Training for me is a way of life; I climb and ski as much as I possibly can. But ski mountaineering is a unique sport in that it entails obvious endurance to get to and climb the peaks, but it also entails the power needed to ski. To accomplish this, I use phase training. 6 months before a trip I hit the weights and try to gain as much power as possible for a couple months. Then I transition to more endurance power strategy that introduces higher rep lifting with endurance workouts. It is also critical to mimic oxygen deprivation.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewingMike Marolt.
Mike’s resume includes 13 Himalayan ski expeditions, and dozens of ski expeditions to South America’s Andes Range. They are pioneers in Winter Himalayan skiing with two record high winter ski descents. With nearly 60 ski mountaineering expeditions over 30 years, Mike possesses arguably the greatest resume in the history of ski descents from the world’s 5,000 meter to 8,000 meter peaks. They climb and ski pure style, without the aid of supplemental oxygen or porters, or altitude drugs, an aspect that enhances their accomplishments. To climb the highest peaks in the world pure style is limited to the greatest elite climbers in history. To carry skis and climb pure style places the Marolt brothers in a small fraternity of ski mountaineers that have pushed the boundary of what is possible for human beings to accomplish physically and mentally in the highest peaks on earth. In 2017 Mike and his identical twin brother, Steve Marolt, were the first ski mountaineers to be inducted to the USA National Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.
Major ski mountaineering accomplishments among others include:
- 1990 — Ascent of Denali, North America’s highest peak (20,320 feet)
- 1991/1992 — Ski expeditions to Canada’s highest peak, Mt. Logan (19,551 ft.)
- 1993 to 1996-Ski expeditions in Alaska to St. Elias, Mt. Bona, Mt. Blackburn, Mt. Donna (second ascent)
- 1997 — Attempt of Broad Peak, Pakistan, (26,414 ft.) their first 8,000 meter peak expedition
- 2000 — First Americansto ski from 8,000 meters, Shishapangma, Tibet (26,273 ft.)
- 2003 — First Americans to ski Mt. Everest’s North Ridge (25,175 ft.)
- 2007 — First Americans, 5th people ever, with multiple ski descents from above 8,000 meters, Cho Oyu, Tibet, (26,795 ft.)
- 2007 — Their second ski descent of Mt. Everest’s north ridge
- 2008 — First Americans, second people ever, to ski Bolivia’s highest peak, Sajama, (21,475 ft.)
- 2009 — First Ever ski descent of Tibet’s Norjin Kansang, (23,642 ft.).
- 2010 — First Ever ski descent of Peru’s Coropuna, Baraco Route, (21,079 ft.).
- 2011 — First Americans, second people ever, to ski Ecuador’s highest peak, Chimborazo, (20,700 ft.) (First and only single day ascent / ski descent)
- 2012 — First Americans, second ever, descent of Bolivia’s Illimani, (21,150 ft.) (First and only single day ascent /ski descent)
- 2013/2014- Attempts at first ever winter ski descent from above 7,000 meters, Mustagh Atta, China. World record high winter ski, (19,000 ft)
- 2015- World record highest ski in winter, Himlung Himal, Nepal, (21,150 ft.)
- 2016- First ever ski descent Ampato, Peru (20,600 ft.).
- 2016- First ever ski descent Sabancya, Peru (19,600 ft.)
- 2018- First ever ski descent Chumpe, Peru, (20,150 ft.)
Thank you so much for doing this with us Mike! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Aspen Colorado as part of the 4th generation of the Marolt Family. My ancestors were miners and ranchers, but my father and his brothers were Olympic ski racers. My mother was a nurse from Wisconsin and actually met my dad in the hospital after a ski accident. My brothers and I wanted to be like Dad. We never attained the level that Dad did in ski racing, but by being around him and all the world class skiers, we learned what it took to be successful by example. We were tireless with our training; it became a passion. That allowed us to be the first kids from Aspen to play division I baseball, but we had skiing in our blood. After college, our ski mountaineering became our passion. Our ability to work hard and train allowed us to climb and ski places not a lot of people could or would. We naturally progressed with the sport and in a zillion small steps took ski mountaineering where even we never dreamed we would.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
My Dad was the guy who inspired me the most. I had the honor of reading his acceptance speech at his induction to the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame which unfortunately occurred after he died. But he was also the catalyst to meet other world class skiers. Jimmie Heuga was the first American to medal in ski racing in an Olympic Games, and he became a huge source of inspiration. Later in his life, he was diagnosed with MS and through that developed his “CAN DO” programs which inspired not only people with chronic diseases to persevere, but for all people to make the most of their situation. Jimmie was also tireless with his ability to train. That resonated with me because I had ambition to take skis to the highest peaks. Directly related to mountaineering, Ed Viesturs who was the first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks became a good friend and mentor. He climbed pure style shunning supplemental oxygen, drugs, and even porters. His style was similar to the greats of the sport; explorers like Messner, Tilman, Shipton, and Shacklton who didn’t compete against the mountains, but rather sought self-awareness and knowledge of what they were capable of.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Bob Sloezen aka “Slowman” was a fantastic mountaineer with dozens of ascents on peaks all over the world including several 8000 meter peaks and two Everest summits. On my first major peak, Denali, Slowman was our guide. In three weeks on that single expedition, he taught me how to climb efficiently and safely at high altitude in the most extreme conditions imaginable. After that trip, he sent my buddies and I out on our own for the rest of our careers. He has remained a friend and mentor who has always been there for me. I can’t tell you how many times since then that I have found myself in some precarious situation on a high peak asking myself “what would Slowman do here?”
