Caroline Gleich on What It Took To Complete 90 of Utah's Gnarliest Ski Descents
Original story on Teton Gravity Research
What happens when a guidebook gains such notoriety that it becomes a life’s mission to complete every descent within its covers? Ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich recently checked off descent #90 of Andrew McLean’s the Chuting Gallery, marking her completion of a list of some of the gnarliest skiing in North America.
For most, a list of potential climbs or descents opens up a world of possibilities, giving much-needed beta on faraway, unfamiliar areas. For others, guidebooks represent overdevelopment and giving away the secrets of a local stash. However, this one book has transcended these ideas, inspiring backcountry enthusiasts with a list of lines in one mountain range that range from low-hanging fruit to seriously extreme descents. Park City local and ski mountaineering icon Andrew Mclean put together The Chuting Gallery, a list of the best steep descents in the Wasatch in the late 90’s, after years of exploring and taking notes of his own exploits.
“Back then, backcountry skiing was granola, tele-turns, and tree-hugging,” says McLean, “but I wanted to ski steep lines beyond the resort boundary, so I just went ahead and did it.” After moving back to the SLC when his employer Black Diamond relocated, he finally got a chance to explore the steep potential the Wasatch had to offer. A few years later, he had skied enough lines to fill the pages of a guidebook, so he collected his notes and wrote one. Inspired by the convenient index and rating system from climbing guidebooks, Mclean followed this format and made up his own rating system to suit the needs of skiers.
When the book was published in 1998, he did not expect it to become such a cult classic, but it quickly gained traction as a definitive resource for the area. Since then, many skiers have seen the book as a sort of Wasatch skiing bible, but only four people are known to have actually completed the list. Gleich just became the first woman to do so.
These lines require a whole lot more than just skiing ability, as many feature technical mountaineering challenges, ropework, and just pure luck to complete. With names like the Hypodermic Needle and the Great White Icicle, most descents are not for the faint of heart. As Rob Lea (Caroline’s boyfriend and partner for many of the descents) described their final line, “go into it fully prepared and with a second clean pair of underwear.”
I caught up with Caroline a few days after she complete her final descent, a small band of snow called Ciochetti’s Ribbon that cuts across the Devil’s Castle Cliff band right outside Alta.
The line, one of the last in the book, involves traversing for several hundred feet, while roped up on skis, with massive exposure to the skier’s left. Normally, the route can be protected by climbing bolts drilled into the rock, but this year, the massive amounts of snow in the Wasatch covered the bolts, making them impossible to find. Gleich protected the route using trad gear only.
Gleich tells me a quick story about how the first ascensionist was a local guy who wanted to impress his girlfriend by taking her climbing up above Alta ski area. “I wanted to repeat that sentiment my own way, so I took my boyfriend Rob skiing,” says Gleich, “Ciochetti’s Ribbon was actually super scary!” She adds that it was unusual for her to get that scared on a ski descent.
Fear is something she has had to come to terms with skiing steep, technical lines all over the world. “The whole thing really takes a told on your adrenal system!” she says. It sometimes takes her a few days to come back down to earth after the intensity of a mission deep into the mountains wears off.
With so many lines physically so close to her home in Salt Lake City, each one carries a sort of emotional connection to her. Staring out her window, she can see the peaks every morning that hide these small slivers of snow, begging to be skied. While she has been skiing in the Wasatch her entire life, she began the Chuting Gallery project in earnest about four years ago.
After skiing some of the lines in the book like Wolverine Cirque and the Mount Superior, which she calls the gateway drugs to steep skiing in the area, she decided it was time to learn all the skills necessary to be safe in the mountains, and put it in her mind to ski all 90 descents in the book. Her first goal was to ski all the 3-star lines in the spring of 2013. Conditions were pretty lean that season, making each ski descent extremely challenging, but by the end of April, she had completed her goal.
Since then, Gleich has honed her mountaineering skills, perfecting the use of ropes and climbing gear to protect herself and her partners while climbing and skiing steep lines. She has learned a lot from skiing with friends who are professional guides, though those trips do not feel like a client-guide trip, but more like two friends who are enjoying a gnarly day out together.
Emilie Drinkwater, a Salt Lake City based AMGA/IFMGA Mountain Guide skied the NE and NW couloirs of the Pfeifferhorn with her. “I bought The Chuting Gallery because I thought it would be a fun coffee table book to make me look like I knew something about Utah skiing,” says Drinkwater, “I never had any intention of skiing anything in the book because every single line looked terrifying and the rating system was completely foreign.”
The two appreciate the challenge of skiing these extreme lines with such high objective hazard and living to tell the story, especially since they all have fairly easy access from home. “Caroline's project is awesome because it's both a 'backyard' project and something complex and difficult enough to focus on in the same way one might focus on a big ski expedition,” says Drinkwater.
Gleich tells me that her focus on learning all these safety skills is somewhat rooted tragedy. After losing her half-brother Martin and her good friend Liz Daley in two separate avalanche accidents, her perspective and approach to the mountains shifted. She felt it necessary to do whatever she could to stack the odds in her favor in the dangerous game she played. This meant completing all the available courses she could find, including vertical rock rescue, ice rescue, and the full AIARE avalanche curriculum.
Her education has proved invaluable time and again in her pursuit of skiing all over the world and it is something she stresses other skiers should take more advantage of.
When faced with the question of what to do next, Gleich says she feels somewhat empty, lacking a defined goal for her next skiing adventures. However, this summer, she is psyched to help edit the upcoming movie about her Chuting Gallery project, and plans to use the off-season to accomplish some non-skiing goals in her life. The film, Follow Through, produced by REI, will premier this fall.