Excerpted from the new book Natural Progression
By Mike Marolt
Dad obviously had a huge influence on our careers, which started that day on Independence Pass. But Dad was not a dominating father, and in fact, realized better than we did at that time that we were growing up in a shadow of a great skier- an Olympian, in the mecca of an American ski town; he understood this could cause a distraction for us. While we skied often with Dad as kids, as we grew older, it didn’t go unnoticed that he never once went to one of our ski races. He encouraged us, supplied us with all the gear imaginable from his work as a ski industry representative, and would train with us from time to time, but he was steadfast in never watching us race, or to critically talk about how we skied beyond general comments of how to be smooth and fast. Taking us up to ski that day was simply his way of sharing his passion for skiing, and it allowed him to pass that passion on without the tick of a clock or pressure. Had we not reacted to that day the way we did, it would have simply ended then and there with a fun day in the mountains as a family. For us, however, the fire was lit!
We ski-raced through our high school years, which amplified our passion and ability to ski, but the whole time, it was always about just skiing. As Dad introduced us to climbing to access our skiing, we also came to love the physical aspects of “earning our turns”—a term that wouldn’t become common for years. In high school, we would train after school, but it was always after the lifts had closed. We had to hike for our training, something that we had no choice about, and it was an aspect of development that most of the kids dreaded. Not Steve and I. We would shoulder our skis and lap our teammates to try and get in a couple more runs than everyone else. Our coaches often joked that if we could ski down relative to how we hiked up, we’d be world champions. It wasn’t so much that we liked hiking; rather, it was simple reality. We were limited by daylight, and the faster we hiked, the more skiing we could get in. This often irritated the coaches who would freeze while standing around watching and coaching, but they respected our efforts so much that they would stay around long after most kids had headed home just so we could get in one more run. By the end of a winter we’d be in the best shape of our lives, allowing us to hike and ski well into the summer. With the introduction provided by Dad to the backcountry, and our driver’s licenses, we were constantly heading up into the mountains.
Our desire to ski was originally limited to the spots we were familiar with, Independence Pass and Montezuma Basin, for example. They were close, had guaranteed skiing, but we didn’t comprehend the vastness beyond these slopes. Over time, however, we started to notice what was around us. One afternoon, we climbed to the top of the headwall of Montezuma Basin, and while taking a break, someone mentioned the top of Castle Peak, a nearby 14,000-foot mountain that we could see from Montezuma. Suddenly, the lights went on. There was no skiing off the peak at that time of year, but we wanted to see what the view was like.
The concept of climbing one of Colorado’s fifty-four 14,000-foot peaks, or “fourteeners,” was not part of Colorado pop culture as it is today, and for us, our field of vision was limited to only what we knew and enjoyed—skiing. We didn’t even know how many fourteeners there were. But that day, we had to check this one out.
We secured our skis in a small bergschrund where the snow met the rock, and in our alpine ski boots, we started to climb. The summit became a magnet of sorts that pulled us upward. Walking on the rock was awkward and the going was slow. We had no concept of time other than the impression that we were going terribly slow; the peak didn’t seem to be getting any closer. But a funny thing happened. As we crested to the top of a small col, the view to the west came into sight, and with it, an excitement that I can feel even here writing this.
Before us was the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies, and beyond, the vast landscape of the western desert. Our field of vision was entirely unobstructed, and we noticed the slight curve of the earth. We’d never seen anything like it, and for the first time in our lives, we were struck with “summit fever.” As we climbed the steep and rough ridge, we also had a view of the side we had climbed. Looking down at the Jeep in the valley far below, we had our first real sense of accomplishment; the Jeep was a tiny dot. We could see our tracks in the snow leading all the way up mountain, with the entire range as a backdrop. Our adrenaline spiked and we climbed in a trance-like state to the top. Almost racing, we clicked into high gear. Suddenly we found ourselves standing on the summit with no more mountain to climb. We stood looking in all directions as far as our eyes could see. It is not an overstatement to say that at that moment, climbing had become part of our physiological and spiritual fiber.
The magnitude of what we experienced that day could not be overlooked or under appreciated. Since the beginning of time, since the first time a human climbed a mountain, there has always been an ambiguous sense of purpose and meaning that is burned into your mind as you take your first steps to that tiny chunk of earth called “the summit.” From a modern climbing perspective, people have experienced what I refer to as summit fever as far back as 1492, when Antoine De Ville and a team mounted the first organized attempt to climb a high peak in the French Alps. Their big climb was Mont Aiguille in France.
But the act of mountaineering has been around—and evident—for thousands of years. In biblical terms, mountains were regarded as special places where man would go to get away from society and bridge the gap between the physical world and God. Jewish prophets including Moses climbed. Christ himself took to the mountains more than a few times. Greek mythology uses Mount Olympus as the penultimate sacred place and focal point of life’s journey. Often not included in the history is the Inca contribution of the late 1300s. The Incas developed climbing shoes made from cotton and hemp as well as climbing tools made from sticks and rocks to help them achieve summits throughout the Andes, summits that they used for human sacrifice. There is a definitive yet ambiguous connection between mountains and spirituality. Whether figuratively or actually, world history is dotted with examples in which mountains are a place to go to get closer to God, to find oneself. But that history includes a few men climbing mountains for “unknown reasons” and documentation that leaves modern archeologists pondering unanswerable questions.
