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:

and read our full observation online:

Responsible Outdoor Recreation During the Coronavirus Pandemic

This is a rapidly evolving situation and things are going to be changing quickly. This guide may not be applicable in a few days.

This information was gathered, in part, from an interview with University of Utah epidemiologist, Dr. Lindsay Keegan, to help disseminate information about Coronavirus or COVID-19 to outdoor recreationalists. Here’s a video of our chat.

These are some considerations/ideas for responsible outdoor recreation and social media messaging for people in the United States.

  • If we don’t respect social distancing at trailheads and on trails, they could close. So let’s be proactive and set a good example.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that people in many places are in lock down. While people there can go outside for walks, they may be limited in how far they can go to get to trailheads. Other areas may be following and restricting movement.
  • Keep in mind Instagram is a global platform so people in Europe are experiencing something different than we are in the USA right now.
  • Look at Italy to expect what we are going to see in the US in a few weeks.
  • As the virus spreads in the USA, the healthcare system is going to become overloaded. That means if you tear your ACL or break your back, there may not be a bed for you. If you do require hospitalization, it might be at the expense of someone else’s parents or grandparents.
  • Keep this in mind as you talk about skiing. This isn’t the time to send it off a cliff, tackle that big project or set a FKT. Going for long hard days can weaken your immune system.
  • People are sad right now that the resorts have closed. Be compassionate.
  • This also isn’t the time for people who have never backcountry skied to learn. Pick objectives that are well within your ability level.
  • This is also not the time to go on a road trip to rural areas as their hospitals will also be over capacity.
  • Consider taking a break about posting in real time about skiing at all during this time and stay home whenever you can. Think about how you can serve others while still maintaining social distancing.
  • Cancel all non-essential travel.
  • Going on a ski tour with one or two people is a good compromise, but practice strict social distancing. That means six feet apart. Don’t gather in closer to talk, as we spewing viral particles that transmit diseases when we talk.
  • Avoid being in a large group. The more people you come into contact with, the more risk you are at, and the more you put others at risk.
  • Here’s some info from Lindsay Troy:
  • People without symptoms can be testing positive.
  • We don’t know how long closures and social distancing will last. The better we are at it, the longer it will take.
  • When we say flatten the curve, what does that mean? The curve is the epidemic curve, the number of people affected each day. With a typical disease, you see exponential growth, and then it drops off. Health systems are not built to withstand massive numbers of people coming into the hospital. We want to flatten the curve, but when we don’t that, we don’t actually change the total number of infections that much. We just make it so everyone doesn’t get affected at once. Flattening the curve helps the healthcare system and workers because it means there will be beds available, protective equipment for the doctors, ventilators available. If we let it burn through the population really fast, the closures will be shorter, but more people will die in a traumatic way. It’s a tradeoff.
  • Coronavirus does affect young people. You could have a mild infection, severe flu, and/or potentially pneumonia. It can lead to a serious hospitalization for young people. When you think, I’ll just go skiing, I’ll just go climbing, it’s not a big deal, think about if you have the healthcare coverage to pay for a few days stay in the ICU. Also consider that if you get pneumonia, it’s going to put you on your back for awhile. Your summer sports season is not going to be good as your lungs will be recovering and your muscles will lose mass. You aren’t going to bounce back as soon as your fever goes away. Some people will get mild infections but from what researchers know about SARS, there’s evidence of long term lung damage (perhaps even permanent lung damage) from the pneumonia that you get associated with SARS. It’s like a respiratory virus crossed with HIV because it has such severe impacts on your immune system. It’s not something to take lightly
  • This is a serious public health threat. Even if your personal risk isn’t high, the risk to people you know and care about is. Grandma, your neighbor, your friend who is immunocompromised, someone who has cancer. We all know people who are older and whose lives are at risk. You might walk out of this totally fine. You might get a bad flu, with pneumonia and recover in six weeks. You could be back skiing in six weeks, just like you were yesterday. Or you could kill your grandma.
  • It’s hard to evaluate your own personal risk. It’s hard to evaluate these pandemic situations because they are so rare. People are dying from this. People will die from this. If we all act according to social distancing and try to have some compassion for our neighbors, we can kill way fewer people than are projecting. Models are projecting worst case scenarios right now. Let’s make the models wrong.

Thanks to Backcountry for supporting this message. I’m grateful to work with brands who are willing to be flexible when content plans change.

Addressing Rumors

This week, I’m in Telluride, CO for Mountainfilm. I’m incredibly honored that my short film, Follow Through, will be showing at the film festival. I’ve always wanted to tell my story and I’m proud at how my film turned out. Yet even with all the success of the film, I’m shocked that I still have to address rumors and heavy criticism that undermines my competency in the mountains.

