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Mike Marolt, his bother Steve and their ski mountaineering partner Jim Gile aren’t pro athletes. Sure, they enjoy some of the perks that the pros get—some free ski gear here and there, maybe some travel money, a beanie and jacket, maybe. But it’s exactly the fact that they don’t ski for money that has allowed them to quietly chalk up some of the greatest ski descents in history. Most of their exploits have gone unnoticed by the media. They shy away from self-promotion and ski and climb for the purest of reasons—because they love it.
“Our philosophy is a natural progression,” says Mike. “It’s kind of a lost philosophy in today’s pop culture mountaineering, the kind of mountaineering that is driven by films or media exposure. Films are not successful unless you have a goal you can achieve, something where you will be successful. But consequently you don’t see projects that can take years to accomplish, and those are really true adventures. True adventure is where you have more chance of failure than success. It is hard to get that kind of trip sponsored, projects that can take five years or longer. We have never been driven by sponsorship and we don’t consider ourselves professionals. We go out to do something and if we do it, great. But if not, we will go back until we succeed.”
This kind of long-term vision in skiing is increasingly rare. The recent high-profile pursuit of ski mountaineering by “pro” skiers who are looking to cash in on a growing interest in backcountry and the associated cash support (driven by retail sales of backcountry and ski mountaineering gear) is only the most obvious manifestation of the ‘look at me how rad I am right now’ realities of the digital media age, where the next big thing is plastered across Instagram and Facebook accounts along with a nauseating profusion of hashtagged sponsorship plugs.
In this hyped environment “people loose the natural progression and education from ski mountaineering,” argues Marolt.
“They take on projects that will be successful because they rely on sponsorships and they need to be successful because of how these projects are funded,” he says. “Our approach is that we do various trips that take a long time to pull off. You get to the end of your career, and you’ve accumulated a level of experience you can’t buy. You obtain it and only obtain it by going out there and keeping your nose to the grindstone.”
And what a grindstone it is. With a pure, minimalist approach that eschews the use of oxygen, porters or other luxuries, the Marolts and Gile have chalked up a resume that is a highlight reel of American ski mountaineering: the first to ski from above 8000 meters, the first Americans to ski Mt. Everest’s North Ridge, the first ever attempt at a winter ski descent from above 7,000 meters on Mustagh Atta and the first Americans to ski Bolivia’s highest peak, Sajama. And while it would be easy to shower them with accolades, it’s perhaps better to just sit back and listen to a few of their stories of what they consider to be the most memorable trips over the past few decades.
MOUNT BLACKBURN, ALASKA
Blackburn is in the Wrangle St. Elias Mountains, Alaska. It is a 16,000 foot peak that creates its own storm systems. We got on to the peak, started climbing, and got to a high camp where snowed about 10 feet and avalanched onto our tent. Our tent was torn up but we were fine. So we skied down to our midway camp in a weather window. Our pilot saw us on the mountain and knew the window wouldn’t last long. He told us, “leave you gear, move to the base camp, there’s a gallon of fuel down there, don’t bring anything, just get down.”
So we got down to base camp, there was zero food, and the weather turned bad. Six days later we were still sitting there. We were only able to survive it because we had the fuel and could melt water. The weather is so unpredictable up there, and to go that long without food in zero-degree temperatures, you don’t know that it will get better or when. There was another sucker hole, so we got picked up and left everything on the mountain. We went back a week later, but lost everything under all the snow, all our gear, never to be found again. Going six days in cold weather without food, that’s a good test.
CHO OYU, NEPAL
We had gone to Broad Peak in ‘97 and then got the big descent on Shishapangma where we were the first Americans to ski from above 8000 meters, so in 2003 we decided to do Everest. We got stuck for a month and never had a chance to climb the peak. So by 2007 we got back to Everest, but we didn’t want to acclimate on the north face. It’s difficult to acclimate on that route and it’s 14 miles from base camp to Camp 1. So if you have to go down, it’s like a marathon. To get ready for the altitude we thought we would do another peak so we went to Cho Oyu to get ready for Everest, which was the main prize. For the first couple of weeks we had no snow, then it started snowing. We got up to 21,000 feet and then we decided to go for the summit and we made it. It was a great trip, with unbelievable skiing. Not a lot of people go there and we had the peak all to ourselves. It was our second 8000-meter ski, and only the fifth time anyone had skied that peak.
