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How a Climate Activist Ended up on a US Carrier under NATO Control

How did I, a ski mountaineer and climate activist, end up on a US Carrier in the middle of the Adriatic Sea with NATO, watching F-18s take off and land from a flight deck? 

A glimpse of the interior of the C-2 Greyhound we took to land on the aircraft carrier.

When I first received the invitation, I thought it wasn’t a fit, that it was too “off brand.” I sent it to my 91-year-old dad, someone whom I deeply trust about political issues. He told me to stop whatever I was doing, to get home and get my application in right now. 

Less than two weeks later, in October 2022, I flew to Italy to meet up with a small group of creators from around the world. Together, we got into a dark cargo plane and flew to an undisclosed location in the sea.  As we sat on that flight in life jackets, and helmets with double ear protection, I wondered what path in life had led me here. Was I on the right path? I had to trust my intuition, which told me to come and learn. 

Photo of Caroline Gleich watching a fighter jet prepare for takeoff by Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Wagner

When it was time to land on the 300ft/91m runway, we decelerated from 150mph/241kmh to 0, a complete stop, in 2 seconds, pulling almost 5Gs. To land on such a condensed runway, the plane drops a hook, a “tail hook,” which catches an arrestor wire so we don’t end up in the sea.  We exited from the rear garage of the cargo plane into a hectic, noisy and high-risk environment. One of the creators measured the decibel level at 130, which is louder than a thunderclap. A decibel level of 150 causes eardrums to rupture. While on the flight deck, I experienced wind from a jet blast that literally pulled me off my feet. My ears were still ringing 24 hours later. 

While I was onboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), I was able to observe an operation that requires complex coordination with thousands of people across over a dozen NATO countries . As part of NATO training exercise, “Neptune Strike,” 90 planes a day train to integrate to militaries all over Europe. The highly specialized teams are providing reassurance and deterrence to prove the power and cohesion of the NATO alliance. 

Photo with Alex Heath, Caroline Gleich, Ben Wheeler and Sergio Hidalgo taken by Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Wagner

I learned that the average age of the 5000 person crew is 22, and over 20% of the crew are women, one of the highest percentages in the military. Almost 75% of the crew had never deployed before. 

After watching the action on the flight deck, I left all my electronic devices (including my smartwatch behind) because I went to visit the combat direction center and the carrier air traffic control, where they monitor the air and sea and keep tabs on all the planes in the air. There, I spoke to Sarah Faber, a helicopter pilot, and other women in leadership. I asked them for tips for success as women in male-dominated environments. They told me the military allows them to be direct in how they speak to their male-colleagues. We also shared how important it is to have male allies to make advances in gender equity. 

Lt. Sarah Faber shows me the Combat Direction Center. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Wagner.

After visiting the combat center, I went to the bridge of the carrier where I learned how to steer the boat with 5000 people on board, instructed by another woman, Alexandra Mooney, or Allie, as she goes by. Allie left her job as a lawyer to join the navy because she wanted a life of action. Steering the carrier was a moment I’ll never forget, and was probably the highlight of my day! 

Deputy SJA Allie Mooney teaches me how to steer the ship (with 5000 people onboard) during the NATO-led vigilance activity Neptune Strike. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Wagner.
Sailors on the aircraft carrier show me how to con the ship during the NATO-led vigilance activity Neptune Strike in the Adriatic Sea. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Wagner

As I’ve grown as an activist, I’ve learned that social and environmental issues are interlinked and that democracies, as we have in the US, while not perfect, are precious forms of governance, because people are free to be the best versions of themselves. I’ve realized that being able to dream about climbing mountains, gender equality and climate action are all functions of living in a free society. 

I’m curious about the mountains, the environment and my own limits – to see what is over the next ridge or just how high I can climb and ski. Something that I love about the mountains is the cultural challenge. 

Mountains are ruled by forces greater than us – weather, snow, ice, wind and geopolitical forces. Where we can go and what mountains we can climb – that is all dictated by global policy. When I travel, I do extensive research. I become obsessed with the projects I choose. 

Given the opportunity, I went to visit the carrier because I am a naturally curious person and because I consider learning and understanding about defense as part of my civic duty.  

I’ve been to places in the world where people aren’t allowed to criticize their government, women don’t have basic freedoms and persecuted groups aren’t able to get passports to ever leave the country. Living under an authoritarian regime or in a world of nuclear warfare can not only set back dreams of gender equality and advances for social justice by decades. There is no climate action in a world decimated by nuclear warfare. 

