High lines and straight shots
Aspen Times Weekly
It’s a dual life that seems straight out of a Hollywood script: Bespectacled twin brothers who work ordinary day jobs as accountants ” and also happen to climb and ski some of the world’s highest peaks without oxygen.
Except this is no summer blockbuster. It’s the real life of fourth-generation Aspenites Mike and Steve Marolt. And as seen in Mike Marolt’s latest adventure documentary, “Skiing the High Line,” the story doesn’t need big studio gloss to make for compelling cinema.
Mike Marolt is quick to admit that as a director, he’s still a pretty good accountant. He’s only been filming for seven years, all of it on big peaks incorporating a learn-as-you-go approach. Modesty aside, Marolt understands how to weave a story together by fleshing out the stark contracts of the principles in his films, himself included.
It’s why “Skiing the High Line” includes plenty of shots of the 43-year-old Marolt brothers punching calculators at their downtown Aspen offices and spending quality time with their wives and young children.
That footage is spliced between shots from an expedition to Tibet in April and May, where the Marolts and lifelong friend Jim Gile logged ski descents from the death zone on two of the world’s tallest peaks, including a plunge off Mount Everest’s North Ridge from 25,500 feet.
The camera is the link to these two very different worlds, telling the story of ordinary guys with ordinary lives whose recreational pursuits qualify as extraordinary.
The hour-long film, which had its first screening at the Wheeler Opera House earlier this month, is the third feature chronicling the high-altitude skiing exploits of the Marolts and company. Mike Marolt says it’s unquestionably the best film he’s made yet.
“It’s a slow process when you don’t have any film school experience, and I don’t,” says Marolt, the son of the late ski racer Max Marolt, the first Olympian from Aspen. “Everything I have is just on the job, in this case, on-the-mountain experience. All of the experience to get to this point taught me what has a chance to be something that a good editor could take and use.”
Marolt has been fortunate to have just that in local editors Brad Jennings and Danny Brown. Jennings has been cutting films for years and has the latest state-of-the-art editing technology at his fingertips at locally-based Colorado Audio Visual. Brown is an up-and-coming ski mountaineer and filmmaker himself who recently graduated from the University of Colorado.
Marolt also has a mentor in local cinematographer Cherie Silvera, the woman who first put a camera in his hands during a 2000 expedition to 26,290-foot Shishapangma in Tibet. It was there where the Marolts made a name for themselves in the mountaineering community, becoming the first North Americans to ski from above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet).
The footage from that expedition became a one-hour special that aired on the Outdoor Life Network and NBC titled “Skiing in the Death Zone.” The experience planted the seed for Marolt’s future filmmaking endeavors, and solidified a partnership between him and Silvera.
Silvera accompanied the three Aspen locals to the Himalayas this past spring to help with the filming of the newest feature. She climbed to 24,000 feet on Cho Oyu ” the peak the expedition used to acclimate for a quick ascent on Everest ” and the North Col on Everest at 23,000 feet.
She also brought an impartiality to the production as the interviewer of the film’s expedition members and their families, something Marolt says he couldn’t have done himself.
“The human-interest factor of this film is why this film is interesting,” Marolt says. “When you set out to do a film on yourself about yourself and your experience with your brother and a handful of other friends, that’s a tough sell. It’s tough to build cachet, it’s tough to get people to understand the human element because there’s no independence. It’s very biased. When Cherie came onto this project, I told her, I want you to be unbiased, I want you to ask the tough questions. I want you to do this film as if it were your film, independent of us.”
Silvera did just that, eliciting candid comments that highlight the risks of high-altitude climbing, especially the pure kind that the Marolts and Gile champion, which shuns the use of bottled oxygen.
For the first time, however, after years of climbing in the Himalayas, the trio did hire Sherpas and porters.
While the pursuits of the Marolts and Gile fall under the umbrella of big-mountain skiing ” the biggest mountains, Marolt laughs ” the local says his films should never be confused with those that fall into the extreme-sports canon.
The inherent risks of climbing and skiing 8,000-meter peaks are undeniable, but Marolt says he and his friends have never compounded the danger by taking unnecessary risks for short-lived glory. Case in point: Despite the chance to reach Everest’s summit in May for a thrilling climax to his film, Marolt turned back around because he wasn’t sure whether he had the energy to make it back to his tent at the mountain’s highest camp.
