For most college seniors, their last summer of undergrad is a chance to relax and get ready for adult life but 21-year-old Maddie Miller isn’t most college students. Currently in her senior year at Colorado College, Maddie spent her summer doing some climbing—or more than just some. She used her vacation to climb to the highest point in all 50 states, and with the help of mentor and world-renowned mountaineer Melissa Arnot, who accompanied Maddie on 49 of the 50 peaks, Maddie became the fastest person to do it, smashing the record in 41 days, 16 hours and 10 minutes.
In order to set this record, Maddie and Melissa sometimes had to summit as many as five peaks in a day, with the larger peaks out West generally occupying an entire day by themselves. Throw into the equation extensive travel time and other intricate, down-to-the-last-detail logistics and planning, and you start to have a little better grasp of how impressive this feat really was.
We caught up with Maddie to talk through her life-changing summer.
So how’s it been assimilating back into normal life? I have to imagine that’s been a process.
Definitely a little harder than I thought. Just kind of the post-trip blues a little bit and missing my team but it’s been good.
It seems like there are two pieces to this whole trip: The actual climbing and then the traveling and logistics of it all. Were either of those more difficult than the other?
Yeah, probably the logistics were the hardest part. The climbing is fun, the climbing is why we do this, and why we sacrifice space and comfort. But the logistics were a Denali all their own. When I got to Alabama I thought the southern states were going to be simple, you know, they’re all drive-ups and that whole week of states will be like my break after Denali, and that was just not the case at all. The logistical part of it was really difficult but really rewarding, obviously.
So, how much were you sleeping during this entire thing?
When we talked it out, I think we were sleeping on average, 4 hours a night. So we would get into a hotel at like 11 or midnight and get up at like 3 or 4 a.m. and hit the road.
How much of an impact did that have on all of this?
What I was really surprised by was how well we functioned on very little sleep and how we could go climb a peak in the middle of the night and be totally fine. And I think obviously there were times where we said ‘OK, we need to get more sleep tonight,’ and we were all feeling a little drained but as long as you pay attention to your body, it was kind of surprising how well we functioned as a group with no sleep.
There are a lot of moving parts here. How much of the logistics for this were planned out in advance versus figured out on the fly?
We had a vague plan—where we were going to go on which day and which days were going to be travel days and that was all from a group of friends of Melissa’s who had done this trip before. They had had a rough outline and we were basically copying their outline which was really helpful, but most of the logistics happened on the fly. We never met any deadlines we made for ourselves. We would do morning meetings every day and plan out the next 48 hours and we never made a single plan that actually worked. We were always like 2 hours off, or didn’t make it to the state we wanted to make it to that day, or went too far.
You still broke the record, so clearly you couldn’t have been messing up that bad!
No, we were able to pick up time where we needed to which was the important part.
So, now that you’re done with this and getting back to normal life, what are some of your big takeaways from the trip?
Well, we had to make a lot of big adjustments to get used to our lifestyle because it was a very peculiar type of lifestyle. Like getting used to being in really close quarters in a van basically 24/7 with four people and kind of feeling OK with that and making the best of that situation as well as being able to go with the flow and be ready to adapt to any certain challenge that might have come our way. Like when we couldn’t go to Gannett [Peak in Wyoming] and we had to just re-route our entire schedule and go to Nebraska then down to the southwest instead. Just being OK with that and being able to make the best of those situations because in the end that made Gannett one of our last peaks, Gannett and Kings, and that was definitely hard. It was hard to do all those technical climbs right after each other. It was a big, big, big week.
That's right, you had quite the finale: Hood, Rainier, Mauna Kea, etc. A couple of those mountains are probably some of the more serious ones aside from Denali that you could have done.
Oh yeah, that week, we counted, it was like 100 miles in like 72 hours. Rainier and Hood bring their own technical aspects to it. It was kind of crazy.
Are there any lesser-known summits that you guys got to that you would recommend for people or that you think are worth of repeating yourself?
Yeah, for sure. A lot of people know about Granite [Peak in Montana] but Granite was probably our favorite in the lower 48. It’s just a really cool technical climb and it’s very rewarding. It’s a long approach but it’s all worth it and you get to rope up and rappel some on the way down so that was really fun.
I would say one of the less well-known peaks that we climbed was Guadalupe in Texas and that was really beautiful. It’s this really cool trail that covers a lot of different terrain and you see the desert below you but then you’re in this really beautiful mountainous area. We really liked that one, as well.
We really loved Mount Marcy in New York, in the Adirondacks. It was kind of our first really long hike and so it was kind of fun and it’s also more technical than you would imagine. There was some scrambling where we were on all fours so that was really fun, and surprising which is nice. So, there were a lot of gems but those were the ones that stand out to me right now.
Melissa talks a lot about this trip in a way that pushes the motivations for it towards your growth as a climber. This is a pretty big thing for her to undertake in the name of your progression and that certainly says a whole lot about the relationship that you both have and how close you are but I’m curious: Why did she do this with you?
Yeah, I owe so much to Melissa. She sacrificed so much for me and this goal, and I don’t even know how to thank her or how to even begin to express how I feel about her. We didn’t know each other that well before this trip, but she knew that there was something there, something that maybe could be fostered if I was willing to grab it, and I think once I transitioned and was able to make the best of this trip we grew together in a way that I’ve never really grown for someone.
Melissa has inspired me in so many ways. Just being a strong female role model, I haven’t really had that before I met her. It was kind of settling. I didn’t really think women had the potential to be something extraordinary, and she showed me that they do and I think that’s the most special gift anyone could ever give someone...because we did that! We were extraordinary and I feel so empowered and so ready to take on my adulthood.
So, did it work? The whole goal was pushing you as a climber and preparing you for maybe bigger better things so how different do you feel as a climber coming out of this?
It really pushed me. Usually, I’m the follower. When I’m climbing, I’ve never really taken initiative and been the leader and she forced me, in a good way, and I forced myself, to take on that role as the leader. I was usually leading the navigating which was terrifying. It was really good for me. I was able to make all the calls and, even if it did lead us in a circle a couple times, she was really nice about it. ‘You need to get us out of the situation, what would you do, what would Maddie Miller do?’ She was able to show me I have the tools, I just need to use them. I feel like it has really advanced me. It’s advanced me in my confidence more than anything. I think anyone has the potential to be a good climber, you just have to have confidence and push forward and stop questioning yourself.
I also led Mount Hood and it was the first glacier climb I had ever led. I had never had any leader training besides just learning from Melissa, so that was scary but it was really empowering because I did it and she was like ‘You did that, you led that climb, that was all you.’ I do feel like I’ve grown so much as a climber and as a leader and especially all the physical stuff we did, I feel pretty strong.
So, how do you go up from here? What do you think it’s prepared you do to? Where do you see yourself going from this point as a climber?
Well, possibly being a guide. We’ve talked a lot about that. But Melissa and I have also talked about creating some type of school or camp for women, and even men, where we pay it forward and pay the leadership and the empowerment forward and teach other girls how to be inspired and get outdoors and incorporate that into their everyday lives.
I don’t really know, I’m graduating with a mathematical economics degree so, I’m interested in a lot of different things but I’m very interested in helping inspire other women especially. Showing them that they have all the capabilities to achieve their dreams, so I think doing something like that would be really great.
Whatever Maddie winds up doing, we're sure it will be something big.