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
It wasn’t remotely funny, but one trip in Alaska, my brother and I were climbing and skiing peaks in the Wrangell –St. Eliase National Park. These are some of the most remote peaks on earth; the only practical way to access them is by airplane. After a week of skiing super stable powder, our pilot asked to go out with us. When we landed on the glacier, it was clear that the snow conditions had changed overnight and the snow was no longer safe. The pilot, a native to the area and also an accomplished mountaineer thought otherwise and said “I’m going!” Steve looked at me and said “what we do now?” I said “unless you can figure out how to fly that airplane, we better follow him and make sure he doesn’t get killed.” So we did. As we climbed higher, the blue sky and two feet of powder snow became the obsession and we completely dropped our guard. Long story short, we climbed the peak and with emotions rolling high, I dropped in. After a few turns, I set the entire face off into a massive snow avalanche. I fell backward when it started moving and looked up to see a twenty foot wave of snow sliding with me. I managed to get up and told myself “you have to ski across the back of that wave to the safe ridge and you can’t fall.” Somehow I managed to ski out of it. I learned a big lesson that day. I didn’t stick to my initial gut reaction, that conditions were not safe, and I allowed my emotions to override my intellect. I was extremely lucky that day. But it changed me dramatically. It changed how I climb and ski, but it changed a lot of other things as well; how I ride my bike, how I drive, how I cross a street, it changed the way I do everything! Your worst nightmare can happen. It sent me on a self-study to figure out how the brain works in decision making which has also become a passion of mine. It’s basically the study of how really experienced people make really stupid mistakes.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
The best advice I can give is to not rush things. You have to pay your dues in this sport because those dues amount to the most important aspect of the game-experience. You have to naturally progress taking the next adventure just slightly further than the last one always staying within your comfort zone. When people push in the high mountains, they run out of experience and bad things happen. Also, set goals, but don’t fixate on them. When you become obsessed with the goal, you burn energy worrying about failing. You start to short cut and compromise in an effort to do anything to attain the goal. This not only leaves you with constant anxiety, but it can eliminate your ability to learn about yourself and what you are doing. Experience is the name of the game and you can either fixate on a goal that may or may not happen, or you can really enjoy the moment and experience. By understanding this, at the end of the year, or the decade, or decades, you have a bank of experience that amounts to a lot of really great memories and positive feelings. That in turn keeps you wanting more which allows you to keep pushing a tiny bit further each time. Fixating on only the goal all the time eliminates good experience and creates early burnout. It doesn’t matter if it’s skiing the highest peaks or being an accountant or whatever. You can’t naturally progress at anything now if you are concentrating only on tomorrow.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
At age 55, I am continuing to climb and ski. Had you asked me 25 years ago if that would be the case, I would have laughed. So I am still pushing my limits. But I am also transitioning to midlife as well. I produced a film that is out, Beyond Skiing Everest. It is a sequel film to Skiing Everest which re-released as well. But I also just published a book, Natural Progression. The book is a biography which follows the two films. It has become a dashboard of sorts that through my story illustrates how to find passion and cultivate it, while focusing on the process of natural progression, not the objective, to realize success and true contentment in life. There aren’t many athletes that have spent their entire lives figuring out their game, and it was an amazing experience to finish the book and see how I transformed myself over the years. My desire is to help people see their gifts, to develop their passion, and achieve not just success but happiness. The process is what it’s all about because the process is what we do when we live our lives.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
This is the bread and butter of what I do. When we find ourselves in stressful situations, it is because our mind is in position to make a decision that will direct our physical body to react. But this is where we can run into trouble. Through evolution, the emotional vortex of our brain got a huge head start on intellect with the whole fight or flight concept that we started out with thousands of years ago. So today, when we find ourselves in stressful situations that require a good decision, if we don’t disengage our emotional vortex and defer to the intellectual vortex, emotional decisions will override intellect almost exclusively. So the trick is to create triggers that disengage the emotional side and engage the intellect. Every day I write out a simple plan for that day. Every couple hours, I reach for that book. I don’t even have to read what I wrote; the simple act of looking at that little book is a trigger that makes me stop and makes me think of all the details right then and there. I can’t tell you how many times my emotions literally have me daydreaming of a summit, but when I get that book out, I adjust my thought to “yea, but what about this….” and it changes my plan for the better and always the safer. You can’t pull out a book in a lot of sports, but you can create buzz sayings that when combined with daily meditation will trigger instantly this conversion. It is training your mind and that, like physical training for your body, takes time and effort. Meditating and self-awareness before you are in the mix of the situation are the key.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
