Aspen man’s ‘High Turns’ goes deeper than a ski film
September 25, 2009
ASPEN – Theirs is a story shaped by adventure and camaraderie. A story that’s been a lifetime in the making.
For more than two decades, fourth-generation Aspenite Mike Marolt, his twin brother Steve and their band of tight-knit, thrill-seeking confidants have crisscrossed the globe, from Ecuador to remote areas of Alaska and the Himalayas, plying their skills on some of the world’s most awe-inducing, venerable peaks. There have been more than 40 excursions to date – all without the use of supplemental oxygen.
Mike Marolt, an accountant, respected mountaineer and budding filmmaker, is clearly no stranger to reaching new heights. Add another accolade to the list.
“High Turns, Skiing Aspen to Everest,” Marolt’s first feature-length adventure documentary, recounts his group’s exploits and this small ski town’s role in the history of high-mountain skiing. It will be featured at next week’s Aspen Filmfest 2009. The screening takes place at noon Wednesday, Sept. 30, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
Marolt will share the stage with gadfly Michael Moore, who will showcase his latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and acclaimed “Juno” director Jason Reitman, among others. Not bad company for a 44-year-old, the son of a Winter Olympian, with the most modest of ambitions.
“I thought I had a snowball’s chance in hell of making the cut here,” Marolt said last week as he lounged in his Main Street office.
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“You throw your work out there, and it’s not like a painter who puts their painting up on the wall and people walk by. This is 90 minutes of concentrated focus on what I have done. … A lot of people would kill to have this experience.”
Hand Marolt a video camera and send him to a community picnic, and he jokes that he “couldn’t bring back good footage to save his life.” But give him a similar assignment on one of the world’s largest peaks, where steep slabs of blue ice abound, where weather can change in an instant and where unforeseen dangers lurk with every crampon step, and Marolt says he’s in his element.
Skiing has always been his identity, his passion. He still remembers playing in the snowbanks with his friends, dreaming of one day conquering Everest. He grew up on the area’s mountains and recalls piling into the family station wagon to ski Fourth of July Bowl on Independence Pass.
Friends recount him lugging an oversized camera on backcountry excursions in the Elk Mountains and beyond. Marolt, who was enamored with photography at an early age and who took video classes at St. Mary’s College of California, says he relished every chance he had to document experiences and share them with others.
In 2000, before a trip with friends to Tibet’s Shishapangma, the 14th-highest peak in the world, a production company approached Marolt to gauge his interest in capturing video of the expedition. He had no professional experience, but Marolt figured his years of skiing had given him an eye for good shots. He was also intrigued about the prospect of breaking new ground.
Ski footage from above 7,000 meters hardly existed at the time – other than 1975’s “The Man Who Skied Down Everest” a documentary about Japanese alpinist Yuichiro Miura, who skied a portion of the world’s tallest peak in 1970. (Marolt’s film opens with a clip of Miura sliding down a steep slope with a parachute dragging behind him.)
On Shishapangma, Mike and Steve Marolt became the first Americans – and first from the Western Hemisphere – to climb and ski from 8,000 meters. Mike Marolt and mentor Cherie Silvera, a local cinematographer and the trip’s field director, captured the rare footage, which later became a one-hour television special called “Skiing in the Death Zone”.
Marolt has carried a video camera ever since.
“It became the driving force. That became as big as climbing and skiing,” Marolt says. “I decided I’d never sacrifice the shot unless it was literally life or death, or losing flesh or something.”
The process can be tedious, Marolt attests. Lugging a 4-pound camera around one’s neck may seem inconsequential, but at altitudes where just fixing a crampon can be exhausting, it is an inconvenience. The logistical hurdles, chief among them trying to maneuver while wearing skis and cumbersome clothing, are considerable.
“It’s an uncomfortable thing to do,” says Marolt.
The payoff has been immeasurable, however. Sales of Marolt’s photographs have helped fund trips, and he has amassed hundreds of hours of ski footage, including clips from 2003 and 2007 expeditions to Everest, where he, his brother and longtime friend Jim Gile became the first Americans to ski from the death zone at about 25,500 feet (they have not summited Everest) .
Marolt, keenly aware that such footage could produce a gripping film, first reached out to famed adventure documentary filmmaker Les Guthman – who Marolt calls the Stephen Spielberg of the genre – after the 2003 trip.
