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An Alaska life lived large

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published February 7, 2009

Daryl Miller came home to Alaska not sure of where he was going.

His twisted journey to the north land took him from the streets of Walla Walla, Wash., through the jungles of Vietnam to the chimp-fighting cages of South Carolina and the bull rings of Montana to the peaks of America's Rocky Mountains and South America's Andes before turning at last to Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range.

It was there he would settle down and come to make his mark as the most-decorated rescue climber in the history of North America's highest peak, though no one could have guessed this when Miller first visited the mountain in 1981. McKinley beat him badly in their initial encounter. He left the glacial slopes vowing never to return.

A budding mountaineer, he had arrived in Alaska in the best shape of his life. Better than when he'd been a hard-living, hard-fighting U.S. Marine. Better than when his life had depended on being fit enough to dodge enraged bulls.

As a 37-year-old, back-to-college student at Northern Montana College, he was serious about fitness and training, and he'd newly discovered outdoor adventure. Lucy Smith, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) at the time, encouraged him to climb.

"She told me, 'You're really good in the cold,' '' Miller said, then suggested he accompany a planned NOLS climb to the summit of 20,320-foot McKinley. As always, NOLS approached the mountain via the traditional and physically demanding route from the north near Wonder Lake in Denali National Park and Preserve.

The route is not technically difficult. The Sourdough Expedition made it to the top in 1910 with the most primitive of gear while towing a 14-foot spruce pole to place at the summit. Unfortunately, the peak on which they decided to place the pole was the North Summit, the summit most visible from Fairbanks. The North Summit is also about 950-feet lower than the South Summit, and thus McKinley would remain officially unclimbed for another three years.

Blessed with good weather, legendary Alaskans Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper and Harry Karstens scrambled to the South Summit in 1913 to claim the first ascent. Miller and 19 others in the NOLS party discovered how different things are when the weather turns ugly. They ended up on a journey into hell.

WORST STORM OF THE YEAR

All these years later, having witnessed plenty of killer wind and cold in his years as one of North America's top rescue climbers, the newly retired ranger still uses the word "horrific'' to describe the storm that blew on Independence Day 1981. It pinned the NOLS group down at 17,000 feet, leaving them stuck and helpless and counting the days.

Nine days passed, with the group running low on food and fuel, before the storm let up, and they could retreat. They were lucky to get off the mountain alive. Smith's savvy and skill had been what saved them. Miller sensed he didn't begin to measure up. And he lacked the knowledge to recognize that there was a victory of sorts in simply avoiding death on the deadliest peak in Alaska.

He would come to understand this all too well later, but in '81, all he sensed in retreat was defeat.

Lannie Hamilton, now a veterinarian who splits her time between Talkeetna and Wyoming, was a 21-year-old instructor helping Smith lead that climb. She remembers vividly the mistakes Miller made on that first climb.

"He was not conservative in his energy expenditures,'' she said. "There were plenty of people to carry the weight, but Daryl had this pride thing. He was carrying these monster packs. I remember, at one point, talking to him and telling him, 'You've got to stop that or you're going to burn yourself out.' ''

He didn't listen. By the time the group got to 17,000 feet, he was wasted.

"I don't know if he'd just worked so hard or if he had altitude effects,'' Hamilton said, but when the first summit team roped up, Miller stayed behind in camp. Smith later tried to lead him to the top, but it was a no go.

"They tried to catch up,'' Hamilton said, "but Daryl was just staggering all over. Lucy said, 'This isn't going to work.''

The pair retreated to high camp. Hamilton went on into what she now calls "the scariest day of my life.'' Three NOLS rope teams got hit on the summit ridge by the biggest storm of the year. People were blown off their feet. Gear was blown away. Almost everyone was frostbitten. It was a small miracle no one died.

"People started getting blown off the ridge,'' Hamilton said. "We were crawling, dragging people. People were losing their ice axes. One guy was badly hypothermic.''

Somehow, though, they made it back to high camp and pitched camp. The winds shredded their tents, but luckily created huge snow drifts. The team dug in and moved underground. Hamilton remembers instructors getting up at two-hour intervals to go around and make sure everyone had dug the windblown snow out of the entrances of their snow caves so they would have air.

"I got to Daryl's snow cave on my rounds, I dug through like six feet of snow,'' she said. "By the time I got in there, I was so pissed off at Daryl I just started screaming at him. I was shaking with rage. Daryl was like, 'Lannie, calm down. I just dug it out 20 minutes ago.' "

To this day, she doesn't know if she believes the story or not, though she admits Miller is not one to lie. Honesty is one of his great virtues and part of the reason why up Talkeetna way, she said, "he's a local hero.''