We’ve done a couple of trips to Ecuador. We started going there in 2009. You have these volcanoes that just stick up down there. We’ve done Cayambe which was an amazing ski. Cotopaxi was a sheet of ice, but we skied that. It is just a cone, so it’s roughly 40-50 degrees the entire way, and Chimborazo, which at the time was a lot like Rainier. It is the highest peak in Ecuador and the highest point on the equator. Because of this it gets climbed a lot, but hadn’t been skied by any Americans from the top. The guidebook showed that there were beautiful slopes, but global warming and a recent eruption had destroyed the conditions. So that meant that we had to go back, which we did and we had a great descent, with spectacular skiing, hitting it at the perfect time. Since then they’ve closed it to skiing. Three or four parties who were attempting to ski it had people fall off the ridge because the overall conditions on the mountain have deteriorated so much.
EVEREST, LHOTSE, NUPTSE
Everest is a big deal, especially when you try it without oxygen and porters. It has a 70- to 13-year-olds climbing on the south route, with all the assistance and technology, but the north route is one of the most difficult routes to climb because it is so long and high. So on the south side you have massive crowds, but the north is empty. We haven’t finished with Everest and we would like to go back, but in some ways the mountain is undesirable. From a pure standpoint it is so hard to climb particularly on the south side. You can’t really comingle with all the infrastructure in a pure style, so we asked what we could do to take 25 years of experience and go for a pure style on other lines or other mountains?
That sparked the idea to go in the winter, because no one has ever skied in the Himalaya in the winter, and no one is there, so that’s the plan! We chose Mustagh Atta because we had already done it so we go to climb and ski in the winter at maybe what is the undocumented coldest place in the world. Mustagh Atta sits at the hub of the five major ranges, in a low bench of the Tibetan plateau, there were triple-digit negative temps, and that is why it is so difficult and why it has never been climbed or skied in the winter. But because of Everest and all these other mountains, we have the gear we have the knowledge to do attempt peaks like this. Its hard to find large peaks to ski in the winter, for example climbing in Tibet is closed until February, so we are going to the Annapurna range and giving it a shot, its most extreme and difficult thing we taken on.
NEVADO SAJAMA, BOLIVIA
Sajama was a great trip,—the highest peak in Bolivia. It doesn’t get climbed often, and it doesn’t have great skiing on the normal route. Because of that we started looking at the backside and went there. The first half of the climb was waterfall ice, for at least two- to three-thousand feet, but once we got on the ridge it was hard snow and incredible skiing, with no one on the peak. We were the first American ski descent of the peak and the second to ski it ever.
That’s an interesting story in itself. We found out that this Slovanian guy had beat us to a lot of peaks in South America for first descents almost by one year exactly. Now these South American peaks are seeing more action, people are starting to take skis to them, but back in the day no one thought about taking skis to these peaks. It is a great place to ski. The weather is so consistent down there that you can do a lot of climbing and skiing in a tremendously short time.
Looking at that summit photo of the central peak of Shishapangma, that was one massive accomplishment. Alex Lowe had been killed trying to ski that peak six months before, and the only people to ski from 8,000 meters were some of the biggest names in the history of mountaineering— Kammerlander, Kukuczka, Triollet, Afanassi, Saudan. And that no one ever in the western hemisphere had done it, that was a massive pane of glass to break through. Mark Newcomb was the only serious north American with failed attempts before us, and his status was so legendary. It all added up to something that we knew we could do, but it was freaking harry when we thought about it. So at 7,700 meters, Jim had already dumped his skis and the weather turned to shit on us. I looked at Steve and asked him if we should dump the skis and get the peak. He totally smirked and looked at me like I was just a complete pussy and climbed ahead. It pumped me up and I knew we would make it. When I got to my tent at base camp the next day, it hit me. That was something I knew I’d never top—And we haven’t. No porters, no drugs, no oxygen, and carrying the old heavy gear. We even eliminated a high camp for a 5,000-foot summit day to over 8,000 meters. I can think of only a few guys that have skied from 8k with as pure a style. That day we had the peak and the route entirely to ourselves, no other people at all, and we pulled it off. We’ve never really told that story, so looking at this (above) photo brings it all back.
That was a second-ever ski descent and we did it in a first-ever single-day push. It was 16 hours round trip and we pushed that day from base to summit at 21,150 feet in what amounted to 9,000 feet of climbing. That was the biggest day we have ever had in the mountains, but we were rewarded with near perfect ski conditions. The route has a steep headwall at about 50 degrees that is normally ice but not that day, it was perfect corn.
But speaking of what to do after Everest, you take any 6,000 to 8,000 meter peak, and you can make it as challenging as you want. Illimani is not what anyone would consider a major mountaineering accomplishment, but when you do it with skis, in a single day push, then it has impact. For Jim, Steve and I, that was a memorable day in our careers, as big an effort as anything we have ever done.
1990: Ascent of Denali, North America’s highest peak.
1991/1992: Ski expeditions to Canada’s highest peak, Mt. Logan.
