Marolt brothers latest expedition leads to U.S. Ski Hall of Fame
Ever since their dad took them skiing in Fourth of July Bowl on Independence Pass on July 3, 1977, twin brothers Steve and Mike Marolt of Aspen have experienced a natural progression as ski mountaineers.
That path will land them in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
The identical twins are part of what the hall calls a “star-studded group of eight noted skiing athletes and sport builders” who are part of the class of 2017. They will be inducted and honored with a ceremony Saturday in Squaw Valley, California.
The Marolt brothers, 53, have been with each other every step of the way since playing in their backyard snowbank as kids. They explored their hometown Elk Mountains together, got their first taste of high-altitude ski mountaineering on Denali together, and then they explored the high peaks of South America and Asia together.
It’s only fitting that they are going to the Hall of Fame together.
“This guy has my back whether it’s on Mount Everest or walking down the street in Aspen,” Mike said.
When the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame announced its inductees last September, it noted that Outside Magazine had featured the Marolts as “two of the most accomplished ski mountaineers alive.”
“Identical twin brothers Mike and Steve Marolt have combined genetic gifts and actuarial efficiency to arguably build the greatest resume of pure-style climbing of ski descents from 5,000 to 8,000 meters in the world — climbing with no supplemental oxygen, porters or altitude drugs,” the hall’s announcement said. “These brothers represent true pioneers in Himalayan skiing with 13 expeditions in that region alone.”
Mike and Steve credit their dad, Max Marolt, a skier in the 1960 Olympics, for igniting their interest in ski mountaineering. They were 12 years old when he took them skiing for the first time in the backcountry.
“By the time we got to the top of Fourth of July Bowl, we were sold on the concept,” Mike said. “Everything after that was one of a zillion little steps that lead to the next thing to do.
“We just always wondered what it would be like to be over on that next peak.”
Steve recalled that Max was a good friend of Jim Whittaker, who was the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Whittaker gave Max a signed copy of “Americans on Everest,” a book about the adventure that featured spectacular photos of guys climbing in oversized down suits and wearing oxygen masks. It made a big impression on the Marolt twins.
“When we got to the point where dad took us up Independence, this passion about mountains and mountain climbing and this passion for skiing came together,” Steve said. “I remember distinctly standing up on those peaks on the pass. It’s like, you can have your cake and eat it, too. These two go together really well. From there, the ski mountaineering just took off.”
They continued to explore the Elk Mountains in Aspen’s backyard. In the late 1980s, they celebrated graduating from college by visiting a friend in Washington State and climbing Mount Rainier. They climbed with crampons and ice axes for the first time. It opened their eyes and minds to a world beyond the Elk Mountains.
“We climbed up and our fitness treated us really well,” Mike said. “We got to the top and before we even got off that peak, Steve said, ‘We’re going to Denali.’”
That’s when good fortune came their way. Max encouraged them to go, but he strongly advised them to hire a guide. They contacted an operator in Telluride who happened to have an employee based in Aspen. The guide hooked up the Marolts with Bob Slozen, an accomplished guide known as Sloman.
He worked with the Marolts for several months before the Denali trip and “taught us everything we needed to know” on a three-week expedition on Denali in 1990, according to Mike. The experience was a game-changer for the twins.
“Bob Slozen is a mentor on a level like no one else,” Mike said.
“Absolutely,” Steve said during a joint interview. “He’s in a class by himself.”
They credit Slozen for being patient with a “group of young, dumb punks” who thought they could ski Denali.
“Nobody was skiing Denali in 1988 or 1989,” Steve said. “It had been skied maybe once or twice at that point. For us to attempt that mountain fully intending to ski it at that time, that was pretty cock dog.”
They ended up skiing from an elevation of about 17,000 feet off the highest peak in North America, which tops out at 20,310 feet above sea level. It fueled their desire for high-altitude adventure. Even more importantly, it taught them how to stay safe while doing it.
“We still refer back to Sloman every trip,” Steve said. “You get into a difficult situation, someone will invariably say, ‘What would Slozen do?’ He’s that good.”
Mike noted, “We’ve had an enormous amount of pretty intense thrills, but we’ve always taken this natural progression, which allows us to respect and appreciate those thrills and not cross over the line.”
