Two years ago, on a cold Friday in late December, my husband and I loaded our backcountry ski gear and one-year-old daughter into the truck and drove from our home in Bozeman, Montana, to Cooke City. Pre-baby, we’d frequented the tiny town, with its two-story snowbanks and access to the surrounding mountains, but on this trip, with our young daughter in tow, we were unsure if we’d actually get to ski.
Thanks to Kt Miller, we did. At the time, Miller was a professional ski photographer and filmmaker, backcountry ski guide and sponsored athlete who spent winters in Cooke and traveled internationally for work. We knew of each other through mutual friends and had made plans to meet up while we were both in Cooke City.
The first night, she toted bowls, spoons and a crockpot of soup a few minutes across town from her cabin to our motel. New snow still melting on her brown curls, she sat on the bed holding our little girl. Miller also found us a babysitter so we could all ski together—no small feat in the end-of-the-road-town with a winter population of around 100. She skied frigid, low-angle powder with us over the course of two days and showed us a low-hazard way up the nearly 10,500-foot Republic Peak, the marquee summit above town. Although we only skied together a couple of days, she seemed like a little sister to me, albeit one with an older soul.
On the summit of Republic, I remember standing beside Miller, looking into the Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. It was clear she loved being part of that raw and wild place, but I could also see there was already something else within her that would drive her far beyond the area’s powder-filled couloirs and rugged peaks—a craving to do more and bigger things in the world.
Miller, now 28, came of age alongside social media, part of the first generation of athletes and content creators to forge a successful career on her own channels. Her star rose quickly. Then, on October 7, 2017, Miller’s friend, a talented, emerging pro rock climber named Inge Perkins, died at the age of 23 in an avalanche in the Bozeman backcountry. Perkins’ boyfriend, alpinist Hayden Kennedy, took his own life following the avalanche. The loss devastated Miller.
After that, she took a step away from ski media and freelance work, pouring herself into conservation instead. Her Instagram account—once a vibrant source of her communication and imagery—has gone silent, and many in her community, both online and in the mountains, are left with questions: Has she been able to channel all that loss, sorrow and experience into something good—into helping change the world for the better? Or is Miller herself still trying to find her way?
I reached out to Miller a few times last winter after Perkins and Kennedy died, and while I couldn’t get her out backcountry touring, we did connect in March for a morning of inbounds skiing at Bridger Bowl ski area near Bozeman. She seemed content with her new job, a full-time position with the conservation nonprofit Polar Bears International (PBI), where she’d already worked part-time for six years. As we hiked the Bridger Ridge, the place where her ski bum/contractor dad taught her the ropes of steep skiing while she was in grade school, I had to run to keep up, even though at 5-foot, 2-inches, she’s 5 inches shorter than me, and I was as fit as I’ve been.
But instead of the lightness of spirit and determination I’d felt from her before, her attention seemed far away. With Perkins’ passing, Miller lost a close friend, and a friend of hers told me that’s when Miller saw her own mortality.
Miller and Perkins met in 2007 as part of the Junior Mountaineering Team, a Bozeman nonprofit that taught alpine skills to local youth. Miller was a high school senior, Perkins was in eighth grade, and they were two of three girls on the seven-person team.
“She out-climbed and out-enduranced all of us, but with her Inge style and grace,” Miller wrote in an Instagram post not long after Perkins died. “I remember watching Inge trying to swing ice axes when she probably weighed less than 90 pounds. She would always bake bread and cookies for all of us and had the best lightweight camping recipes and snacks. Not to mention her sense of humor and dance moves.”
After Miller graduated in 2008, they stayed in touch on and off over the years and had recently been scheming some spring ski traverses together. In fall 2017, when Perkins moved from Lander, Wyoming, back home to Bozeman to study education at Montana State University, she, Miller and a couple of other friends from Bozeman spent a day backcountry skiing after an early season storm blanketed the northern Bridgers. “It was so good to see her,” Miller recalled. “She’d transformed from a little girl into a radiant woman.”
Two weeks later, an avalanche killed Perkins 70 miles south in another mountain range. Many of their core high school group are still close, and the tragedy shook them hard. A year later, it was still weighing on Miller.
“I would rather sit at a computer than stand on the edge of avalanche terrain,” she wrote on Instagram this September. “I don’t feel like skiing, and haven’t for over a year. It’s tied to Inge’s accident, but also to time, and exposure, and life.” Unlike the images of herself she normally shares—in a rock-lined couloir, trail running or smiling with friends outside—in that photo, she’s sitting on a giant teddy bear, hugging its neck. Instead of goggles and ski gear, she’s wearing a summery red dress. For the normally stalwart Miller, it felt uncharacteristically vulnerable.