This fall, the week before the film was released, I received a text message from another prominent ski mountaineer in the Wasatch. It said, “Hi Caroline! Top of the morning. Bunch of folks hitting me up about you and The Chuting Gallery project. Quick question, did you pay or trade to be guided on some of those lines? Got some guiding buddies that say so and it looked that way from some of the post. Just thought I’d ask and know instead of listening to rumors.”

It was hard for me to even read the message. I could feel the anger and tension rising, my heart rate quickening. I’ve spent over a decade honing my steep skiing skills, and I spent half a decade working on the project, equipping myself with the technical tools to be a confident leader on rock, snow and ice. During the project, I wore a lot of hats, not only deciding when to ski each line and how to do it, but also coordinating with ski partners, videographers, the production team and sponsors. I worked in a team, yes, but I was the leader—because it was my project. This ski mountaineer’s assumption otherwise was deeply insulting.

I took some deep breaths and typed a response. “I skied a handful of the lines with friends who are guides but they were with me as partners, not guides, and were not paid or traded. We did use a paid guide one day to help with some of the rigging for the videographer.”

On the single line where we did have a guide help with the rigging for the film team the guide initially put the rope up, I followed. And then I re-led the pitch. Every pitch of ice and rock, I led. I might add that it’s standard practice for mountain guides to run safety on ski films. This was not a typical ski film and I was in charge of my own safety and risk management.

In one way, I’m grateful that this man texted me to set the record straight. But frankly, I’m frustrated that I even have to address these rumors about “guiding buddies”, rumors that are simply a way to invalidate my accomplishments in the mountains.

The misogyny and sexism in the Wasatch backcountry and ski mountaineering community is real. I’m sick of it.

But I will not be defeated.

Before I met my friend Liz Daley in 2012, I had no idea that mountain guiding was even a profession. I didn’t know about the American Mountain Guides Association and the process to get certified. Liz opened my eyes to this world. Skiing with her, I learned about the amazing skills that mountain guides possess. I loved being with her in the mountains as an equal partner. And I wanted to find more friends who had her same level of technical expertise.

I realize that ski mountaineering is one of the most dangerous sports you can undertake, so I want to do everything to stack the odds in my favor. I also want to keep growing my knowledge base. I’ve taken courses in Avalanche Level 1, 2 and 3; Rock Rescue Level 1 and 2; and Ice Rescue; have a Wilderness First Responder certification; and do regular crevasse rescue refreshers.

I also make a conscientious effort to recruit partners who take their technical training as seriously as I do. Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to stack the odds in your favor?

On another international trip, I hired a local guide to help us with some of the trip logistics. Because of the difficulty of the ski line I was attempting, I had to clarify, in writing, that the guide was joining us as a climber/skier, not as a guide, and we were each individually responsible for our decisions to continue or not. She was compensated a modest fee for her time in pre-trip logistical organization. She did join us on the mountain, and since that trip, has become a good friend and mountain partner. Again, international ski mountaineering expeditions are dangerous. Why not equip yourself with information from a local guide to help set you up for success?

I wish I didn’t have to write this statement, to address these lies that people are spreading. They don’t just frustrate me, or hurt my feelings; they hurt my career. Last winter, when I took my Avalanche 3 course, one of the pieces of feedback I received was: “If you want to make the transition from pro skier to mountain guide, stop hiring guides and traveling with others that make decisions for you, put yourself in situations where you are required to put it all together, apply these skills and observations and form your own opinion everyday, don’t just regurgitate the opinions of others.” I have no idea where the evaluator got the idea that I was skiing as a guided client. These lies had become so pervasive that they were part of the reason I didn’t pass the course, and they are simply untrue.

When I wrote about this encounter with bias, a woman sent me a note sharing a similar story. She had received equally unprofessional and unhelpful feedback from an instructor during an exam. She said, “Your implicit bias post is a big part of the reason I stopped guiding.” My situation is far from unique.

The reason I’m writing this is because I want to get to a place where women’s accomplishments can be accepted and celebrated without bias. I want female mountaineers to get the same recognition and credit as their male counterparts. The way these local guides have fabricated a story about the style in which I climbed and skied the lines in The Chuting Gallery illustrates the kind of toxic masculinity that runs rampant in our culture.

This habitual sexism is part of the reason that only 10% of mountain guides are female, and why fewer than 25% of sponsored snowsports athletes for major outerwear brands (TNF, Helly Hansen, Arcteryx and Patagonia) are female, despite the fact that over 40% of skiers are female.

Also, while I’m speaking about statistics, it’s worth noting that 85% of snowsports fatalities are male in their late teens to late 30s (70%). This is the demographic that on a broader level, engages in high-risk behavior and suffers the majority of unintentional death from injury.

