Fallen Guide Mark Miller: Remembering a Legend

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Mark Miller. Photo by Claudia López.

Mark Miller. Photo by Claudia López.

2/4/15 - When climbing guide Mark Miller died in a fall last Friday, January 30, the accident left an outsized hole in the tiny community of Ouray, Colorado. A big crowd is expected this evening at the Ouray Community Center for a memorial to the 50-year-old climber. At the insistence of Miller’s wife, Collette, the invitation encourages guests to wear Hawaiian shirts and bright clothes in celebration of Miller's vibrant life.

“The town is a wreck,” said Malcolm Daly, who worked with Miller to create the Gimps on Ice program for climbers with disabilities (now called Paradox Ice). “Mark helped so many people and touched so many lives. Everyone I ran into in Ouray was able to share wonderful stories about the various ways he had helped them.”

Miller fell while guiding First Gully, a four-pitch WI 3 ice climb near Eureka, about an hour from Ouray. Miller and his two clients were nearing the top of the low-angle climb, and Miller was free-soloing alongside one of the clients to give him pointers as he led the pitch. According to the clients, a large piece of ice fractured unexpectedly under Miller and carried him down the route. After descending, the climbers (including one emergency-room doctor) confirmed that Miller had died from injuries sustained in the fall.

Mark Miller teaching at the annual Paradox Ice event. Photo by Claudia López.

Mark Miller teaching at the annual Paradox Ice event. Photo by Claudia López.

The accident shocked local climbers (despite the obvious dangers of free-soloing) because Miller was regarded as a master of ice climbing—a brilliant technician. Danika Gilbert, who guided with Miller for many years, said, “He was kind of a geek about how climbing works—really intellectual about it. He and I would be watching other climbers in the Ice Park, and he’d say, ‘What would you do to turn him into a better climber?’ He could see the subtle changes that would help someone.

“He worked hard to get better at climbing and at teaching,” Gilbert added. “He once said to me, ‘Danika I don’t work that well with women. How do I teach them to swing tools better? How do you each them?’ He was always looking for some way of doing things better.”

In addition to his work as a local guide, Miller influenced the San Juan Mountains climbing community in countless ways. He was one of the earliest paid employees of the Ouray Ice Park, helping to engineer the world-renowned ice-making systems. He set competition courses for a few years at the annual Ouray Ice Festival. He volunteered on the local search and rescue and emergency medical teams. Miller also was a key figure in developing Paradox Sports’ annual ice climbing event in Ouray—the largest and longest-running program for the Boulder-based adaptive sports organization.

“Collette, his wife, told me so many times how important Paradox Ice was to him,” Daly said. “She told me he talked about it all year long.”

Photographer and Paradox volunteer Claudia López said of Miller’s work with disabled athletes, “Mark understood the mechanics of the human body like nobody's business, but more importantly he understood the power of the human spirit. He mentored and guided all of us, regardless. In his book there were no limitations."

Photos courtesy Claudia Lopez.