Kt Miller is a radical and empowered adventure photographer and Dynafit athlete out of Cooke City, MT. I met Kt through No Man's Land. I reached out to her to see if she was interested in sharing her new film "Shifting Ice + Changing Tides," a human and wind powered, female led, expedition to the west coast of Greenland to visually document the recession of glaciers and ski first descents. She said yes, and was in Aspen in the blink of an eye. Kt spent the better part of the weekend with us (myself and NML Ambassador, Dana Wilfahrt). We skied, laughed, talked adventure and inspiration. We also went on a road trip to Salt Lake City! That aside, being in Kt's presence is like being in a warm hug - she makes you feel like you can accomplish anything, beyond that, she'll probably do it with you or connect you with someone who will. For women who are pushing the boundaries in the adventure world, Kt Miller is definitely among the elite.
Attached is the transcript and video recording of her speech from our Aspen event on January 7, 2016. Enjoy!
Good evening. Welcome to the No Man’s Land Film Festival. I’m honored to be here with you today and very excited to share our Film, Shifting Ice + Changing Tides with you!
My name is Kt Miller. I’m a professional skier, photographer, environmentalist & filmmaker. I’ve been a passionate skier for many years— growing up around the ski bum culture of Bridger Bowl in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana.
I’ve also been fortunate to have the opportunity to do some work with polar bears [ yes the large white bears that live on the sea ice and eat seals] in the Arctic.I learned about much of the conservation issues I’m passionate about today from my work up there. I spend 2-3 months each fall with polar bear scientists in the north taking their data and helping them create visuals out of it to explain scientific information in simple terms that are easy for the general public to understand. I also get to drive a Tundra Buggy (a giant school bus on monster truck wheels that keeps you up high, safe from the bears), carry a shotgun, and a lot of the same decision-making skills I use in mountain environments to keep people safe in a dangerous wildlife environment.
Through all of this, my goal is to share stories and provide a gateway for viewers to experience these unique places. Because at the end of the day, whether it’s polar bears or powder skiing, we can all connect through the incredible experiences we have in nature. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have about polar bears, skiing, climate change or photography after the film, but being that this is the No Man’s Land Film Festival, I’d like to spend a bit more time talking about women, and being a women who works hard and plays hard in the outdoors.
Like many young girls when I was in High School I had a bit of an identity crisis. I wanted to be a professional skier, but I also wanted to be a cheerleader and do speech and debate. I went through a punk rock phase, a mini skirts and high heels phase, and a tom boy phase wearing only baggy clothes and skater shoes
I was fortunate to stumble upon some really great female mentors in my late teens who taught me something really important. They taught me that I could just be— that I didn’t have to fit in a category or be defined by a genre. By watching them I learned that I could dress up for a nice dinner, and I could get dirty on a multi-day ski trip showering with wet-wipes. And on that multi-day ski trip I could wear earrings, or not— either was fine. I had this ‘ah- ha’ moment. I realized that I could be both strong and beautiful. That one was not separate from the other, and in fact maybe being strong was beautiful.
One day, one of my mentors, Krista, told me a story of her young adulthood and some challenges she faced with her appearance & self-confidence. She got so fed up with the media feeding her images of perfect women that one day she threw away all of her magazines. No more Glamour. No more Vogue. She decided that she was no longer going to let anyone else tell her what perfect looked like or what perfect was ‘supposed to be.’ That story made me look harder at my own life and at what sources I chose to be influenced by.
We live in a very powerful culture in the United States. Even Pandora has adds with skinny, sexy women in bikini’s. It’s really hard to get away from mass media messaging. So we have to choose to filter it up here. And by choosing not to consume certain media, we also send a message. It may not always seem like it, but every little action we take and every little thing that we do or buy is a vote. Supply and demand. This applies to everything. Take Walmart for example. Walmart now carries organic food. Do you think they chose to do that because it’s good for you? No. They brought in organic food because consumers demanded it. Your vote counts. Every dollar you spend, every piece of clothing that you buy, and every article that you read is a vote. It shapes our culture.
We are also incredibly influenced by the people we surround ourselves with. Think about it. Hang out with people that like to party, you’ll probably party too. Hang out with people that are into music, you’ll probably get into music too. Hang out with people that park ski, you’ll probably ski in the park. Hang out with people that tour in the backcountry, you’ll probably tour in the backcountry.