We need more female representation, especially in dangerous sports like mountaineering. It’s not enough to get women outside. We need women to get to the highest levels. At every turn in my career, I’ve battled sexism and harassment. I will not back down and disappear, giving in to the belief that I don’t belong. I will not distance myself from the world of ski mountaineering that I love so much. I will continue to show up and speak up.

In order to change the tides, I believe we need to do two things to start. First of all, the local mountain guiding company needs to consider putting their guides through implicit bias training to understand how to create an inclusive culture that doesn’t automatically de-value women’s skill. It will be a huge benefit to their company.

And my call to action to you, the reader, is to examine your own implicit bias and preferences. This isn’t a battle of the sexes. As a society, we are so habituated to sexism that women are often biased against other women.

Do the stories you tell discredit the efforts and achievements of women in the wordplace and/or in the mountains? Are you part of the problem?

When you hear someone saying sometimes to diminish another person, do you call them out on it?

Use your words carefully, and remember the adage, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.


Patrouille des Glaciers (PDG) Race Recap

It has been called the most difficult team’s race in the world. The Patrouille des Glaciers (PDG) covers over 13,000’ (4000m) of ascent and 36 miles (58 km) through technical, glaciated, alpine terrain, organized by the Swiss military as a training exercise to make sure soldiers are prepared to patrol the mountainous borders of the country.

What did I get myself into?

We were heading into the coldest, darkest part of the night as we approached the top of the first climb. My hands and feet were starting to lose feeling. It was hard to tell the difference between the trail of headlamps up the mountain and the bright stars, under a new moon and dark, night sky. The climb was relentless. We had been going for four hours, ten miles (16k) and almost 7,000’ (2133m) and I was huffing and puffing as we approached 12,000’ (3657m). My team and I were roped together navigating the course and I was grateful to be close. We were on skis with skins and it was steep and icy. Just when I thought we were topping out, there was another false summit, and I had to dig deep to find the courage and energy to continue.

Given my track record for endurance on skis, I thought this race would be easier than it was feeling. But in the US, especially in Utah, there are very few mountains where you can climb up 7,000 continuous feet (2133m) without stopping. I was fit as a fiddle by Wasatch standards, but the Swiss Alps represented a whole new challenge.

Finally, we topped out and were greeted by soldiers and some of our friends from the Swiss ski brand I am sponsored by, Movement skis, who roped me into doing this race. Our friends fed us sugary soda and candy. They helped me put my jacket on. They were volunteering to come out here in the middle of the night, to wait at the top of a cold, windy mountain at high altitude, to help us. Thinking about their sheer generosity still amazes me. Race day brings out the most radiant expressions of the human spirit – I love the random acts of kindness and the way it brings us all together.

For much of my career as a mountain athlete, I didn’t understand racing. I thought, I go to these remote places in the mountains to get away from people. Why would anyone want to do a race with so many people? I worried about the environmental impacts of races. The erosion from so much foot traffic. The carbon emissions from the helicopters that stocked the aid stations at the PDG.
But in those moments, where two random strangers climbed up a crevasse ridden glaciated mountain in the middle of the night to give us aid – food and nourishment and encouragement – I understood what it was all about. It made sense to me. That having a race that exposes people to these places gets them to be fierce advocates to protect these types of experiences. To be good stewards. And as far as the carbon goes – the Swiss military was going to burn that carbon in the helicopters to do their training exercises no matter what. Why not provide a benefit to the people and give them the experience of the race? Why not celebrate their national pride?

The PDG happens every two years and the iconic course covers parts of the Haute Route. It’s a single day event where racers start in waves in the middle of the night to avoid the dangers of avalanches and falling into crevasses that come with daytime heating in the springtime.

My background as an athlete isn’t in racing. I considered myself more of an adventure focused ski mountaineer, wanting to explore places off the beaten path that take technical expertise and endurance to reach. After doing this for several years, I was left at a decision point in my career. Do I keep pushing the boundaries of trying to ski steeper and steeper lines, where a slip or fall ends in death? Or do I find another focus? I was delighted when my ski sponsor asked me if I wanted to compete in the PDG this year. I had secretly been intrigued by skimo racing. I had never had the confidence to pursue it before. With the sponsor putting together my team and providing the equipment, I had a chance to explore a part of my sport I may have never delved into. It was a way for me keep progressing, to keep finding my edge, without taking on more and more risk.

So, I got the skinny skis. I adopted the equipment of skimo racers – the packs with quick carry, the cross country inspired poles, the lightweight, breathable helmet. And I put my mind to training all winter, logging as much vert as I could, week after week. I was focused and determined. And the PDG was my goal. I competed in a 3-day skimo race at the end of February – US Nationals – and my teammate and I took first place in the female team category, and I took second place in the combined. I felt it was good preparation for the PDG.