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One who readily admits that first McKinley experience left him deeply shaken and full of self doubt.

"It was humbling,'' Miller said.

He climbed down off the mountain, returned to Montana, and swore off ever returning to Alaska.

VIETNAM ADVENTURE

Life doesn't always take people where they hope or expect to go. Sometimes fate has its own journey planned. Miller learned that long before he ever set eyes on McKinley.

He was a senior in high school when he and friends stole the Walla Walla State Prison sign off the second story of that historic penitentiary and relocated it to the side of their school. By today's standards -- with teenagers sometimes seeming as prone to gunplay as hi-jinx -- the incident might be viewed as little more than a silly prank.

Not so in 1962. The removal of the prison sign was taken very seriously. As punishment for his involvement, Miller was kicked out of school.

"That turned my life upside down,'' he said.

Miller was 17. His father, a logger, decreed that if Miller wasn't welcome at school he wasn't welcome around the house either. The teenager got out in a way that was common in those days. Miller went into the Marines.

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By October 1962, he was done with basic training and off to Cuba. The ill-fated, U.S.-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs was less than a year old, and tensions between Cuba and the United States were high. Miller and his fellow grunts were pretty much clueless about the politics, he said, but excited about serving in a war zone.

The first of his oversees adventures, however, turned out to be pretty boring.

"We didn't do anything,'' Miller said. "We dug up a golf course there on the base.''

It wouldn't be long, however, before things started to heat up. The so-called Cold War between the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union was raging in the '60s, and Vietnam was the hot spot. The United States was heavily invested in keeping the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese and their southern, guerrilla counterpart -- the Viet Cong -- from seizing the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam as the country was known to almost everyone at the time.

Miller went ashore for the first time in 1965.

"It was pretty good adventure for the most part,'' he said. His $80 per month pay was boosted by $65 a month in tax-free, hazardous duty cash.

Off patrol, he said, "they gave you a beer a day and a pack of cigarettes. You looked at things much different. It was an adventure, at least until we started loading body bags.''

Miller would do 18 months on that first tour. Two more tours, one in '68 and another in '69, would follow. Then he was transferred stateside to serve as a recruiter on the East Coast.

It was there he discovered chimpanzee fighting.

ROAD TO ALASKA

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The first time Miller saw a chimpanzee pound a Marine, he was impressed.

"The animals are seven times as strong as you are,'' he said. Intrigued by it all, he ended up taking leave to tour South Carolina with chimp trainer Bob Noell and his three fighters -- Konga, Butch and Joe.

"It was unbelievable,'' Miller said. He traveled town to town working as the roadie for Noell. Noell who would go into bars "and find the town toughs, the bullies, and he'd make them an offer,'' they couldn't refuse, Miller said.

Miller helped take care of the chimps and prepare the venue, a cage with flop down sides mounted on a truck. It was cage fighting before anyone knew what cage fighting was, but with a twist. The chimps were unbeatable.

Enticed into the fight ring with promises of cash, the humans were pummelled by the monkeys. The chimps were way stronger and way faster than any man.

And, of course, "they're very neurotic and just crazy,'' Miller said.

By 1972, though, it was time to move on. Miller decided to get out of the Marines after his father had a heart attack, underwent bypass surgery, and was given only five years to live.

Miller moved back West and got a job as a ranch hand in Montana. He quickly started working his up toward ranch foreman. Along the way, he took a side interest in rodeo sports, starting with team roping. He was at a roping event when invited to help out as a clown at kid's rodeo. He thought it was fun racing around in the ring to help distract the bulls that had thrown young bull riders.

"Those bulls didn't run toward you,'' he said. "They'd run away from you.''

Friends who saw Miller in the ring thought he had a knack with the bulls and told him he might be able to make some extra money working weekends as a rodeo clown. So in 1973, he went off to rodeo clown school to learn "bull fighting'' as they call it.

"The school was a real shock,'' Miller said.

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Big-time fighting bulls, he quickly discovered, don't run away like the animals in the kiddie rodeo. They run at whoever is in the ring, and then they try to kill them.

"I just knew (immediately) that was a bad decision because the fear was already there for me,'' Miller said.

The first bull he met in the ring at school hooked him by his suspenders and tossed him over a 10-foot fence. Miller wanted to quit school, but couldn't get a bus out of town for two days. He was talked into staying and gutted out school.

