Aspen Sojourner: You grew up in one of Aspen’s most prominent ski-racing families. What drew you to ski mountaineering?
Mike Marolt: When we were 12 years old, the night before July 4, Dad said, “Get your ski gear ready,” and the next morning we drove up [Independence] Pass and hiked to the top of Fourth of July Bowl. I remember vividly being at the top and out of breath, and it was something that I had to do more of. When we lived on the [Aspen] golf course, we’d wait for the worst possible blizzard and bundle up and go on an “expedition.” We would play like we were climbing Everest and had to fight our way back. One time, we thought we were heading toward the house, and we ended up in a completely different neighborhood.
Steve Marolt: Our dad was really good friends with Jim Whittaker, the first American to top out on Everest. Jim gave us an autographed version of Americans on Everest, and from kindergarten on, Mike and I would spend hours looking at pictures of Jim and his teammates and their oxygen masks and this completely foreign environment. As I was hiking up that ridge [to Fourth of July Bowl] huffing and puffing, that book was the inspiration.
AS: How did you go from playing in the local mountains to climbing and skiing around the world?
Mike: Our first year out of college, I got a call from a friend who said, “We gotta go climb Rainier.” The experience was so overwhelming that Steve then formulated a plan to go to Denali. For five or six more seasons, we climbed with skis on all the big [Alaskan] peaks. Then we had a goal to climb and ski a little higher and went to Bolivia for a few trips, and we naturally progressed to thinking, “We’ve handled this, we should go to Asia.” It was a lot of baby steps in a massive amount of time. There’s a difference between scaring yourself to death and having an enormous thrill—we’ve had a lot of thrills but not really any epics, and that’s probably what I’m proudest of.
AS: What’s it like to climb an 8,000-meter peak and ski down?
Steve: It’s pure pain and suffering. We’re doing these without the creature comforts of modern base camps and without oxygen or Sherpas or any kind of help. But it’s incredibly satisfying to put yourself in a place where you know you’re going to be crying for your mama, and you do what you have to do to get through it.
AS: Is it true what they say about twins, that you’re intuitive about each other, and does that make you good ski partners?
Steve: Mike and I are best friends, and the twin intuition is not a myth. And if you’re climbing with your brother, you’re almost more concerned for his well-being than your own. But also, our partner, Jim Gile—I know what he’s thinking, and he knows what I’m thinking. That’s why we all have had success. None of this would have happened if you took Jim or Mike or me out of the picture. I’ve been all over the world and have never seen this dynamic in the mountains.
AS: Most memorable expedition?
Mike: Shishapangma [Tibet, April 2000 ]. It was the first American ski descent [off an 8,000-meter peak]. We didn’t seriously think we would pull it off. That was a turning point in my life when I knew not only did I want to go on expeditions, I wanted to ski the high peaks. We were no longer just climbers. We were ski mountaineers.
Steve: Rainier or Denali were right up there, because those were at a point when I thought the Rocky Mountains were the end-all-be-all of mountain ranges. In the context of my whole career, Denali set the stage.
AS: To date, you appear to be the only dedicated ski mountaineers in the hall of fame. How did you feel when you got the call?
Mike: I thought it was Steve or [older brother] Roger playing a joke on me.
Steve: You grow up in the shadow of three Olympians. As a little kid, you train and work harder than anybody else on your ski-racing team [but] you never become a real racer, and you feel like a failure in the eyes of your dad and your uncles. And then at age 53, you get the call from an organization of ski-racing heroes. To be included with all these guys—that’s humbling.
AS: What’s next?
Mike: We’re going to Peru for a 6,000-meter peak in early May. Then we’ve got an expedition next January to Cho Oyu, where we’ll try to pull off the first winter ski descent. We also have a new movie, Beyond Skiing Everest. It’s an arc from our Everest years to today, where we are pioneering high skiing in the winter Himalaya.