One man’s hallucinatory debacle is another man’s fun. In thinking up a hook for Mike Marolt’s ski mountaineering memoir, “Natural Progression,” that’s what I came up with. Why? As Mike makes clear in his writings, for him, his twin brother Steve, and their regular mountaineering partners, climbing “pure” without supplemental oxygen at altitudes that would make most of us think we had sprouted wings, is simply their idea of recreation. Backstory: not only were these guys born at altitude, but they’re some of the fittest, most fanatical athletic trainers around. Altitude to them and their mutant lungs is nothing more than the buzz from a half glass of burgundy.
Natural Progression is Mike Marolt’s memoir of his life as a ski mountaineer. The book covers a period of forty years, 1976-2015, when he, along with his brother Steve and their crew “progressed” through sixty big-mountain expeditions and thousands of ski days — culminating in a variety of attempts and successes at skiing the highest mountains in the world. The book’s 334 text pages are divided into seven chapters, roughly following the group’s ski mountaineering focus: youth in Aspen, Colorado, then ski mountaineering in Alaska, Asia, and South America.
The meat of “Natural Progression” is Mike’s tales of adventure, detailing so many climbs and ski descents my head spun. Yet this memoir is also reflective, with a lot of explainer paragraphs, ruminations and several republished essays. It’s thus a compelling glimpse into the mind of a ski mountaineer who, along with vast experience, has some unique views.
A creative wrinkle in ski mountaineering
What I personally found most interesting were Mike’s reflections on he and his companions essentially inventing what I’ll call a “new” kind of ski mountaineering goal. That of specifically skiing from the highest altitude possible — as an important and worthy goal in of itself. This opposed to a summit ski being the only definition of success when skiing a mountain (though still the most desirable accomplishment). This formulation of goals begins with their attempt — or was it success, or both? — on 8,027 meter Shishapangma in Tibet, and is where Mike’s ruminations get a bit into the weeds.
In his account of climbing and skiing on Shishapangma in 2000 — a compelling blow-by-blow book section, by the way — Mike writes of his crew being the “…First Americans, North or South, to ski from above eight thousand meters, and from the Central Peak!” He puts it this way because his brother Steve did not ski from the actual summit, but from a subsidiary summit a few yards lower. Nor did they summit the peak. (Mike also skied, from a few feet lower than his brother.) Were these claimable “ski descents” of Shishapangma?
As one can expect, the ever view-greedy news media was no help when they touted the Marolt crew’s actions on Shish — especially in parsing the arcane details of subsidiary summits, and needing to explain exactly what the words “ski descent” meant. Writers and talking heads found it was easier to just ambiguously state, “the Americans who skied Shishapangma,” or downright inaccurately, “first ever ski descent from an 8,000-meter peak.” This presented Mike with an interesting ethical problem. Was he going to figuratively run around the globe, correcting people on exactly what his group had done up there? Certainly not. He did what he could to keep things on the up-and-up, but the phrase “skied Shishapangma” stuck to him and his buddies like glue.
(Historical note: Famed alpinist Jerzy Kukuczka made the first ski descent of Shishapangma in 1987, from the exact summit.)
In his book, Mike does use the phrase “skiing Shishapangma,” at least once. This is clearly for brevity, as his writing is crystal clear about what they did up there: Skiing from above 8,000 meters, one guy from the top of the central summit, but not from the highest summit. Likewise, when I’ve spoken with him he’s always been transparent about things.
I’ll add that beyond Shishapangma, additional controversy has to do with the term “skiing Mount Everest” used by Mike (as his film title, for example), and the media, in reference to their North Ridge ski — which was not a summit descent. As with Shishapangma, all might have been better had the words “skiing _on_ Mount Everest” been used instead. On the other hand, the movie does take a documentarian tack regarding skiing the big one, and covers historical Everest skiing apart from the Marolts. In that sense, the title is fine.
All this nourishes a compelling thread regarding humility, peer acknowledgment, goals, and the unwritten rules of alpinism. Some of this is disjointed in the telling, but by the book’s close I’d gained a sense of Mike’s transformation journey from a young man’s “f*** you all” attitude, to a more nuanced — dare I say mature — approach.
I’ll not comment further on this because I’m acquainted with many Aspen area locals who’ve expressed a raft of opinions — some negative — about the Marolt’s endeavors and how they’ve been communicated. Moreover, I’m one to relax a bit regarding what exactly is a “ski descent,” in that some “claimable” peak descents don’t have to begin at the exact summit. I’m not going to sit in judgement about Shish, except to say Mike and Steve bagged a noteworthy ski descent on a huge, dangerous mountain. Read about it.
Skiing from on high
Beginning with Shishapangma and their “first Americans…from above eight-thousand” accomplishment, Steve and his friends begin their tough, admirable, yet outside-the-norm goal of skiing from high altitude, anywhere in the world, whether the starting point be a summit, or not. This results in something like sixty expeditions these guys pull off without a death or serious injury among themselves — an amazing accomplishment in of itself, and one I think these guys deserve major kudos for. They ski from 8,000 meters. If that doesn’t work out — or the peak isn’t high enough — they ski from 7,000 meters, or 6,000 meters. And so on. Their quest inevitably leads to two tries at Mount Everest, where they make bold attempts at summiting without supplemental oxygen, and ski the peak’s North Ridge from 7,700 meters. That’s well below the 8,848 meter summit, but any ski mountaineer has to admit it’s cool.
Oh, and did I mention they do many of these trips during winter? The trials of that are a book in of itself.
Along the way, the Marolts and their friends do nail a variety of summits, hence proving that despite their “ski from high altitude” goal they remain alpinists in the traditional sense. You know this when you read about what they went through to summit Illimani, a 21,150-foot Bolivian behemoth. After two previous expeditions, they finally have the conditions for a Messner-worthy summit push: 8,990 vertical feet to the top, while carrying the added weight of ski gear! They click in, push off, and make, yes, Illimani’s second ski descent. From the summit, if I may so emphasize.
Back to review basics
Now that I’ve digressed to philosophical meanderings, let’s get back on track. First, this is a self-published book without certain design elements often employed to smooth the reading experience. There is no index, no table of contents, minimal use of space breaks, and the aforementioned scarce chapters. To remedy some of this, I found myself writing the peak names in the top margins, so I could return if desired. The lack of index is understandable — they add to the expense and word-count. But the sheer volume of great-range information and stories in this memoir make it a historical document. As such it should have an index. (The Kindle version is of course searchable, thus providing an index function of sorts.)
Secondly, there are additional themes in Natural Progression that deserve more exposition on my part, but would take this review way past word count. A brief recount:
– The author’s development as a videographer and filmmaker.
– The Marolt brothers growing up in Aspen, with a storied and respected father.
– Skiing and climbing “pure” without supplemental oxygen.
– Winter mountaineering in cold so deep I’m afraid to think about it, let alone write about it.
An accomplished editor once told me that the best mountaineering tales are always a battle between human and mountain. Where Natural Progression succeeds is exactly that; in relating climbing adventure tales with no lack of the hardship, fear, sweat, pain, athletic training and conflicting lifestyle choices, it takes to climb — let alone ski — at the world’s highest altitudes.
(Disclaimer and notes: I’m friends with Mike and Steve. I feel comfortable offering this review. But for a more objective take you should look to someone more impartial than I. Also, we have quite a bit of Marolt content here on WildSnow, worth checking out.)