I was wrong. After the first climb, we had to ski 7,000 ft down in a single descent, roped together. Again, it is difficult for an American to train for a ski descent of this length because there are few places in the lower 48 where you can consistently access mountains that are this long. By the end of the first climb and descent, my legs were hurting. The skiing was steep, icy and technical. It was chaotic – our team was strongest on the downhill, so we were passing many teams. I was worried our ropes would get caught.

Once in Arolla, it was a relief. We were back at a more normal altitude and we took some time to refuel and warm up. I was relieved that the coldest parts of the course and night were over with. We were halfway done, and I thought we would breeze through the rest. I was wrong. We started climbing again, and the snow was frozen and the terrain grew steeper and steeper. People were falling on their skins all around. You had to have perfect technique. The course was relentless. Where it wasn’t steep, the terrain was rolling. Sometimes, it was unclear whether to skin or skate. My teammates spoke French as their first language and communication was difficult. Being the lone female, I felt an added pressure to perform. Spending time in Zermatt prior to the race, I felt frustrated by some of the local’s and their perceptions of me. No one believed that I was going to do the long race. In the pre-race meeting for the long race, there were very few woman (I estimate fewer than 5% of the competitors were women – more women compete in the shorter race that covers half the distance, but it’s still under 20% female). I had just met my teammates and I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. Competing in a team of three adds an extra challenge. Two allows for more nimble teamwork. Three is a crowd and when you aren’t in sync, it can be mentally very challenging.

My boyfriend, Rob Lea, an accomplished triathlete, shared with me some of his race day wisdom. He said on a big race like this, you only have a certain number of matches. You want to be mindful when you burn a match. Being on a team of three, it was difficult to pace myself properly. I felt we went out too fast from town (the race begins in downtown Zermatt and you run in ski boots or running shoes for one mile on the cobblestone street before getting to snow-I never get blisters, but I did get blisters from running on this surface in my ski boots in the warm temps). There were times when I didn’t use my energy efficiently. And the fatigue of traveling through Europe for the 3 weeks leading up to the race didn’t help. The week of the race, I spent too much time on my feet in Zermatt. Hauling my large duffel bag to the race start was a chore. Doing this kind of race is crazy, it was even crazier to do it internationally.

As the night turned to day, I started to see a bigger picture of the race, and it was unbelieveable, how many competitors were marching up and down these huge mountains, like a line of ants. The best parts were all the spectators who came to cheer us on and the support of the soldiers at the aid stations! At every pass, and every transition, there were soldiers stationed to make sure people were ok, not too delirious or sick. When it was time to put on sunscreen, a soldier doled out the perfect amount of sunscreen into my hand. They refilled water bottles. Skimo racing is a big deal in Europe and I’m so grateful I got to experience it.

Once the sun came out, it started to get so hot. The race suit performs well in most conditions except on the extreme ends – if it’s too hot or too cold, it leaves you desiring layering options…

As we got to the Rosablanche, I started to run out of energy. I’d burned too many of my matches earlier in the race and I was out. My teammates families started to greet them at different passes and I started to get emotional that I didn’t have any family or friends there. I could feel myself starting to spiral into a dark place. I cried. I tried to rally.

Luckily, my teammates helped. They stuck with me. We worked together. The descent into Verbier was again one of the longest ski descents I’ve done. My legs were screaming. I had to focus on engaging my core. I was worried I was going to crash and tear a ligament. When we crossed the finish line, I’ve never been so relieved. I was bawling. I called my boyfriend (even though it was three am in the US) and my mom. I was in disbelief that we actually finished.

Overall, we finished the race in 12 hours and 9 minutes. There is no division for mixed gender groups. We came in 49th in the men’s division, which is a respectable time for first time finishers as a team who had met a few days prior to the race. We finished an hour later than our estimated time (tip: always over estimate your time the first time doing a race) and I felt that being at the back of our pack in the beginning was difficult for morale. There are dozens of things I learned, that I would’ve done differently or improved.

And that was the whole point. I was so far outside of my comfort zone, completely vulnerable to a new experience. I pushed myself to do something differently. And it felt I grew by leaps and bounds, mentally and physically. Growth is usually uncomfortable. The end of the race also made me intensely homesick. By being homesick, I appreciated my partner, my friends and family so much more when I was reunited with them.

A huge thank you to my team mates, Eric Gachet and Aurelien Ducroz, to my Movement skis team manager, Vincent Bardy, and to everyone else who volunteered to make the race a reality.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I’m planning to do more skimo races. But first, I am raining to run my first ultramarathon and to compete in an endurance bike race. Stay tuned…