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Remembering Seattle-born top ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson

Hilaree Nelson  (Seattle Times)
Hilaree Nelson (Seattle Times)
By Gregory Scruggs Seattle Times

SEATTLE – In January 2020, ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson broke trail on the last few hundred steps to the summit of Mount Vinson, the tallest mountain in Antarctica, on a previously unclimbed route. Nelson, The North Face athlete team captain, led the final push in a team that included her predecessor and the only other person to hold that role, renowned climber Conrad Anker.

Garrett Madison, founder and president of Seattle-based guide service Madison Mountaineering, was also on that acclimatization climb to prepare for a first-ever attempt on Mount Tyree, the continent’s second-tallest peak. “She was very strong, caring and empathetic toward other team members,” Madison said. But in that moment on Vinson, he also had a more blunt assessment: “Wow, this woman is really incredible.”

Superlatives are understatements to describe Nelson’s physical prowess and mountain accomplishments. Nelson, 49, who grew up in the Seattle area and learned to ski at Stevens Pass, went missing Monday in an avalanche in Nepal as she descended from the 26,781-foot high Manaslu, the world’s eighth-tallest peak. Her body was found Wednesday in a rescue operation that included her climbing and romantic partner Jim Morrison.

The North Face, her sponsor, called Nelson “the most prolific ski mountaineer of her generation.” National Geographic named her one of its Adventurers of the Year in 2018 for her climb of Papsura, the Peak of Evil, in India’s Himachal Pradesh state the year prior.

In 2001, over 15 years before that first ski descent – one of many firsts in more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries – Nelson invited mountain guide Margaret Wheeler on a trip to climb and ski Hanuman Tibba (19,626 feet) in Himachal Pradesh along with Nelson’s then-regular climbing partner, Kasha Rigby.

“I’d never been above 10,000 feet and we’re going to India?” Wheeler recalled from Ketchum, Idaho. “We were all women in the middle of freaking nowhere,” she said. “I’d never had that experience with a group of women. I learned that I could connect and thrive in an all-female environment.”

While Nelson was lauded for breaking certain glass ceilings in mountaineering – in 2012 she became the first woman to climb both Mount Everest and neighboring Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest peak, within 24 hours – her accomplishments set the bar for the sport. Among them, she and Morrison made the first ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir in 2018.

“Hilaree transcended gender with what she did,” Wheeler said.

‘Foolish enough to suffer’

Mountain adventure photographer Scott Rinckenberger, who works out of a studio in North Bend, saw her athleticism up close on a photo shoot for Seattle-based MSR, one of Nelson’s gear sponsors, near her Telluride, Colorado, home in 2017.

“As I photographed her running effortlessly on rugged mountain trails, her prowess as an athlete was deeply impressive,” he wrote. “It was obvious to see how this person, in this body had accomplished some of the most impressive feats in the history of mountain adventure.”

But Nelson was self-effacing about her endurance. Wheeler spoke with her shortly after she underwent a physiology study of high-altitude athletes focused on their VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during exercise. “I don’t have a special VO2 max. The only thing special about me is that I’m foolish enough to suffer,” Wheeler recalled her saying. “My body is screaming at me to stop and I don’t.”

“Hil gets stronger the higher up she gets,” Wheeler said.

Climbing peaks over 26,000 feet entails pushing one’s body in the so-called “death zone,” where the oxygen pressure is too low for humans to survive for extended periods. While high-altitude climbing carries inherent risk, adding skis to the mix increases that risk by making it harder to self-arrest in the event of a fall.

“I want to know what my boundaries are and then I want to blast through them and push myself further,” Nelson said in a 2020 interview.

Made in Chamonix

Nelson was born Dec. 13, 1972, in Seattle to Stanley and Robin Nelson. She graduated from Shorewood High School, where she played basketball for a team that finished third in the state. Nelson’s mountain ambitions were not sparked by her upbringing surrounded by the Cascades, but rather by her time at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and beyond.

“Ironically, it took me leaving Seattle to find my way as a mountaineer and really discover what that even was, and a ski mountaineer at that,” she told former University of Washington football player Mark Pattison in November 2020. “I skied from a super young age at Stevens Pass in Washington. There are amazing mountain ranges surrounding Seattle, and a lot of people I know who discovered mountains have moved to Seattle for that reason. I happen to have had an opposite path.”

In the interview for Pattison’s podcast “Finding Your Summit,” she credited the decision to leave her home state as an act of independence that led her to discover mountain sports on her own terms. After graduating from Colorado College, a trip to Europe sealed the deal.

