THE TRAGIC and untimely death of Mark Miller in the PIA Airbus which crashed as it approached Kathmandu airport at the end of last month has deprived British mountaineering of one of its most talented and prolific sons.
As a pupil of Wellingborough School in Northamptonshire (1972-74) and then at Denstone College, Staffordshire (1974-79), Mark distinguished himself as an athlete, swimming for Northamptonshire County and playing rugby for the Kettering Colts.
Whilst at Sheffield Polytechnic in the early 1980s he made the most of the city's proximity to the Peak District's many gritstone and limestone outcrops, soon becoming known for his characteristically bold routes on gritstone slabs, to which he gave typically imaginative and memorable names ('Science Friction', graded E4 6A, on Froggatt Edge, and 'Sex Dwarf', E3 6B, on Millstone Edge, for example). His keenness and effervescent enthusiasm for the outdoors in general and climbing in particular was inspirational, instilling his companions with new-found confidence to climb at the limits of their technical ability.
These qualities became tempered with a deep respect for and understanding of the larger mountain environment as he became increasingly interested in alpinism. The classic apprenticeship followed, with long stays in Chamonix producing a rich crop of climbs, mostly made with his fellow Sheffield-based climber Sean Smith. These years of prolific alpine activity saw Miller making the first British ascent of the Hidden Pillar of the Freney, the second ascents of the Gabarrou-Silvey route on the Pic Sans Nom and the direct route on the north face of the Leschaux, and early ascents of the Croz Spur direct and the north faces of the Pelerins and Monch in winter. All were characterised by their seriousness and technical difficulty.
One winter was spent job-sharing as a dustman in Chamonix. The Alpine Binmen, as this group and their associates became affectionately known, were notorious for their poverty and simple love of the mountains.
In the mid-1980s the Binmen went east. After a very successful spring season in Peru, Miller's first Himalayan expedition was to the Kishtuar in India in the summer of 1984, and from then on the great mountain ranges of Asia consumed most of his energy. Doug Scott invited him to Pakistan in 1985, an expedition during which Miller climbed Diran, his first 7,000m peak. Attempts on Rakaposhi (7,788m) and Nanga Parbat (8,125m) were abandoned due to sickness amongst the team, but the infectious spirit of those mountains and the simple, hardy folk that live amongst them captivated Miller and his life became a passionate crusade of expedition mountaineering from then onwards.
In the tradition of British mountaineers since the very first explorers ventured forth to the Alps over a century ago, Mark Miller's love of the mountains was a multi-faceted gem. His expeditions took him to some of the most spectacular places on earth in search of a match for his incredible strength, stamina and climbing skills (Makalu in Napal, Shivling in India, and Masherbrum in Pakistan, for example), whilst his insatiable curiosity and love of the wilderness took him on exploratory expeditions (Hushe and Aling, Pakistan, 1989) and treks throughout the Himalaya with his beloved girlfriend Cath Speakman.
In 1990, with Andy Broom, he founded the mountaineering and adventure travel company 'Out There Trekking' (OTT), and this venture provided him with the perfect outlet for his boundless energies. He had found his vocation at last. His wealth of experience and affable nature stood him in good stead, and those of us that shared his life came to think of him as a survivor. Leading his first commercial expedition to Peak Lenin in the Pamirs in the summer of 1990, Miller deemed one of the regular campsites to be in a particularly dangerous spot and elected to pitch his group's camp in a safer place. During that very night a terrific avalanche swept the other camp away completely, killing over 40 climbers in the worst single accident in the history of mountaineering. Throughout the night Miller and his party searched through the debris and helped rescue two frostbitten survivors.
Mark Miller lived his life with the throttle fully open - whether on an 8,000m peak in the Himalaya, on the crags of his beloved Peak District, mountain-biking in the Lake District, DIY-ing at home, or raving into the early hours at clubs or parties. For all who knew and loved him there is now a vast and strange emptiness which tears and time may heal.
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