Failing Gracefully: A Tale from the Mountains
Ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich reflects on a recent expedition to New Zealand and lessons learned in remote corners of the globe.
New Zealand’s Southern Alps offer one of the greatest mountaineering challenges for the seasoned alpinist. As a ski mountaineer, I was drawn to its mountains to push myself in an alpine environment that is Himalayan in scale and notorious for its dangerous weather.
What I learned on the trip wasn’t what I expected. Instead of improving my ability to climb up and ski down the most impossibly steep, snowy faces, I took home an important lesson on when to turn around, and how to fail gracefully.
For the past 12 years, I’ve devoted my life to skiing. It started innocently enough. Weekend ski trips to the local hill in Minnesota with a yearly trip to Utah had me hooked at a young age. I spent most of my waking moments in school dreaming of being in the mountains, my head in the clouds, my body, happiest in the cold, snow, and ice.
When I graduated from high school, that was it. I organized my entire life around skiing. I skied as many days as I could at Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, and Brighton, following the pros around, trying to keep up, to push myself to improve. After awhile, I started venturing into the sidecountry, and then into the backcountry. Avy (avalanche) one and two courses followed.
Shortly after that, the highest mountains of the Wasatch called my name, and I devoted myself to learning mountaineering techniques so I had the tools I needed to climb and ski the lines of my dreams.
The past four years, I’ve been focused almost exclusively on ski mountaineering. As I’ve improved, so has the technical challenge of my goals. The east face of Mount Cook was a dream line. I first laid eyes Mount Cook/Aoraki on a family vacation when I was 7 years old. In a way, I had been dreaming of skiing it ever since.
I spent weeks planning my fall 2016 trip. When the weather window opened up the first few days of my trip, we headed high up into the mountains, to stay at the Plateau Hut. The winds whipped across the summit plateau the first night we were there. The temperatures were well below freezing, not the spring melt-freeze conditions I expected. I couldn’t stop staring at the east face.
After a warm up day on Mount Dixon (a sizable objective in its own right), we set our alarms for midnight to start the ascent at 1 a.m., to give us plenty of time to get to the summit of Mount Cook/Aoraki before the sun would cause too much wet snow avalanche activity. When attempting to ski peaks like these, avalanches are a huge hazard and concern. Snow conditions need to set up in a very specific way. It takes the perfect storm—a stable spring snowpack underneath a layer of new sticky snow, with lighter snow on top of it all.
When you are boot packing up it, you can feel when it’s right. In the first few hours of climbing in the ever-increasing cold of night, crossing underneath massive seracs, and negotiating a tricky icefall, we encountered layers upon layers of breakable crusts on the face (good for a meat pie, but not for ski mountaineering). I wanted to push on a little higher to see if the snow quality improved. As we climbed higher, it got icier. My heart sank as I communicated with my team. I knew turning around was the right thing to do, but part of me wanted to push on.
To finally get there, to have traveled all those miles, and to sink my hands and feet into the snow of the mountain, I didn’t want to leave it all. The setting was spectacular.
I didn’t want to disappoint my sponsors, the companies who had helped me get there, but most of all, I didn’t want to disappoint myself. As a professional athlete, I feel a lot of pressure. But mostly, it’s pressure I put on myself. I know what I am capable of and I wanted to push myself beyond my physical limits and mental barriers. When we decided not to continue, to turn around, I felt like a failure. But listening to those instincts—when to go and when to say no—is the key to staying alive, especially in mountains of this scale.
Expeditions are important learning grounds. One of the hardest things to do is to sit, and wait, and read the weather reports obsessively, hemming and hawing over every little logistical detail. It’s hard to enjoy the other diversions of the trip, the endless waterfalls, luscious verdant rainforest scenery, turquoise blue waters with snowy peaks above. Instead, I was thinking, is this break in storms a big enough weather window? The winds have been coming from the northwest, what aspect should we ski? What are the alternatives?
I could see myself falling into the traps that make for a perfect avalanche accident. Our time in country was running out. I felt I needed to climb and ski another mountain to make my trip successful, to get the photos and videos to tell the story. I longed to get up into the alpine once again, to be up there in the glaciers, the icefall, the places I felt most alive.
To deny myself that felt horrible.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to stay in the mountains forever, entombed in a casket of ice, the way so many of my close friends and partners had passed. My goals for New Zealand were big, much bigger than most other mountains I’d climbed and skied. I knew a mistake would be deadly. With meters and meters of new snow in the high alpine, without any clearing in between, the avalanche conditions would be unmanageable. With little snowfall at lower elevations, there weren’t many consolation prizes.
The hardest thing in the world is deciding not even to try again. It sounds like a cop-out, but it’s a way to stay alive. Because in these mountains, the avalanche risks cannot easily be mitigated. A buried windslab will kill you. Getting caught in a storm could be deadly.
Failing gracefully isn’t easy. Bringing so much mountaineering gear to a far away country to be denied my prize objective—it felt crushing. But it’s a skill I’m finding peace with, knowing that it will allow me to live to ski another day.
Follow along more of Caroline’s journeys here.