Remembering Jack Miller

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By Jimmy Langman 
Editor's note: The following is from Issue 26.
Patagon Journal could not publish another edition without paying tribute to Jack Miller, a contributing editor to the magazine. He died in March 2022 at a hospital near his home in Ridgway, Colorado, after sustaining injuries in a car accident. It was a sad loss for all who knew Jack, who departed 83 years young, and an immeasurable loss too for all those who love Patagonia. Fittingly, he was the author of the cover story of our inaugural edition, among many other contributions to this magazine since its founding; Jack’s passion for exploring and conserving the mountains and wild places of Patagonia embodied the essence of Patagon Journal.
Born in Spokane, Washington, he became a world-class mountaineer, climber, kayaker, outdoor educator, and expedition guide. Jack had been exploring Patagonia ever since the age of 23, when during his first trip to the region, in 1964, he tried to surmount the then-unclimbed Cuernos Principal in Torres del Paine. Although unsuccessful that time (he finally climbed it in 1978), the 5 months he spent hiking in the region established a fondness and fascination for Patagonia that had him trying to come back nearly every year. He wrote about many of his expeditions and climbs in Patagonia – some of them first ascents ­– for the American Alpine Journal and others, as he became increasingly transformed into a self-described “Patagonian junkie.”
Jack would often refer to his 1964 expedition to Torres del Paine with awe. In an email to me, he wrote: “We camped, hiked, and climbed for 73 days in Paine and never saw, or heard of, another outsider. Just us and a few thousand sheep.” Climbing Torres del Paine was not the only motivation for that first journey to Chile, but also the Andean condor, which at that time was nearly extinct in North America. In a story he wrote for Issue 10 of Patagon Journal, Jack described his amazing encounters with condors for the first time through excerpts from his personal journal written during that trip.
To help finance his Patagonian addiction, he became a South American trip leader for Berkeley, California based Mountain Travel, before eventually starting his own travel company, Andean Outfitters. In fact, in the early 1970s, he was the very first person to bring a group of adventure travel tourists to Torres del Paine, a period when there was no park rangers or tourist infrastructure. But in later years, he lamented the travel industry and their “selling” of Patagonian nature, often expressing concern about the impact that the increasing floods of tourists, hikers, and climbers are having on the park and the wider region.
That concern was a primary motivation for him supporting Patagon Journal. As he told me in 2008 when agreeing to join my fledgling effort to start up this magazine, he wanted to be a part of conservation-oriented publication like ours – which at that time was a completely novel idea in the Chilean media landscape – because our publication would be mainly interested in “emphasizing and preserving the natural beauty and the soul of Patagonia.”
Jack told me: “We camped at the base of Fitz Roy when it was still wilderness. Beside my small group of Sierra Clubbers, we were the only ones there. No city of Chalten at the time, not even a bridge. When Doug Tompkins, Yvon Chouinard and I were there in 1974 we were the only people, except for the ranch family and arrieros. Too quickly the carpetbaggers and developers discovered the place. When they moved in it became just another boom town. Like Ushuaia, Coiyaque, Puerto Natales, etc. I know we cannot control the rate of people flooding into Patagonia, but perhaps we can share our feelings about this very special place.”

"I know we cannot control the rate of people flooding into Patagonia, but perhaps we can share our feelings about this very special place.”

Cordillera Sarmiento Expedition
In the late 20th century, there were few places left on Earth where man has rarely, if ever, set foot. Jack Miller managed to find one of them. In the mid-1500s, the Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa put his name on the mysterious Cordillera Sarmiento, a mountain range in the Canal of the Mountains, also known as the Fiordo de las Montañas. For hundreds of years after, though, it was merely seen from afar by ship captains as they sailed pass. There was a complete lack of human presence there until Jack’s curiosity was piqued one day after viewing it upon reaching the summit of Gran Campo Nevado in Skyring Sound in 1974.
In January 1976, he and a climbing partner, Dan Assay, boated across the fjord along the Bernal Glacier, one of the five glaciers that stem from the Cordillera Sarmiento, where they climbed and named two peaks: Rayos y Truenos (Thunder and Lightning) and Tres Furias (Three Furies).
Fourteen years later, after spotting a rare clear day, he hired a small plane and took low altitude aerial photos of the oft, cloud hidden Cordillera Sarmiento. His photos unveiled the immensity of this unspoilt treasure and were enough to convince the National Geographic Society to finance an expedition. In 1992, Jack led a team of five other mountaineers and photographers on a 20-day journey that included climbing and naming six mountains in the range and creating the first map of the area. Their photos and story were immortalized in the April 1994 edition of National Geographic magazine, and with a more extensive story written by Jack later published as the cover story of Patagon Journal’s first edition in December 2011.
In later years, Jack sought to build support for protecting the Cordillera Sarmiento. In 1999, he started the Cordillera Sarmiento Institute toward that end, with plans to host research groups to do field studies and convene conservationists and funders around the cause. For sure, he must have been overjoyed when the Cordillera Sarmiento finally gained protection status in 2019 as part of the new Kawésqar National Park.
It was in 1999 that I first met Jack. At the time, I was just starting out as a freelance journalist in Santiago, Chile. Jack had long admired my former boss, David Brower, who was the first executive director of the Sierra Club and an environmental leader in the United States during the latter half of the 20th century. He tracked down my email somehow, and from then on, we developed a close friendship over the years with him talking my ear off on numerous occasions.
In recent years, he recruited me and others for his “LazulWild” project. He had long been enamored with Lago Azul, a pristine lake he loved to kayak on the outskirts of Torres del Paine, and when he learned that it may be threatened by Chilean government plans to build a road to connect Puerto Natales with Fiordo Staines to mainly provide access for salmon farms, he swung into action. He assembled a team to do field studies to serve as the basis of an environmental management and protection plan for “preserving Lago Azul and lands westward toward Staines and Fiordo del las Montanas.”
Lack of funding, the covid pandemic, and taking care of his beloved dog Klondike at his home in the Colorado mountains, would not allow him to make one last visit to Patagonia for that project, but Patagon Journal aims to continue with his work there and I know his spirit will always be part of the Patagonian landscape.

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