Ellen Miller: Woman on Top

Last May, after summiting 25,771-foot Nuptse in Nepal, Ellen Miller became the first American woman to complete the Everest Triple Crown, including Everest (29,029 ft) and Lhotse (27,940 ft). The Colorado resident subsequently announced that she was retiring from a 25-year career in extreme high altitude mountaineering. We caught up with her to find out about her latest accomplishment, and what she has planned for life below 23,000 feet.

You already had a storied career, becoming the first American woman to summit Everest from the north side in 2001, and then the only to summit Everest from both sides in one year. Why Nuptse?

The Khumbu region is my second home—I go there every year as a trekking guide— so my decision to climb Nupste was deeply personal. It’s not only a stunning mountain, but also a mysterious mountain—only 20 people had climbed it when my team summited. Part of it was my desire to show my commitment to the Khumbu region and to the sherpas who live there. And part of it was about finishing a beautiful project before retirement.

Your career included skyrunning, adventure racing and mountaineering, some of the most physically and mentally punishing sports on the planet. What’s your deal with pain?

It’s really about getting to know myself better. People ask me why I climb mountains. One reason is for the sheer beauty and grace you get to see at high altitude. But also, I do it to find out who I am because in order to really connect with someone, you need to know yourself. And at the end of the day, at the end of my life, it’s not going to be where I placed in the race or the summits I’ve stood on, it’s going to be about the relationships with the people I’ve met along the way and the shared experiences.

How did you decide it was time to retire from extreme high altitude mountaineering?

I’m 54 now, and I realized I’m not able to manage the discomfort as well as I could when I was younger. But more importantly, I was very frightened while climbing Nuptse. It was the first time that I looked around thinking, “Oh my god, what we are doing is so bloody dangerous.” When I was 35, or even 45, I just didn’t think that way. It kind of hit me this year. That’s when I realized it’s time for me to let this go. Part of being a good climber is knowing when to stop.

So what now?

I’m very passionate about the French language and want to spend time studying it in France. Plus I love the French Alps. I’ll always be a climber, but I’d like to travel to other places and climb other things besides the Himalayas. The extreme mountains take a lot of money, time and energy. I’d like to have some fun now, you know, relax a little bit. 

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