At Shishapangma. Jim Gile, Steve Marolt, Mike Marolt after the first American ski descent from an 8,000 meter peak, the Central peak. Photo Credit: Mike Marolt.
On the Cover:
Mike Marolt - An Op-Ed
Dilution by Perception
Cover Date: November 16th, 2015
It is a true honor for our magazine to publish this exquisite piece authored by Mike Marolt. Mike, his twin brother Steve and friend Jim Gile are legends.
A highly accomplished mountaineer and skier with 25 years of experience and precious insight, Mike shares this erudite feature written especially for this magazine. It provides a look into the mind of a brilliant athlete, as he explains to us as to what it means to be a successful mountaineer and skier in today's media driven age.
True Adventure - Dilution by Perception
by Mike Marolt
“True adventure is taking on objectives where you have a better chance of failure than success. You then keep going back until you know either you can complete the objective or you can’t…” - Reinhold Messner
"I was in the middle of an intense workout a couple of years ago, and an acquaintance came up to me and asked “So you guys have any big trips coming up? You look like you are training to save your life…” The reality was, that’s exactly what I was doing. I replied, “Ya, we’ve got a little trip planned for January. It’s a peak in Nepal. It’s a no-name peak we want to go and do a bit of climbing and skiing on. No big deal…”
The reality was, the peak was a 7,000 meter peak sandwiched between two giants, Annapurna and Manaslu in remote Nepal near the Tibetan boarder. The peak was dreamed up after a few failed attempts at trying to climb and ski Mustagh Atta in winter where we experienced ambient air temps of -30 to -90 with constant winds between 50 and 100 mph. The peak sat at the confluence of the five greatest ranges in the world and was relentlessly hammered by wind and cold that made it by far the undocumented coldest place on earth in the winter. There was not much climbing and skiing to be done, and after beating the hell out of ourselves for three years trying, we wised up to the reality that we needed to find another peak, buried in a range where a bit of protection could give us a better chance. Experience!
Despite the conditions on Mustagh Atta, we did manage to ski from 20,000 feet on one of those trips, but we needed more. No one to our knowledge had ever taken skis to the winter Himalaya, and the next objective became Himlung Himal. The peak is relatively unknown sitting in the shadow of its two massive cousins, but that aspect offered the desired protection we were looking for. When we arrived at base camp, there were no signs of people and to our delight, less winds. “Less winds” is relative to what we experienced in China in the previous few years. This was still the winter, and the Himalaya. The cold was intense, and it was very windy up high, but nothing compared to our recent experiences.
We spent the next few weeks pushing as hard as we could on Himlung. A couple of storms painted us into a time crunch, and we found ourselves on a go-for-broke base camp to summit push. After 20 hours of climbing, we found ourselves at the summit pyramid at about 21,300 feet where the upper slopes were blown down to blue ice, not skiable, and not climbable. My thermometer buried at -30, so I don’t know if it was -40 or -60, but I do know it was dangerously cold. So cold that when we stepped onto the face, our crampons slid like ice skates. Ice screws to protect the 50 degree slopes were rendered useless. A swing of my ax resulted in a ping and it bounced off the freakishly cold ice. We had heard of ice so cold and wind swept that it would be unclimbable but thought that to be a bit of a myth. We were finding out in person this was no myth. We clicked into our skis and in a utilitarian effort, squeaked down with a ski mountaineering irony- It was so cold crampons slid like skates, and skis barely slid…32 hours after we started our push, we were back at base camp, the mountain was cleaned, and while we failed to obtain the summit, we did manage to ski from over 21,000 feet. In the winter, survival is the ultimate victory. With this success, we vowed to continue with the project. Experience builds on experience, and figuring out problems becomes a source for wanting more, and a tool to obtain it…
But back to this notion of what true adventure is. We were sitting in the base camp dome at Himlung after the push, and conversation after 25 years climbing and skiing with my identical twin brother Steve and lifelong buddy Jim Gile was interesting. The subject of adventure came up and with nothing better to do, we dissected this. By this time in our lives, all of us had received the dreaded AARP application. To the younger generations, literally the day after your 50th birthday, this letter has been received in an almost miraculous manner by just about everyone one I know. It’s a source of humor, but also a wake-up call that you are OLD. How old? When we started climbing and skiing, Al Gore was trying to figure out what to do with his life, and not even contemplating inventing the internet. Researching routes and ski mountaineering expeditions was limited to looking in the index of the American Alpine Journal for the word “ski”.