Guthman, who was tied up with as many as six other films at the time, passed on Marolt’s initial proposal. But the two happened to cross paths again.
After the 2007 Everest expedition, Marolt enlisted the help of Santa Monica, Calif.-based post-production company West Post Digital as he prepared his short film “Skiing the High Line.” Guthman, who was there working on other projects, came across Marolt’s footage.
Marolt received a call soon after.
“He screened my film and said he liked it and he could make it theatrical,” Marolt says. “I said, ‘Here’s all the footage. I’m not going to infect you with any of my thoughts. Let me know what you come up with.’ … A couple months later, he told me he was ready for me to come to California.”
For Guthman, the appeal of the project was obvious from the start.
“The reason I was drawn to make ‘High Turns’ with Mike was a deep respect for the skiers’ approach to these expeditions, which are magnificent human adventures in the purest sense,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Aspen Times. “… these guys remind us of what adventure really is – in an era when the word and the concept have become cheap commodities.”
According to Marolt, “Skiing the High Line” was the “literally the inspiration” for Guthman to pursue “High Turns.” The two films share a fair amount of skiing footage, but this latest and more ambitious venture goes deeper – into the lives of its central figures and Aspen’s role in skiing history.
Guthman spent nearly six months working on “High Turns.” In addition to writing, producing the sound design/mix and color editing, he delved into the history of Aspen, from Andre Roch, a famed Swiss mountaineer who designed the original runs on Aspen Mountain, to Max Marolt, Mike and Steve’s father, who competed in downhill and giant slalom at the 1960 Winter Olympics.
Local pro skier Chris Davenport is also interviewed, as is the respected, trailblazing Austrian alpinist Hans Kammerlander, among others.
Marolt maintained an integral part in the production process, flying to California nearly every week during the last year. He spent time in the editing booth and even enlisted the help of a UCLA professor for private tutorials. He jokes that he is the project’s shooter, writer, talent and public relations director.
What he and Guthman gleaned from seemingly endless amounts of footage is no ordinary ski film.
“Those other films say, ‘We beat real life. I’m great. I couldn’t handle a nine to five, so I went skiing,'” Marolt adds. “To that attorney who works 60 hours a week to afford to be a weekend warrior, it becomes an arrogant approach.
“We set out to do a humble film that didn’t make people feel like we were incredible and they weren’t. … This might lack the sensationalism of other films, but it gets back to doing it because we love it.”
The early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Marolt says. In the spring, screeners at the Explorer’s Club in New York were receptive and complimentary. In addition, distribution companies continue to contact Marolt. Talks of a reality-based show similar to Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” have been bandied about.
He even hired an agent.
In the next few months alone, “High Turns” will be screened at Taos Mountain Film Festival and at the Graz International Mountain Film Festival in Austria (one of Marolt’s shorts won there a few years back).
But first, Aspen Filmfest. The festival has always been close to his heart – Marolt has submitted entries in the event’s “Locals’ Short” category in year’s past, and finished first in 2007.
George Eldred, program director for Aspen Film, says the festival looks for both the strongest examples of world cinema and those with a local angle.
“The qualities that drew us to Mike’s film were not only its accomplished filmmaking and obvious mastery of the unique sport he and his brothers pursue … but also the film’s very engaging portrait of his family’s history in Aspen, and its story of, literally, a band of brothers who have grown as athletes and people by testing their skills and character against the challenges of an incredibly hazardous mountain sport,” Eldred wrote in an e-mail to the Times.
“It’s a great American story, the story of four guys who love to ski and who take on the world’s highest mountains for the pure pleasure of skiing, not driven by a quest to bag the summits,” Guthman adds. “I think people will respond to that, whether or not they climb and ski in the death zone.”
Marolt is not about to quit his day job, but he is enjoying the ride and his unexpected stroke of good fortune. And the biggest payoff? Success will likely mean more opportunities to usher his close friends on future trips.
“This film stuff allows us not to have to dip into the college funds to do what we want to do, what we’ve always done” Marolt says.
“[I always thought I would] make some hopped-up home videos … or maybe just have a local screening. … What the hell – we’ve come this far, we might as well see what happens.”
For more information on Filmfest films and schedules, go to aspenfilm.org.