Thursday, 3 February 2011

Alex Miller - New Zealand's great alpine aviator dies

I woke up for some strange reason at 3 a.m this morning. With my new-fangled phone, I checked my google account. The news stabbed me like a driven nail. Alex Miller died this morning.
My last photo of Alex (left) in 2008 at Franz Josef outside his ski plane sales shop at Franz Josef. On the right is his close friend Bruce Watson.

Hello Bob

Sad news – Alex Miller passed away this morning. He was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas – complications in the last few days meant he took his last flt to FJ yesterday.

I’ve copied below a message from Graeme Ayres

Alex passed at 12 past 8 this morning. It was a peaceful passing and he was propped up in bed at home looking at his beloved Elie de Beaumont, some of will remember this as the mountain he used to lay ski plane tracks on.The funeral is likely to be in CHCH; not known when. Susan is in a calm state and very comforted to have been with Alex when he passed, they played music most of the night. Alex was able to resolve a number of things that had been bothering him before he passed and all of his family are comforted by this. I will keep you informed of any further developments

Muz and Pat
Silk Road Adventures (NZ) Ltd
415 Main South Road,

What can I say ? My heart goes out to you Susan, Sam and Tamara. and  thanks Sam who has so kindly been in contact with me over the past weeks. The mighty man of the mountains is at rest in sight of Elie de Beaumont, the photo above. We climbed Canavan's Knob together a few times and used to sit and admire this view.Once the great guide Peter McCormack came with us.

We met way back in 1966 when I first ventured into the Mount Cook region. Alex, or Bruce as we called him in those days,  first flew me into the head of the Tasman Glacier in 1971 and we kept our friendship up until he died. He played a key role in 1971 when three Mount Cook ski planes got benighted at the head of the Tasman Glacier, and Pete Eggleston and I who were in Malte Brun hut, took up rescue equipment such as blankets and primuses from the hut to keep them alive for the night. The airline was owned by Harry Wigley and when we opened up the emergenct food pack, it was full of Wrigley's chewing gum. Alex, you flew over the next morning from Franz before first light in climing gear while while Captain MarvelI (Gerry Savage) and the othet two pilots had overnighted in poncy uniforms with braids and stupid hats. You were our hero Alex, the alpine aviator with the handle bar moustache, who led the aircraft rescue effort.

When I.was his boss at Franz Josef in 1990-91 we did some magnificent trips together, some by air, and some by foot, many to inspect what was happening on the Franz and sometimes we just  sat down so and gazed at Elie de Beaumont, the glacier and talked about family, work and life. We were neighbours for a few years and that was fun.Others knew him better but our relationship was strong. I helped him pour the cement and lay the floor of his hanger at his and Sue's farm at the southern end of the Franz Valley. spending more time leaning on a shovel and talking about mountaineering and gazing at his beloved Elie de Beaumont. Eventually we finished the job. Alex had just given up drinking and felt I was a likely candidate to join A A too,  and I did go to an AA  meeting with him in Whataroa. He once said to me, "if all the alcoholics in South Westland decided to come to the AA meetings in Whataroa, we'd need to charter at least 30 large buses."

In 1973 or was it 76 when Alex and Sue were living at Fox, Mike Browne and I visited he and Sue who had two young children at the time, and we whiled away a wet day with fine music, food and tea. Alex was flying ski planes at that time.

We flew in from Franz a few times looking for a site for the NZ alpine club hut site which is now Centenntial Hut. He helped Stu Drake and I put the marker poles in and he flew over them weekly to check the snow levels for a year, to see whether the accumulation was too much to locate a hut safely there.

We had many floods in Franz and Alex and I liked nothing more than going out together, checking flood levels, putting up warning signs and ensuring the safety of tourists. Once we declared a Civil Defence Emergency and bused 90 tourists in a motel threatened by floods by the south side of the Waiho river, over the hill to Fox Glacier.

He could interpret the land, weather, mountains, snow, ice, plants, insects, animals and processes better that any professor, and played a key role in setting up the displays in the wonderful visitors centre at Franz Josef township.

