KATHMANDU, Nepal – The body of an American mountaineer whose daring achievements brought her acclaim among some of the world’s most elite climbers was found Wednesday on a peak in Nepal, two days after she went missing, a government official said.
Hilaree Nelson, 49, and her romantic and climbing partner, Jim Morrison, were attempting to ski down Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest peak, on Monday. An avalanche apparently blew her off a cliff onto the south face of the mountain, opposite of their intended route of descent, said Sachindra Yadav, an expedition liaison officer from the Gorkha district, which includes Manaslu.
“Her body has been brought to Kathmandu for autopsy. It’s intact but covered with snow,” Yadav said.
Nelson and Morrison traveled to Nepal earlier this month for their trek up Manaslu. In 2018, they successfully descended by ski from Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain, which straddles Nepal and Tibet.
Morrison, in a post on Instagram Wednesday, said of Nelson, “She has been the beacon of light in my life day in and day out.” He said he was skiing ahead of Nelson, who “started a small avalanche.” Then “she was swept off her feet and carried down a narrow snow slope.” He added, “I did everything I could to locate her but was unable to go down the face as I hoped to find her alive and live my life with her.”
When she disappeared on Monday, shortly after the couple began their descent from Manaslu’s 26,781-foot peak, guides on her expedition said they believed she had fallen into a crevasse. Morrison skied to base camp for help, but poor weather conditions delayed a helicopter survey and rescue mission until Tuesday morning.
During an initial survey, Morrison and others on the mission noticed bright objects that looked like a ski glove or another article of clothing.
A team of rescuers returned early Wednesday with binoculars and other detection equipment. Morrison and two others searched the ground area and found Nelson’s body, Yadav said.
The death underscores the extreme risks taken by adventurers and the local Nepali guides who support them in climbing some of the world’s highest – and deadliest – peaks.
Nelson was among a slew of high-profile alpinists who have died in recent years pursuing their sport. The Swiss climber Ueli Steck died in 2017 while attempting to reach Everest’s peak on a narrow and steep approach without supplemental oxygen.
Marc-André Leclerc, a 25-year-old Canadian, died in 2018 along with his climbing partner while establishing a new route up the north face of the Mendenhall Towers in Alaska.
Three members of a climbing team sponsored by the North Face clothing company – the American Jess Roskelley and the Austrians David Lama and Hansjörg Auer – died in an avalanche in 2019 in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
Nelson grew up climbing mountains near Seattle and lived with her two children near Telluride, Colorado. She distinguished herself with dozens of first ski descents through more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries, according to North Face, her sponsor, which called her “the most prolific ski mountaineer of her generation.”
Nelson’s and Morrison’s first major ski mountaineering expedition together was in 2017, when they traveled to the Indian Himalayas to attempt the first ski descent of Papsura, a 21,165-foot mountain known as the Peak of Evil.
They did it, completing “an icy, 3,000-foot, 60-degree virgin ski descent with almost no visibility,” according to North Face.
Two weeks after returning to the United States, they climbed the Cassin Ridge, a highly technical route on Denali in Alaska, skiing down the mountain’s Messner face in what has been lauded as one of North America’s top ski mountaineering feats.
Mountaineering experts said that feat had redeemed Nelson in the eyes of the alpinist community after she led a failed North Face expedition in 2014 to climb Hkakabo Razi, Myanmar’s tallest mountain at 19,295 feet. Nelson and the other five climbers, who were making a documentary, nearly lost their lives after they ran out of food.
This week, Nelson and Morrison were pushing the limits again on Manaslu, regarded among mountain researchers and climbers as among the more dangerous of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks because of its propensity for avalanches.
On Monday, an avalanche lower down on Manaslu killed a Sherpa guide and injured 13 others on a separate climbing expedition.
Dozens of people have died over the hundreds of recorded attempts to reach Manaslu’s summit. In 2012, an avalanche on the mountain killed nine climbers.
Unlike Everest, where about a third of the deaths have been of Sherpa guides, most of the fatalities on Manaslu have been of foreign climbers.
A team of Japanese climbers first reached the summit in 1956. That ascent prompted many others to try their luck. After an avalanche in 1972 killed 15 members of a South Korean expedition, then one of the worst disasters in Himalayan climbing history, even veteran climbers showed reluctance to take on Manaslu, researchers said.
Not all, however.
Purnima Shrestha, a Nepali mountaineer who has climbed all seven of Nepal’s 8,000-meter peaks, reached the top of Manaslu in 2018, and was making her way up the mountain again on Wednesday, even as she grieved the loss of Nelson.
“I’m planning to head toward high camps for the final summit push,” she said. She will attempt to reach the top without supplemental oxygen.
“Climbers are worried,” she added, “but we’ll go up anyway.”
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