Personal summits for local friends
The last question was the one Mike Marolt couldn’t answer.After four years of preparation, Mount Everest’s summit was there for the taking – a lifetime achievement beckoning to be realized for the fifth-generation Aspenite.Climbing without oxygen above 28,000 feet, each step was an exhausting undertaking on tired, frigid feet. Leery of frostbite, Marolt’s lifelong friend, Jim Gile, had turned back in the early morning hours of May 20, just a few hundred yards from reaching the highest point on the planet at 29,029 feet. Marolt’s 42-year-old twin brother, Steve, was farther down the mountain, back in his tent at the high camp on Everest’s northeast ridge (27,000 feet) after his summit attempt was nixed by a pair of temperamental boots.If anyone was to reach the top among the three, it was up to Marolt. And there was no doubt in his mind that he could make it. Do I have the ability to get down right now? Yes.Are there any extremities you can’t feel at all? No.Do you think you can reach the summit? Certainly.That wasn’t the critical question among the four on his list, however. It certainly wasn’t the one his brother and Gile, as well as those back in Aspen – including his wife and his two young daughters – were counting on Marolt to continue asking himself with each step he took up the mountain.If you get there, do you think you can get down?The higher he went with one of the group’s two sherpas, the more it became apparent Marolt didn’t know the answer to an internal inquiry that had kept him safe during so many other expeditions on peaks around the world.”The combination of just having really cold feet, and having Jim already turn around, I just said, ‘You know what? I can’t lose my toes over this. That’d be the ultimate insult,'” Marolt said last week, safe and healthy back in Aspen, albeit 20 pounds lighter. “Then I thought about my girls and I thought, ‘My kids need a dad.'”
And so Marolt did what too many climbers didn’t do on Everest this season – turn around before it was too late. It was the right choice. A mere 50 yards from his tent at 27,000 feet, Marolt said his body started to fail him. Lactic acid was building in his legs, and it became harder and harder to rappel down the mountain.The final 50 yards was as brutal a slog as he’d ever experienced in more than 35 expeditions – a slow scramble back to warmth and safety.”I played it pretty conservatively, but had I gone for that summit, there’s a big difference between 500 feet and 50 yards,” Marolt said. “What happens, after talking with a lot of doctors, is you build up all this lactic acid in the muscles and you get high-altitude paralysis. You can’t move. You have X amount of power at any given time. You don’t know when that power’s going to leave, and it can leave like that. It’s just like a real intense bonk. “I just sat there, and I said, ‘You just have to do whatever it takes to keep moving.’ I started wiggling my ankles, wiggling my legs, hitting myself. I was able to wake myself up, and I just kind of slithered down and got myself into the tent. On a very small scale, I understood how people sit down and never get up.”For the second time, Everest had proved itself a worthy adversary for the three Aspenites. In 2003 the trio, along with the Marolt’s cousin Jeramie Oates and Aspenites Kevin Dunnett and John Callahan, failed to reach Everest’s summit using the same route along the northeast ridge.On the Tibetan side of the mountain, the route is considerably longer and more technical than the more heavily tracked southeast ridge in Nepal.Marolt said he believes that the accomplishment of climbing above 28,000 feet on Everest – on one of the more challenging routes, no less – without supplemental oxygen is entirely more impressive than bagging the peak with what he labeled “a crutch.” “I’d rather get to 28,000 without oxygen than summit with it,” he said. “That’s what I did, and that’s my summit … It’s the difference between not just baseball and softball, but it’s the difference between hitting a Nolan Ryan fastball and hitting a softball.”Not to be forgotten, the eight-day Everest expedition came after an earlier summit attempt and ski descent of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-tallest peak, which sits on the China-Nepal border, 20 miles west of Everest.The rapid ascent of Cho – considered the world’s easiest 8,000-meter peak – was used to acclimate for the more difficult climb up Everest.All three Aspenites shunned using supplemental oxygen on both climbs, although unlike previous Himalayan forays, the trio did hire a pair of sherpas as porters.Marolt said he plans to continue to pursuing summits with pure climbing methods – sans oxygen – but doesn’t plan to ever climb as high as he did on Everest. He said the peak is finally out of his system, and joked that even if it wasn’t, it would cost him his marriage if he ever thought of returning. “I almost feel like I owe friends and family an apology, going up to 28,000 feet without oxygen,” he said. “To do that with kids and everything – I didn’t know it before I left, because I didn’t think it was as big of a deal as it was, but when you’re at that altitude without oxygen, you have this funny feeling that the Grim Reaper is right there, and he is. It’s not real responsible to be doing that kind of shit when you’re a father.”
Marolt, who has made two feature films chronicling he and his friends’ high-altitude skiing exploits, plans to make another film from the footage he captured on both peaks.Cherie Silvera, a local cinematographer, was along for both ascents to help with the filming; she climbed to 24,000 feet on Cho Oyu and the north Col on Everest at 23,000 feet.Steve Marolt was the only member of the party to ski off Cho Oyu’s 26,906-foot summit – his second descent from atop an 8,000 meter peak. In 2000, the Marolt brothers were the first North Americans to ski from one of the world’s 14 highest peaks, dropping off 26,290-foot Shishapangma.A case of bronchitis kept Mike Marolt just a few hundred feet from the top on Cho Oyu, while a communication snag halted local Jim Gile. Mike Marolt and Gile still managed to ski from above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), however.On Everest, all three skied from the second-highest camp on the Everest’s northeast ridge, at 25,500 feet. Marolt said there was only ice above that point on the mountain, and hence opted to leave their skis behind. The conditions couldn’t have been more ideal below, however.In 2003 when the trio skied the northeast ridge they had to contend with washboard snow and blue ice – a descent Marolt likened to skiing atop an icy barn roof. They found untracked powder and blue skies last month, perfect conditions for a film Marolt hopes will be his best yet.”I’d argue it’s one of the most classic ski routes on the planet,” Marolt said. “You’ve got this beautiful ridge, this huge cornice ridge, that starts at the North Col and just loops up. It has these rolls in it, they’re 40 to 45 degrees. It just kind of lays back into the North Col. When we skied it in 2003, it was like a sheet of ice. It was the most terrifying ski I’ve ever had. “This year it was just powder and, just to be skiing on Mount Everest in powder, it was a dream come true. There was so much snow.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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