I dream of living in a utopian world where we don’t have to spend any money on the military. But I’ve learned that there is a difference between the world we want to create and the world we live in. Failure to acknowledge that keeps us insulated in a bubble of non-understanding. I admit, I was once in that bubble.

I’ve learned that issues aren’t always as black and white as they seem. You can be a climate activist and marvel at modern aviation. You can hate war and be critical of military spending while appreciating the sacrifice of the individuals working on defense. You can recognize the importance of defense while making sure we don’t give up our rights under the guise of national security. We need to continue holding our government and military accountable. We are allowed to criticize our government, military and NATO because we live in a free country. Our freedom is because of the sacrifice of those who serve.

In the bridge of the carrier, I learned more about the operations and the realities of living on the ship for eight months. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Wagner.

Over 5000 Americans are living on the USS George H.W. Bush for 8 months without their families, without WiFi or FaceTime or phone calls, all to help keep us safe. They are there helping to create a world where we can travel freely, one where we haven’t had to worry about a war or being displaced. It felt like my citizen duty to go and tell their story. 

In my heart, I am a pacifist. Like most people, I despise war. But with ever increasing threats from foreign adversaries, we have a choice for our future between democracy and authoritarian regimes. I left the ship with a new awareness for the importance of deterrence in the role of peacekeeping. I learned that part of the reason we spend so much on the military is because we treat our service people very well in exchange for their services. I learned that my grandfather went to medical school on the GI Bill after serving in WWII. My mom followed his example and was one of few women in her graduating class from medical school. 

I asked the people I met on the boat what they’d want me to share with my community. “Just that we’re here,” they told me. Their service on that boat and their presence is a powerful deterrence. I’m incredibly grateful for the eye-opening opportunity I had and to meet the men and women who serve and to my dad and close friends who encouraged me to go. 

My father served in the Air Force. He also protested the Vietnam War. He told me, “NATO is a force for good in the world.” I have learned that democracy only works if people participate. For me, that means showing up, learning and understanding, instead of sitting on the sidelines.  

As my dad said, “NATO will help us prevent the mistakes of history,” and that’s ultimately why I went. I am committed to staying open to new perspectives and growing as an athlete and activist. 

Ben Wheeler, Sergio Hidalgo, Alex Heath and Caroline Gleich smile with USS George H.W. Bush Commanding Officer Dave Pollard. Photo by Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Wagner.
Selfie with Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Samuel Wagner who hung out with me all day and took these photos and Israel Diaz.

Backcountry Skier vs. Ski Mountaineer vs. Skimo Racer

One of the things I love most about backcountry skiing is how much it allows for a creative expression of freedom. Backcountry skiers don’t follow trails, we put our own skintracks or bootpacks up. We decide where we want to go.

I thought it would be helpful to explain the differences in these disciplines of skiing. Just like there are different kinds of ski racing (slalom, giant slalom, super G and downhill), there are different types of backcountry skiing.

Speaking broadly, backcountry skiing is skiing done outside of controlled areas. You can access the backcountry from gates at a resort or from a helicopter, but my favorite way is human-powered. The human-powered backcountry experience involves special equipment and training, using climbing skins on the bottom of skis and special boots and bindings to climb up the mountains we ski down. It involves managing risk factors like avalanches. I’m drawn to this type of skiing because I’m actually a big nerd and I love the techy scientific parts of it: snow science, route planning and mapping. For me, it’s a way to use both sides of my brains to plan routes, execute and to take the best photos and videos along the way.

Ski mountaineering is using skis to ascend peaks. It is more technical than backcountry skiing. Sometimes it involves ropes, crampons and ice axes to climb up more difficult pitches of rock or ice or rappels to get down.

Skimo is short for ski mountaineering and it usually refers to skimo racing, which is using lightweight skis to climb up mountains and ski down them, as quickly as possible. Competitive skimo racing came from military traditions when armies organized races to test soldiers abilities in alpine environments. Skimo is different from cross country because the equipment allows you to ascend and descend very steep slopes that wouldn’t be possible on cross country equipment.

There is overlap between these disciplines. You can take methods from one and apply it to the other. Over the years, it’s also been called randonnee skiing and alpine touring.