AT ski gear was not even a concept, and most high peak skiing was done in climbing boots that fit into the only known binding, a heavy metal contraption manufactured by a company in Europe, Silveretta. The history of high altitude ski mountaineering was not even remotely readily available. Only in recent years have I been able to find fairly mind-blowing accounts on the internet of people like Andre Roach and his partners who skied from about 7,000 meters off peaks in India in the 30’s, or Frits Stammberger who skied from 24,000 feet off of Cho Oyu in the late 60’s. The internet has provided a means to research these early pioneers as well as to provide credit where credit is most definitely due. But at the time, in the 80’s and 90’s when we were starting out, it was all unknown. Even as late as 2000 when we came up with the harebrained idea of skiing 26,233 foot Shishapangma, we had no clue that no one from North America had ever skied from above 8,000 meters.
Then in 2003 when we skied the North Ridge of Everest, it was not until long after the fact that we realized no other Americans and only two other people had accomplished the feat. And even as late as 2009 when Steve and I skied from above 23,000 feet off a remote peak in Tibet, Norjin Kansang, we had no idea that this being our 6th ski descent from above 7,000 meters, was more than anyone in history. Point being, there was no platform to research this stuff, and subsequently, there really wasn’t any way to promote or hype what we were doing, and no reason to care. (Sometimes we joke that had we known some of this beforehand, we might have not done some of what we did.) We climbed and skied because we loved to do it. We simply set out on a natural progression starting by climbing and skiing peaks in our back yard in Aspen, Colorado with the Elk Range, and over time pushed ourselves to experience the next bigger thing. Several years in south eastern Alaska lead to a desire for 6,000 meter peaks in South America, and next the push was to take things to the next level, the Himalaya, and so on and so on.
At age 50, the next thing became the Himalaya in winter. However, even there, it was not until a couple of trips to Mustagh Atta that we came to understand, through the internet, that there were simply no records of anyone taking skis to the Himalaya at that time of year. I could only find about 30 expeditions since the 80’s when Polish expeditions decided the winter was something to take on, and of all those expeditions, nearly three quarters failed to climb above 7,000 meters. I knew winter expeditions were rare, but not that rare, and no clue how difficult and dangerous.
Distilled, our careers were influenced by the lack of the internet, just as much as adventurers today are influenced by it. This has opened up the door for the next generation of climbers and skiers to pick objectives based on known quantities. This has drastically impacted this notion of what Messner describes as true adventure. In the world of ski mountaineers, the notion of being a “professional” has emerged. Not only can people dream up objectives, they can substantiate them. They can execute them, and the platform of mass media is available to capitalize on them. Sponsors are in heaven! This is where things get a bit interesting when contrasting to what true adventure is all about.
In conversation, we recalled the book Endurance, the harrowing account of Ernest Shackleton journey to explore ice bound Antarctica that took place between 1914 and 1917. What is striking is that despite all the incredible journeys taken on by this foremost adventurer, outside of newspaper articles at the time, Shackleton didn’t gain notoriety at a world level until the year 2008 when this book was published. With the internet, and this book being a national best seller, Ernest is now regarded as a massive adventurer getting his due. The striking contrast here is how Shackleton struggled to find sponsorship at the time, but a hundred years after his adventures and death, today, he’d be a “professional” athlete on par with the most successful athletes of our times. If mass media and the internet can have an impact on a man’s life 100 years after his death, today, the tool needs to be respected.
Today, I have the ability to research beta on something as ridiculous as climbing and skiing in the winter Himalaya, but I have to really hunt for it. If I wanted to look into climbing Everest, I could type “Everest” into my browser, and could spend a year reading about the topic. There is total disparity in how adventure is interpreted, and popularity is the driving influence. Today, this opens the door for self-promotion and mass media literally at our finger tips. With social networking and the ability to almost immediately publish adventures, there is not a huge market for anything that “stands a greater chance of failure than success….” and the years that it often takes. Ueli Steck took nearly a decade and multiple trips to Annapurna before he ultimately found success soloing the peak, and while that success was a mass media grand slam, all the trips before that resulted in relative social media duds. For anyone else, the incentive to contemplate adventure outside of what is almost guaranteed with immediate success is difficult if not impossible to stomach. What we have is a tool to research just about any adventure, but unless it can be readily “populated” on the internet, there isn’t a huge incentive for people to take on adventures or related sponsors to support projects that start out with a greater chance of failure than success. The risk of failure combined with the lack of content doesn’t make cents, pun intended.
When we set out to climb and ski in the Himalaya in the winter, we were not delusional; we knew it was extremely dangerous, that we had to take baby steps, and we had to figure it out. There was absolutely no inclination whatsoever that we would find success right out of the gate, rather, the environment provided the ultimate challenge with an aspect of the complete unknown. Outside of realizing that few if any had tried it, we were in the dark. In hindsight, the reality is very clear, with no defined success of a summit after beating ourselves up for 4 years, the door is still wide open for exploration, but more importantly, we have an incentive to keep trying. I’d go so far as to say that what we have found is that the objective is so far removed from all our experiences over the past 25 years, it’s like starting out at the beginning with a completely new activity.