“My real connection to wanting to do this for the rest of my life was after living in Chamonix in France, and experiencing the Alps and the history that they have with alpinism,” she told Pattison.

Nelson spent several winters in Chamonix, winning the European Women’s Extreme Skiing Championship in 1996.

Wheeler made her own ski bum’s pilgrimage to the Alps in January 1998. Just a few weeks into her stay, she spied another female skier across an alpine bowl who she surmised was North American by her ski gear. Wheeler beelined to intercept the mystery skier in the chairlift line and they rode up the lift together, where the fresh-faced Wheeler introduced herself.

It was Nelson, who took Wheeler under her wing in the very male-dominated world of extreme skiing in Chamonix. They ended up sharing a studio apartment in a converted utility room, where Nelson brought along her La Conner-born black lab, Turbo Buckshot Ace (Buck for short).

“The first night I heard really loud snoring,” Wheeler said. “I thought, dang Hil. It was Buck. He snored like a human.”

Mischief, minutiae and motherhood

The two developed a “mutual mentorship” as Nelson shared her insider knowledge of Chamonix and Wheeler brought climbing chops to the partnership. “We had a lucky chemistry,” Wheeler said. “We had experiences together characterized by self-reliance within a partnership.”

That cooperative competitiveness, where one climber pushes the other for the benefit of the team, manifested in trips near and far, from climbing the Direct East Buttress of South Early Winter Spire in the North Cascades in the early 2000s to an expedition to ski the Tavan Bogd massif – home to the highest peaks of the remote Altai Mountains of western Mongolia – in 2002.

Both Nelson and expedition member Melissa McManus were due to get married later that year, which made the trip the equivalent of a monthlong bachelorette party. “Those mountains are mellow in comparison to the Himalayas,” Wheeler said. “There was lots of laughter, companionship and cooperative competitiveness.”

Nelson was also known for creating joyful mischief. When Wheeler’s departure from Seattle to Ulaanbaatar was delayed 36 hours, Nelson and the other expedition members hired a father-and-son outfitter to take them horseback riding outside the Mongolian capital. Wheeler joined up upon arrival, and while the father napped, Nelson persuaded the teenage son to let the four women go for a ride on their own. After enduring the father’s gentle pace, Nelson eagerly led the horses to gallop – not what the outfitter wanted them doing by themselves.

“She sincerely apologized, but there were huge grins,” Wheeler said. “She had that sort of spark.”

Nelson became a North Face athlete in 1999 and embarked on increasingly high-profile trips after her Everest-Lhotse climb in 2012. But an aborted attempt on Papsura in 2013 and a disastrous expedition to remote Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, during which the team nearly ran out of food, led Nelson to take a break from ski mountaineering in the mid-2010s before roaring back to the pinnacle of her career. The ill-fated Myanmar trip was the subject of the 2015 film “Down to Nothing.”

In her later career, Nelson also became an ambassador for climate change organization Protect Our Winters and served on the board of the American Alpine Club, where she dedicated time to minutiae like the governance committee, work that is “oftentimes thankless,” said board President Graham Zimmerman. She was also involved with the club’s outdoor diversity initiative Climb United.

“Any time she was telling stories about the big mountains of the world, she made sure these key environmental and social issues were woven into her storytelling so they could be effectively leveraged,” Zimmerman said, from Bend, Oregon.

Zimmerman, who grew up in Seattle, first met Nelson in the early 2000s while working at The North Face store in downtown Seattle as a high school student before embarking on his own professional climbing career. He recognized Nelson because her picture was literally plastered on the walls of the store.

“It was the first time I had met a pro climber and skier,” he said. “She was so kind, genuine and willing to engage with some kid who was super fired up to go climbing.”

Nelson leaves behind two sons, Graydon and Quinn, teenagers from her first marriage to Brian O’Neill. Rinckenberger observed her maternal dynamic during the MSR photo shoot.

It was like “watching a superhero take on human form,” when her sons arrived on set. “Her whole being shifted as she became a mother to two goofy, hyperactive, lovable boys,” he said.

Nelson’s ability to continue pursuing a high-stakes career in alpinism even after becoming a parent was one of her many indelible legacies. “She was so clearly committed to giving both poles of her life her full investment,” Rinckenberger said. “The fact that she had the capacity to oscillate between such pure power and such warmth touched me deeply and inspired me as a father who tries to balance a deep commitment to my family and a deep love of the mountains.”

A previous version of this story stated that Kasha Rigby was due to get married soon after a 2002 expedition to Mongolia. It was another expedition member, Melissa McManus, who was due to get married.

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