IF THERE'S ANYTHING that high-altitude skiers agree on, it's that skiing in or near the so-called Death Zone is rarely, if ever, anything but awful. The snow, when it's not Coke-bottle ice, stinks; the higher you go, the worse it gets. The thin air cottons your mind, deadens your legs, and makes each turn a brutal chore in a place where a sloppy one can be fatal. The Swedish ski mountaineer Fredrik Ericsson—who, in an attempt at a first descent on K2 last year, watched his partner, Michele Fait, fall to his death—has said that making four or five turns at that altitude is as hard on the legs and lungs as skiing a continuous pitch of 1,000 vertical meters in the Alps. That's if you're fortunate enough actually to ski; Himalayan expeditions, expensive and time-consuming on a good day, are as likely to end in storm-siege, retreat, or worse as they are in anything resembling success. It can take a month or more to bag a single run.
Which may be why so few people do it. High-altitude skiing is an eccentric and thinly populated outpost in the extreme-skiing/ski-mountaineering galaxy. It has a herky-jerk history and a lineage of larks. To most people, the idea of skiing down Everest, for example, still evokes the 1970 footage of Yuichiro Miura, the so-called Man Who Skied Down Everest, hurtling over the ice on his ass, skis spinning in the air, parachute trailing uselessly behind. Since then, others have had cleaner runs. Hans Kammerlander, Reinhold Messner's old climbing partner and the man whom many consider to be the most accomplished Himalayan skier of them all, skied off Everest's summit via the Northeast Ridge in 1996, after a high-speed ascent without the use of supplemental oxygen or Sherpas. But he had to downclimb some of the way, due to a lack of snow, and so his achievement, towering as it was, earned an asterisk. In 2000, a Slovenian named Davo Karnicar skied from the summit (which he reached using oxygen and Sherpas) down to Base Camp by way of the standard Southeast Ridge climbing route—passing, along the way, a corpse that had been lying there for four years. Over the past few decades, there have been dozens of successful descents of the 14 Himalayan peaks over 8,000 meters, for the most part by Europeans. Still, when you consider the thousands of climbers who've summited those peaks in that time, it's surprising how few of them chose to go down even part of the way on skis.
So why is it that Mike and Steve Marolt, middle-aged certified public accountants and identical twins, spend nearly every minute that they aren't preparing tax returns lugging skis toward the Death Zone or training to get back up there? The Marolts, 45, live in Aspen and are North America's most dogged and single-minded practitioners of high-altitude skiing. They are fourth-generation Aspenites from a distinguished ski-racing family. They are also, strictly speaking, weekend warriors. The term "adventure athlete," so widely applied these days to those who make some kind of a living or name doing bold, marketable stuff out of doors, does not suit them. They are just strong skiers who happen to have devoted most of their free time, over the past two decades, to skiing at high altitude. Not least among their achievements is the curious fact that they actually enjoy the skiing up there.
Ten years ago, they became the first Americans (or, as Mike Marolt sometimes says, the first skiers from the Western Hemisphere) to ski from above 8,000 meters. The awkward wording of the claim requires explanation. The mountain was Tibet's 26,289-foot Shishapangma, the 14th-highest peak in the world. It was the Marolts' first trip to the Himalayas with skis. In October 1999, seven months before the Marolts went, an expedition of elite American alpinists had gone to Shishapangma to ski a new route down the southwest face. During the ascent, a gigantic avalanche tumbled down from a glacier and killed two of them: Alex Lowe, one of the world's top mountaineers, and Dave Bridges, a cameraman from Aspen. The attempt was abandoned.
In April 2000, the Marolts, not nearly as experienced as Lowe and his mates, went to Tibet to climb and ski the more traditional route, to and from the Central Summit, which is about 50 feet lower and much more accessible than the Main Summit. An Austrian named Oswald Gassler had been the first to ski from it, in 1985, and since then a few others had done so, but no Americans.
The Marolts had been told it was an easy eight-thousander. They were accompanied by a photographer and a childhood friend with whom they'd been going on ski expeditions for more than ten years. They were alone on the mountain. On their way up, as they acclimatized with some mid-mountain skiing, a blizzard granted them the rare gift of a powder day. Another storm socked them in 14 days later, during their summit push. On several occasions near the top, Mike considered ditching his skis, but Steve's withering look, and the fraternal imperative, persuaded him to continue on. In a total whiteout, they reached what they judged (by their altimeters) to be the peak. The summit photograph, of Steve in a fog, doesn't tell you much. It could be Snowmass or Scotland. They clicked in and skied down a moderate slope, through ice and breakable crust, to advance base camp. It was the most difficult skiing they'd ever experienced. "Easy eight-thousander, my ass," Mike muttered to his brother.
The media's declaration, upon their return, that they were the first Americans to ski an 8,000-meter peak, ruffled some feathers, especially in light of the tragedy the year before. To their detractors, the Central Summit was one asterisk, as was the slim evidence of their having reached it. Later that year, Laura Bakos Ellison, a woman from Telluride, Colorado, climbed 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, the sixth-tallest mountain in the world, in her alpine ski boots and skied back down. She became, in the eyes of many, the first North American, male or female, to ski off an 8,000-meter peak. The Marolts again pointed out that they were the first to ski from above 8,000 meters. They've skied from above 8,000 once since, on Cho Oyu. They've twice skied on Everest's North Ridge, from 25,000 feet. (The summit is at 29,035 feet.) All told, they have six ski descents from above 7,000 meters, apparently more than anyone else in the world. (There is no ski-mountaineering governing body—official or otherwise.) They do it without supplemental oxygen, and they carry their own gear.
"People who haven't been up there and done this have no concept," Mike says. "It's the hardest thing you'll ever do."