Hilaree Nelson notched many firsts in a life of high-altitude adventures
The climber and ski mountaineer, who died on a peak in Nepal, was driven to seek challenges that stretched her endurance to the limit.
Published September 28, 2022
10 min read
On Monday, American ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson and her partner Jim Morrison reached the summit of 26,781-foot Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world. Soon after the 49-year-old Nelson began her descent on skis, she triggered a small avalanche and was swept away. Morrison found her body on Wednesday.
“Oftentimes in life, people want to play it safe, and we make everything around us–especially in the Western world–to be comfortable and safe,” ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson once mused. “And so we can make choices where you can see where that road is going to take you, and I’ve always been prone to making a choice that I don’t know where it’s going to take me.”
Nelson, a National Geographic Explorer, had a distinctive sense of wanderlust that propelled her through more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries. She climbed some of the highest mountains on the planet and often carried her skis with her. In 2012, she became the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks, Mount Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. Six years later, Nelson returned from Lhotse to become its first skier.
She was deeply respected for both her extensive big-mountain experience, and her low-key, mindful approach to life’s challenges–whether the everyday struggles of parenting, or pioneering new descents around the globe. In 2018, Nelson was named captain of the North Face Athlete Team, a title only one other athlete has held. A National Geographic Society grantee, she was also one of the winners of the 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award.
Despite her many super-hero accomplishments, friends recall her as a thoughtful presence and quiet leader, someone who never sought the limelight. Her loss is especially painful for younger female mountain athletes.
“She’s seen as this athlete, trying to maximize her physical capabilities, but to me she was very soulful,” says Taylor Rees, a filmmaker who collaborated with Nelson on several projects. “She faced her challenges and demons with such honesty and vulnerability and grace.”
Rees’s husband, climber and videographer Renan Ozturk, offered similar recollections. “The resilience she had to be out of her comfort zone and laugh in the face of dire situations speaks to her positivity,” he says, likening the news from Manaslu to a “gut punch.” “She had heroic strengths–not only in the mountains, but in her community, and her family.”
“She was an endurance monster, as strong as anyone as I’ve been with in the mountains,” climbing partner Cory Richards remembers, “but she was also a kind soul, and often that got obscured by her drive.”
Long before Hilaree Nelson carved her way down snow-covered 8,000-meter peaks, she had already secured a reputation as a gritty competitor on the basketball court. During her senior year of high school, the 5’11” Nelson helped lead her team, The Shorewood Thunderbirds, to a 23-2 record and a third place finish in the Washington State championships. But as the Seattle Times noted at the end of the season, “Shorewood wasn’t impressed with its third-place finish.”
After enrolling at Colorado College, skiing and mountaineering began to take precedence over indoor athletics. Nelson, soon after graduating, booked a one-way ticket to Europe to learn more about big-mountain ski, and won an extreme ski championship. In 1999, she joined The North Face as a sponsored athlete. In an Instagram post, the company wrote: “Hilaree Nelson held a spirit as big as the places she led us to. She was a symbol of possibility. Her adventures made us feel at ease in the vastness and beauty of the world. “
Although reaching the top of both Everest and Lhotse in a single day raised her profile as a Himalayan climber, it was another expedition, to Hkakabo Razi, an isolated peak in Myanmar, that helped push Nelson to reevaluate her potential.
Part of the genesis for the trip was Nelson’s desire to do an “old school adventure,” somewhere remote and off the map compared to the crowded routes up Mount Everest. However, summiting the unclimbed peak was only one part of the goal. Nelson, the leader of the trip, was determined to experience the entire journey, which included a two week trek to reach the summit.
“We would only walk seven to 10 miles a day, instead of 15 miles, so we could camp in each village and visit with people, doing knowledge-sharing sessions,” Rees recalls, who joined the expedition with her husband Ozturk as a filmmaker and basecamp manager. “Hilaree was always learning and right there. She remained true to her vision. She wanted to see the whole country from top to bottom. She stuck with it, even when we were running out of food.”
The monumental, four-month effort funded by the National Geographic Society pushed Nelson and her team to the limits of endurance, and they ultimately failed to reach the summit.
“The media wrote it as a failure, but it was anything but for us,” Rees adds. “It was the beginning.” Friends noticed a new sparkle in Nelson’s eyes after she returned from Hkakaborazi. Nelson seemed to be more determined than ever after the defeat to climb the Himalayans and become an expedition leader.
“She was deeply empathetic,” remembers Richards, another teammate on the Hkakabo Razi expedition. “But there was an inverse side to her … an almost outright rejection of limitations.”
A year after Hkakabo Razi, Nelson met Jim Morrison, a Californian skier with big Himalayan dreams of his own, and something clicked. On Wednesday, Morrison, in a post on Instagram, called Nelson “the beacon of light in my life day in and day out” and “the most inspiring person in life.” “I’m in Kathmandu with her and her spirit. He wrote, “My loss is indescribable.”
In 2017, Nelson and Morrison embarked on another first, of sorts–their first mountain expedition together, as a couple. They succeeded in climbing and skiing a 21,165-foot peak in India known as Papsura. “I was afraid he might not see the same thing I saw in this mountain,” Nelson would later say.
Nelson had become obsessed with the mountain when she first saw it in 1999. She had failed to make the summit in 2013. Her pursuit of the summit was cited by the National Geographic Society when she was named an Adventurer of the Year: “It seared a place in her mind and inspired years of training with the goal of reaching its peak.”
Throughout her career, Nelson struggled unabashedly at times with the expectations and limitations of being a woman, a mother, and a professional adventurer–and becoming a role model for younger generations of female athletes in the process.
“A lot of things I’ve done are a first but only a female first,” Nelson reflected in a North Face video. “Having the opportunity to be the first female in my field was a huge help in my career. But when I hear the 25-year-old athletes coming up, they don’t want that female disclaimer anymore. We’re over that. We’re over it. We can throw down just as hard as the men.”
“Hilaree paved the way for women in the adventure sports space with her refusal to choose between motherhood and her athletic career. Emily Harrington, a climber who was with her on the Hkakabo Razi expedition, says that she showed us that we can do everything. She refused to choose between motherhood and her athletic career. “She did it unapologetically with a mix of grit and grace in a way only a true leader could.”
Hilaree Nelson leaves behind two children, Quinn and Grayden, from a former marriage, and her partner Jim Morrison.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.