" Alex, I will never forget your visit to India when you visited me and the time we spent together. "  It must have been  2005. Moments to treasure. More cups of tea, talking about our families, flying, future and mountains.

I knew the views that stirred you Alex, the ones that captured the sea, bush and mountains. I remember you liked to fly low over the sea to get that expansive perspective of the sea to mountains.
I also know that little Church at Franz was a place that you and Sue visited many times.
I know Psalm 121 had a place in your huge heart.

In February 2010 I took my son Ablai to New Zealand to fly with Alex over the mountains and we plsnnrd to land on the glaciers. Ablai is mad keen of flying. I ended up at Tekapo in foul whether and Alex was stuck with his plane in Franz, but having to return to Jakarta few days later, the weather he knew better than most, didn't allow us to meet. But we had a long talk on the phone.  Colin Monteath just informed me that  in Chch last week he was visited by Aat Vervoorn and many other mountain folk and refused more treatment for cancer.

"A great spirit with heaps of mountain/flying lore gone." said Colin..

I.'m lost for words mate, so here is a few photos of peaks and places you loved.

I took this photo out of the window of Alex's plane on a trip from Hokitika to Haast where he flew the coastline.

The Whataroa valley and its headwaters was another valley system he loved greatly.

The old Ball Hut Carpark in 1973 with your close friend Aat Vervoorn on the right.

The Waitaha river was another river valley we talked about every time we crossed the bridge on our way to or back from meetings in Hokitika. Isn't it great young people enjoy kayaking this river today. You fought to protect these remote places in your own distinct style Alex.

Another photo I took from your plane, somewhere south of Green's Beach.

Remember the Church across the road from our homes in Franz where we had that tragic funeral for young Glenn Tinerau, drowned as a young teenager at Okarito.

Another view of Elie de Beaumont from the head of the Tatare. Your good mate Ed Cotter peering at the ridge he climbed with Ed Hillary 40 years earlier.

Perhaps your Turangawaewae Alex, is the river that caused so much pain and damage but you loved the Callery and the Waiho and stood in awe at their mighty power that could smash bridges, houses, airstrips, and everything in its wake. You used to love how these two wild rivers, born of the snowflakes and mountain glaciers were the "mountains that never matched men."

In an article celebrating 50 years of ski plane operations at Mount Cook, it said., Alex Miller is especially keen to protect this part of the world. A pilot for 35 years, Miller began his career as a high mountain guide based at Mt Cook. He has guided, flown and spent many years with the Department of Conservation — and now part-owns the ski plane business and continues to take flights to the mountains,
We loved the walk to Okarito trig, "the track the Graham's walked to school on" you would explain to me." We worked on restoring the school house at Okarito and Donavan's store. You wanted to turn the clock back and simplify things.

From Sefton Bivvy to the old Three John's Hut, you knew them all having walked on foot, and flown over them countless times.

We spoke a lot about Charlie Douglas and Teichelmann country and I know the joy you felt flying up these spiritual places.

The summit of the west Peak of Elie de Beaumont, your peak Alex.

The photo you took of me in 1990 when we were making a documentary in the middle of winter after a massise storm. Do you remember, I was your model, and not a particularly good one ?

The Waitaha was the border of our DoC field centre area and we did border patrols on flights you took me on to Hokitika for shopping, or sometimes we would cruise to Greymouth. At your expense we would fly the coastline to check "your patch" and see how the seals were at Green's beach, and you would fly low amd explain the various features you knew my heart.Now the new generation kayak this great river.

Bruce Watson knew Alex well and here are some gaps that were filled in for me:

"I met him first about 1972 and we have remained friends since and worked together for a number of periods.

Even in those early days Alex was ahead of his time in his understanding of natural landscapes, probably because of the special perspectives being a climber and aviator gave him. And he loved communicating his understanding with others through what is now called park interpretation. He worked with Craig Potton on the unsurpassed Mountains to the Sea - The Story of Westland National Park. Later his work on the Westland National Park visitor centre display story lines, and planning and flying for the film On the Edge - which captures the very essence of natural South Westland gave both head and heart to those stories.

