With a fervour for exploration that dovetails seamlessly with her love for mountain adventures and skiing, Hilaree Nelson stands as a paragon in the world of alpine pursuits. Her journeys have spanned the globe’s most captivating mountain terrains, establishing numerous ‘firsts’ in ski mountaineering. These accolades include the audacious feat of linking two 8000m peaks in a single endeavour, pioneering ski descents in Baffin Island, being the first American to ascend and subsequently ski down India’s Papsura peak, and an unparalleled ski descent of the world’s fourth highest peak, Lhotse.
Beyond her tangible achievements, Hilaree champions the preservation of untamed locales, with a particular fondness for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She is steadfast in her belief that these untouched bastions of nature play a pivotal role in nurturing the planet’s health and the human spirit.
Having been distinguished as one of the most intrepid women of the past quarter-century by Men’s Journal and celebrated as National Geographic’s 2018 Adventurer of the Year, Hilaree’s influence extends beyond the mountain slopes. She captivates audiences nationwide, recounting her numerous exploits, aspiring to kindle both imagination and zeal in all who listen.
Away from her expeditions, Hilaree cherishes her role as a mother to her two spirited sons. The serenity of the San Juan mountains, a stone’s throw from her Telluride residence, offers her much-needed tranquillity.
At 49, Nelson’s stature in ski mountaineering is monumental. Recognised globally, she is not only an inspiration but also a guiding hand to the many who tread the path she has blazed. The terrains she excels in are ones where few dare to tread – remote alpine regions that, while breathtaking, pose profound dangers. Yet, Nelson’s blend of sheer physical prowess, a reassuring presence, and years of navigating these perils endow her with an aura of being indomitable.
Encompassing a staggering 40 expeditions across 16 countries, Hilaree’s career is replete with groundbreaking descents. Her distinction as the first woman to connect the peaks of Everest and Lhotse within a 24-hour span is particularly noteworthy. 2018 saw her revisit Lhotse, this time to gracefully ski its 27,940-foot face, etching her name alongside one of skiing’s most coveted lines.
Hilaree’s affinity for the mountains began in Seattle, where weekends were spent skiing at Stevens Pass in the Cascades. A post-college decision to travel to Chamonix, France, marked a pivotal juncture in her life. It was here, during her inaugural season, that she delved into the intricacies of ski mountaineering, even clinching a victory in a world extreme skiing contest. This singular winter blossomed into five, during which she recognised her innate aptitude for climbing. Her inaugural expedition to India under The North Face sponsorship firmly ensconced her in the world of mountaineering.
Alpine Ascent: Hilaree Nelson’s Formative Years
Raised in Seattle, Hilaree Nelson’s introduction to the world of skiing commenced amidst the slopes of the Cascades. Her true breakthrough, however, transpired following her move to Chamonix, France, upon completing her studies at Colorado College during the 1990s. It was in this alpine haven that Nelson honed her technical climbing prowess and set her sights on loftier and more intricate skiing objectives. This determination bore fruit when she clinched the European extreme ski competition in Chamonix in 1996. Her burgeoning reputation in the skiing world was further cemented in 1999 when she secured a coveted sponsorship from The North Face. This partnership not only underscored her status but also furnished her with opportunities to embark on expeditions to some of the globe’s most secluded and towering mountains.
The terrain of expedition-style climbing and skiing demands an astute blend of precision, organisation, and dedication. Coupled with this is the requirement for abundant zeal, counterbalanced by the prudence vital for survival in such demanding environments. Emily Harrington, a fellow climber and close associate of Nelson’s, astutely observed Nelson’s tenacity in the face of adversity. Harrington remarked on how Nelson’s unwavering passion propelled her to surmount numerous challenges, a testament to her fervent desire for both strength and accomplishment.
Their shared association with The North Face drew Harrington and Nelson together, forging a bond which was notably evident when they collaborated as the sole female participants in a challenging three-month Everest expedition in 2012. This venture witnessed Nelson achieving the remarkable feat of summiting both Everest and Lhotse within a single day, an accomplishment which etched her name into the annals of mountaineering history as the maiden woman to ascend two 8,000-meter peaks within such a brief span. This extraordinary endeavour did not go unnoticed, garnering Nelson accolades on the international stage.
Yet, despite the magnitude of her achievements, Mark Synnott, in his heartfelt tribute, aptly highlighted Nelson’s humility. Rather than being ensnared by the allure of fame, she retained an authentic modesty, gracefully embodying the stature of one of the world’s paramount ski mountaineers, irrespective of gender.
Mountaineering Milestones: Hilaree Nelson’s Ascendancy
Hilaree Nelson, born in Seattle on 13th December 1972 to Stanley and Robin Nelson, cultivated a passion for adventure early in life. Weekends of her youth were spent skiing at Stevens Pass in the Cascades. Her family’s penchant for water-based adventures also shaped her, with her mother refurnishing wood boats and her father leading week-long sailing trips.
Nelson’s early experiences instilled in her a sense of independence. As she remarked a few years ago, “We had tons of independence at five years old,” noting how vital this trait is to the world of mountaineering. This independence served her well in her later years, particularly when she ventured to Chamonix, France, after her time at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Over five winters, she sharpened her skiing and mountaineering skills in the challenging terrains of Chamonix.
