Eye in the sky
October 31, 2006
Mike Marolt knows the joke well.He smiles when asked how some of his longtime acquaintances reacted to his first two feature films documenting his high-altitude skiing expeditions.”People used to give me crap,” says Marolt, a fifth-generation Aspenite whose late father, Max, skied in the 1960 Winter Olympics. “They’d say the only reason Marolt is doing these films is that he can’t get into any on his own.”It’s a bit of only-in-Aspen humor. In a town full of world-class mountaineers and big-name skiers, Marolt knows the ribbing is all in good fun. He even acknowledges that there is some truth to it.
At 42, with two kids, a mortgage and a full-time day job as an accountant, Marolt certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a pioneering producer of ski films. Nor does he have any aspirations of being the next Warren Miller. His movies don’t include any fast-paced terrain park segments or shots of him and his aging group of friends dropping 30-foot cliffs in the backcountry. Plus, they aren’t put together with nearly the same level of production as, say, an offering from Teton Gravity Research.But, to be certain, they are one-of-a-kind and undeniably gripping to watch.Who has the drive to lug the camera and skis – without the aid of supplemental oxygen, Sherpas or altitude drugs- up the icy, barren north ridge of Mount Everest? Who has the desire to then want to point his skis downhill first – from an elevation of 25,098 feet – so he can film the ensuing descents of his twin brother and cousin?Skiing on the roof of the world doesn’t really look sexy on camera, Marolt says. Literally, it’s like trying to ski down the icy roof of a barn – with a fatal fall of some 4,000 plus feet awaiting you if you make one mistake.”The ultimate conservative skiing,” Marolt says. “No. 1, because there’s no oxygen and you can’t move your feet very fast. And No. 2, you’re just so tired when you’re up there. It’s unlike any other skiing that there is.”Which, Marolt adds, is why it’s so fascinating to do. Capturing the energy and precision that goes into such an endeavor is what motivates him as a filmmaker.It’s what is pushing him to return to the Himalayas this April for a planned ski descent of 26,960-foot Cho Oyu (as it is most commonly known) in China and another attempt at skiing on Everest. “That’s the biggest challenge for me in these films … trying to take something that’s unbelievably exciting and to try and portray that,” Marolt says. “When you watch it, it’s not like [Chris Davenport] jumping off a 50-foot cliff. How do you capture this pathetic-looking skiing, because it does [look pathetic] when you’re skiing that high, and make that look cool?”
Truthfully, Marolt never had designs on being a filmmaker while growing up in Aspen.His love for ski mountaineering was matched by his twin brother, Steve, the pair’s cousin, Jeramie Oates, and grade-school pals Jim Gile and John Callahan.After more than 20 years and some 30 expeditions, Marolt’s circle has also grown to include locals Jon Gibbans and Kevin Dunnett. “Some guys go golfing,” Marolt says. “This group goes climbing and skiing.”Over the years, Marolt always took pictures of the expeditions he and his “team” took together, but he never considered filming their exploits until he was propositioned by a local film production team in 2000. After forays into South America, Alaska, as well as numerous ski descents of peaks surrounding Aspen, the Marolt brothers set out to be the first North Americans to ski from the top of 26,290-foot Shishapangma in Tibet – the world’s 14th tallest mountain.That ambitious undertaking drew the interest of American Adventure Productions, which was putting together shows for an Outdoor Life Network series called “Adventure Quest.””We’re just no-name guys who grew up here, and we’ve got this company who wants to send a film crew with us,” Marolt says. “They threw a little money at the project to help us bring some of our buddies from Kazakhstan. It was a no-brainer.”The production team included local cinematographer Cheri Silvera and Canadian filmmaker Pat Morrow.
Before leaving, Morrow and Silvera asked Marolt if he would like to carry the camera for the summit push and document footage from on top, an idea that immediately intrigued him.”I had a month to kind of brush up here,” Marolt says. “When I got there, I spent a month just hiking in and hanging out with Pat and learning the logistics of the camera and about light. That just kind of fueled the fire to start shooting with video instead of still.”Filming the climb and the ensuing descent only got Marolt thinking about doing more high-alpine cinematography. Following the success of the one-hour film that aired on OLN, as well as NBC titled “Skiing in the Death Zone,” Marolt assumed it would be easy to secure the services of another production company to follow him, Steve and Oates up Everest, then down.People had wanted to tag along before, so why not this time?He learned very quickly the hard realities of the film industry.Nobody believed that the trio could ski on Everest’s unforgiving north ridge, Marolt said. In fact, there was a perception – by some – in the mountaineering community that the ascent and descent of Shishapangma had been a fluke.”I couldn’t sell it,” Marolt says. “I was getting nowhere.”Not easily defeated, Marolt began to look into what it would cost to hire his own film crew to document the trip. Once he learned how expensive that was, he then looked into the possibility of doing the filming and editing it himself.