After Denali, they returned the following year for expeditions on 19,850-foot Mount Logan, the second-highest peak in North America. On both trips they ran into weather so wicked that they could not reach the summit, but were able to ski from high altitude. It provided additional valuable lessons.
“We were learning that the sport wasn’t just about a pinnacle for a few moments,” Mike said.
Their next step in what they refer to as their natural progression was climbing and skiing 6,000-meter peaks in the Andes Mountains.
By 1997, they progressed to Asia. They were able to secure a rare permit to climb Broad Peak in Pakistan, the 12th-highest mountain in the world at 8,051 meters (26,414 feet). They didn’t take skis, and avalanche conditions prevented them from reaching the summit, but they learned they had the motors — the lungs and heart — necessary for ascending and skiing the world’s tallest mountains.
“In my view, the big coup for us was Shishapangma because nobody had ever skied it. No Americans had skied from 8,000 meters,” Mike said. “That was really a turning point because it gave us the confidence that we could go to a major peak, one of the 14 8,000-meter peaks.
“We didn’t have a modern base camp. We didn’t have fixed lines. We didn’t have oxygen. We didn’t have any Sherpa porters whatsoever.”
That gave them the confidence to attempt Mount Everest in 2003, but the expedition was plagued by bad weather, lots of waiting during two months, fractures within their large group, “terrible equipment and terrible food.” It was, in their words, a failure even though they skied the North Ridge of the peak.
They returned to the Himalaya four years later and successfully reached the summit of Cho Oyu and became only the fifth people to achieve multiple 8,000-meter ski descents.
“That was our second 8,000-meter ski,” Mike said. “We had failed on Everest, people thought Shishapangma was a fluke. Not that we had any huge ambition to prove them wrong, but we wanted to know for ourselves, ‘Was it a fluke? Did we get lucky?’
“So we validated ourselves as high-altitude ski mountaineers and then got the second ski descent off of that North Ridge (of Everest).”
After reaching the summit of Cho Oyu, they climbed to higher than 28,000 feet on Mount Everest but were unable to summit because their feet were starting to freeze and they were without oxygen. However, they were able to ski from about 25,500 feet in elevation.
The Marolts said their goals as ski mountaineers aren’t necessarily about reaching summits.
“It’s hard for people to understand what the sport is about,” Mike said. “They immediately correlate it to mountaineering. It’s as different of a sport as softball is to baseball. You have to carry the skis so that adds an extra climb to every single camp. It almost effectively eliminates any chance of getting any summits. We battled and missed a lot of summits.”
Many of their trips have been with friends from Aspen such as Jim Gile and John Callahan, who they regard as brothers.
Ironically, while the Marolts are headed to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, they acknowledge they do not have respect among some climbers based in the Roaring Fork Valley. They are criticized in some circles for allegedly not pursuing tough-enough expeditions and for self-promotion of their efforts.
“Mike and I really don’t get any respect, and in fact there’s a lot of disdain in this town,” Steve said. “Big-name people in the ski community have accused us of being quote-unquote what’s wrong with the sport because we’re shameless promoters.
“We got a tremendous amount of press for Shish and we’ve had (the film) ‘Skiing Everest.’ If you looked at that and that’s all we had done, shameless self-promotion is probably a legitimate description of our careers. But what these people don’t realize is that there was a lot of promotion for a couple of successes that we had. You ask any of those people about our resume — 50 peaks, not two. Forty-eight expeditions that nobody knows about.”
Mike defended what some see as self-promotion as the necessity of raising awareness so funding can be secured for future expeditions. He isn’t wealthy, he said, so he sells photos of their expeditions and helped produce “Skiing Everest” to raise funds.
The Marolts said they aren’t losing sleep over their reputation among Aspen climbers. Mike said they have a lot of support elsewhere. The Hall of Fame voters made their decision based on their entire resume, he said.
Besides, they have the seal of approval from the one person whose opinion matters most to them: Bob Slozen.
He said they deserve recognition for their determination, longevity and accomplishments since ascending Denali in 1990. He credits them for “using their heads” and balancing their thirst for adventure with responsibilities as husbands and fathers who have families anxiously awaiting their safe return from the high peaks.
“I’m pretty damn proud of them,” Slozen said.
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