Afterward, he spent weekends from 1974-1977 getting chased around by bulls, if he wasn't in the hospital or recovering from some injury inflicted by one of the animals catching him.

"I just started getting a lot of injuries,'' Miller said, "ruptured spleen, ruptured kidney, concussions, broken ribs, a lot of ribs busted. It worked out for the first year, but not the second, third and fourth. The final years, I was losing money. That's why I quit.''

Or at least that was part of the reason. On another level, there was something bigger going on.

"I lost my confidence level,'' Miller said. He realized that working around the bulls was dangerous if you were sure of what you were doing, but potentially deadly if fear caused a hesitation at the wrong millisecond. Besides that, his body was telling him to quit.

"I ended up with a real bad back,'' Miller said. "I couldn't work. I just couldn't work very good.''

A friend suggested he go back to school. Miller, who'd completed his high school degree while in the Marines, enrolled at Northern Montana College and began studying outdoor recreation. Soon he took in his first NOLS classes. It was another life-changing moment.

NOLS started Miller down the road to Alaska, though he didn't realize it at the time. He finished university, got a job teaching an outdoor program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and came back to Alaska for the first time since 1981 to lead a group of students up McKinley.

Though the '86 climb once again ended short of the summit, Miller made a life-long friend in park service climbing ranger Roger Robinson. Miller invited Robinson to Fort Collins to do a McKinley slide show in 1988. Robinson invited Miller north to join a ranger patrol in 1989.

"I had a great time,'' Miller said.

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By then, too, his mountaineering experience had grown considerably. He'd been a NOLS instructor, climbed on the volcanos of Mexico, and been on four expeditions to Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America.

SAFETY IS FIRST

Happy in Fort Collins, Miller was somewhat surprised when Bob Seibert, the Talkeetna ranger for the park service, called him in 1991 to suggest applying for a newly created position of climbing ranger on McKinley. Miller tossed his hat in the ring and promptly found himself in a group of finalists with Jim Phillips and Dave Johnston, a member of the first winter ascent of North America's tallest peak and already a McKinley legend.

Johnston, now a good friend of Miller's, was clearly the most experienced climber in the group. Given that, Miller really didn't expect to get the job, but he did.

"I don't know why they picked who they did,'' he said, although he has a guess. "I don't think Dave wanted to be in law enforcement.''

Rangers are trained as cops and carry guns. As a Marine, Miller had spent a lot of time around firearms and was comfortable with them. He took the job. Seibert wanted a two-year commitment. Miller said fine. He expected to do a couple of years in Alaska and be gone.

When he arrived in Talkeetna, J.D. Swed held the job as chief mountaineering ranger, but that wouldn't last long. Swed was more an administrator than a climber. He ventured once onto the slopes of McKinley and never went back.

"Some people just aren't comfortable on the mountain,'' Miller said. "I don't know if I was the most comfortable man on the mountain, but it was home.''

Swed soon took his leave, and recommended Miller as his replacement.

Miller went on to become a Talkeetna institution until his retirement last December. He was involved in more than 80 rescues, became the first North American to win the International Alpine 'Taga D'Argento Solidarity Award for rescue, earned recognition in the U.S. Senate's Congressional Record for an epic circumnavigation of the Denali Massif with buddy Mark Stasik in 1995, collected the U.S. Department of the Interior Valor Award, and -- along with Phillips -- climbed to 19,500 feet on McKinley to perform the highest technical rescue in history.

"If you asked any international symposium to name the world's top five mountaineering search-and-rescue experts,'' award-winning author James Tabor observed in the book "Forever on the Mountain,'' "South District Ranger Daryl Miller would make the list.''

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On the road to achieving those credentials, Miller witnessed more than his share of death on the mountain, and found himself forced to explain the deaths and disappearances of far too many climbers to far too many friends and loved ones. Four of those who died were people who worked with Miller -- Mike Vanderbeek, a 33-year-old volunteer ranger who fell to his death while searching for a missing climber in 1998, and 25-year-old ranger Cale Schaffer who died in a 2000 plane crash along with volunteer rangers Adam Kolff, 27, and Brian Reagan, 27.

Schaffer, Kolff and Reagan were flying in marginal weather with respected McKinley pilot Don Bowers. Miller had approved of the flight after talking to the pilot.

"Don said he thought he could do it,'' Miller said. "I think that's probably my biggest regret working there (in Talkeetna) as I look back. ... If I'd said, "No,'' that flight would never have left the ground. "I sure regret that.''

