Last week, professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich completed all of the lines found in The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, a guidebook penned by Andrew McLean—a steep skiing legend with over 100 first descents under his belt—listing 90 must-ski chutes in Utah’s Wasatch Range. She became the first woman and fourth person to descend all 90, a feat that can’t be understated.
The first line she bagged was Main Chute at Alta Ski Area (she thinks) and the final one was Ciochetti’s Ribbon—a thin strip of snow planted on a cliffside with 600 feet of exposure—also found in-bounds at Alta (photo found below). A fitting ending. The project, which took four years from when she decided to really go for it, was very personal. When she was 15, Gleich’s half-brother died in an avalanche in one of the lines featured in the book. A year later, she first laid eyes on the book, which terrified her, and still does.
Yesterday, I finished my project to ski all the lines in “The Chuting Gallery,” a steep skiing guidebook to the Wasatch by @straightchuter. To my knowledge, I am the fourth person and first woman to complete the project. I remember when I first laid eyes on the book. I was 16 years old, I had no backcountry experience. A year before, my half-brother died in an avalanche on one of the lines. This book terrified me. I was drawn it to ways that I cannot fully explain. It took me over a decade to get my skills to the level where I could imagine tackling these objectives. There was so much to learn – avalanche forecasting, trad and ice climbing, not to mention getting my fitness to the level where I still had gas in the tank to ski after hours of steep mountain climbing. Each line provided a distinct challenge. I had to put it all together on Ciochetti’s Ribbon. Surprisingly, this was one of the most difficult lines in the book. As the author writes, it is highly condition dependent. The high snow levels created very steep conditions, and the abnormally warm mid-March temperatures metamorphosed the snow even on the highest north facing aspects. The pro is marginal, and cracks were heavily loaded with snow and ice. It was a full on alpine experience with skis. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have patience with these types of endeavors and to wait for the right days. As a wise man (climber and coach Scott Johnston) once told me, “Alpinism is a dangerous game and the learning process is very slow and risky. One of the most valuable lessons you can learn as an alpinist is when to back off. The mountains will always be there. You can come back to them when you are better prepared but not if you’re dead.” Huge thanks to all my partners and sponsors throughout the project. And to @straightchuter @noah_j_howell and @tetonsandwasatch (the 1-3rd people to do it) for providing inspiration. Stay tuned for a film about it next fall with @ducttapethenbeer, @acpictures and @rei!!! Photo: @rob.lea
“15 years after my half brother died in Stairs Gulch, I went to ski the line where he died,” she explains. “For the months after I did it, I was really confused about how to feel about it. But after a year, and more time for reflection, I can honestly say it was very healing for me. When he died, his wife was pregnant with their child, and this year, I took my nephew backcountry skiing for the first time. That was another huge benchmark for me in my life, turning a negative, very sad experience into something positive and uplifting.”
Aside from the personal triumph, Gleich now stands as the only woman to complete The Chuting Gallery. While she’s very proud of the achievement, she reveals that one of biggest challenges in becoming the first woman to do so was the macho attitude she discovered in the Wasatch backcountry.
“I didn’t feel that the Wasatch backcountry community was very welcoming to me. There were a lot of times when I would ask to go out with certain people or parties and they would tell me I couldn’t come because the objective was too gnarly—it was a boys day,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t be able to do it. Very few people invited me to do these objectives with them. I had to learn to lead my own party and recruit my own partners. And I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles women face in the outdoors, they are not invited in. They have to force their inclusion to these sports and these cultures.”
Gleich certainly proved that she belonged amongst these wild lines, displaying an elite level of skiing throughout the project. The achievement relied on more than just skiing skills, however. The preparation that led to her achievement was intense. She began by skiing, a lot, logging 100-day seasons at Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton. Then, over the course of seven years, she completed her Avalanche 1, 2 and 3 certifications, took a Wilderness First Aid course twice and completed her Wilderness First Responder credential. Then, she took rock and ice rescue classes as well as ice climbing courses. Aside from all of the certifications and classes, she took her fitness levels to new heights, logging tons of miles and vertical in the summers with weighed-down packs to simulate winter objectives. From there, she spent an eye-opening amount of time learning how to travel in the mountains on her own.
“There were hundreds of days I spent on my own learning how to be my own guide and avalanche forecaster,” she says. “It is a lifelong process, really, and I always want to approach the mountains with an attitude of humility and through the eyes of a student. There’s always more to learn and improve upon.”
After skiing 90 lines, she says her favorite ones were the most secluded. “Two that stuck out are the Northeast Couloir of Lone Peak and the East Face of the Twin Peaks,” she says. “I love them because they’re very remote in the Wasatch Wilderness. Lone Peak is a steep face that funnels into a couloir that is exposed to a 150-foot cliff, but you can traverse over the cliff at the end, so it doesn’t require any ropes. It took me several tries, which makes the success feel much sweeter. The East Face of the Twins is another more freeride-feeling face and not having a rope in your pack makes it easier to rip down a line like that with a feeling of freedom.”
Even after checking each objective off the list, she says she’s still afraid of them, but doesn’t see that as a negative.
“I don’t believe fear is something to overcome, you don’t just suppress it,” she explains. “You explore it, go into the nooks and crannies and deepen your relationship with it. I’m not immune to fear and I don’t ever ignore it. I accept it and listen to what it’s telling me. It’s there for a reason.”
Gleich’s four-year adventure with The Chuting Gallery will be highlighted in a film with REI called Follow Through, debuting in the fall. For more from Gleich, follow her on Instagram.