the mountains of the world more dangerous because the glaciers are receding. As they recede, they're exposing unstable glacial moraines that are a total beast to navigate. It leads to dangerous rock fall, ice fall, and avalanches. In Utah, we're seeing warming temperatures, and more rain instead of snow. In the spring, it's getting hotter sooner. So instead of having a nice gradual melt, we're getting big runoffs with dangers of flooding. That's projected to increase over the next couple of decades. And you have to be careful when talking about this, because weather is not climate. You can't take a freak weather event and attribute it to climate change. But the trends are in line with what climatologists are predicting. And at least one expert predicts if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, by 2100 we'll have no snow in Utah.
You're visiting Rowland Hall for Earth Day. What do you want our current students to know? What would've stuck with you at that age?
One of the cool things about doing these presentations is showing students you can make a career doing what I do—a career based on outdoor adventure, exploration, and mountaineering. That part is really fun to talk about. So I hope to open their minds to that spirit of entrepreneurship and their ability to become what they want to become even if it's untraditional. The second part is to talk about climate change, what I've seen with it, and how it's affecting my industry. And third, to mobilize them to become future climate leaders for our country and world.
You just know when you're doing the thing that you're supposed to do—it's instinctual.
What made you seek out a career in this?
There's not one single thing. When you're doing something you weren't meant to do, it's obvious. I never felt like I fit in anywhere and it would be hard for me to work in an office. I guess it's still a deep human need that I have. It's also process of elimination. I tried doing other things. You just know when you're doing the thing that you're supposed to do—it's instinctual.
What else did you try?
I thought about becoming a politician. I still might want to do that someday. I did an internship for the environmental advisor to Governor Gary Herbert for a summer, and I did an internship with Skiing magazine as a journalist. More young people and women need to run for public office, and maybe that's something I'll do in the future. I don't know if I'd ever win, but you never know! I always wanted to be an athlete and I was too old to do Rowmark when I moved to Utah—it wasn't the right time in life. Right now, I'm happy to be an athlete. I feel like I have more ability to change the world and try to bring awareness to these issues with my voice as an athlete in the outdoor industry than by going down that governmental path.
What is a typical work week like for you?
I work for myself and I'm always balancing different projects. I keep things moving forward through a lot of emails and blogs, and I edit photos and work on content production. Right now I spend a lot of time researching the weather and forecasting avalanches. Avalanche safety is a huge part of what I do. I am obsessed with weather and I check it incessantly so I can predict when and where the best skiing is, make a plan for our crew, and coordinate the details with everyone.
What's one of the coolest adventures you've been on?
One of my favorite things relating to this is when I go lobbying with Protect Our Winters in Washington, DC. We meet with our congresspeople and talk about the kinds of things that we're seeing and what kind of legislation we'd like them to support. That's super fun. I've been participating in a lot of the recent marches. I always like a good rally—it's a big adrenaline rush. I also love the Wasatch. I've been skiing all these outrageous lines here. I've skied in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, Italy, Slovenia...my international trips are all really fun.
What's one proud moment of your career so far?
In 2015 I planned and executed an expedition for me and a partner where we climbed and skied three 19,000-foot peaks in Peru.
What did you learn from that?
When we got there, conditions were still really wintery. So we ended up redoing our itinerary, backing off some of the bigger lines that we wanted to ski, and taking some more moderate routes that were safer. And after we'd decided not to go up one of these mountains, three Estonian climbers died on it. It was a lesson to back off if you're unsure. It's easy for people to talk about stories of success, but it's a lot harder to talk about backing off.
What advice do you have for anyone who's thinking about doing what you do?
Trust your instincts. Learn to be very self-aware. The biggest risk is death or serious injury. If there's something that's not quite right, don't be afraid to speak up and back off.