And let’s acknowledge boyfriends for a minute too. I consider myself to be a very independent person but let’s be realistic. When I dated a guy that rock climbed a lot, I rock climbed a lot. When I dated a guy that was really into fly fishing, I spent a lot of time on the river. When I dated a guy that ice climbed a lot… well, we didn’t see each other that much. But that’s a different story. We are a result of the people we surround ourselves with whether we like it or not, so it’s important to choose your company wisely. But the most important thing is to just be you. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Listen to your intuition. There is no definition of what you need to be, how you need to be, or what is possible for you. That is the exciting part— you get to define who you become.
When I was 21, I joined an all-star ski expedition up North America’s highest peak— Denali, in the Alaska Range. The company was out of some sort of whacky, never going to actually happen, day-dream. My childhood friend Max Lowe invited me to come, along with 13 others including his dad, Conrad Anker, Jon Krakauer, Jeremy Jones, Kasha Rigby, Ralph Backstrom a few good friends— Brody Leven, Robin Hill, Rachel Pohl, and even Carbondale** County’s own Jacquie Edgerly, who was a new-to-me friend at the time.
I actually had a fair amount of ski mountaineering experience at the time. I was thrilled to put it to use, learn from some of the best climbers in the world, and simply hang out with my friends. The Alaska Range is one of the most spectacular mountain ranges on earth, so at the very least I knew the views would be nice.
Our packs weighed 70 – 80 lbs, and we towed sleds with a month worth of food and supplies that weighed about the same. It took about a week to shuttle loads up the mountain to our high camp at 14,000 feet. My group ended up having six summit attempts. Most parties only try once. Our fifth attempt we tried to summit as a group— all 13 of us (one of the 14 left early). Maybe it was our unlucky number 13, but we (along with about 45 other people on the mountain that day) got caught in a rare electrical storm just below the summit ridge.
A light cloud started to descend upon the peak and we heard a faint boom [thunder]. I looked up and saw a guide screaming at his clients to run down the summit ridge. Everyone started panicking, feeling electric shocks through ice axes, skis, and carabiners jangling on harnesses. All at once 30+ people were literally running down the mountain to lower ground. Within minutes a thick white fog settled in and visibility decreased to less than 30 feet. Slowly everyone on the mountain began stumbling through the fog, following wands back to the safety of the highest camp at 17,000 feet.
The storm— St. Elmo’s Fire — is a rare electrical storm uncommon at high altitudes, seen most often by sailors during intense thunder storms. We were on the move for about 26 hours that day. Our flights out of Anchorage were scheduled for 48 hours later. Half the crew called it a trip and skied out to the landing strip to catch the next flight off the glacier. 6 of us [including 3 women- Kasha, Jacquie, and myself] decided to stay and give it one more go.
24 hours later we started up the mountain again. We departed our camp at 14,000 ft around 2am. I was still worked from the previous attempt.We had a relatively uneventful ascent. Slow and steady. On the summit Ralph Backstrom spread some of his brother Arne’s ashes... it was a tender moment for us all. We were looking forward to a relatively quick descent on skis. We paired up and descended the mountain as a group. We had skied an alternative descent route a week prior while waiting on weather and feeling out conditions on the mountain. We figured we’d rather ski that route – the Rescue Gully — again than switch back to crampons and descend the fixed lines. Ralph, Jacquie, and I dropped in. Little did we know we were in for one of the scariest descents of our lives.
It had snowed a few inches of super light density snow since we skied the route last, but the wind had blown too. The skiers left side of the gully had an 8 inch wind slab. We all agreed that we weren’t psyched on the slabby conditions. The obvious alternative seemed to be to traverse across the slope to the fixed lines and ski the rest of the way to high camp from there. We’d skied next to the fixed lines multiple times and knew once we got to the fixed lines we would be alright. What we didn’t know was that the traverse to the fixed lines was blue ice with a two inch dusting of snow on top.
By the time Ralph realized how bad the conditions were Jacquie was 2/3 of the way across behind him and I was a little less than half. They were at the point where turning back was not an option.Making a turn on the blue ice would almost certainly result in a fall with crevasses below. There was no room for error. They scratched across digging in their mountaineering axes into the ice attempting to break with a few moments of barely controlled sliding down the ice.
I had made the mistake of giving Jacquie my mountaineering axe at the top of the rescue gully because she was having trouble getting to hers. I had also chosen to leave behind my ice screw that day to save weight [and because everyone had been making fun of me for carrying it, along with a V-thread tool, the entire trip]. So I had two whippets, a rope with nothing to clip it to, and Ralph & Jacquie yelling at me to under no circumstances follow them.
