Aspen crew skis the land of the Incas

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Steve Marolt cranks a turn on Mount Ampato, a 20,630-foot peak in Peru in May. An Aspen contingent was the first known to ski the peak.
Jim Giles/courtesy photo |

Mike and Steve Marolt have tackled more challenging peaks than 20,630-foot Mount Ampato in Peru, but they said the otherworldly setting and the legacy of the Inca Ice Maiden made it their most fascinating adventure yet.

The Marolt twins of Aspen were part of a crew of five men who climbed and skied the dormant volcano in the southern Andes in May. Their colleagues were Jim Giles, Jon Gibons and Mike Maple, all of Aspen.

The Marolts try to make at least one expedition per year above 20,000 feet to stay in shape for high-altitude climbing and skiing. They have a goal to summit and ski a 23,000-foot peak, or possibly a 26,000-foot one, in the Himalaya winter in the next year or two.

They have climbed a number of big peaks, including Mount Everest, but for training purposes started looking a few years ago to South America. It’s less crowded, less of a hassle with permits and more convenient logistically.

“That’s what it’s got to be like on the moon and Mars.”— Steve Marolt

“If we wanted to get our fix, we needed to go where there weren’t people,” Mike Marolt said.

So they’ve been making a number of first ascents or near-first ascents in South America without supplemental oxygen and they have definitely been the firsts to ski a number of the peaks.

While scouting for one of those trips, Mike Marolt learned about Mount Ampato and a companion peak, 19,600-foot Sabancaya, an active volcano.

“Nobody has ever skied the peaks,” he said.

Dust everywhere

The Aspen party hired a logistics guide in the city of Arequipa to drive them eight hours through the desolate countryside to a base camp at about the 14,000-foot level of Ampato.

Mike Marolt said the climb and skiing wasn’t tough, but Ampato still presented challenges.

Steve Marolt said the relative ease of the terrain made the Aspen expedition yearn to tackle the summit as quickly as possible.

“You can reach out and touch it,” Steve Marolt said of the summit. “It’s easy to go too fast. The challenge is to slow down and acclimate.”

The barren landscape presented another challenge. The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world. There are 49,000 square miles of rock, sand, lava and salt lakes.

Thick volcanic dust constantly was whipped up by the wind and covered everything, Mike Marolt said. It trashed the zippers of their jackets, tents and sleeping bags and got in their mouths, noses and eyes.

“We looked more like coal miners than climbers,” he said.

The high sulfur content of the dust also wreaked havoc with their gastrointestinal systems.

Despite the lack of anything living and green, they learned to love the beauty of the area. Hundreds of volcanoes dominate the view line.

“It’s just an amazing place,” Steve Marolt said. “The whole time you’re there you’re saying, ‘That’s what it’s got to be like on the moon and Mars.’”

“It’s like going to Flintstone land,” Mike Marolt said.

Sacrificial site

For the first few days, the crew took several small hikes and after a week established an advanced base camp, where they stowed their skis and other essential gear.

The climbing was “pretty straightforward,” and once they reached the glacier they put climbing skins on their skis. They had the unbelievable experience of skinning across the crater of the dormant volcano and up to the summit on the rim. The morning sun shined through an opening on the opposite side of the crater.

“There was no sign of anybody,” Mike Marolt said.

The payoff was skiing the glacier.

“It’s just so cool to be up there,” Steve Marolt said.

They climbed and skied neighboring Sabancaya, but scientists working on that peak warned them against going to the rim of the crater because of the toxic gases being belched by the active volcano.

Both Marolts downplayed the Ampato trip as any mountaineering feat even though they were apparently the first to ski the big peak. The history and geology was what made it such a memorable trip.

The frozen, mummified body of an Inca girl was found by an anthropologist on the peak in 1995. It is believed she was sacrificed to the Inca gods between 1450 and 1480 when she was between the ages of 11 and 15.

The discovery made a splash in the scientific world because the body was preserved so well. It gave clues to Inca life. The body is on display at an Arequipa museum, which the Aspen crew visited.

Mike said they learned the volcanoes were much more active 500 years ago than they are today. The Incas feared the violent eruptions and raised children specifically to be sacrificed to appease the gods and quiet the burning mountains.

The Inca Maiden display indicates the young girl was treated like royalty prior to her final march of 500 miles from the Inca capital of Cuzco to Ampato. She was adorned in elaborate clothing when killed by a blow to her head. Her body was bundled with other offerings to the Inca gods.

“It was so moving to see this and to think what she went through,” Steve Marolt said.

“It’s probably one of the most unique trips we’ve done,” Mike Marolt said.