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Caroline Gleich: What She Learned From 3 Weeks of Skiing in Peru

A Q&A with Caroline Gleich about her most recent expedition in Peru. By Leslie Hittmeier

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SkiingMag: Why did you want to go?

CG: I wanted to go because I knew Peru would be a great challenge. I love traveling in the Andes and skiing in places where few have skied before and it’s not only a mental and physical challenge, but a cultural one as well. It’s exciting to travel the world with the goal of climbing and skiing big mountains, it takes you to different places and gets you off the beaten path.

Skiing Mag: What did you want to achieve?

CG: I wanted to challenge myself in some of the highest, most glaciated, technical terrain in the world. The Cordillera Blanca is the highest tropical mountain range in the world and a good precursor to bigger expeditions in the Himalaya or Karakoram. I also wanted to begin to learn about international ski mountaineering logistics – I did a ton of research and set up everything myself to craft the type of experience I wanted: Some basecamp support, climbing in a small team, fast and light, alpine style.

It was also important for me to return to South America and overcome my fear after Liz [Daley’s] death. After Liz died, I put my Peru dreams on hold for a while because I didn’t feel that I was ready. But then, I realized I wanted to keep moving forward with my goals. It was hard and scary. A lot of things changed for me after Liz died. I used to try and show no fear, but now I admit to being scared of things. Serac fall, avalanches, wind, loud noises – they all make me a bit skiddish in the mountains now. I wanted to expose myself to the things that scared me. And there was a lot of all of them in Peru.

I wanted to look up at those mountains and say, “you don’t scare me, I’m coming for you,” but when I got there, I didn’t feel so brave anymore. The constant, swirling clouds and rain, and evidence of recent avalanches all began to intimidate me. So we picked routes with little objective danger. We climbed mellow ridges that allowed us to get high and see how the snow was. The snow was not great: shallow refreezes caused a rotten layer so pickets were useless, trail-breaking was difficult, and the approaches were long with really heavy packs.

We still reached the summits and skied 3 different 17,000-18,000-foot peaks. They weren’t the steepest lines, but we had fun pushing ourselves.

SkiingMag: Did you find what you were looking for?

CG: Yes, I got outside my comfort zone and pushed myself mentally and physically. I gained a lot of experience in many ways. And I learned where my deficiencies are.

Skiing Mag: What was pushing you the whole time?

CG: I guess the thought of Liz was fresh in my mind, as was the thought of Dave Rosenberger, Arne Backstrom, and Kip Garre. Dave was a fellow Patagonia ambassador and I really looked up to him. Arne died on one of the peaks that we skied.

Climbing and skiing big mountains is incredibly dangerous. As my coach, Scott Johnston said to me in an e-mail when I returned: “Consider that becoming an alpinist is a life long journey with no destination. You will always be learning and growing as you go along this path but never arrive at the end until you willfully stop or die along the way. The mountains will always be there. You can come back to them when you are better prepared but not if you’re dead.”

SkiingMag: What should someone who wants to ski in Peru know?

CG: That the peaks are remote and the terrain is heavily glaciated and technical. Peru is not a place to learn how to alpine climb or ski mountaineer, it’s a place to go once you have experience in glaciated terrain and at altitude. You and your partners should be capable of self-rescue, including vertical rock/ice rescue, crevasse rescue, avalanche rescue, and I recommend having a high level of wilderness medicine training.

SkiingMag: What would you do different next time?

CG: I would bring alpine climbing boots and consider climbing these mountains instead of skiing them. One of the hardest parts of the trip was carrying skis and boots across many miles of difficult rock terrain. I would consider making my trip 4-6 weeks instead of 3. I might rent one of those Hypoxico tents so I could arrive acclimatized.

SkiingMag: What did you experience as far as culture goes? What you liked the most? Least?

CG: We hired a basecamp chef, Alfredo, who we hung out with at basecamp and spent a lot of time with. He only spoke Spanish and Quechua (with a little English). He was our corridor to Peruvian culture and we had so much fun hanging out with him. Even though I only speak minimal Spanish, we were able to communicate well. I liked the fact that the mountain names are still in Quechua. I didn’t like all the livestock grazing in the mountains. I also didn’t like all the crazy drivers and roads. Usually, I can sleep in the car but not in Peru! 

SkiingMag: What’s the craziest thing that happened?

CG: Our tent got attacked by a cow! And my partner, Rob Lea, got licked by a cow.

SkiingMag: Do you want to go back? What’s next for you this summer?

CG: I would love to go back. Right now, I’m back in Salt Lake taking my Wilderness First Responder course, then looking forward to resuming my training and planning for my next big trip.