This 49-year-old software developer seeks out glaciers and backcountry, winter or summer, to keep his streak going.
Danny Miller isn’t the smoothest skier.
He bounces up and down on the slopes, popping his head up every so often like a prairie dog in his search for fresh powder.
He’s not the fastest — Miller doesn’t even wax his skis.
Eighteen people died in avalanches during the past five winter seasons in Washington, according to Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) statistics. If the idea of skiing every month in the Pacific Northwest is appealing, get training before you go.
• NWAC (nwac.us) provides detailed avalanche and weather forecasts designed for winter recreation. The site also documents avalanche accidents.
• Check ski-area policies about backcountry travel before leaving avalanche-controlled areas.
• In general, backcountry skiing requires some first-aid training, expert skiing ability, knowledge of snowpack and weather as well as an understanding of companion rescue techniques and equipment (shovel, probe and transceiver).
And his physique trends more toward dad bod than it does Olympian.
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But, he must qualify as one of the sport’s most dedicated.
Our trip to the Mount Baker Ski Area in late November marked the 277th consecutive month of skiing for the 49-year-old Carnation resident. Every month, winter through summer, no matter how bad the conditions or how shallow the snowpack, Miller finds a way. Sometimes he ranges to Canada or Oregon, but mostly it’s been in Washington.
“I’m not the best skier, just the most stubborn,” he explained.
In his 23 years of monthly skiing, Miller has seen a niche community of skiers coalesce around the monthly ski calendar he thought he’d invented. He has witnessed climate change slowly chomp away at his precious glaciers and watched his once-private backcountry ski destinations grow more crowded.
On our outing, though, as he darted through trees, hopped over stumps and poked through shin-deep powder, he romped around as if he were a Labrador puppy experiencing his first snowfall.
Started in 1993
It all started in November 1993 for Miller, who grew up in flat Ontario, Canada, but moved to Seattle after college. He skied 72 times that year (Miller keeps a spreadsheet log of all his trips).
“Something snapped in my brain, and I said, ‘I’ve got to keep doing this,’ ” he said.
When ski lifts weren’t operating, Miller hiked up snowfields and glaciers in alpine ski boots and with skis strapped to his backpack. The Alpental area and Mount Rainier became second homes.
Back then, Miller had the run of the local hills, particularly in late summer and early fall.
“In the ’90s, there weren’t many people doing this. I’d usually be alone,” he said.
Donnelly Miller (no relation), a friend he met on ski lifts in the early ’90s who sometimes accompanied Danny, remembered how strange it was for people to see skiers on summer hiking trails.
“We would always get looks from tourists. We were almost a tourist attraction,” Donnelly Miller said.
Early on, Danny Miller set the mark: If he skied 1,000 vertical feet, that would count as a successful day.
“It seemed like a nice round number,” he said.
A few summers later, Miller met a rare fellow skier in the backcountry. Are you part of the “turns all year” club, the other skier asked.
Backcountry ski enthusiasts, Miller learned, had a website dedicated to year-round skiing. He thought he had been the only one practicing this bizarre ritual.
Longest streak in state?
Miller’s streak might be the longest in Washington state, though it’s hard to say that with any certainty.
There is not a record book to track such feats and the Turns All Year website (turns-all-year.com), which still hosts a forum for backcountry skiers, has changed hands and its year-round skier page has become outdated. Also, some people set different parameters on what counts as a day skied.
“You make your own rules,” explained Silas Wild, the owner of a 19-year-long streak. “It’s not a competition.”
It takes a special type to ski every month. If it were a contest, it might be best described as one of attrition.
“The biggest threat to a streak is health — if you break a leg,” Wild said.
Call it dedication, call it obsession — for Miller, it’s a way of life.
“I approach my hobbies with the seriousness of a job or career,” he said, whether that’s caving or theater or mushroom-hunting, his other pastimes.
Nine years ago, Miller took up mushrooms. Now, he’s the identification coordinator for the Puget Sound Mycological Society, the guy who gets called when Puget Sound doctors need to know what kind of fungi someone ate.
“I try to be well-rounded — to unhealthily obsess about more than one thing,” Miller joked.
Information age helps
In some ways, satisfying Miller’s ski obsession has gotten easier with age. More information, including trip reports and detailed avalanche forecasts, is available on the internet.
Ski technology now caters to the backcountry enthusiasts. Alpine touring bindings that allow for the free release of a skier’s heel along with climbing skins (essentially carpets adhered to the bottom of skis, to grip snow), allow skiers to travel uphill more easily.
Miller, a software developer, works for himself now, though he’s always had somewhat flexible hours. That has allowed him to be a “fair-weather skier” and avoid days that Northwest Avalanche Center forecasters deem of considerable or high danger. Miller said he has never been caught in an avalanche. That’s good, because he breaks a golden rule of winter backcountry travel.
“Half the time, I’m (skiing) alone,” Miller said. “Sorry, Mom.”
With age, he skis more conservatively.
Miller said he won’t make the same mistake as he did on his 10th anniversary of skiing every month, in 2003. October is almost always the toughest month to find quality snow. Hoping for some fresh coverage, he waited until the 31st to get in his turns.
“It was a miserable day with 60 mph winds and a blizzard at Mount Rainier,” Miller said. Without visibility, Miller had to judge the ski route by the angle of the slope. Veer too far right and it would get steep. Eventually, he zigzagged his way back to Paradise, guided by his memory alone.
Now, he tries to leave a few days of padding.
“I don’t want to feel any pressure to do anything unsafe,” he said.
For all that makes his hobby easier, global changes loom ominously.
“I am worried about the future of my sport,” Miller said.
Yes, alpine touring has increased in popularity so much that Miller says backcountry slopes once rarely skied are now dotted with moguls. But all of these skiers — new and old — navigate shrinking territory and shorter snow cycles.
“The Muir snowfield, even in September and October, used to be continuous snow all the way down to Pebble Creek at 7,200 feet … and now sometimes by August it’s patchy,” he said of the popular Mount Rainier route. “We’ve lost 1,500 feet of reliable skiing.”
Miller will just have to hike higher or be more creative to find fresh places to ski — the reason he chased this ski dream in the first place.
“I will stop when it’s no longer fun.”