Caroline Gleich is not a tall lady. At first glance, she is about 160 centimeters tall, but her diminutive exterior belies her inner strength, determination and confidence. Her eyes, words and actions exude tremendous energy. Her adventures and acts in skiing, mountaineering, exploration, environmentalism and activism carry that same energy and her eyes have seen the remotest corners of our planet. Caroline ascended Mount Everest with her husband, just as Slovenian mountaineers Andrej and Marija Štremfelj before them, they climbed in the Antarctic at the end of 2021 and Caroline spoke before the Congress of the United States about the importance of environmentalism. She is also a strong advocate for gender equality.
Caroline Gleich - skier, mountaineer, adventurer, environmentalist and activist.
At the end of 2021 you completed one of your biggest adventures in Antarctica. What was the main purpose of the expedition?
The main purpose of the expedition was to climb Mt. Vinson, the highest peak of Antarctica. In addition I also got in touch with a number of women scientists who are doing various research there in order to raise awareness of the importance of Antarctic ice.
Did you set out with any fears and worries?
Oh, of course. Given that the expedition took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was worried about getting sick. Antarctica has extremely cold temperatures which can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Of course, on an expedition like this, you are always exposed to different dangers. The snow cover is very demanding and there are glacial crevasses everywhere.
Who were your companions?
I was on the expedition with Rob and our friend Jonathan. We were all skiing on Elan Ripstick skis.
How does one even prepare for such a challenging expedition?
Preparations for such a challenging expedition are very thorough and time-consuming. Our friend Jonathan Spitzer helped us a lot. Just the paperwork to enter Chile is a demanding proposition. Only after securing that did we even start putting the equipment together. There is no shop in Antarctica where you can go get a piece of equipment that you left at home, so you really have to think about every detail. It's all those little details that can make the difference between success and failure, and failure can be deadly, you can lose a finger or your nose, which is bad enough. We checked and rechecked the equipment lists and, of course, tried everything out. The fact that everything had to fit into just three bags was also a particular challenge.
So the main objective of the expedition was to climb Mt. Vinson?
We estimated that the Mt. Vinson was skied by maybe 30 people. I managed to get in touch with some of them and they gave me some very useful information Mt. Vinson is a skier’s dream. There is almost 3000 metres of altitude between base camp and the summit. Mountains like that are few and far between. And you're on snow from the start. Rob and I also set ourselves the goal of climbing all seven of the highest peaks on each continent. We’ve made it to Everest and now Mt. Vinson, meaning that we put the two most expensive summits behind us.
How was the weather during your expedition?
The weather conditions were very challenging. It was extremely cold in the beginning, down to 55 degrees Celsius below zero, and very windy, so we had to postpone the start quite a few times. We waited for eight days, and it was still not ideal weather, so we set up some higher camps that made the whole thing a bit easier. But we had to be very patient throughout.
Which skis did you use for such a demanding challenge?
I used the Elan Risptick Tour 88 which is extremely versatile and also very light. They performed amazingly in really demanding conditions.
Antarctica is one of the most remote areas of our planet. How do you even get there?
First, we flew from the United States to Santiago, Chile. There we had to quarantine for 24 hours and wait for a negative PCR test. Then we flew to Punta Arenas and onwards to Patagonia for a few days. After five days of COVID testing we finally flew to Union Glacier in Antarctica and from there we traveled to base camp under Mt. Vinson. We were supposed to spend a total of eleven days in Antarctica, but we ended up spending eighteen. I didn't shower for 15 days, which is a personal record for me and something I’m very proud of.
Where did you sleep?
We slept in tents.
How did you cope with the low temperatures?
We agreed at the beginning that we wanted to come home with all our fingers and toes. You have to keep your face, hands and feet warm all the time, otherwise frostbite is inevitable.
I suppose this kind of adventure is full of both positive and negative surprises?
Every day was a surprise in itself. We were surprised by the enormous amount of snow and experienced some severe blizzards. The mountains there are also extremely steep. At the beginning I was worried about how I was going to cope with being offline for so long, but in the end I actually enjoyed the experience.
What has stuck in your mind the most?
