Interview with Maddie Miller | 50 Peaks Challenge

50 Peaks was a challenge for Maddie Miller and her mentor, Melissa Arnot, to climb all of the 50 states’ highpoints in under 50 days. The second 50 Peaks was climbing 50 of the colorado 14ers and 13ers in 21 days, all human-powered, meaning they bike between the peaks.

Below, I interview Maddie about her experience, her downfalls, and how this entire process shaped who she is.

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Okay, let’s talk about 50 peaks. What is it and how did it all start?

50 Peaks started out as a challenge for me and my mentor, Melissa Arnot, to climb all of the 50 states’ highpoints in under 50 days.  Not only did I achieve the goal in 2016, but I broke the world speed record for the 50 highpoints, summiting all 50 peaks in 41 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes.  Melissa Arnot and I met through my dad when he gifted me a trip up Mount Rainier for my high school graduation present with Melissa as our guide.  From there, Melissa and I built a strong relationship and continued to do adventures and climbs together when I was home from College.  The whole idea for 50 peaks initially came about after Melissa and I were climbing my home state highpoint Mount Borah in Idaho in 2014.  Melissa mentioned that we had climbed two highpoints together: Mount Rainier and Mount Borah. I had no idea what a highpoint even meant at the time, but after she explained that every state had a highpoint, I replied: “Let’s do them all!”  And then, what started out as a joking hypothetical quickly became a very serious reality.  Being goal-oriented people, we decided to limit the time to 50 days, giving us something to strive for and giving other women something to be inspired by.  Our team was Melissa, myself, our photographer (Jon Mancuso), our logistical manager/driver (Allyson Groenleer), and our lovely sprinter van (Tiffany).  

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How did you get into climbing?

I first got into climbing after going on that high school graduation present from my Dad up Mount Rainier. That climb really changed my whole perspective on what I was capable and what I wanted my college experience to be like.  After that climb, I then decided to do a NOLS course in India which was absolutely spectacular and gave me a much better knowledge on technical skills in the backcountry.  Arriving at Colorado College, I catered most weekends to outdoor adventures whether it be biking, climbing, or skiing. I completely fell in love with the mountains and the balance they brought to my life.  

Were there points in your first go round of 50 peaks when you wanted to quit?

Yes! But there was really only one moment.  The trip trajectory was to start the “clock” on the summit of Denali in Alaska, as to prevent unfortunate accidents as a result of going too fast and not acclimatizing properly.  From there we planned to fly to Florida, drive through the south, up to the northeast, over to the midwest, conquer the west, end the lower-48 on Rainier, and then fly to Hawaii to finish.  However, about 10 days before we were planned to be in Alaska, I got a phone call from Melissa.  She had gotten frost bite on her toe summiting Everest without supplemental oxygen (becoming the first American Female to summit without supplemental oxygen), preventing her from being able to climb Denali with me for the start of our trip. I was shocked and pretty terrified.  All of the mental and physical preparation I had done up into this point had had Melissa in it, and to have that completely gone from the hardest technical climb in the challenge, felt very scary.  After adjusting my mental framework, I was able to do Denali with a different team of people and everything went so incredibly smoothly.  The point, nonetheless, where I thought I wanted to quit was after we flew to Florida and met Melissa and the team.  As soon as we hit the road in our sprinter van, it was game on.  We were driving twelve hours a day, sleeping four hours a night, eating gas station nachos, failing to meet any of our planned deadlines.  The uncomfortable living conditions made the trip not really even seem worth it, not to mention the team’s morale was very low at this point.  After a very emotional conversation in the parking lot of a motel 6, I made the mental switch: I want this and I’m going to change my attitude and to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal that i’ve worked so hard for these past two years. And from then on, the trip started to actually become something worth fighting for and something fun.      

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Have you ever found it challenging to be a woman in this field?