When I get stressed out in the peaks, I use a circular breathing method. You breath out for three seconds through your mouth, and then in through your nose for three seconds until the breathing settles your mind and releases the hormones needed for stress relief. It’s a fairly common technique taught by many military manuals. It really works to calm your body so you can think about the next step.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Meditation and visualization exercises are critical but entail a professional evaluation by a sport psychologist. For me, I was diagnosed as not having a great ability to see myself perform. I could hear myself, I could feel myself, I could even smell myself doing my sport, but through an evaluation with a sport psychologist, he determined I had difficulty visualizing myself perform. So I worked on it. He had me try to draw myself doing my sport. He had me watch videos of others doing my sport at a high level. Then he had me meditate on it and helped me to create a trigger to make my mind flow back to the meditation. Even though it was difficult and I never was able to manage great visualization, just the process of trying worked in my subconscious mind to help manifest what I wanted to do. It’s unbelievably powerful. But like hitting the weights or endurance training, if you don’t concentrate on meditating on a consistent basis, you lose the gains quickly. It takes enormous dedication and work but it is totally worth it.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
Training for me is a way of life; I climb and ski as much as I possibly can. But ski mountaineering is a unique sport in that it entails obvious endurance to get to and climb the peaks, but it also entails the power needed to ski. To accomplish this, I use phase training. 6 months before a trip I hit the weights and try to gain as much power as possible for a couple months. Then I transition to more endurance power strategy that introduces higher rep lifting with endurance workouts. It is also critical to mimic oxygen deprivation. So along the way I do a ton of interval training not to maximum effort but say 90% and then immediately coast until my heart rate settles back and then I repeat. For me, the time my heart goes from nearly maximum back to down with zero effort is the most critical part of the workout. I will crank it up, then coast, then crank it up, and do that for 45 minutes. Then 6 weeks out I just maintain so I am well rested but as fit as the process can make me. When not looking at a trip, I try to mix up my routines with new concepts and programs. Especially as I have aged, trying to manage my workouts has become more complicated, but more interesting. But in general, it’s a lifestyle. In the summer I do a ton of trail running and mountain biking for fun, and in the winter I climb and ski as much as I can. And regardless, I maintain two days per week with some kind of resistance training. Post 40, it really is a case of use it or lose it for power. Resistance training is important in general but after the age of 40 it is in my experience critical.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
Training is a bad word to me. I am extremely passionate about my fitness, and over a life of training for all these expeditions, it has most definitely become a habit. But it’s a good habit. I love to take care of my body. I am constantly trying new diets ideas, new routines. The key is to keep it fun. If it’s not fun, then you won’t make it a habit. I keep my training fresh and am totally open for new ideas on how best to accomplish what I need. I am constantly studying training articles and manuals. And wow, when I find a new idea that works, that’s incredible. Training for what I do has a built in motivator; ultimately I train like anyone does for performance, but in my game, training is also a matter of your ultimate wellbeing. You don’t want to find yourself above 20,000 feet not in the best shape of your life. If you are not, best case you are guaranteed to be miserable, and worst case, you might not be able to get yourself off the peak.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
The best way to create good habits with training is to keep things fun. Take a vested interest in your body; research what others are doing. Track your progress and see what works and nix what doesn’t. Pay attention and really concentrate on what your workout habits are doing to your body. But also, moderate. The quickest way to lose interest in anything is to do it too much too often. I also have found the new technology watches to be an incredible tool. They accumulate all your vital stats and tell you how your body is recovering and how it is progressing. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt tired, but my watch tells me otherwise and then the training session proves it right by “waking” me up and having a great session. So be engaged and take control of your training. It’s fun and if you pay attention, it makes training a lifestyle.
