Pro Skier Caroline Gleich Summited Everest to Promote Gender Equality

caroline gleich
Courtesy of Rob Lea

On May 24, 2019, professional skier Caroline Gleich summited Mt. Everest, alongside her fiancé Rob Lea, in an effort to promote gender equality in sports.

Gleich grew up in Rochester, Minnesota where she developed a passion for mountain climbing during summer backpacking trips and ski trips with her family. When she turned 18, she decided to pursue a career as a professional skier while simultaneously earning an undergraduate degree in anthropology.

Over the years, Gleich became increasingly aware of the gender gap in outdoor sports and personally faced several inequalities as a female skier. When Lea suggested a trip up Everest, Gleich deemed it the perfect platform for raising awareness and promoting gender equality.

Here, Gleich shares how she’s personally experienced gender inequality throughout her career, how she prepared for the 40-day expedition, and the biggest challenges she faced summiting the tallest peak in the world.

What inspired you to climb Everest?

When my fiancé, Rob Lea, first told me he wanted to climb Everest, I told him I would break up with him if he went. I had a lot of preconceived notions about Everest – that it was a ‘walk-up,’ that it was easy, and that people would buy their way to the top. I did know, however, that I wanted to take my ski mountaineering to the Himalayas.

In September 2018, I went to climb and ski Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak in the world. On the drive there, I saw my first view of Everest/Chomolunga. Before I even knew what mountain it was, I felt a strong urge to climb it. The ridge and the snowy North Face called to me. I like to let my projects happen organically and make sure the mountains speak to me. Everest did in a big way.

Why did you decide to make the climb focused around gender inequality?

I knew that our trip would get a lot of eyeballs on it. I wanted to use that opportunity to draw attention to something I’m deeply passionate about – advocating for gender equality. I know from snow sports that there are not many women at the highest levels. As I started researching, I learned that only 10% of the climbers on 8,000-meter peaks (Everest included) are women.

We wanted to use the climb to bring attention to implicit bias and ways people can disrupt it and support women’s leadership. Some people say I should just climb, but I felt it was important to talk about this. Seeing some of the inequalities in my sport have made it hard for me to be silent any longer.

Courtesy of Caroline Gleich

As a pro athlete, how have you personally experienced gender inequality?

One of the biggest things I’ve struggled with is finding appropriate mountaineering gear in my size. The most technical, lightest weight, and advanced gear still doesn’t come in small sizes. The same is true for bigger sizes. I want to advocate for more diversity in sizing.

I also see that there is a huge gender gap in wages for professional athletes in snow sports and mountaineering. Without adequate funding, many female athletes are forced to pick up second jobs, which makes it harder for them to go on as many trips and take advantage of opportunities to travel.

And then there is outright sexual harassment and discrimination that I’ve experienced while working at trade shows or traveling with sponsors. Most professional athletes are independent contractors, so they don’t have a human resources office where they can report problems with managers or other independent contractors.

Tell us about your “Climb for Equality” campaign.

I never wanted to become the “gender equality” girl – it is a tough conversation to have and it’s uncomfortable to bring up. I know a hashtag isn’t going to change the world, but when you experience it enough, it’s hard to stay silent.

#ClimbForEquality was a hashtag we started around our Everest trip. It is a subtle way people can start to think about how they support women and gender equality and things they can do in every day life. It was a way to make these conversations about gender equality more fun.

Courtesy of Rob Lea

How did you prepare – both mentally and physically – for the climb?

My training has taken me many years of climbing peaks all around the world. I first climbed Mt. Hood in 2009, then Shasta. Then, working my way up to climb and ski the three highest peaks in Ecuador, Cayambe, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. Then, expeditions to Peru, the French Alps and Julian Alps, Alaska, the northeastern United States, skiing Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, and other peaks around the world. While I tested my body at higher and higher altitudes, I also learned ice and rock rescue, wilderness medicine, and other skills.

What were some of the biggest challenges of your climb?

The weather was definitely a challenge this season because we didn’t have a good long clear weather window, so it made it so that all the other teams went at the same time. It created a lot of stress for us.

Also, just being on an expedition for 40 days is a huge challenge. You are constantly hurting at those altitudes, so learning how to keep moving and doing things even when you are in pain was a challenge.

Caroline Gleich
Courtsy of Rob Lea

What was the feeling when you reached the summit?

Honestly, on the summit, I was worried because I knew that weather was moving in and that we had to keep moving. I was concerned about some of the technical down-climbing. The summit of Everest is not the place to celebrate; you still have a long way to go. While there was a sense of relief and accomplishment, I still knew I had to stay super focused so I wouldn’t let my guard down, and fall and die.

What has been the reaction from people?

Overall, people have been really supportive. Our goal was to have over 100 #climbforequality hashtags used on Instagram by the end of our climb and we would like to see 1,000 by the end of the year. I think we will get there.

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