I slept very well. Most of all I didn't worry about how my social media posts would turn out. Things can be very peaceful without the Internet. Besides, we made friends with members of some other expeditions that were there at the same time.
What did you learn on this trip?
I am a small woman, so I always worry about whether I will be able to carry all the gear. I always tell myself that I don't want to be the weakest and slowest member of the team. When I manage to do that, it gives me strength and confidence. That's when I realize that I can be feminine, strong, dirty, aggressive, sexy ... But above all, I can always be who I really am.
Can you perhaps give a few useful tips for those who might want to go explore the far south of our planet?
- If you dream big, plan for how you will make your dream come true. In our case, the dream started to come true when we paid the deposit for the expedition.
- Face your doubts, fears and worries and discuss them with the other expedition members.
- There are bound to be a few unpredictable situations on expeditions like this that can become very emotional. It is important to learn to keep a cool head and to hold back your ego.
What is your philosophy in life?
I am a very curious person I and always try to find the truth. If something doesn't seem fair, I am never silent and always say what is on my mind without a filter.
How does your philosophy reflect in your sporting and skiing adventures?
I've always been curious about what's around the next bend. I wonder where my energy comes from and I want to find the limits of my abilities. I had quite a few problems with depression as a child. At the time I found that going out into nature in the mountains helped a lot. This was especially important during the winter months. It gave my life meaning and purpose and made me get out of bed in the morning. Later I realized as an environmental activist that the way we treat other people is very important. Above all, that we need to treat everyone equally. In the US there is still a lot of inequality. Women are still often left behind and I try to set a good example that women can conquer even the most difficult challenges.
How do you deal with fear and danger as a small but strong woman?
I believe we can’t completely overcome or eliminate fear, but we can face it and embrace it in a way. We can even give it a name. That makes it easier to face it, say in the mountains. Perhaps most of all I am afraid of not living my life the way I want to. A person can die anywhere, get hit by a car or in another accident. That is why it is all the more important to live each day as fully and happily as possible.
You have seen some of the most remote and inaccessible corners of the world. Can you choose a favorite?
No, I love them all, but I always look forward most to my next adventure.
A few years ago you summited Mt. Everest. Can you tell us a bit more about that expedition?
In 2019 Rob and I decided to climb Mt Everest. We discovered before that only 10% of the climbers to summit eight-thousanders were women. In other fields, whether in business or science, women continue to be in the minority and I find that to be a rather severe social anomaly.
Did you know that Marija and Andrej Štremfelj of Slovenia were the first couple to summit Everest?
No I didn't know that. I think that’s exceptional. I hope I get to meet them in the future.
Elan is a brand that has been making skis by hand from the beginning, relying only on its own know-how and local raw materials. What do you think of Elan's attitude towards the environment and social responsibility?
Personally, I am very careful about the brands I work. Their attitude towards people, the environment and nature is the decisive factor. Elan is a brand that has been operating responsibly since 1945. The actions of the company are always directed at least ten years into the future and it always takes care of our planet. Sustainability is part of Elan’s DNA.
Did you ever think about what a sustainable way of skiing would be and how skiers could act to be as sustainable as possible?
Of course skiing is an activity that deeply affects nature and the environment. Along with the love of skiing should come the desire to protect nature and preserve it for future generations. That is why I always encourage skiers to support representatives in local and national elections who have a clear conservation agenda in their programs. Skiers should also support equipment manufacturers who approach their activities in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
Environmentalism and sustainability always play an important role in your projects. How difficult is it to bring all these factors together into a coherent whole?
We always try to do our best, but the fact is that every human activity has its price. By encouraging people to get outdoors we also encourage them to preserve our beautiful natural playgrounds.
How do you see skiing in the future in terms of sustainability?
The environmental crisis demands changes in skiers' habits. Without systemic solutions many ski resorts will have to close in the future. In the future I see skiing mainly in close cooperation of the main stakeholders with local and national authorities to support the introduction of clean and renewable energy sources.
Elan is also one of the first ski equipment manufacturers to start producing skis for women. How do you feel about that?
As a petite woman I am very happy that Elan is also making products for us, but at the same time the Elan women’s line can also fulfill the needs of the most demanding skiers.