Whatever your motivation and discipline, being able to climb up mountains and ski down is my favorite thing to do and I can’t wait for the adventures ahead this spring! Check out my stories for a few of my favorite items for ski mountaineering and use code CAROLINE15 for 15% off your first order from backcountry.com.

Here are some of my favorite pieces of gear:

https://bit.ly/3eNgQQP

Scarpa Alien 1.0 boots

https://bit.ly/3eLOUg8

Petzl RAD system:

https://bit.ly/3eO3mEk

Petzl Leopard crampons:

https://bit.ly/2OHFeIT

Patagonia Ascensionist GTX:

https://bit.ly/38RKArT

Patagonia Capilene Cool Lightweight long sleeve shirt

https://bit.ly/3lryBGM

Elan Ripstick

https://bit.ly/2NV55fz

Plum Race 150

https://bit.ly/2NrgqnP

Contour Skins Guide Mix

https://bit.ly/3vCNBG6

Petzl Gully Ice Axe

https://bit.ly/3vtjzEO

Julbo Shadow goggles

https://bit.ly/3tzYwPj

Julbo Fury sunglasses

https://bit.ly/3qXkhGO

Julbo Aerospeed sunglasses

https://bit.ly/2OHI80f

Julbo Vermont classic 

https://bit.ly/3vXPNIz

“Everest” On Skis

Seeing firsthand how climate change is affecting mountain communities and how important it is for the world to transition to a renewable energy future, I’m going to climb up and ski down for 24 hours or until reaching 29,031’/8848m, whichever comes first.

I’m encouraging folks to join me and sign up for Protect Our Winters for their March #CrushIt4Climate Challenge and donate to Utah Clean Energy for the Running Up For Air Series.

Sign up with POW:

https://bit.ly/37L6Lj6

Utah Clean Energy Fundraiser Page:

https://www.givesignup.org/carolinegleich

I’ve done a lot of 12-18 hour pushes in the mountains before, but this will be my first 24 hour push. I’m excited and nervous to see where my mind and body will take me.

I’m doing the challenge starting Sunday night, March 7 at 6 pm at Brighton Ski Area up and down the groomer on the Great Western Lift. Brighton has been incredibly friendly to the uphill ski community, hosting races and other events, and they have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2030, which I hope other ski resorts will follow!

As a ski mountaineer, I’ve seen that we can no longer expect historic weather patterns to be indicators for future planning, especially in volatile alpine environments. In the Himalayas, air temperatures have already risen by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the 20th century. Permafrost is melting, as are the glaciers that provide reliable water sources for millions of people.

Climate change is not a thing of the future – it’s happening now. In my home in Utah, our historically light, fluffy powder is changing as temperatures warm to the extent that our state’s slogan – the Greatest Snow on Earth – may no longer hold true. The average amount of snow in the West has dropped by 41% since the early 1980s. By 2090, projections indicate Park City will lose all of its snowpack. Nationally, low-snow years have a negative impact on jobs and the economy, costing us more than $1 billion and 17,400 jobs.

In my role as an ambassador for Protect Our Winters, I have worked diligently to educate the outdoor recreation community on the systemic policy changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at scale. Now is the time to require polluters to pay for their emissions by setting an economy-wide price on carbon. This is a market-based solution that can garner bipartisan support. We must invest in a clean energy economy and move toward achieving net zero emissions by 2050, if not sooner. Now is the time to reduce emissions from our transportation sector by rapidly deploying zero-emission vehicles nationwide. And, perhaps closest to my heart, we have to protect public lands, our national treasures, from fossil fuel extraction.

Follow along on my Instagram during the event and stay tuned for a recap!

Caroline Gleich, Wasatch Mountains, UT

Martin’s Poles

20 years ago, my half-brother, Martin, was killed in an avalanche in Stairs Gulch, a steep chute in Big Cottonwood Canyon in Utah. These were his poles. Martin was an important person in my life because he was someone who invited me to be a part of his world of mountaineering. He was an instigator of adventure, and taught me how to rock climb, backpack and ski. I’m lucky I had people like him in my life who could teach me what they knew about the outdoors.

When I went to ski all the lines in the Chuting Gallery, I knew that one day I would have to ski Stairs Gulch. It took me fifteen years of tiptoeing around the backcountry and learning about snow and avalanches to muster up the courage and the emotional energy. Still, to this day, when I go backcountry skiing, I think about Martin and I see a picture of his hands at his funeral after he died. They were crushed – black and blue – from the trauma of an avalanche.