“I mean to get a top-level photographer to go and climb Everest and to get the shots you want, you would have to pay somebody $50,000,” he says. “And to pay a production company, you’re talking half a million to a million dollars. I thought this is insane. I said, ‘I can go buy a camera and shoot this myself and then learn how to edit or find an editor.’ … Everybody said we couldn’t do it, but then they said we couldn’t ski [Shishapangma] and ski Everest.”A foot in the doorIt took the Marolts, Oates, Dunnett and Gile three years of saving, training, and planning before arriving at Everest to film what would become “Skiing the High Himalaya.”Skiing on the world’s tallest mountain wasn’t a new idea, nor was the thrust of filming such an adventure. In 1970, Japanese adventurer Yuichiro Miura became the first man to ski on Mount Everest, logging a descent from above 26,000 feet on the South Col that was documented for the film “The Man Who Skied Down Everest.” (Miura, it should be noted, is also the oldest person to ever reach the summit of the world’s tallest peak, a feat he accomplished in 2003 at the age of 70 years and 222 days.)Two other men had even skied off Everest’s summit before 2003; Italian Hans Kammerlander skied off the icy north side in the spring of 1996, while Slovenian Davo Karnicar skied off the south side in the fall of 2000.But of the eight people who had skied on Everest prior to the Marolt’s 2003 expedition, five had used the aid of oxygen, six had the help of Sherpa porters.The Marolt brothers, Oates, Dunnett and Gile didn’t ski from Everest’s pinnacle, but their feat of ascending to 25,098 feet without any such aid was a mountaineering accomplishment in its own right. The descent from that altitude – in a whiteout no less – also made the Marolts the first Americans to have skied from above 25,000 feet twice.
Everest is a place, however, where superhuman feats are remembered for long – or at least only until the next one comes along.(Just this month, American Kit DesLauriers became the first woman – and first American – to ski from Everest’s summit, subsequently becoming the first person to successfully ski from all of the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the seven continents.) Taken lightly before setting out for Tibet, however, the members of the expedition returned home to much different circumstances.The story generated its share of news – and the film that Marolt later scripted with local editor Brad Jennings only created more exposure.There was proof that you didn’t need $150,000 to make a compelling ski film, Marolt said.”It’s a good film,” he says, modestly. “I made it and then I traveled around the country showing it. Not really getting rich but making good money to come out and show it. And I had a couple of really key shows with it. I got invited to show it at the Harvard Mountaineering club … It’s where all the original great climbs in North America originated. That generated a lot of exposure there. I also showed it to the Explorer’s Club in New York. That exposure gave me the money to make the second film.”In the course of a year, Marolt had gone from being unable to get anyone to listen to him, to having investors offer money and corporations like Atomic and Lowe Alpine offer him and his friends gear sponsorships. The film continued to pick up steam. It screened at the International Himalayan Filmfest in Amsterdam and then at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival last spring.Meanwhile, Marolt had already begun work on his second film, “Natural Progression,” which featured clips of the Shishapangma and Everest expeditions, but was largely composed of footage from a trip to South America to ski some of the continent’s highest peaks.That film screened last year at the Wheeler Opera House and was recently among 40 films selected from 200 entries for the prestigious International and Mountain Film Festival in Graz, Austria.
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In a sweet twist of irony: Marolt’s filmmaking prowess was part of the reason Warren Miller Productions arrived in February 2005 to film a segment of Mike, Steve and oldest brother Roger, now 45, skiing on Aspen Mountain.The piece captured the independent spirit of the three brothers, all of whom work together as accountants.Having made films himself, Marolt was keenly interested in the process of putting together a segment for the most well-known ski film production company in the world.He is quick to point out the differences between his films – both of which were made for less than $10,000 – and such a large-scale production.”Granted, when you look at my films, they are what they are,” he says. “There is a difference between half a million and $5,000. There’s a difference in the overall quality, sure, but that difference isn’t necessarily a better thing. It’s more refined. It’s more contrived. It’s glossy. To give an analogy, it’s the glossy Powder magazine versus the Off Piste magazine made with recycled paper.”Some people like the Off Piste better than the glossy one.”The next progressionTo be certain, Marolt’s next production will have more gloss than the previous two. He is again teaming with Silvera for this April’s expedition to the Himalayas, which they plan to shoot with high-definition cameras. Silvera herself will be responsible for filming the “storytelling” side of the expedition, from doing interviews in camp to logging stock footage of the surrounding landscape – always one of the primary characters in a ski film.
“She’ll be the one capturing what life is like in camp, and telling the stories of the people on the expedition,” Marolt says.His role, as before, will be to help capture the dicey high-altitude footage, although he will have help. He is currently in talks to bring along another cameraman to help with some of the shooting.More and more, Marolt admits, he gets more savvy about what he calls the “game” of making films. He wears clothing provided from his sponsors around town and speaks of the logistics that go into his productions – from shooting to editing to distribution – with a deep knowledge of the whole process.In the same instance, he says he’s still not very far removed from being a complete novice in the industry. And, in spite of the doors the films have opened, he and his friends haven’t at all forgotten their roots and why they got into ski mountaineering in the first place.They would still be climbing and skiing mountains together, regardless of whether someone else was picking up the tab.”It’s a passion of mine, but I still have my day job,” he says. “My father taught me that lesson. His passion was skiing but he worked in the ski industry his whole life. Eventually, he said, your passion becomes work. That’s how I look at it.”I’m not going to quit my day job anytime soon.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org