1993 to 1996: Ski expeditions in Alaska to St. Elias, Mt. Bona, Mt. Blackburn, Mt. Donna (second ascent).
1997: Attempt of Broad Peak, Pakistan, the first 8,000 m/26,250 ft. expedition.
2000: First Americans to ski from 8,000 m/26,000 ft., Shishapangma, Tibet.
2003: First Americans to ski Mt. Everest’s North Ridge.
2007: First Americans, 5th people ever, with multiple ski descents from above 8,000 m/26,000 ft., Cho Oyu, Tibet.
2007: Their second ski descent of Mt. Everest’s north ridge.
2008: First Americans, second people ever, to ski Bolivia’s highest peak, Sajama, 6,545 m/21,475 ft.
2009: First ski descent of Tibet’s Norjin Kansang, 7,206m / 23,642 ft.
2010: First ski descent of Peru’s Coropuna, Baraco Route, 6,425 m/21,079 ft.
2011: First Americans, second people ever, to ski Ecuador’s highest peak, Chimborozo, 6,310 m/20,700 ft. (First and only single day speed ascent / descent)
2012: First Americans, second ever, descent of Bolivia’s Illimani, 6,438 m/21,150 ft. (First and only single day speed ascent / descent).
2013/2014: Attempts at first ever winter ski descent from above 7,000 meters, Mustagh Atta, China.
It’s not often that you get access to a private ski area. In fact, most people will never experience what it is like. But you don’t have to be one of the latter. Next week, the good folks at Bent Gate Mountaineering are taking over legendary Colorado Ski Area Silverton and turning it over to a bunch of their friends. Nice.
Silverton Sickdays is now several years old. But the motivation remains the same as when the event started: give people an opportunity to check out new gear, do some skiing and have a party. The event wouldn’t be possible without the anomaly that is Silverton Mountain. This one lift, expert-only southern Colorado ski area is special. Because it is on private lands, the mountain can become a private playground. It doesn’t happen often and we’re scared to even try to guess how much it costs, but we can tell you how much it will cost you to be one of the “owners” for the day during this event: $160.
Now that does seem like a pretty good chunk of change, but given that you’re probably not rich enough to buy, say, Vail, and that Silverton features some of the best skiing in the lower 48, it could just be the best money you spend all year, if not in your life. After all, how many opportunities do you have to own a ski area for a day?
Sure the skiing is going to be nice, but let’s not forget the rest of the story. There will be photo and video contests, tons of gear to demo and of course a big, big party.
The event runs from February 11-13 and there’s snow in the forecast. Need we say more? We think not.
Learn more here: http://www.bentgate.com/silvertonsickdays
Download the app here: http://tinyurl.com/muuzuhp
If you follow the social feeds, it seams, of every seasonally-employed, spring-chicken, ski-town local affiliated with a ski company (heretoforth referred to as “pro”), it’s pretty clear—like painfully, obviously, beat-you-over-the-head-with-a-cricket-bat clear—that it’s dumping in Japan. The interwebs are aflutter with photographic proof that the rest of us plebeians are blowing it by not skiing the insane amounts of #japow right this very moment. And thanks to this season’s anomalously populous migration of pros to the Far East, I’ve achieved a previously inconceivable malady: Japanitis. A place that once filled my dreams with colorful visions of deep pillowy goodness, has become grey and monotonous, reduced to tiny photos of illegible street signs buried in snowbanks, gas station sushi, and yes, a few mighty tasty looking faceshots that clog my Instagram feed.
I get it. The snow in Japan is deep, the culture is rich, and just about every picturesque tree and snow monkey needs a hashtag. But the standard narrative—white guys go to Japan, get epically sick snow, show off their skittley outerwear, and come back changed men—is more than little tired. This too shall pass however. Japan is fattest and most frequented during the deep-winter months of January and February, but then there’s the Japan Echo—the constant stream of edits and photos that hit the web after everyone returns stateside. The National Japan Echo Danger Advisory Information Center (NJEDAIC) has issued a red flag warning for a moderately strong to very strong event running through late September. Batten down the hatches.
Yes, a tinge of jealousy drives the onset of Japanitis. I’d kill to be there getting #pitted alongside the Insta-gang. I want to wear silk robes, soak in onsens, and eat unfamiliar raw fish. But as a staunch and stubborn bastard, I refuse to perpetuate the disease. Instead, I’ll sit at my desk and stew, making sure not to like, comment, or even recognize images originating from Japan. It’s the only prevention for Japanitis, for which the only cure is backyard pow administered daily—preferably measured in feet or meters.
Kevin Luby is a former editor at Skiing Magazine, pond hockey enthusiast, and fish wrangler. He is currently trying to make telemarking cool again for Scarpa. Follow him on Instagram — @luby_k.
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