That’s not a source of frustration, but rather an invigorating rebirth of a new passion on par with the first adventures we took on as youngsters in our back yard. But with this unknown, we find ourselves in the same position that Shackleton did back in the 1900’s. Because the objective is so unknown, and takes so much time, it is viewed as potentially impossible and dangerous, and without question to risky financially to be supported by any sponsor’s marketing budget. Again, our previous 4 year track record pretty much substantiates this. We are competing with immediate mass media successes by the day where return on sponsorship dollars is almost guaranteed and immediate. The reality is, I can go out and in 5 hours before work, climb and ski a 14er, snap some “radical” photos of my brother, and appease a sponsor with content and photos that are not comparable to anything from Himlung. When it’s -60, you are skiing with a 50 pound pack at 21,000 feet, clad in a bulky down suit and can’t feel your fingers or toes, on top of the fact that you have been literally surviving for a month, not only is the content far and few between, to the vast majority of potential social media recipients, the contrast is literally boring; it’s impossible to capture true adventure in a single photo and paragraph or two. But this is a choice.
The value of spending all that time and scraping to find the funding to do it has lead us to want more. We have painted ourselves into a corner where the success of what we are seeking is just to know more about what it is like to climb and ski in the Himalaya in winter. Chances are this will never populate on the internet, it for sure won’t generate sponsorships to continue if only because lack thereof has prevented us from even trying, but the value comes in the form of personal satisfaction. Climbing in the winter Himalaya is the most miserable thing we have ever done, yet it is by leaps and bounds the most satisfying. Success by pop culture, a summit, has been replaced by success defined as surviving and just “knowing” what it is like. The power of this is beyond words.
True adventure is available and there are people seeking it. In truth, adventure is relative; one person’s Everest may be totally different than Messner’s Everest. So there is no right or wrong, rather, we live in a different world today. Follow your passion wherever it leads you, but my advice would be this; make the goal of adventure to be to learn something about yourself, and don’t limit the spectrum of what is available for anything or anyone. At the end of the day, this leads to the value of adventure. Shackleton’s Elephant Island is regarded by history as one of the greatest adventures of all time, yet by the definition of success today, it was a miserable failure; he made massive mistakes that nearly cost him and his entire team their lives. But the experience made him a better adventurer, and more importantly, fueled his passion for many more adventures in the future. If you can relate to that, you know what I am talking about. If you can’t, turn your computer off for a few minutes. Ask yourself a simple question with regards to your passion in adventure and with no regards to whether it’s doable or not; “What have I always wanted to do?” Then tactfully and intelligently, go for it. You will either succeed or you won’t, but what is guaranteed is you will know something about yourself that you would never have realized had you not tried…"
Op-Ed © Mike Marolt.
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Mike Marolt, Steve Marolt, and Jim Gile -
"We are a group of friends who grew up skiing, climbing, and playing baseball together in Aspen, Colorado. Our passion for the mountains was instilled in us at an early age by our friends, family,and teachers who passed on their love, respect, and enjoyment of the magnificent peaks in our back yard. We have carried that passion with us on countless expeditions over the past 25 years to more than 40 peaks in some of the highest, coldest, and most remote places on the planet. We have used and abused all kinds of gear over the years so we know what works and what doesn't. We consider the products, listed on this site, to be the best in the business and truly expedition worthy. This is gear that flat out works in the harshest conditions imaginable and unimaginable."
Major ski mountaineering accomplishments include:
1990 - Ascent of Denali, North America’s highest peak.
1991/1992 – Ski expeditions to Canada’s highest peak, Mt. Logan.
1993 to 1996-Ski expeditions in Alaska to St. Elias, Mt. Bona, Mt. Blackburn, Mt. Donna (second ascent).
1997 - Attempt of Broad Peak, Pakistan, their first 8,000 m/26,250 ft. expedition.
2000 - First Americans to ski from 8,000 m/26,000 ft., Shishapangma, Tibet. 2003 - First Americans to ski Mt. Everest’s North Ridge.
2007 - First Americans, 5th people ever, with multiple ski descents from above 8,000 m/26,000 ft., Cho Oyu, Tibet.
2007 – Their second ski descent of Mt. Everest’s north ridge.
2008 - First Americans, second people ever, to ski Bolivia’s highest peak, Sajama, 6,545 m/21,475 ft.
2009 - First ski descent of Tibet’s Norjin Kansang, 7,206m / 23,642 ft.
2010 - First ski descent of Peru’s Coropuna, Baraco Route, 6,425 m/21,079 ft.
2011 – First Americans, second people ever, to ski Ecuador’s highest peak, Chimborozo, 6,310 m/20,700 ft. (First and only single day speed ascent / descent)
2012 – First Americans, second ever, descent of Bolivia’s Illimani, 6,438 m/21,150 ft. (First and only single day speed ascent / descent).
2013/2014- Attempts at first ever winter ski descent from above 7,000 meters, Mustagh Atta, China.