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3 Aspenites 'flash' climb, ski Bolivia's Mount Illimani
Hypoxia hit agonizing levels at 20,000 feet.
Mike Marolt's once-steady pace was slowed to a crawl as he, twin brother Steve and lifelong friend Jim Gile trudged up Illimani in Bolivia.
Three labored breaths accompanied nearly every step up the precarious, snow-covered slope, Mike Marolt said. The weight of the skis and pack on his back felt more like 80 pounds, not 20 to 30.
“I was just hurting like I've never hurt before,” he admitted. “Hands down, this was the hardest day we've ever had.”
That statement is sure to make anyone's ears perk up. After all, the Marolts and their tight-knit band of thrill-seekers have plyed their skills on massive peaks across the globe — from South America to Alaska and the venerable Himalayas. They have skied in Everest's death zone and have participated in about 40 excursions — all without supplemental oxygen — in the past 25 years.
Still, nothing could quite compare to a 17-hour flash ascent of Bolivia's second-tallest peak, which, at 21,122 feet, casts an imposing silhouette above the capital, La Paz.
“If you're just starting off and don't have the background, you don't consider this type of stuff,” Marolt said. “It's just the natural progression of going to these big peaks — it's the only way to truly figure out what you're capable of.
“I think it's kind of like a marathon runner who never knows how fast they can run until they push themselves to that point of no return, and they either finish and have a great time or end up not finishing because they pushed it too hard. The problem with altitude is that you don't have the luxury of pulling out of the race when you get up to 19,000 feet and hit your wall. You always have to have enough reserves to get off the mountain. That's how people end up dying.”
The three had not planned on pushing their limits to such an extent.
Rather, they fully intended on spending the bulk of their 10-day excursion acclimatizing and methodically working their way to the top — an objective that had eluded them in two previous attempts.
(They were forced to abandon a summit bid 16 years ago because Gile fell ill, and last year they wasted precious time finding the correct approach route and had to turn around when inclement weather rolled in.)
Complicated circumstances arose this time around, too. So did an unanticipated opportunity.
“We had carried the skis to 18,000 (feet) one day and fully intended on hauling camp up there, but (we were told) we couldn't leave an unattended camp up there,” Marolt said. “There are a lot of villages at the base of Illimani, and people have had camps completely stolen.
“We didn't want to lose our gear and not get the peak. We've been doing this 25 years and have never flashed a peak from base camp to the summit and back to base camp. We figured, ‘You know what, let's give it a go.'”