Vail climber’s back on top
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado – Ellen Miller is a climber.
The Vail, Colorado resident has been on top of Everest twice. She’s climbed Aconcagua, in Argentina, the highest peak in the America’. She’s climbed Russia’s Mt. Elbrus, one of the highest peaks in Europe. Miller’s been on Denali three times. She’s hiked all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers – many in the winter. She solo-hiked the continental divide. The list goes on.
Last month she stood 27,900 feet in air atop Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world, and located just south of Everest. It was one of the best experiences of her life.
About a year before Miller summited Lhotse, she went to the doctor. Her hips were sore and she decided to have them checked out.
The doctor’s diagnosis: Miller – who in addition to a steady diet of mountaineering is a long distance runner and a private coach at the Vail Athletic Club – had worn out her hips.
He told her hips are good for about 100,000 miles, Miller said. She figures she’s been trekking almost that long.
Miller eventually decided to have a full hip replacement on her left hip. Her right hip may need similar attention in the future.
She spent weeks recovering and said should couldn’t have done it without the support of the people in the Vail Valley – it’s one of the reasons she loves the area. Friends drove her on errands and took her dog for walks.
“It’s the quality of kindness that keeps me here,” she said. “There’s so much support and encouragement.”
It wasn’t long after her surgery she started to think about climbing again.
“The whole time I’m thinking ‘no, I’m not done, I’ll make a comeback,'” she said. “Some people climb Everest and that’s it, they just want the certificate. I think I’m just a climber.”
“Look at those guys, they’re crazy.” Miller remembers thinking that after seeing people on a ridge on Lhotse when she climbed Everest in 2002.
Lhotse has only been climbed by about 300 people. Hundreds fewer than Everest, which has been attempted by closer to 3,000 people. The two mountains are so close to each other, they share the same route for a few days of climbing. Lhotse is smaller than Everest by about 1,000 feet, but it’s more challenging, Miller said.
Miller’s friend Russell Brice, who has led expeditions in the Himalayas, suggested she try it. He was headed to Everest and helped put together the logistics for her trip. But Miller needed a climbing partner to summit Lhotse.
Brice put her in touch with Nima Tshering Sherpa, an experienced local climber that had been on Everest several times but never summited Lhotse.
Miller and Nima spent a little time climbing before starting their expedition, but it wasn’t until the first day climbing the Khumbu icefall – a glacier with large crevasses that makes for technical climbing right out of base camp on Everest – that Miller knew her hip was going to be OK.
“It’s technical and dangerous,” Miller said. “The hip felt really great right out of base camp, it was good to get on the route and think ‘I can do this.'”
Miller and Nima planned to start their climb to the summit of Lhotse at 1 a.m. Brice contacted them on their radio and suggested they start around 4 a.m., it was going to be too cold to start any earlier, he said.
By 8:05 a.m., on May 22, they reached the top.
Almost exactly a year earlier, Miller was in Denver having surgery on her hip.
The pair gained about 2,000 feet of elevation the last day. They planned to spend six hours getting to the summit. It only took four. And there wasn’t any drama, Miller said.
“It was one step at a time,” she said. “We made it.”
Miller became the second American woman to climb Lhotse. The other was Christine Boskoff, a friend of Miller’s who passed away. Miller dedicated the climb to Boskoff.
Quite a few factors went into making Miller’s Lhotse climb one of the best experiences of her life: Climbing something that isn’t climbed that often; doing it with Nima, who Miller described as a wonderful person and climbing partner; being back in the Everest region in Nepal; being with her friend Brice; and being able to climb after her surgery.
Miller makes yearly trips to the area and has done some fund raising to give back to the Khumbu region and its communities.
“Part of my heart lives in Vail and part lives in Khumbu,” Miller said.
Miller hopes her recovery story can be an example by which other Vail Valley athletes who have gotten hurt can be inspired.
“Get a few opinions, get it fixed and go on with your life,” she said.
Staff Writer Chris Outcalt can be reached at 970-748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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