I believe that mountains are simply not a place that human beings are designed to be. But with enough effort and a bit of planning, they are places humans can go. The process of wondering, and then acting, and the fact that something so useless in practical terms is so satisfying in spiritual terms, are almost impossible to describe to most people that have never climbed. But I also think that the same reasons Moses and Christ set off to the mountains is applicable. Because these mountain places are so practically useless and difficult to attain, people that choose to experience them are almost guaranteed a place to be alone. Mountains distill the human experience to the bare necessities—just like our eighth-grade overnighters in the woods.
You need the clothes on your back, a bit of food (enough to just get up the peak), and at the end of the process you are left with a feeling of being a tiny nothing in the grand scheme of things. The vistas, the effort, the solitude, and the mass beneath you add up to a feeling of utter insignificance. When you find yourself standing on the precipice, even if you’re not cognizant of it, you are standing in a place that has existed for millions if not billions of years and taken on all the beauty and harshness of nature relatively unchanged. When you experience the exertion of getting to that place, the magnitude of the energy, the disparity of time, and the wonder of nature—even if subconsciously—leaves you humbled. Without going to the tops of the mountains or the middles of the oceans or any of these wild places, it’s difficult to be humbled like that. So the feeling you are left with is somewhat ambiguous, but it gets burned into your very fiber. The feeling is like a drug, leaving a climber wanting more.
We stood on the top of Castle Peak in pure amazement. The normal buzz and hum of activity while we click into our skis was gone. Everything was quiet. I don’t say this lightly, but the events of day, the location, the view, the realization of what we’d done, all had a massive impact on us. To that point, it had always and only been about skiing. I’d go so far as to say the climbing, while exhilarating, was a means to an end, often accepted as an unfortunate reality. To that point, we often discussed how incredible it would have been to be up there when Dad had his rope tow running. At one point we even explored the possibility of putting another one in, but that day, we understood the power of climbing. This was a critical point in our young lives; it opened the door to the vastness of what we could do. Again, without even knowing it at the time, climbing had become a ticket to go wherever we wanted, to do whatever we wanted, and to do it nearly whenever we wanted—plus, we had the entire Elk Range as our playground. Our eyes and hearts were opened to unlimited places, but more importantly, they were opened to an experience that fueled the roots of what would become our lives passion.
Our enthusiasm must have been something for Dad to witness as we talked endlessly about our day. In his mentoring way, he carefully reeled us in so we wouldn’t let our excitement get the better of us. He encouraged us in the direction we were headed, but he always tempered it with the overreaching theme that we were entering into a vast wilderness that had a zillion ways of killing us. I look back at his excitement for us, and marvel at his unique ability to balance our enthusiasm with the realities of how dangerous the mountains were. More importantly, though, he showed us how with a thoughtful and reasonable approach, they could become an incredible source of joy, beauty, and endless fun.
When we spoke of the possibility of putting in another rope tow, Dad kind of laughed in a mild way we never understood, and suggested that the idea was not only not possible, but not a good idea. After standing on Castle Peak, we started to understand his lack of enthusiasm. Along with our first sense of freedom in the hills, we also got our first sense of the fragile ecology. We didn’t just give up on the notion of the rope tow, we found ourselves practically and factually knowing we didn’t need one. And, more importantly, we started to see the mountains as a place where they didn’t belong. The sense of accomplishment and the satisfaction of climbing for our skiing, combined with the notion of achieving a summit, established in our young minds the reality that there was more to life in the mountains than just the skiing.
In a sense, there was a reward for the hard exertion involved with the climb, but for us it created something that just skiing doesn’t offer. There is no arguing that skiing is fun. The great outdoors, the wind in your face, and the pure rush of controlling a free fall down a mountain has created an industry with equipment and amenities that appeals to millions of people. But when you climb what you ski, you develop an appreciation for the energy that is displaced, especially when you click into your skis and point them downhill. You understand, even if only subconsciously, how remarkable it truly is to ski. When you climb a peak, make the effort to carry your gear, put one foot in front of the other, and consider the enormous exertion expended, you appreciate the few minutes of skiing it generates in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise appreciate. So not surprisingly, now when I look at lifts taking people to the top of a ski resort, I look at that differently, marveling at the power of the motors.
One expression coined in the 1970s by the first modern backcountry skiers was “earn your turns.” This is a skiing metaphor that means that you get out of life what you put into it. It’s one of those messages that we hear often in sports, in motivational books, and lectures, from our parents and mentors, and so on—from people who have experienced the notion. No one would ever argue the concept to be nonsense, but until you actually experience it, it generally goes in one ear and out the other. For skiers, the concept is something of an afterthought. Skiing is intrinsically so much fun that, initially, as was the case for us, the only time we would ever consider climbing with all our gear would be where there was simply no alternative. In today’s culture of health and awareness, there is an incentive for hiking uphill. But a funny thing happens to people who decide to pick up their gear and take the first step. As was the case for us on Independence Pass, and on countless days after that, including the moments we spent on top of Castle Peak—the act of “earning your turns” became something desirable.