I have found it challenging to be a “small” woman in this field.  I am 5’1’’ and many people and fellow mountaineers take one look at me and write me off as someone who is incapable.  This notion doesn’t make me mad, it merely motivates me.  When I have a climb, like Denali, for example, I have to train twice as hard as a normal human, because the packs we carry are more than 60% of my body weight at times.  But, I’ve always been a hardworking individual, so this extra challenge does not bother me in the slightest.  I will do whatever it takes to be just as strong, and pull my weight in any way I can.  

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Which part in the journey of your first 50 peaks challenge was the hardest?

The hardest part of the journey was getting to the western states, as it was a very big physical push.  Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, just to name a few, all had very significant and large high points.  Doing them on their own is fine, but doing them all in a row was very difficult.  Gannett Peak in Wyoming was one of our most difficult highpoints, as it is almost 45 miles round trip, and we did it in a single push, meaning we did it without stopping.  We napped here and there when we were really delirious, but it was one of the hardest pushes I’ve ever done in my entire life.  From there we did the 30 miles round trip of Kings Peak in Utah.  Our other insane push was doing Mount Hood starting at 4 am, traveling straight to Mount Rainier to get permits that afternoon, and then heading straight up Mount Rainier that evening, climbing through the night and summiting in the early morning the next day.  Those difficulties have shaped who I am and have empowered me to never give up, even when things start to get tough or unbearable. 

What happened with your second 50 peaks challenge?

Was it frustrating?

The second 50 Peaks was climbing 50 of the colorado 14ers and 13ers in 21 days, all human-powered, meaning we bike between the peaks. Our mission was “Equal is Greater” hoping to inspire 50/50 gender participation in outdoor sports.  This challenge was full of hurdles.  Our first hurdle was after we climbed our first two peaks, Bierstadt and Evans.  We had such a great morning, climbing with the Colorado Mountain Club as our send off.  However, we biked away with cheers and waves, confident of our trip and our goals.  After about a half an hour of descending 3,000 vertical feet, we came to realize we had biked the WRONG way on the highway.  Instead of freaking out or crying, we just laughed.  Laughter and smiling definitely became a quick theme of the trip.  Our second hurdle was that our bike routes had all been mapped on the colorado Trail, a very technical hiking trail throughout the state on Colorado.  We were on road bikes, so all of these routes were deemed as useless in the first 24-hours of our trip. Our hiking route was over ambitious, meaning we had to cut down the number of peaks we were doing each day.  Rain and thunderstorms continued to put us even farther behind in our goal.  By day 7, we had only climbed 10 peaks.  We were supposed to have climbed over 20 peaks.  However, we had biked over 200 miles, when we only were supposed to have biked 100.  So yes, it was frustrating, but we channelled that frustration using laughter and making memories despite the continuous hurdles we were put through.  Our final hurdle was when Melissa dislocated her shoulder, pushing a car door closed of all things.  We had just finished the breathtaking ascent of Castle Peak, one of the more technical mountains we were doing on the trip.  But that is how life works doesn’t it?  When you least expect it.  So we decided to put a pause on the adventure, considering biking with a dislocated shoulder would be quite miserable, and definitely not worth it.  Next summer we will return with a better route and a better compass.  

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What is the biggest thing you’ve taken away from all of this? 

Life is an adventure.  I can try to plan out every detail and schedule every hour.  But in the end, plans fail all the time.  True character is seeing how you deal with the adversity that life throws at you.  Ive found that I want to be able to adapt to those adversities and continue to laugh through the chaos. 

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What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to a young girl wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Continue to tell yourself that “You are Worthy.”  I spent a lot of my young life thinking I wasn’t worthy of things because I am “small” “female” “weak”, etc.  What I didn’t realize was that even all that time, I was worthy of great things and great opportunities.  Stop letting people tell you you can’t do something and GO DO IT! You are worthy.  

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You can find more information on 50 Peaks Challenge here and you can see all of Maddie's adventures here.