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Skiing Down Demons in Stairs Gulch

Caroline Gleich, a former skiing model, has worked hard to gain credibility as a pro ski mountaineer. Her biggest challenge, however, was a return to a deadly avalanche chute in Utah.

by Megan Michelson
Apr 18 2016, 3:10pm

All photos by Adam Clark

Every time professional skier Caroline Gleich steps into her bindings to climb a backcountry peak, she faces a demon—her brother's blue hands, crushed by the cement-like snow of the avalanche that killed him. For the past 15 years, the image of her brother, Martin, lying in his casket has been an everyday reminder of the risks of her livelihood.

Martin, an accomplished climber, died in an avalanche-prone chute called Stairs Gulch in the Wasatch Range of northern Utah, just outside Caroline's home of Salt Lake City. The line to ski the gulch drops 4,500 vertical feet from a wide apron-like face into a narrow, rocky bottleneck. The avalanche—estimated at 700 feet wide, with a one-mile run-out—swept over Martin as he was climbing up. The incident was enough to keep Caroline off Stairs Gulch.

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"I would see his hands in my head, and I would think, I can't do that to my parents," she said. "It's not the steepest or the scariest line, but it carried all this emotional weight. I used to just look at that mountain and have intense sadness."

A couple years ago, Caroline decided to ski all 90 lines in a guidebook to skiing the Wasatch backcountry called The Chuting Gallery. Only two other people, both men, have reportedly skied all 90 lines. Caroline, 30, is among a generation of young female ski mountaineers pioneering their way into a growing, and fairly masculine, sport. Ticking off all 90 in The Chuting Gallery would be an impressive accomplishment on her resume, and Stairs Gulch is one of those lines.

So on March 18, Caroline and her boyfriend, Rob Lea, along with photographer Adam Clark and fellow pro skier Eric Balken, met at the Broads Fork Trailhead in the predawn darkness. They started at 5 AM, navigating by the light of headlamps, and made the high ridge as the sun rose over the mountainous horizon to the east.

Caroline hasn't followed the typical path to professional skiing. She's never competed at the X Games or the Olympics. Instead, as a Minnesota transplant living in Salt Lake City, she first made a name for herself as a ski model. By her late teens, she had sponsors wanting to cash in on her smile and blond braids. She started appearing on magazine covers, in ads, and on billboards for Utah ski resorts. Pretty soon, sponsors were flying her to mountains around the world.

"Caroline has no doubt worked hard over the last several years to shift her image from smiling, pow-skiing model to that of ski mountaineer, taking a slew of avalanche-safety and ski-mountaineering courses and building her resume with trips to Chile, Alaska, and Chamonix," said Tyler Cohen, editor of Backcountry magazine. "I think she's beginning to gain respect in the ski-mountaineering realm, but establishing real, solid cred in that arena takes serious time."

Caroline is emerging right as a handful of skiers—including Kit DesLauriers, the first and only woman to ski off Mount Everest; Kim Havell, who's skied first descents on four continents; and Hilaree O'Neill, who's knocked off high peaks from Bolivia to Pakistan—have opened new territory for women in a historically male-dominated sport.

Last year, women's alpine-touring gear sales shot up to $2.2 million, an 87 percent increase from the previous season, according to SnowSports Industries America. Sales of women's splitboards—a snowboard that splits into two quasi-skis for touring the backcountry—also jumped 112 percent, to $696,000.

"There are more and more young and female faces getting into big backcountry missions, and Caroline is one of them," said Cohen.

The only people that claim to have skied all 90 lines in The Chuting Gallery are the book's author, Andrew McLean, and Utah-based pro skier Noah Howell, a co-founder of the ski-movie company Powderwhore Productions.

"Completing the Gallery takes the right combination of steep skiing skills, ability to judge conditions, luck, and madness," Howell said. "The book has it all, from huge, classic lines to stupid stunts on snow that will leave you wondering what the hell you are doing. It took me several years to complete it once I committed to it."

In his guidebook, McLean calls Stairs Gulch the "great granddaddy of Big Cottonwood Canyon's slide paths." The top of the cirque-like canyon holds snowpack on 43-degree grade above nearly 5,000 vertical feet of drop. Skiers and climbers on the face are subject to 270 degrees of exposure. Avalanches released here have been known to bury the road at the bottom of the canyon in more than 30 feet of snow.

"This is not on the 'Mothers of America Safe Skiing' list," McLean writes in The Chuting Gallery. "But assuming you can catch it in stable conditions and minimize the amount of time you spend in it, it's a major classic."

Caroline, who is also an athlete instructor for the Utah Avalanche Center, waited for ideal conditions to ski the Gulch: a reliable March snowpack, cold temperatures, and clear weather. Her team of four reached the top of the Gulch under a blue sky.

Caroline dropped in first. Halfway down, she stopped, considered the mountain she was skiing. The last time she had been there was to see the cavernous hole in the snow where first responders had uncovered her brother and his climbing partner only days prior.

"I don't know how I'm supposed to feel. Should I feel closure? Or redemption?" she said afterward. "If anything, it made me re-live the loss. I felt more opening than closing. I've read that grieving is like a tear in the fabric of your life. You can stitch it up, but that tear will always be there."

Two days after skiing Stairs Gulch, Caroline and her dad went to nearby Alta Ski Area to ski groomers on a sunny day. While driving home at the end of the day, Caroline told her dad that she'd skied Stairs Gulch. That surprised him. But it also, he says, gave him a sense of peace.

"The word expiation came into mind. Atonement, if you will. Although she doesn't have anything to atone for," her dad, Gerald, said. "In a way, I kind of liked hearing that she skied down it. It puts the goblins to rest a little bit."

Now that Caroline has overcome the most emotionally charged descent of the 90 described in The Chuting Gallery, she can focus on the roughly 20 lines she has left to ski.

"I'd like to finish by next winter," she says. "So that's my goal at this point."