It felt like I was frozen in place for hours. I went from shivering to sweating. I realized that my only choice was to make one calculated jump turn and traverse back across the slope to edge-able snow. It was that, or wait for the rangers or Jon Krakauer to climb up and save me— but I didn’t think I could hold still on the ice long enough to wait without slipping. There was one spot of snow that looked softer than everything else, mostly because it appeared to be slightly flatter and, bridging a small crevasse. It was the only spot I would be able to make a jump turn and land without washing my edges out on the ice and going for a huge slide. I slowly inched down towards the soft spot. Whippet, Whippet, Side-step. Once I was finally in position I took a lot of deep breathes. I visualized exactly where my turn needed to be and hoped that the snow bridge wouldn’t collapse under my weight. I finally counted out loud 3 – 2 —1.
I skied out of my turn and traversed quickly back towards our original route. The snow became edge-able again and a wave of relief washed over me. I followed our old tracks through the crevassed slope below down to Ralph & Jacquie. My sweat started to cool. We slept hard that night and packed up the following morning to descend the final 7,000 ft to the runway. And after all that we ended up sitting at the runway in a storm for 6 days with only instant mashed potatoes, ramen, plain quinoa, and hot or cold water to drink.
Now that story is not meant to scare people, or demonstrate that I’m some sort of hero because it was actually very poor decision making. I was 21. I was and am still learning - all the time. Hopefully with experience, comes wisdom, right? But I have learned through that experience, and others, that mountains are beautiful and provide challenging environments to learn in, but the mountains don’t love you. The mountains don’t care who you are, or how much experience you have. And the mountains don’t care whether you are a man or a woman.
I used to struggle a lot with being small. I think that is a common challenge for women. On average we are shorter, smaller, and ‘think’ we’re not as strong as men. But our strength is different. When you push yourself you’ll be surprised to discover just how strong you are. I had an instructor in high school that was a shorter guy. One day on the skin track he explained to me that he felt that because he was shorter, he had to work harder and be more fit in order to keep up with people that were taller than him. At first, that concept frustrated me. It seemed unfair.
I realized that I had the choice to either embrace who I was (and the cards that I was dealt), or not. I realized that I needed to be strong to do the things that I wanted to do, and I also needed to learn to be incredibly efficient to make up for some of my disadvantages in the height department. The mountains don’t care how tall you are. But being short has it’s advantages too. I don’t have to duck under as many trees, and branches on skin tracks, and I weigh less & my gear weighs less, so I have less, in general, to lug around.
When you let go of thoughts of frustration, constant comparison, things being fair or unfair, your mind gets lighter too. But why put all that effort in the first place? My dreams consist of finding aesthetic ways to move through the mountains, particularly on skis. I find passion and purpose in that pursuit. Being strong, gaining experience, and always seeking to learn as much as I can is part of the equation.
Your dreams are probably different, or maybe they are the same, but we all have a vision of things we would love to do, or how we would like our life to be and there is a process required to get there. However, one of the things that I’ve learned is that nothing is impossible. No dream is too big. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it a reality.
There was a man in Great Britain whose son died when he was very young. The man had a dream [an actual head on the pillow, subconscious dream] of a beautiful song for his son. The dream captivated him so much that he had to make it a reality. He quit his job and travelled to London to try and find a symphony that would play this song so that he could record it, but there was a big problem. There was no sheet music for the song. He searched and searched until finally he found a pianist who took pity on him and his dream. He spent months, homeless and broke, humming the tune until the piano player was able to write the sheet music for the song. He then ran into another problem, it would cost over a million dollars to pay the symphony to play the song and even more to record it. So the man went to work selling real estate in London. He worked for a decade until he had a million dollars in the bank. Eventually he succeeded in hearing and recording the Symphony playing the song he dreamt for his son.
So, you see, anything is possible. You just have to figure out how. And that is exactly how the Shifting Ice + Changing Tides trip came to be. It started as a dream, and after two years of planning and preparation, and figuring out how, it became a reality.
In my experience, there’s a bit of serendipity out there. It often seems that you get out of life what you put in. Emit positive energy into the world and positive energy will come back to you. Your story, your passion, your drive must be authentic. When your dream is bigger than you, that is when the magic really starts to happen.
As Maya Angelou says, “A bird does not sing because she has the answer, a bird sings because she has a song.” So, the question is, what is your song?