Steve Marolt, who heads up the logistical planning of the group’s expeditions, was the only local to ski off Cho Oyu’s 26,906-foot summit ” his second descent from atop an 8,000-meter peak. A case of bronchitis kept Mike Marolt just a few hundred feet from the top on Cho Oyu, while a communication snag halted Gile. Mike Marolt and Gile still managed to ski from above 8,000 meters on Cho Oyu, however ” a careful descent captured by rolling cameras.
“The bottom line is, and I make it very clear to all my sponsors, my life and my toes are more important than the film,” says Marolt. “When push comes to shove, that takes precedent over everything … You can’t be stupid and you can’t be greedy. Whether you’re trying to get the great shot or whether you’re trying to get to the summit, greedy people get hosed in the mountains.”
The “pure” alpinism that Marolt esteems in his mountaineering pursuits carries over to his principles as a documentary filmmaker. He is unabashedly passionate about the integrity of the films, striving not to “sensationalize something that is already sensational.”
This mentality hasn’t endeared him to some in the adventure filmmaking community, as well as some of the sponsors who have signed on to help fund his expeditions.
“Some of the sponsors have looked at the trailer of the film and said, ‘It’s not sensational enough,'” Marolt says. “It was like, you know what, we’ve been doing this for like 43 expeditions now; 43 different big peaks. Big peaks meaning something bigger than Rainier. After doing it for 20 years and doing that many expeditions, we’re not out there pushing the envelope. We’re out there doing stuff that people do, but it’s not to be confused with guys out there pushing the envelope, doing stuff that is just so unbelievably close to the edge that you can literally quantify their chances of dying. This is not what this is all about. The reason why I think my film is interesting is that I’m not trying to sensationalize it. You don’t have to sensationalize Everest.”
Marolt pauses to collect his thoughts, then starts again.
“That’s what big-mountain skiing and climbing have evolved into,” he says, his voice taking on a tone of disappointment. “It’s not necessarily the guides who are doing it. They’re not the ones who are promoting that. It’s sponsors and networks trying to sensationalize something that’s already sensational. What my films are trying to do is say, you know you may not be able to just pick up off the couch and go and ski Mount Everest right now, but it’s something that if you dedicated yourself and you went out there and you wanted it bad enough, you could get the experience to do it.
“I’m not going to sell it short, either. It takes a lot of experience to go out and do this stuff. We’ve paid our dues. But make no mistake, it’s not like Michael Jordan flying through the air dunking a basketball. Something you could practice and practice and never ever be able to do.”
Something Marolt says he could never do ” at least at this stage in his life ” is give up his day job to pursue his filmmaking aspirations full time. He ” get this ” really loves being a CPA, and he’s also well aware that when hobbies become full-time work, something changes intractably in the transition.
“My wife is an artist and she’s become successful and she’s starting to sell her art, and it’s become a job,” he says. “Not that that’s bad, but whenever you throw money into an element of art, you can’t help but affect the creativity of the art. For me, it’s purely a hobby. It’s something I do for release.”
Marolt’s most recent film, however, may become much more than just a little feature, done for fun. He’s recently been in talks with Les Guthman, a New York-based producer and former head of Outside TV, who is interested in turning Marolt’s footage into a feature-length documentary.
Guthman is no stranger to making documentaries about Everest; he was the executive producer for “Farther Than the Eye Can See,” a feature on Erik Weihenmayer of Golden, the first blind man to climb the world’s tallest peak.
Guthman sees another compelling story in the Marolts and Giles’ climbing and skiing exploits on Everest and other massive peaks.
“I don’t think anybody has done what they’ve done,” Guthman says via cell phone. “To make a good documentary, you have to tell a good story. We know the footage is terrific. Now we have to tell the story. I want to do more interviews, and tell the history of their climbing other 8,000-meter peaks leading up to Everest.”
Guthman has done films on big-mountain skiing in Alaska, but says the pursuits of the three Aspenites falls in a different category.
“It’s the ultimate in skiing,” he says. ” I think skiing in the death zone without oxygen is something very few people have done. From the human standpoint, it’s a story that we will tell so people will appreciate what they achieved.”
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