Marolt brothers Skiing at the highest extremes
February 2, 2016
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
VAIL — Twin brothers Mike and Steve Marolt come from a long line of skiers. Fifth-generation Aspen locals, the dynamic duo counts two Winter Olympian ski racers as part of that lineage. Needless to say, in the Marolt family, skiing is indeed a way of life.
But while the identical twins did not ultimately carry on the Marolt racing legacy, growing up skiing with their late father Max Marolt, a member of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, most certainly provided them with the skills to one day make their own names in the sport.
"We loved ski racing," said Mike Marolt, "but we didn't have the Marolt gene that allowed us to ski at a World Cup level. Our strength really was endurance and I'm not sure where that came from."
The seeds of both climbing and skiing were planted at an early age. Their uncle Bud Marolt, another of the Hall of Fame family members, gave the twins climbing and camping gear, while the Aspen school system features the longest running outdoor education program in the world.
"We knew Bud was a skier," said Marolt, "but to us, he was a climber because he was an instructor at Camp Hale. His big deal, in our minds, was climbing up the outside of the Bell Telephone Building in Denver."
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One Fourth of July, when the twins were 12, their father rousted them out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to drive up to Independence Pass. The family outing involved hiking and climbing to access the above timberline skiing. Once on top, they would ski down and then hitchhike back up.
"That was the first time we experienced backcountry skiing," Marolt said. "It was the perfect day and perfect snow. I'll never forget it. We saw how much Dad loved it and we wanted to be a part of all that."
After graduating from St. Mary's College in California, Mike and Steve returned home to Aspen. It was then that they took the first step in a self-proclaimed natural progression that would lead them to high altitude extreme ski mountaineering, often with their lifelong friend Jim Gile in tow. The trio started targeting bigger mountains, bagging Denali in 1990 and climbing and skiing numerous peaks in Canada and Alaska between 1991 and 1996.
"Colorado's 14ers became the training ground for Alaska," Marolt said, "while Alaska became the training ground for South America and South America became the training ground for the ultimate, which is the last frontier of skiing — the 7,000-8,000 meter peaks in Asia."
The Marolts mounted their first expedition above 8,000 meters in 1997, attempting Broad Peak (26,414 feet) in Pakistan. It proved to be an expedition that provided them with the confidence to attempt Shishapangma (26,290 feet), part of an eight-member expedition to the world's 14th highest peak. They climbed and skied the mountain successfully in May of 2000.
With Shishapangma in the bag, the group made a decision to make an attempt on climbing and skiing Mount Everest. In 2003, the twins and Gile, along with six other Aspen-based climbers, set off for the North Ridge of Everest.
Although the weather did not cooperate, Mike and Steve, along with their cousin, Jeremy Oates, did manage to ski from over 7,659 meters (25,000 feet), an altitude that only two other Americans besides the Marolts had ever skied from.
"It doesn't matter what happens on an expedition," Marolt said. "It doesn't matter if you summit and it doesn't matter how difficult it is. When you click into those skis above 7,000 meters and you make turns, there's just nothing more satisfying than that. You click in and everything is all right."
In 2007, the Marolts and Gile again headed back to the Himalayas, this time to Cho Oyu (26,906 feet), the world's sixth highest peak, as the trio managed to claim yet another 8,000-meter ski descent. In the process, the twins became only the fifth people ever to ski from that mark multiple times
They once again set their sights on the North Ridge of Everest, climbing to 28,200 feet before cold and the potential loss of toes due to freezing turned them around. But they managed to ski from just under 8,000 meters, making them the only people to ski on Everest more than once.
"We're skiers more than climbers," explained Marolt, "and skiing is the driving force, not the climbing. Climbing is the tool that gets you to the main passion, which is skiing."
Now 51, with more than 25 years of climbing up and skiing down under their belts, Mike and Steve Marolt still have a goal that would raise the bar even higher.
"Our big effort right now is trying to climb and ski 7,000-8,000 meter peaks in the Himalayas in the winter," added Marolt. "We can't find any record of anyone taking skis to those high peaks in the winter. Obviously, you have the altitude, but you also have the intense cold. We've spent the last four years in China and Nepal trying to figure out how to handle temperatures in the 60- to 100-degree range."
"It's kind of a crazy thing to think about," Marolt said, "but if everything pans out, next January, we'll be back in Tibet trying to get it done."