This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
Hilaree Nelson was in the zone, breathing hard in the proverbial death zone. She and her partner, Jim Morrison, had not yet strapped on oxygen masks as they neared the 27,940-foot summit of Lhotse and they’d been crawling up the north face of the Himalayan peak for hours.
Photographer Nick Kalisz broke through the laborious fog and told Nelson she needed to turn around and check out the sunrise. They were six of the world’s top mountaineers alone in Everest’s Western Cwm, with not another soul for miles.
“Just imagine, we had been up walking at 2 a.m. and it was such black dark and it was so cold and scary and the sun just brings this whole feeling of life,” said Nelson, the Telluride mother of two and pioneering ski mountaineer who joined Morrison in September 2018 to become the first people ever to ski from the summit of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest peak. “I just remember falling back. It brought tears to my eyes and I remember thinking this is why I do this. This is why I take five weeks away from my kids, and this is why I love these mountains so much.”
It’s those small moments that pay the biggest rewards for Nelson, whose unrivaled ascent and ski descent of Lhotse marked one of skiing’s most heralded moments.
“We went to Lhotse to climb it and ski it, so we had that expectation and we prepared ourselves for that success — or that failure,” she said in an interview with The Colorado Sun that will be included in this season’s Next Level Skiing podcast. “But you don’t prepare yourself for all those little things along the way, and that’s what really makes the adventure. That’s what really makes it so worthwhile and really sets the tone for the joy of being successful. I had someone tell me ‘Oh after you skied Lhotse you must be so bored and it must not be that fun to come home and ski Telluride.’ And I was like ‘Oh my gosh you are totally missing the point.’ I just love skiing and I love being in the mountains and it’s because of those little moments.”
Nelson is among the worlds’ most accomplished ski mountaineers, with more than 40 expeditions across the world. She is one of fewer than a dozen women who have skied peaks above 8,000 meters. She’s the only one to ski more than one and the first to climb two 8,000-meter peaks, Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. The 46-year-old last fall returned to Nepal to ski the Lhotse Couloir, a 60-degree descent of more than 2,000 vertical feet prized as one of the most aesthetic ski lines in the world.
Since 2016, she’s been focused on Lhotse and staying closer to home in Telluride. She competed in an Ironman, ran an ultrarace, climbed her first big-wall, notched the first ski descent of India’s Papsura Peak, the so-called Peak of Evil, and skied Denali’s daunting Messner couloir after climbing the mountain’s equally fraught Cassin Ridge. That was all training for Lhotse.
“I worked really hard to be as ready as I could possibly be to have that success. It takes work, and you have to embrace the time and trial and error you have to experience to be better,” says Nelson, who called Lhotse “a 15-year passion project” that began with her ski descent of Cho Oyu in 2005.
After a pinnacle mission like Lhotse and the culmination of a project that had driven her for years, Nelson admits to falling into a funk.
“You come down from these expeditions and you come down from this high of this success and that adrenaline and the risk-taking. And then also imagine you’ve been living this super-simple life, where it’s just about survival and you are so connected with the people you are with, and then you come back to the daily distractions of email and phone and housekeeping,” she said. “When I got back from Lhotse, and I had done all of these things since 2016, I mean it’s been basically kind of tailspin for a year. What’s brought me back to life is time, for one, but all of the other things that interest me.”
Nelson is an in-demand speaker through her sponsor National Geographic. She is captain of the North Face Athlete Team and has been working with other athletes as part of Protect Our Winters to advocate for climate legislation that can protect snowy landscapes she holds dear.
“I’ve been trying to develop these other passions that come from the life I’ve had and sort of help me get over my post-traumatic stoke disorder. Which is a real thing,” she said, borrowing a quip from legendary big-mountain snowboard alpinist Jeremy Jones.
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