If you’ve ever met Steve and Mike Marolt, you might have trouble telling them apart—at least until they open their mouths. The identical twins, both ski mountaineers who were born and bred in Aspen, could not be more different in terms of personality. But when it comes to their interest in ski mountaineering, they’re one in the same. The two have spent the better part of the last two decades devoting themselves to skiing the world’s highest peaks.
Best known for their attempt to ski Everest, Mike Marolt’s film “Skiing Everest” documents that and many other expeditions to ski the world’s highest peaks.
Filmed by Mike Marolt over ten years, “Skiing Everest” tells the story of a group of close friends, led by Marolt and his twin brother Steve, who grew up in Aspen and went on to become the first skiers from the Western Hemisphere to ski from above 8,000 meters (26,247 ft.) when they skied from the summit of Shisha Pangma in Tibet in 2000, and then challenged the highest slopes in the world on Mount Everest and Cho Oyu.
The film follows the Marolts and their childhood friends Jim Gile, and John Callahan, who was an Olympic cross-country skier, on skiing expeditions into the death zone above 26,000 ft., without using bottled oxygen. At the top of the world, they lock into their skis and challenge the most dangerous slopes in the world.
This Tuesday a special screening of Skiing Everest at the Wheeler Opera House will be put on the Aspen Historical Society. This American adventure documentary was directed by Les Guthman and Mike Marolt; written by Les Guthman, and featuring high-altitude skiers Mike Marolt, Steve Marolt, John Callaghan, Jim Gile, Hans Kammerlander, Chris Davenport, Laura Bakos and Mark Newcomb. The film also features Fredrik Ericsson, who died skiing on K2 in 2010.
We caught up with Mike Marolt to talk high altitude skiing, the legacy of high altitude skiers from Aspen, and what’s next for the Marolt Brothers, like what it takes to avoid the crowds on the world’s tallest peaks and why in the world anyone would want to ski in -100 degree temperatures.
When was Skiing Everest first released?
This film was released in 2009 and we had a national run at Landmark Theatres and then it aired on Pay Per View, PBS, and CNN among others so we had great success with it. We owe its success is to Less Gussman. He’s a renowned adventure filmmaker and I was lucky enough to connect with him on this project.
Tell us about the movie.
It’s a compilation of a handful of expeditions to South America and Asia that prepared us for taking on Everest. I’m also really proud of the really unknown history that Aspen has had in high peak skiing. You have these Aspen based climbers skiing peaks around here and then they’re going out in Himalaya. I wanted to include them because they’re Aspen guys. In many ways, the film is a historical documentary film on high altitude skiing and how high altitude peaks are the last frontier for skiing.
Everest has become mainstream with the major motion picture Everest and more people than ever are climbing the peak. How has it changed since you were there?
You get these massive crowds on Everest now. It’s a huge industry with those commercial operations. If they’re sending 20 people charging $60-100k per person, the money is huge. The draw of Everest is huge. It’s not conducive to climbing pure style primarily from oxygen point of view. When you’re not using oxygen, you can’t afford to stop at bottlenecks. You have to keep moving or you just wither away. There is huge contrast between the major motion picture Everest and what we were trying to do. We were just a handful of guys that didn’t have the means to hire a guide and we didn’t want guides. Even if we did, we couldn’t afford it. We’re purists and we take pride in that.
Why ski at high altitude? Isn’t it hard enough just to climb?
As I like to say, climbing without skiing is just pain and suffering with lousy food at the end of the day.
What are you up to now? What’s next for the Marolt brothers?
I’m working on a sequel, “Beyond Skiing Everest.” Everest is the highest peak in the world. It was a dream for us but we didn’t ski from the summit. When it became clear it wasn’t possible to go pure style, we started to think about how to find and fix that challenge. How do you get away from the crowd? So we started going to Himalaya in the winter. We spent the last four winters in China and Nepal. It opens up an entirely different sport with temperatures between -30 and -100 degrees.
One hundred degrees below zero sounds insane.
It’s taken a long time for us to figure out footgear and face gear, things you normally wouldn’t think about. You can’t use all the camps on the mountain because you can’t stop because you cant expose yourself to that cold for too long. You have to climb with one camp instead of 2-3 camps. We train to make sure you can go for really long days and really high pushes in single efforts.
Tell us about your approach to training.
Since 2007 we’ve spent a lot of time in South America skiing 6-meter peaks in single pushes. We’re slowly sticking our toe in water of winter Himalaya. I can’t find a record of anyone attempting to ski any of the Himalayas in the winter. That’s replaced Everest for us. We were on Muztagh Ata in China up on the Pakistan boarder, which is a popular peak in season. Fewer people have set foot on the moon than Muztagh Ata in winter. That’s what we’re taking on when we go to those peaks. We were on this peak last winter in Nepal that was over 21,000 feet it was so cold that our crampons slid like ice skates but our skis would barely skid. We couldn’t get screws into the ice it was so solid. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Why do you want to that?
Just because it’s there; It’s the most miserable thing I’ve ever done but far and away the most rewarding, most fun thing I’ve ever done. There are no people. The second half of January is so cold it doesn’t snow. There’s blue sky, no people, no crowds, no posturing, and no BS. It’s just you and the mountain. You have to tigure out the gear so you can survive. None of us have gotten frostbite. It’s like figuring out how to do Everest without oxygen. You just do it step by step. There’s a huge sense of satisfaction in doing that.
I know there’s been some criticism from the local mountaineering community about what you’re doing.
At age 51 who cares?