After the deaths of Vanderbeek, Schaffer, Kolff and Reagan, Miller became something of a hard case about safety. He helped write new safety protocols for rangers, upped training levels and tried to change the culture to recognize that no attempt at rescue warrants risking more lives.

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"I was in one era from the 1980s to the 1990s,'' Miller said. "Now, we're in a new era. We're more professional. We're just a lot better prepared.''

Park Service officials attribute a lot of that to Miller, the man who first came to McKinley in 1981 aiming to stand atop the summit he wouldn't reach for more than a decade, by which time the achievement would prove hugely anticlimatic.

"I didn't summit until 1992,'' Miller said, "and that was my eighth trip. When I got to the summit, it wasn't a big deal. It was just so easy.''

He went over the top, descended the Muldrow to the north past where he'd thought he might die on that very first NOLS expedition, and never looked back. He was a man in his prime.

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PARKINSON'S GETS UPPER HAND

Within a decade, his climbing days were over. He knew by 1999 something wasn't quite right. He was unusually stiff and sore and at times seemed inexplicably weak. He tried to write it all off to a history of hard living, but then the trembles started.

"They took my gun away because I was shaking so bad,'' he jokes now.

In the summer of 2000, Miller was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system marked by muscle tremors, imbalance or stuttering speech. The causes of the disease are unclear, though there are some indications it might be linked to concussions. Former heavyweight world champion Muhammud Ali can barely speak because of his Parkinson's. Actor Michael J. Fox sometimes shakes almost convulsively because of his.

Always optimistic, Miller attacked the disease head on and was able to control most of his symptoms for years with medication.

"I couldn't believe Parkinson's was something that could happen to me,'' he said at the time. "(But) now that I know, I'm comfortable that I can treat this and be proactive in my own health. I could have been dealt a much worse hand. Parkinson's may be life-altering, but it's not life ending. Life is an adventure.''

He was 56 years old, and for the next eight years he would become something of a testament to the powers of modern medicine.

Drugs quieted the pain of the disease, stopped the shaking and kept his speech from faltering. He had to give up the job of chief mountaineering ranger, but took over the role of South District Ranger for Denali National Park and continued to coordinate rescues on McKinley and elsewhere from the Talkeetna Ranger Station until he retired in December.

Everything appeared to be going wonderfully up until then. He'd added the pounds nearly everyone does in their senior years in America, but his handshake remained firm; there were no outward signs of frailty; and he was looking forward to taking on new adventures in what had always been his way.

"I just get up and go to work and just try to do things,'' Miller said.

As the new year began, he settled into life in Anchorage where he and his wife, Judy Alderson, own a home. A lot of Miller's friends are here, and the city sits at the doorstep of Alaska. As much as Alaska has beaten Miller up over the years, it remains the place he feels most at home. His heart beats for the big, wide wilderness out there.

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His defining life's work was done on the state's highest peak, a place he yearns to keep near though not too close.

"If I lived in Talkeetna,'' Miller said in December, "every time I heard the Llama (rescue helicopter) firing up, I'd be over there to find out what's going on. That's not good. For me, I think it's just time to move onto something different. I think I can still do some things.''

In January, he started volunteering at the Bird Learning and Treatment Center in Anchorage and offered his services to the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage. He's always been an early riser, and he knows how to run heavy equipment. He figured he'd be a perfect guy to put at the controls of a piston bully grooming ski trails at 3 or 4 a.m.

"Anything I can do for the community, any volunteer work, something you can be active and give back,'' Miller said.

And then everything changed.

Only a month after retirement, his Parkinson's, a mean-spirited disease, overpowered the drugs and reasserted itself. Some days it was hard for Miller to even get out of bed.

"It's the way it is,'' he said. "It's part of the disease. I've had it pretty good for a long time.''

Always the optimist, last week he was making plans to travel to Seattle to consult with medical specialists. He was hopeful of finding a new treatment that would prove as effective as the old drugs.

"After a while, you take the medicine for so long, and then (it stops working),'' Miller said. "The pain's bad enough now that you want to think about taking pain medication.''

Miller, being the man that he is, was resisting that. He was gritting his teeth and grinding through again the way he ground through life. The disease -- like the bulls before -- had knocked him down again, but he was a long way from out. He still could muster his curious little laugh, sort of a "ha,'' that has always been a defining characteristic of this life writ large.

Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

By CRAIG MEDRED

cmedred@adn.com

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