Twice on top of the world
Miller, 43, who climbed the 29,035-foot mountain from the southern side May 16 this year and from the more tricky, north side on May 22 last year, joins and elite club of four women.
“It’s an unusual achievement to climb both sides of the mountain,” Miller said Thursday. “Getting to the summit is the most joyous moment. But I don’t relax till I’m back in Katmandu.”
Miller decided to go back to Everest and climb the south route after she came back from last year’s climb. And now she’s decided to write a book about the 70 women who’ve scaled the mountain.
“I wanted to know the mountain from both sides before I started to write,” she said. “Climbing Everest has changed my life. It gave me another project – the book. I want to honor all the women who’ve reached the summit.”
“A joyous walk’
This year, Miller climbed with a team from New Zealand, which wasn’t as professional as last year’s team, she said. The group started with a possibility of five climbers reaching the summit, but three turned around on summit day.
Miller, who was climbing with Ang-Dorjee, a Sherpa who has climbed Everest eight times, left Camp IV at 10:30 p.m., reaching the top at 9:30 a.m. the next morning. They were among a procession of 54 climbers who reached the top that day.
“That night, the sky was full of stars and we saw some shooting stars. Then, we watched a beautiful sunrise. It was a joyous walk to the summit. The day was magical, crystal clear.”
Standing just 5 foot 4 inches tall and weighing 110 pounds, Miller has climbed five of the seven tallest mountains on earth. Besides Everest, she’s stood atop McKinley in Alaska, Aconcagua in Argentina, Kilimanjaro in Kenya and Elbrus in Russia. She’s the first American woman to successfully summit – and return from – the north side of Everest.
“My lifestyle is about training for races, and that helps with the mountaineering,” said Miller, who also has competed in two Eco-Challenge adventure races. “I’ve been competing in athletic events for the past 20 years, and competing in a team with men, like we did in the Eco-Challenges, gave me tenacity and mental strength.”
High-altitude mountaineering, though, comes down to physiology, Miller said.
“If you have a certain physiology, you can deal better with altitude – and I can,” she said.
The biggest challenges on Everest, Miller said, are staying healthy and safe the entire two months it takes to climb the mountain.
“If you’re not properly dressed you can get frostbite, and if you get caught in bad weather in the wrong place it can be a fatal mistake.”
Weather forecasts these days, however, help to pinpoint a good summit window, she said. This climbing season there were only two summit days because of the weather.
“There’s a lot better equipment available,” Miller said, “but it’s always been an individual making decisions.”
One of the decisions Miller made was to climb light, taking only a 40-pound backpack and leaving behind extra food and clothing.
“It’s not efficient for me to take more than 40 pounds,” she said. “I like to be efficient when I’m climbing. I like to climb fast.”
And she prefers to climb with Sherpas rather than Westerners.
“They know the route better and they’re very strong. If something happened to me, I know they’d be able to carry me down the mountain.”
Fear is good
During her two ascents of Everest, Miller found out that climbers had impacted the south and north routes differently. On the southern route, she found remnants of tents and ropes from previous expeditions; and the northern route is littered with dead bodies. Everest has been climbed more than 1,000 times and, authorities say, 180 climbers have died on its unpredictable slopes.
“The Sherpas don’t touch them, and it’s impossible to bring them down,” she said.
“It impacted me profoundly to find that one of the bodies was that of a U.S. woman who summited in 1998, but died going down,” she said. “You feel fear, which is a good thing because it helps to keep you safe.”
A new challenge
Ellen’s life also has been impacted by the Tibetan and Nepalese culture. For example, Tibetan prayer flags hang from her living room and porch walls.
“The belief is the wind blows through them lifting the prayers to the sky,” she explained. “I’m very attached to Tibet.”
Meeting the oldest woman to climb Everest, a 63-year-old Japanese woman, was among the highlights of this year’s ascent.
“We both reached the summit the same day,” Miller said. “I also met a Nepalese woman who also has climbed the mountain from both sides.”
Miller, who said she still has some residual fatigue from the climb three weeks later, is now going through a another kind of ordeal helping her brother who is battling cancer.
“It makes you think about the meaning of life and to do things while you can,” Miller said.
“These kind of trips are the ones that make me learn about myself. We call it “introspection through ordeal,'”
Miller said she has no big climbing plans ahead. Instead, she will concentrate on her book.
“All these women have in common is that they are strong, driven. But the stories about what motivated them to climb Everest are different,” she said. “I think writing the book could be harder than climbing a mountain. It’s new for me. It’s a different challenge.”
Veronica Whitney can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 454 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.