When I went to ski Stairs Gulch, I found that being there, where Martin had his last moments, was strangely healing. I got to see what he saw and experience what he did. I’ll always have a deep, emotional connection to Storm Mountain and Stairs Gulch.

My experience of skiing that line and the rest of the Chuting Gallery project was documented in a short film called Follow Through. A few months after the film was released, someone reached out to me via email saying he had found a pair of poles in Stairs Gulch the year Martin died and was wondering if they were his.

At first, it felt like a punch in the gut, and I wasn’t sure how to react to the email. I procrastinated and put it out of my head. The next season, I got another email and I finally went to pick them up.

Low and behold, they were still in usable condition. I remember picking them up from this kind man who had held on to them for almost twenty years and feeling a special energy through the pole grip. I took them home, took a picture and sent it to Martin’s widow, Gitte. I asked her if the poles looked familiar. She said, Yes, they do. Wow, that’s crazy.

The logo and markings were preserved, the grips were intact, the adjustments still worked and the craziest part about it is that they are made by Leki. Leki was my first sponsor in the snowsports industry and I’ve been an athlete for them and part of the family for a dozen years and counting. They are a wonderful company to work with. 

It’s pretty incredible that someone held on to them for all these years and they were able to make their way back home to our family. These poles are an incredible treasure to me. Holding the grips, I feel like I can touch a part of Martin. I’m excited to take them on many more adventures as I continue to remember and celebrate his legacy. When I think about Martin, I think about the responsibility I have now to continue to inspire people outdoors safely and educate about avalanches.

This post isn’t meant to give you practical tips about avalanche safety but instead to urge you to make decisions conservatively so you can ski, ride or climb another day. Your decisions in the mountains – they affect far more than just you – and the wound of losing someone you love never heals. You just learn to live with a hole in your heart.

We miss you dearly Martin.

January 7, 2021 Martha’s Bowl Avalanche

Today, we had a close call with an avalanche. No one was caught, buried or injured, but it gave us a good scare. We unintentionally remotely triggered a D2 avalanche in Martha’s Bowl in Big Cottonwood Canyon as we were skinning across the flats below.

As we were heading to our objective, we approached a zone where the skintrack went underneath a steep , northwest facing slope. Naturally, our group of three spread out with Rob in the lead. At the end of the traverse underneath the rocky cliffs, Rob skied down a small slope on the previously set skin track. None of us heard or felt a collapse or whoomp or any noise at all, but we looked up at the steep face and saw it break into pieces above us. Adam yelled “avalanche” and we all shuffled to get into a safer place.

Seeing the avalanche start, I quickly realized the crack in the crown was spreading hundreds of feet across the slope. Not knowing how far it would go (and knowing from experience that avalanches have a nasty habit of running farther than you think they will), I started to run in my skis with skins on down and away from the slide to get to a safer spot out of the way. As I ran, I fell into a flat depression. I was certain I was going to get buried. I prepared to pull my airbag. Luckily, the slide stopped above us, and no one in our party was caught or buried. If there had been a little more snow or energy behind the slide, we would’ve all been buried.

After we determined we were safe and unscathed, we saw that part of our skintrack was buried 5’ deep. Pine trees were snapped with fresh branches around. As we composed ourselves, we talked about the mistakes we made that led to our error. We determined we had oversights in route planning and communication.

When we share our close calls, we can help make the backcountry safer for everyone. Our team was on the right side of luck today. But today’s forecast read, “I suspect our luck will run out soon.” In Utah’s Wasatch mountains, we have a dangerous snowpack. Prior tracks do not indicate that a slope is stable. As much as we want to rip steep lines in blower powder, it’s going to take some time for the snowpack to heal. I don’t want someone to die when it snows again. We’re in a tricky situation because yesterday’s sun left on a crust on our South facing aspects, so we are pushed to the north facing to find soft snow which harbors the dangerous avalanche layer.

I also want to ask for compassion, kindness and a lack of judgement when you read this report and others so we can help create an inclusive backcountry community where people can share their close calls and accidents with honesty, transparency and free of fear.

For more info about snowpack and conditions, check out:

https://utahavalanchecenter.org/

and read our full observation online:

https://utahavalanchecenter.org/avalanche/57268