Unlike others in those days he understood the importance of the human story of South Westland and supported the work of Dorothy Fletcher in building what must have been the best archive of stories on what is now conservation land -and then making sure those storied were used in guided walks, displays and publications. This empathy with peoples’ stories ensured he had widespread respect in the local community even when people may have disagreed with park policies."

Goodbye Alex. You crossed the divide the day before you died. Most climbers cross it after they die. You were always ahead of your time. To Sue, Sam and Tamara, Arohanui. When Bruce Jenkinson died they said the mighty totara had fallen. With Alex, a mountain, a legend has fallen and with it an avalanche of wisdom. but his spirit will always be with us on that great duvide. and in the Waiho region.

His son Samuel, has designed a blog for all of us to pay tribute to Alex. The photos of his last flight are very moving. Co to :

All photos except the black and white one of Ebenezer Teichelmann, are copyright @ Bob McKerrow but I am happy for people to use them for tributes to Alex.


Donald said...

Dear Bob

Great post - it has wonderful energy about it.

Very sad for your loss, and that of his family.

What more can I say - Alex was obviously a very special person.



Gollum said...

Another one from that 60s/70s NZ mountain generation moves on. I remember reading a newspaper article a few years ago about Bruce/Alex Miller where he talked about why he took his father's name. The connection to place and family is a great thing.

I lost one of my own friends to cancer a month or two ago. He was one of a group of four of us who hit the valleys of South Westland in 1977 with all the enthusiasm of youth. Now it is over for him. Didn't even reach 50.

Makes you think.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Donald, yes it is very sad for his family, but also for the alpine world at large. Alex spent his life in the Southern Alps and and knew every plant, insect, ridge, summit, glacier, flower, cirque, schrund,stream creek and river as he walked and climbed as a young man then flew over them for forty years learning their moods, shades and all.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Yep, when your time is up, it's up.

Yes alex has gone but his legacy lives on.

He will be still up those south Westland valleys when we go there next and maybe Charlie Douglas, Aat Vervoorn and Alex will meet regularly in the hot pools at welcome flat when there are no tourists about.

Would it not be a wonderful moment to join them ? Maybe we can invite Teichelmann, Newton and the Graham brothers.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful set of memories.

Alex will be greatly missed. He helped me a lot a few years ago and inspired me to learn to fly.

Glad he made it home in the porter one final time

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks anonymous for your comments on Alex. He inspired many people to do many things.

Vanessa and Tim Gibb said...

We will miss Alex dearly in this small community of Franz Josef, Alex was a good friend and always full of energy and enthusiasum for life. Our thoughts go to Sue and family.
Much love Tim Vanessa, Sarah & Olivia Gibb

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

dear Vanessa and Tim

Yes it's a big loss. So many people in South Westland will miss him.

I will pass on your condolences to the family.

Pete Strang said...

Alex [ called Bruce then ] and I worked together at Mt Cook in the early 60's. I was just there for the summer season as a student but we did some guiding together. He was a great companion, with a rather quirky sense of humour.
He could parody others very well. The time I remember most was after the epic Mueller rescue when two climbers died and we were carrying the bodies down from Mueller....helicopter evacs were in their infancy. It had been a very tough 3 days and just below Sealy Lakes Merv Burke asked whether we would like the next 3 days off. We both answered "yes" and he told us to go as he had enough other climbers to carry. We took off with a whoop and did a lot of the trip to the bottom of the hill "straight" and in mid air! Alex wanted to get to Pleasant Point to catch up with someone and I wanted to get to Christchurch to see my girl friend. Alex hitched on my motorbike and my memory of him is him sitting side saddle smoking as we tore along in the dust on the old 350 Enfield Bullet. Needless to say the cigarettes did not last long! We had a lot of laughs. They were good days, Alex and I am sorry to see you go man. Go well to that other place and if it exists I hope it has a fantastic view. Love to your family.
Pete Strang

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