Septuagenarian recalls lofty ambitions

Mountaineer paved way for others to follow

Last updated 12:45 17/06/2014
Ralph Miller
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ

PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES: Invercargill mountaineer Ralph Miller has been made a life member of the NZ Alpine Club and still has the ice axe and rope he used to make the first ascent of the Sheila Route on Mt Cook in 1967.

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Southland climber Ralph Miller has been honoured as a life member of the New Zealand Alpine Club. Neil Ratley catches up with a man always up for a challenge or two.

A Southland teenager's dream of being the first person to reach the top of Mt Everest was "ruined" by a fellow named Hillary.

As a 17-year-old, Ralph Miller spent many hours in the classroom at Southland Boys' High School planning a route to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain.

When Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, conquered the 29,029-foot peak on May 29, 1953, Miller was forced to find other mountains on which to test himself.

And he did. Between January 1954 and February 1970, the young mountaineer notched up 22 first ascents.

Miller, now aged 79,  pays homage to English mountaineer George Mallory when he explains his obsession with going where no climber had gone before.

"Because they were there to be conquered."

The Darran Mountains in Fiordland and Mt Cook were Miller's playground and, as a member of the Southland section of the New Zealand Alpine Club, he pushed the boundaries.

Southland section chairman Ron McLeod says Miller climbed many routes that paved the way for others to follow.

"Ralph has always been extremely modest about his achievements, which is why they have been overlooked by many," McLeod says of his colleague and friend.

"He saw no reason to announce his climbing plans before a climb and once a climb was completed, he felt sufficient satisfaction in a job well done that he felt no inclination to make much fuss.

"This is, he will say, 'The Southland way'."

However, Miller's achievements have been officially recognised with his elevation to life member of the New Zealand Alpine Club.

Alpine club president John Cocks said it took a climber of outstanding ability and notable achievements to join the select life members, and Miller certainly met those requirements.

"Ralph has been an exceptional climber and at a young age was pioneering new routes and claiming first ascents."

A self-taught climber - boys' high had a lot of climbing books in the library - Miller said his proudest achievement in a 68-year (and counting) climbing career was conquering the Sheila Face on Mt Cook. On January 2 and 3, 1967, Miller, with Austin Brookes and Ron Dickie, became the first climbers to ascend the formidable northwest face.

A recount of their exploits says the trio "displayed exceptional form by aiming not for the line of least resistance, but for what they thought was the best feature - the Central Buttress".

Miller wrote in 1967: "We sought an elegant, direct route, one worthy of the last unclimbed face of the High Peak'.'

Today, there are very few unclimbed peaks in New Zealand, but Kiwi climbers are still leading the way in pioneering new routes and techniques, he says.

"The younger generation are attempting and completing much harder climbs."

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Holding the ice axe, crampons and rope used for the historic climb, Miller says his days of climbing north faces may be over but he won't stop exploring the mountains.

"I suppose it's a lack of imagination. I can't think of anything else to do," he laughs.

"Most of the gentlemen I climbed with are gone now or are infirm but I still have some great friends who drag me up into the high country."

One of those close friends and a climbing colleague for more than 50 years is Bev Noble.

"If anyone in the New Zealand alpine world should be honoured with life membership, it should be Ralph," she says.

Miller's climbing achievements alone were enough to merit his elevation to an elite club but his continued service and dedication to the alpine club are unsurpassed, she said.

Noble said on the eve of Miller's elevation to life member, his climbing partner on the Sheila Face, Ron Dickie, summed up the humble climber's attributes. "Ron said Ralph was the safest climber he ever knew and the ascent was Ralph's idea and he got Ron and Austin up the face," Noble explains.

There are risks that come with hanging on to mountain faces with vertical drops of hundreds of metres and ascending into the clouds - Miller has known 51 climbers who never came home from the mountain - but the climbers' club is a special group, he says.

"You are surrounded by a group of like-minded and trusted pals. You don't want someone who doesn't know what they are doing at the other end of your rope.

"Climbers look after each other and are there for each other, often when they are at their most vulnerable."

Miller has shared his time on the mountains with many noted Kiwi climbers, including Bill Gordon, John Trotter, Ken Hamilton to name a few but his greatest supporter has been his wife, Nola. However, Nola did have to meet a mountaineer's expectations.

"I made her climb some mountains before she made the grade," Miller says out of earshot of his wife.

Nola is a very understanding lady, especially because climbers are very selfish people, he says.

"Loved ones are left at home worrying about us and if we will return - or at least I hope they are worrying about us."

Miller says he never made it to Everest.

He never had the money required to follow in the footsteps of the bloke who "ruined his plans" and was put off by some of the stories he heard about the tension and stress brought on by the altitude among climbing party members.

However, Miller has explored several remote parts of the world.

In 1969, he went to Antarctica with the United States Navy as a survival instructor for marines, paratroopers and scientific personnel.

His employment with the forestry service prevented him from a return trip to Antarctica several years later when Miller was selected to lead a field party intending to explore Victoria Land.

Miller's considerable abilities and energy sometimes left many of his colleagues in the southern alpine circles in awe, and now his contribution to climbing is deservedly getting wider recognition in New Zealand.

Miller's name now sits on the honour role with Hillary and many other great New Zealand alpinists.

Like all who have climbed before him, it will be hard to keep Miller off the mountains.

"I am keen to continue for as long as my health allows," Miller says.

"I'm acutely aware that advancing age and infirmity will ultimately call a halt to my activities and the passing of so many of my erstwhile companions is sobering and depressing."

"Declining strength and stamina and a sense of responsibility temper one's ambitions, but why stop when I'm still able and having so much fun?"

A CLIMBER'S LIFE

Ralph Miller's first climb was up the Lake Wakatipu face of The Remarkables. In the Mt Cook region he has climbed Mt La Perouse, Elie de Beaumont, and made the first ascent of the east face of Mt Dampier.

On Mt Cook, Miller was part of the first ascent of Sheila Face. He also climbed the high peak via the Linda Glacier, low peak by the west ridge and a grand traverse of the three peaks.

Ascents on Mt Tasman include a Silberhorn-Tasman-Lendenfield traverse, a climb of the Stevenson- Dick Couloir with a descent over Silberhorn. Miller's last major climb - one he considers among his best - was the first ascent of a buttress on the low peak of Mt Haast.

Service to the Southland Section of the New Zealand Alpine Club

  • Joined 1953, full membership 1956
  • 1 year as treasurer
  • 4 years as vice-chairman
  • 7 years as chairman
  • 8 years as section representative
  • 22 years on Southland section committee
  • 42 years service in all
  • Drafted and maintained the well-respected and accurate The Darran, Earl & Wick Mtns mountaineering map - a bible for climbers in the Darran Mountains

- The Southland Times

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