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Hot Air in Thin Air

posted: 03/15/2006
by John Byorth

In early october 2002, aspen-based ski mountaineer Mike Marolt telephoned photographer and fellow ski mountaineer Kristoffer Erickson to congratulate him for being the first American male to ski off the summit of an 8,000-meter peak-26,750-foot Cho Oyu in Tibet, on October 1, 2002. (Two years earlier, Laura Bakos had become the first American ever to accomplish the feat.) He also called to offer Erickson a ring that signified membership in an elite fellowship: With his descent, Erickson joined three other American alpinists who had skied above 8,000 meters. Erickson wasn't the only one to notice the distinction between "off the summit" and "above 8,000 meters."

The semantic rigmarole began two and a half years earlier, in April 2000, when Marolt and his twin brother, Steve, claimed that they were the first to ski off the summit of an 8,000-meter peak, in this case Nepal's Shishapangma. Local and national coverage followed (including an article in Skiing). But when the mountaineering community began asking for details, an oversight, er, undersight, came to light. The Marolts hadn't skied off the true summit but off a massif known as the Central Summit. Their claim to fame went from "the first Americans to ski off an 8,000-meter peak" to "the first Americans to ski from 8,000 meters."

Of course, corrections don't often make the news, and the Marolts' fame continued to blossom, while Erickson-and Telluride-based Bakos, who skied Cho Oyu without supplemental oxygen in September 2000-remain relatively obscure. "(Bakos) is the real star," says Erickson. "The first American to ski off the summit of an 8,000-meter peak. Some people just capitalize better than others."

Let this stand as a correction-although neither Erickson nor Bakos requested it. Indeed, if you ask Bakos about the lack of press attention, you'll quickly understand why she's not the outdoor-business cover girl. "Me being the first was happenstance. I don't put a lot of importance in it," she says. "Going to 8,000 meters to ski something that doesn't even have good snow doesn't seem very smart or fun to me. It was the whole experience that was fun."

Definitions of "fun" obviously differ. Both Bakos and Erickson skied the Tichey Route on Cho Oyu's northwest face, encountering similar conditions. "The turns off the summit plateau were terrible," says Erickson. "It was survival skiing at its finest." And you don't get a ring for that.

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