Text by Clint F. Cook, American Mountain Guide/IFMGA Guide. Photos courtesy of Bill Grasse & Jeff Witt.
Mark Miller is irreplaceable. His passing will have an everlasting effect on many communities throughout the mountains. His life had a much more profound effect.
When I first arrived in Ouray, I was a psyched young guide nervous about starting at a fabled small service in what seemed like a paradise. Mark was the 3rd person I met. He was up at the ice park working on the watering system for the park. In some awesome blue tights, leather cowboy hat, and with a killer mountain man mullet; I knew right away that Mark was unlike any other guide I had met before. He immediately took me under his wing and started mentoring me on all things Ouray, and guiding as he saw it.
Mark was an early Certified Rock Guide. While he did not always agree with everything the AMGA taught, he was always able to execute the requisite skills and techniques flawlessly and always exuded control over the scenario. We spent many days together in the Black Canyon mock-guiding each other in preparation for my own rock guide exam. Mark did this out of his own desire to see me improve and offer me whatever insights he could, nothing more.
After a few years at San Juan, I was privileged enough to take over as the Director. I anticipated a little bit of blow back from Mark as I transitioned nervously from a newly minted IFMGA guide into his boss. It never happened. As soon as Mark heard the news, he congratulated me and started coming up with ways we could work together to make the guide service grow and improve. He was absolutely essential to our success during that period.
Mark had the best work ethic of anyone I have ever met, guide or otherwise. He never turned down a day of work, he always showed up prepared, and gave all of himself to every guest he worked with. I knew I could call him the night before at 10pm with a last minute booking and he would gladly accept and be there ten min early ready to go the next morning. Mark had a style of instructing all his own. It was an intense combination of assessment, constant encouragement, and unique drills that could take just about anyone and turn them into an efficient climber. He had a drill and irreverent joke for every bad technique. Every day of ice guiding, I use something that Mark came up with for correcting technique or unlocking some gem of knowledge in a guest.
I was lucky enough to be free for this year’s winter guide training at SJMG. Mark was leading the ice portion, and in his mind I already “knew everything”, so it would be great if I could just hang ropes for him to run demos and practice teaching. I happily obliged and stood in the background. I was blown away. He was totally in his element. He had worked out an incredible format for passing on his years of experience and insight into teaching ice movement. I watched as he not only improved every guide’s personal technique, but unlocked their potential to pass it on to their guests. Now I see Mark every day when I watch a young SJMG guide teach ice movement.
I guided in the Lead Only Area of the Ice Park today, a place very dear to Mark. Mark’s spirit was palpable as I started up a beautiful curtain of steep ice deep in the canyon. I consciously tried to channel his energy as I climbed and coached my way to the rim. My guest arrived on top grinning for ear to ear, having climbed very well on the challenging route. I smiled as I thought about though he didn’t know him, Mark had a very real input into that experience.
Mark exemplified the unique character of Ouray. Cutting edge techniques combined with a blue-collar work ethic. He was a part of so many different micro-communities within this small town, always giving himself to whatever cause he thought he could help with. Hearing the stories from different folks the last few days has deepened my appreciation for his selfless drive to help others. As a guide, mountain rescuer, tutor, husband, or friend; Mark always put others first.
Courage, Discipline, Respect. I learned the importance of these traits early on in my guiding career. Mark lived his life by them in everything he did. Everyday. Mark’s legacy will live forever in Ouray and beyond. I will miss him dearly, but will always try to honor him by going the extra mile to give my guest the best day they have ever had in the mountains.