“This is me,” she wrote. “Not glamorous. Not in some faraway country. Not doing anything rad. This is my life right now, and it’s exactly what I need. … I’m craving social experiences and community instead of solitude and mountains.”
When I first called to ask about this story a month later, Miller hadn’t been active on social media since that post. “My initial thoughts are, I’m trying to step away from the ski media world,” she said, wrestling with the idea. “But I also feel like my story resonates with a lot of people.”
Miller started taking photos in middle school and high school, then spent a semester studying photojournalism at the University of Montana and another at Montana State University. Realizing she didn’t need to go $30,000 into debt to become a photographer, she quit school and just started taking photos. The work quickly started pouring in. In 2011, she shot photos for a helicopter ski operation in Haines, Alaska, and for Polar Bears International in Svalbard, Norway. The following year, she and ski mountaineer Brody Leven went on a ski trip to Romania for a project for Red Bull.
“Instagram was brand new, and Red Bull wanted on the bandwagon,” Miller said, explaining that Leven landed the gig because of his Instagram presence. “We just happened to be doing something cool at the right time on the right platform.”
But it wasn’t just luck, said Miller’s friend Lydia Tanner. “Kt hit this sweet spot where she was young and driven, insanely talented and also just willing to work so freaking hard,” Tanner said.
As it did for many, Instagram gave Miller a platform to tell her own story. Instead of the traditional narrative of a dramatic ski line, she chronicled the ascent: how it happened and the mindset and process behind it. Her feed had the allure of wilderness and a sense of mystery, as if she might let you in on a long-kept secret.
By 2014, Miller was shooting for major publications and brands like Powder Magazine, Patagonia and Dynafit. That same year, she joined an all-women skiing and sailing expedition to Iceland and Greenland to ski first descents and collect scientific data on the effects of global warming. The documentary film she produced from that trip, called “Shifting Ice + Changing Tides,” won Best Environmental Message at the 2016 Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival. In 2017, she shared stories and photos from the trip in Bozeman as part of the REI store’s Force of Nature speaker series.
From a distance, her world travels and Montana powder days seemed like a dream, and for a while it was. But eventually it wore her down. “I think it’s less about Inge’s death than people might think,” Miller said, referencing her step away from ski media. “That’s definitely part of it, but a lot of it is being in avalanche terrain every day and wanting more in life than skiing.”
She was tired of traveling constantly for photo gigs, and she wanted a break from the pressure of social media. “I wanted [my work] to be more meaningful—building communities instead of airdropping in, skiing for a week and then leaving,” she told me. “I wanted to pour my energy into something bigger than myself.”
Which is exactly what she’s doing now. When we spoke this fall, she was in Churchill, Manitoba, where, in addition to her regular work managing media and outreach for Polar Bears International, she also manages operations for the organization’s field season. The bears congregate near Churchill as they wait to access the sea ice, a three- to four-week period when PBI’s staff go into overdrive. Miller is working 16-hour days, and when we talked, she was just eating breakfast at 2pm.
Her myriad responsibilities include driving a tundra buggy (picture a school bus on monster truck wheels), live streaming video for PBI’s educational programs and managing logistics for a rotating cast of researchers, staff, volunteers, donors and media crews.
In a way, it feels like the Miller we knew through social media has dropped off the map. But she’s also just growing up.“People say skiing is selfish,” said Adam Pohl, Miller’s lifelong friend, who has also made a similar pivot away from full-time adventurer in the last year and is now working in environmental law. “But I think more so than that, it’s just not enough.”
So, will Kt Miller ever take another ski photo? The jury is out. But she’s not exactly getting rusty: When I spoke to her, she was using her hard-earned skills in the subarctic, particularly her capacity to care for herself and her camera equipment in cold environments. Last winter, she and her boss and mentor, Krista Wright, snuck in a few dawn patrol backcountry missions before showing up at the office by 9am.
“If I’m going to be putting myself out there and sharing stories, I want it to be because I’m inspired to do it,” Miller said, adding with a laugh that she also recently purchased a splitboard and may start taking splitboarding photos. “If you start hearing from me, it’s because I have something I want to share, and if not, it’s because I’m focused on my work and inspired in other capacities.”