Marolt Ski Mountaineering Legacy Shines in Aspen
Skiing Well is the Best Revenge
Every mountain town has its founding families – people whose roots run deep and affect the entire community. In Aspen, Colo., which despite its glitzy, glamourous image is still a very wild and unpretentious place, the Marolt family looms as large as the powdery peaks of the Elk Range above town.
Identical twins Mike and Steve Marolt can trace their family lineage back to a time when mining and ranching – not skiing and second homes – drove Aspen's economy. Mike says, “Steve and I are fourth-generation Aspenites. Our ancestors came to Aspen with many others during the Silver Rush in the late 1800's. After the Silver Rush, they stayed in the Aspen valley and became ranchers and farmers. In the Thirties, my great uncles and aunt began exploring the local backcountry – climbing and skiing the local peaks of the Elk Range.”
That was the beginning of an illustrious skiing dynasty that saw three members of the Marolt family – including Steve and Mike's father, Max – make Olympic ski teams in 1960 (Squaw Valley) and 1964 (Innsbruck).
Father Max had some interesting ideas about off-season training that included making a ski camp in a cirque of 14,000-foot peaks[any missing words here?]. Mike says, “Steve and I never aspired to be world-class ski racers, but we found our passion in ski mountaineering. We started skiing local peaks at age 12, and never stopped.”
But they knew that they would need a solid career if they wanted to stay in Aspen, which was already a bedroom community for the ultra-rich. They pursued accounting careers and have a highly successful storefront practice right in downtown Aspen. Mike humorously notes that “there are a lot of beans to count in Aspen, and so it's worked out well.”
Like accounting, the Marolts believe that successful ski-mountaineering trips are the result of careful planning and respecting the process. “If you poke your head into any of our tents, it's neat and organized. But even considering that, we often learned the hard way. On one trip, we forgot to throw stoves in the jeep. At the mountain, we were forced to haul the main base-camp stove up. Do that once and you never forget anything.”
Their career spans three decades, skiing and climbing almost 50 of the world's 6,000- to 8,000-metre peaks. Interestingly, there's never been any official “tick list” or grand plan – it's all just unfolded as a natural progression, starting first in Alaska and the Yukon, and then fanning out into the Himalayas and South American Andes.
Mike says, “When we started, we had no idea that we would become the first North Americans to ski off the summit of an 8,000-metre peak. Until we actually did it, the plan was simply to ski from as high as we could, bag the peak and have a good trip.” They do say, quite modestly, that they don't spend money on high-altitude porters or supplemental oxygen. “We just try to do what we can and don't much regard what others might be doing.”
And it's obvious from watching videos of their expeditions that, for the Marolts, “skiing well is the best revenge,” to play off of a saying used by F. Scott Fitzgerald and popularized by George Herbert (15931633), English clergyman and poet. Mike says, “In my opinion, lift-skiing is the best way to build the necessary blend of power and endurance needed for high-altitude skiing or backcountry skiing in general. When you climb those high peaks, it's so draining that when it comes time to ski, if you don't have raw power from skiing and training a ton, combined with the ability to not have to think about your technique, you are subject to totally flaming out, falling and injury.”
Indeed, these guys can ski rings around most lift-skiers, even at 6,000 metres of altitude and carrying 30-kilo packs. Their style is not just survival skiing; it's smooth, elegant technique forged from millions of vertical feet both on the lifts and in the backcountry.
(above) Mike Marolt on the first-ever ski ascent of Sabancya, Peru (19,600 feet).
(below left) Mike Marolt enjoying typical local peak skiing at Elk Range in Aspen, Colo.