She quickly made her mark in the outdoor adventure community, gaining sponsorships, most notably with The North Face, a brand that boasts other prominent figures like climber Alex Honnold and filmmaker Jimmy Chin.
Nelson’s skillset was diverse and profound. Equally adept at ascending mountains as descending them, she set a remarkable record in 2012, reaching the summits of both Mount Everest and its neighbouring Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest peak, within a mere 24 hours. This made her the first woman to achieve such a feat. Her accomplishments didn’t end there. In 2015, she marked the first female descent of Makalu La Couloir on Makalu and, in 2017, she executed a double-summit on Denali, climbing Cassin Ridge and skiing the Messner Couloir. That same year, she embarked on the first descent on Papsura Peak in the Indian Himalaya with Morrison and photographer Chris Figenshau.
One of her standout achievements came when she and her partner, Jim Morrison, made the first ski descent of Lhotse in September 2018, which eventually led to her recognition as a National Geographic “adventurer of the year”. This was a title she held with distinction, having already been celebrated as “the most accomplished female ski pioneer of her generation” by Outside magazine in 2019. Among her other laudable achievements, she became the first female captain of The North Face global athlete team, a title previously held by renowned climber Conrad Anker for three decades.
Her pursuits were not just about accolades. They were deeply personal. For instance, the Papsura, known among mountaineers as “the Peak of Evil”, was a mountain she had seen in a photograph two decades before her eventual ascent and ski descent in 2017. It was a dream she had nurtured, even after a failed attempt in 2013.
The words of Harrington encapsulate the essence of Nelson: “I don’t think she could really handle normal life without having that other side, being on the edge… That’s where she was at peace: when we were out on an expedition doing something really complicated and dangerous that required a lot of mountain experience. That was where she thrived.”
Throughout her illustrious career, from skiing the Holy Peaks of the Mongolian Altai to the first female ascent and ski from Everest and Lhotse in 24 hours, to being crowned European Women’s Extreme Skiing Champion in 1996, Nelson’s adventures were characterised by her audacity, resilience, and unyielding spirit.
Tragic Descent: Hilaree Nelson’s Final Journey on Manaslu
Amid the towering grandeur of the Himalayas, Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison were captivated by the challenge of Manaslu’s jagged summit, a pinnacle among the world’s most daunting peaks. On a bracing, wind-swept morning in Nepal, the duo set out to scale the 8,163-metre giant skis secured to their backs. Going beyond the bounds of conventional mountaineering, they chose to ski from the true summit, reflecting the heightened precision that many of today’s climbers adhere to.
But as they commenced their descent on that fateful day, 26th September 2022, disaster unfolded. A sudden avalanche ensnared Ms Nelson, diverting her from her path and into the white maelstrom. Mr Morrison, narrowly escaping the same fate, could only bear witness, paralysed by the heartbreaking scene.
Immediate rescue efforts, initiated by a distressed Mr Morrison and supported by Sherpa guides, proved fruitless. The challenge intensified with the onset of inclement weather, delaying thorough search-and-rescue efforts. After a painstaking two-day search, which included aerial sweeps of the mountain, the grim truth came to light. In collaboration with Mingma Tenzi Sherpa, Mr Morrison found Ms Nelson’s body. Sachindra Yadav, an expedition liaison officer from the Gorkha district, later surmised that the avalanche had thrust her off a cliff, depositing her onto Manaslu’s southern face. Her journey tragically concluded as her remains were transported to Kathmandu and subsequently cremated on 2nd October 2022. The expedition, marked by daring, exhilaration, and an untimely loss, remains a sombre chapter in mountaineering lore.
Beyond the Summit: Nelson’s Legacy of Leadership and Activism
While Hilaree Nelson’s athleticism, skill, and unwavering drive marked her as a leader in the realm of mountaineering, it was her exceptional character that truly distinguished her. She navigated her relationships with a rare duality, being seen simultaneously as a superhero and a deeply relatable friend. Beyond her sporting accomplishments, Ms Nelson was a committed activist. She passionately campaigned for robust environmental policies through her association with the nonprofit organisation, Protect Our Winters. Moreover, her dedication to mountaineering was further evidenced by her position on the board of the American Alpine Club.
Ms Nelson’s connection to the mountains wasn’t limited to her expeditions abroad. She spent a significant part of her life in Telluride, Colorado. There, amidst the rugged beauty of the San Juan Mountains, she trained, explored, and even took on humble roles such as waiting tables. It’s noteworthy that many of her most daring adventures were undertaken after embracing motherhood, adding two boys to her family.
In 2014, her expertise and reputation earned her a National Geographic Explorers grant, allowing her to spearhead an expedition to Hkakabo Razi, Myanmar’s loftiest peak. Though fraught with challenges, this expedition laid the foundation for a poignant documentary, Down To Nothing. Her journey with exploration didn’t stop there. She went on to grace the National Geographic speakers series and, in collaboration with Mr Morrison, further enhanced her esteemed reputation through a string of triumphant ventures.