Pushing the limit: Three Aspenites test mettle during flash ascent in Bolivia
June 1, 2012
Hypoxia hit agonizing levels at 20,000 feet. Mike Marolt’s once-steady pace was slowed to a crawl as he, twin brother Steve and lifelong friend Jim Gile trudged up Illimani in Bolivia.
Three labored breaths accompanied nearly every step up the precarious, snow-covered slope, Mike Marolt said. The weight of the skis and pack on his back felt more like 80 pounds, not 20 to 30.
“I was just hurting like I’ve never hurt before,” he admitted Wednesday. “Hands down, this was the hardest day we’ve ever had.”
That statement is sure to make anyone’s ears perk up. After all, the Marolts and their tight-knit band of thrill-seekers have plyed their skills on massive peaks across the globe – from South America to Alaska and the venerable Himalayas. They have skied in Everest’s death zone and have participated in about 40 excursions – all without supplemental oxygen – in the past 25 years.
Still, nothing could quite compare to a 17-hour flash ascent of Bolivia’s second-tallest peak, which, at 21,122 feet, casts an imposing silhouette above the capital, La Paz.
“If you’re just starting off and don’t have the background, you don’t consider this type of stuff,” Marolt said. “It’s just the natural progression of going to these big peaks – it’s the only way to truly figure out what you’re capable of.
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“I think it’s kind of like a marathon runner who never knows how fast they can run until they push themselves to that point of no return, and they either finish and have a great time or end up not finishing because they pushed it too hard. The problem with altitude is that you don’t have the luxury of pulling out of the race when you get up to 19,000 feet and hit your wall. You always have to have enough reserves to get off the mountain. That’s how people end up dying.”
The three had not planned on pushing their limits to such an extent. Rather, they fully intended on spending the bulk of their 10-day excursion acclimatizing and methodically working their way to the top – an objective that had eluded them in two previous attempts. (They were forced to abandon a summit bid 16 years ago because Gile fell ill, and last year they wasted precious time finding the correct approach route and had to turn around when inclement weather rolled in.)
Complicated circumstances arose this time around, too. So did an unanticipated opportunity.
“We had carried the skis to 18,000 (feet) one day and fully intended on hauling camp up there, but (we were told) we couldn’t leave an unattended camp up there,” Marolt said. “There are a lot of villages at the base of Illimani, and people have had camps completely stolen.
“We didn’t want to lose our gear and not get the peak. We’ve been doing this 25 years and have never flashed a peak from base camp to the summit and back to base camp. We figured, ‘You know what, let’s give it a go.'”
The ultimate decision required more contemplation than that – particularly when they paused to ponder what they were up against: 8,945 of climbing in one day, including a three-mile approach,
and all of it above 14,000 feet. The most vertical they had ever tackled in one push was about 5,800 feet on Coropuna in the Peruvian Andes.
The trio arrived at base camp at 14,000 feet on May 21. They rested on the 22nd, hauled skis to 18,000 feet on the 23rd, then rested on the 24th while they discussed their next move.
“Once you get above 5,000 meters, mountaineering completely changes,” Marolt said. “You’re resting, but you’re on edge, and you’re not sleeping. You’re worried about getting up that high that quick. I’ve heard the stories where people just get immobilized from the altitude. It was the most unnerved I’ve been in 40 of these trips.
“We spent a good day talking ourselves into it. … We went from convincing ourselves we didn’t have a choice, that we didn’t want to lose our gear, to slowly metamorphosing into ‘We can do this.’ That became a big part of the draw: ‘Let’s give it a shot. We’re ready to pull off something big like this.'”
The Aspen residents left camp at midnight on May 25, using the cairns they set up a few days earlier to guide them through the dark. They scurried across exposed, “nasty rock” and reached 18,000 feet at about sunrise, Marolt said.
“That was all new terrain to us from that point on. It was fairly benign but tricky,” he added. “From midway up, you’re just on steep snow, 35 to 50 degrees. We had to belay a couple sections, (negotiate) a knife ridge, and then we got up onto the headwall. It’s super steep and usually just a sheet of ice. We lucked out; they had a huge snow year, and there was good, soft snow.
“It was amazing climbing on the headwall. Steve said, ‘How’s everybody doing?’ and I literally was on autopilot. I had good rhythm, and we all were just plodding along and feeling great.”
Until about 20,000 feet. At that point, with little more than 1,000 feet remaining, Mike Marolt was gasping for air.
“I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other and embrace the pain,” he recalled. “We got onto the summit ridge, a gentle walk for about 200 yards, and it seemed like an eternity. It went on forever.
“I knew I had enough gas to get up and down even though the skiing was going to be very difficult. … Nothing was going to stop me.”
The three reached the sun-splashed summit around 10 a.m. Gile immediately dropped his pack and reached for his two friends.
“He said, ‘We’ve been waiting for this for 16 years,'” Marolt said. “It was a really great feeling. It was a clear, beautiful day, and we could see all the peaks out in the Atacama Desert, all those we climbed over the years. Sajama, the highest, was all by itself out in the middle of nowhere. It was completely white.”
Marolt knew he wouldn’t be able to soak in the seemingly endless views for long.
“My eyes started to dilate. I don’t know medically why that happens, but everything became incredibly bright. … That means you’re at your limit,” he said. “You know you’re not going to recover; you run the risk of high-altitude paralysis beginning. I think I was closest to that. I stopped, ate some food, drank some water … and after about 15 minutes I clicked into the skis and skied down the ridge. I filmed Steve and Jim, then got out onto the face and tried to muster all the energy I had.
“Skiing at that altitude, it’s so hard you can’t even imagine. … There were a couple sections we had to down-climb. It was a high snow year, and usually we would take out a couple axes and climb down those exposed, steep parts, but I knew I was completely hammered tired. We belayed four or five of those pitches – that takes a lot of time.”
They reached the base of Illimani in about 15 hours. The return to camp included another three miles and nearly two hours.
“By that time, your water has long since been depleted and you don’t think you can carry that much weight any longer,” Marolt said. “You’re like a worn-out horse trying to get back to the barn. Those last three miles up and down, they took forever.”
Once he reached his tent, Marolt dropped his pack, slipped off his boots, downed a Coke and fell asleep. He didn’t wake up until 9 a.m. the following day.
Mission accomplished. They had pulled off what is believed to be the first flash ski descent on Illimani.
“I was on Broad Peak in ’97 talking to (Russian mountaineer) Anatoli Boukreev, and I remember him saying, ‘Mike, you’re going to get to a 6,000- or 7,000-meter peak one day, and you’ll be standing at the bottom wondering if you can (flash) it,'” Marolt said. “It’s all about progressing to the point where you have an understanding, physically and mentally, of what you’re capable of. This was the ultimate test. I don’t think we could’ve done it any quicker.
“We’re heading back to China in January, and we’ve got more peaks down the road. This will give us an enormous amount of confidence. Yeah, we were pushing the envelope and taking some risks, but it worked out.”
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