As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
For me, the greatest inhibitor of flow is the normal stress of daily life. Taking care of my clients, paying the bills, you know, making ends meet. When I go on a long run or climb, I try to do my circular breathing on route to the trail to calm myself down. If I am out and can’t get the flow going, I will put ear buds in and play a nice song on repeat. The music becomes background music after a few repeats and the beat of the song becomes a pace mechanism. Through this pace of the beat, I concentrate on my breathing until suddenly I enter a state of flow. Flow for me boils down to calming my brain and through consistent breathing and repetition of how I step or turn my bike’s peddles, I am pretty good at attaining the state of flow. On those days where it just doesn’t happen, I just accept it and enjoy the views. You can’t fight flow because that creates anxiety the opposite of flow in my view.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
At least once a day, usually in bed before I go to sleep, I have a routine of the circular breathing and I concentrate on what I can hear. I go through my body and try to hear my heart beat. Sometimes I can actually hear it. Then I move to my body. I start at the head and work my way down my body just feeling my body, it’s weight, how it “feels”. I try to count my teeth by feel, then my fingers, toes, etc. It’s tough to feel your teeth and toes, but it’s amazing how good you get at it through concentration. So I go through that and that really allows me to focus on lowering how much activity my brain is generating and it allows me to then move into concentrating on whatever I need to be good at. Maybe I have a difficult problem at work, or a big climb coming up, whatever, I visualize myself doing what I need to do. Then, I am Christian and in that state, I say a number of prayers to thank the man upstairs for all the gifts he has given me, to give him all my problems, etc and the next thing I know it’s morning.
Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
Well, writing a book on your life like I just did is a cathartic experience in that I experienced this negative mind chatter like many do. When we are young, often our sports are driven by a ton of ego. Along with ego, we are subject to the world and how we think the world perceives us. That is the root of negative mind chatter. As I mentioned, my father was an Olympic ski racer and skiing, mountaineering, these individual activities are ripe with egocentrics. The spray in these sports can just hammer a young person to self-doubt and feelings of inferiority. My oldest daughter is 19 and an aspiring actress. I see this in her life and it’s awful to see as a parent not only because I love her and hate to see her beat herself up, but it also brings back memories of similar situations I endured over the years. But Dad was a really wise man, and he went through it as an athlete like we all do. When I used to have difficult times along these lines he told me that if I knew how little time people actually took to think about me, I’d be disappointed. That’s so true! We manufacture our self-doubts. The best advice I can give young people now having been through all that is to accept what and who you are. Accept it for the gift it really is. You know better than anyone what you are capable of and what you have accomplished and you need to accept that and celebrate it. It doesn’t matter if someone is better or more. You accept what gifts you have been given, and then you ENJOY them. That lets you appreciate your talent, but more importantly gets rid of the self-doubt which in turn gives you more energy to enjoy what and who you are and to improve on what you have been given.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Climbing and skiing the highest peaks in the world is an extremely selfish activity. I am out having a blast and my family and friends spend the time worrying about me; ski mountaineering is a dangerous sport. It’s a mental hurdle for me personally. So what I do is produce films and try to share the experience with people when I get back. People love to live vicariously through other’s adventures. Also, relating back to Jimmie Heuga who I discussed earlier, he engaged me to be on the board of his MS organization which I did for years proudly. After my term was up, I then used my film Skiing Everest to do events to raise money for the organization. I traveled all over the country doing events and all the money went back to fight MS. Then, with my film experience, Jimmie asked me to do a legacy film on his life, CAN DO: the legacy of Jimmy Heuga. In the process of making that film, I was able to raise a ton of money beyond the cost of the film which went into fighting MS. The film was successful and royalties went, again, back to fight MS. None of that happens if I don’t leverage my success in my sport. In my mind, God gave me a gift to do what I did, and over time it manifested itself in content that people enjoyed, and also allowed me to contribute back to a good cause. In my mind, happiness is not about who or what we are, but rather what we do for others.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Well, I think from me, the way I end the film Beyond Skiing Everest is with a gem that I just blurted out in an interview. “In life, some people will tell you that you can do whatever you put your mind to. I’m telling you that’s not remotely true; you can’t do whatever you put your mind to. But I guarantee, if you try, you can and will do a hell of a lot more than you ever imagined you could.” This corresponds to a famous person quote, that of Eric Shipton, in my mind the greatest adventurer of all time. When asked how he accomplished what he did, basically mapping the entire Himalaya as well as Antarctica and climbing hundreds of high peaks along the way, he simply said, “Put on your boots and go!” My climbing partner Jim Gile brings both these quotes together when he said, “Find your passion and don’t let anyone tell you it’s too dangerous or this or that, you are not capable, whatever. Find your passion and take it to its end.”
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Not really any specific person, but every young athlete. We get so driven by the goals we set for our careers that we forget about why we are doing the sport in the first place. Enjoy it now and be thankful for it because I can guarantee these things are fleeting moments in our life. Make your overriding goals, but don’t fixate on them. Rather, concentrate on being the absolute best you can be NOW. If you concentrate on that day in and day out, you will attain your goal, but you might also surprise yourself and accomplish something you never dreamed you could.