Last week we learned one of our Rebel family members, Hilaree Nelson, passed in the mountains of the Himalayas chasing her dreams and pursuing her adventures. She was known for being the first woman to summit two 8,000 meter peaks in just 24 hours (Mount Everest and Lhotse). A few years later she made the first ski decent of the “Dream Line,” a steep channel that runs down Lhotse from the summit. She was the captain of team North Face and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. She lent her voice to tell fellow ski mountaineer Kit Deslaurier’s story and was a champion for women athletes everywhere.
My name is Hilaree Nelson and I am a professional ski mountaineer, much like Kit DesLauriers. I am the athlete captain for the North Face athlete team. I live in Telluride, Colorado, I have two boys that are about the same age as Kit’s two girls, they like to hang out together, and I love to go on adventures and try new things.
RG: So, how did you become a ski mountaineer?
HN: Gosh, I fell in love with this sport probably when I was a late teenager, 18 or 19 years old. I was going to college in Colorado and the group of friends that I was in loved to go explore all the 14,000 foot peaks around Colorado, and I started going and doing that with them and we’d go in the winter time and bring skis and it kind of all just clicked for me. I really loved the going up and had such freedom going down as well.
RG: You are real life friends with Kit, and have been on mountain adventures with her. Can you talk about how you and other women in the sport inspire each other?
HN: It is, it’s pretty fun. I feel so fortunate to have shared creativity and expeditions with Kit DesLaurier over the last 15 years probably, and it is a small community, but the women that participate in this career, this lifestyle, we’re a very tight knit group. Within that group, we may not be exactly the same sport or have the same ideas, but that is what’s so awesome about the community, is that we inspire each other by the actions that we take, the things that we do in the mountains.
RG: You were the first woman to summit both Everest and Lhotse [low-tsee] in a 24 hour period. Can you tell us about those climbs, and what it is like to be on top of the world?
HN: In 2012, I went to climb Everest and was able to link two 8,000 meter peaks, Everest and Lhotse together. My timeline was a little bit different from Kit’s in that I had two kids already at that point, they were quite young, they were very much on my mind that whole expedition, but they acted as more of an inspiration than anything. It was really difficult to link those two peaks, I think I was awake for 50 hours at a time. I was almost hallucinating by the time I came down from the second 8,000 meter peak, Lhotse.
I was above 8,000 meters for most of that time. That’s called the death zone, which is where as a human being, you can’t survive in that atmosphere because there just isn’t enough oxygen, it’s too cold, like I said, you don’t sleep, it’s hard to eat. It was probably one of the hardest, longest periods in which I just pushed myself to my extreme limit, both physically and mentally, and it was awesome. It took a little while to recover, to say the least, but it was awesome. That’s really what I love about this sport, is being given that opportunity to make decisions that allow me to get to know myself, and that is what this linking of these 8,000 meter peaks was like for me.
RG: Wow, that sounds intense! So, why do it?
HN: I’ve looked into why I do this very many times, I get asked this a lot, sometimes the answer changes, but really the reason for doing it are these small snippets of mother nature that are so beautiful and unique and incredible. When I was on the summit of Everest and on the summit of Lhotse, 24 hours apart, the sunrise on each of those mountains was enough to make me cry. It’s so emotional, and it bowls you over, you can see the curvature of the earth, so that’s the first reason, is just these incredible glimpses into the power of mother nature.
And then, the second reason is the ability, the stark, raw physicality and mental significance of looking inside yourself. Sometimes it’s not always pretty, but I feel like I come away from those really tough, raw expeditions knowing so much more about the depths of who I am, and that gives me confidence, that gives me this well of power to draw from when life gets tricky and hard.
RG: One of the important things about Kit’s story is that she tells us to believe in ourselves and our abilities. Is this something you have ever struggled with? What is a time you had to push through self doubt?
HN: It’s funny that I think Kit’s description of how she overcomes her self-doubt is very similar to how I push through it. On every one of these expeditions, I have had self-doubt. I mean, I have self-doubt walking to the post office, it’s a very common thing in my life. Obviously when you’re on a big, scary mountain, that self-doubt has more consequences than walking to the post office, but the way I overcome it… And that self-doubt to be clear is always coupled with fear, so those things to me go hand in hand and the way I deal with it is through breathing, like Kit said. I sometimes just stop in my tracks and I’ll take a lot of deep breaths.
Another way is to sort of change my perspective, and I actually do that, like physically, just looking, concentrating on something that isn’t scary, like even if it’s just my hand in a glove in front of my face, looking at something really simple really helps me change that focus. And then, I really try to reel in what I’m thinking about and be present because especially in the mountains, if you think about what’s coming next, it just feeds that doubt and fear, and so you really just have to try to be present.
RG: That sounds like a great tool! So, what advice do you have for rebels who want to have more outdoor adventures and improve their skills?
HN: My advice for girls wanting to spend more time in the outdoors, get those skills, is to get to jump into it. You have to take that first step, and the only way to get better at anything is to work hard at it, to practice, read about it, go to Google Maps, look at maps, find other people that have more experience than you and get that first person knowledge and experience from those individuals. You can do that by going to climbing gyms or adventure outdoor stores, make those connections with people. If you’re in school, talk to your PE teacher about it, or just have those conversations with people about what they do in the outdoors and what that looks like.
If you don’t have that access, I think the best thing to do is find parks, find anywhere that has dirt that you can walk on, it’s really simple. It doesn’t have to be a big multi-day undertaking. Remember that it could be as simple as barefoot walking on the grass, or tennis shoes and running on a dirt trail, finding that park, finding a river, finding a place that has trees over you, and you can lay down in the grass and look up at those trees, it can be very simple.
RG: So Hilaree, if you could go back to when YOU were a kid and give yourself some advice, what would it be?
HN: I think my piece of advice to myself as a kid would be to have been a little more outspoken. I very much grew up waiting for other people, I never wanted to confront anyone, I never wanted to offend anyone or have anyone not like me. I always was a people pleaser, and that’s the one thing I would change. I mean, I don’t want to upset anyone, but I just wish I’d been able to speak up a little more, be a little bit braver with what I was thinking and putting it out there. Because really at the end of the day, now as a 48 year old woman who’s seen the world and has kids, it’s like, what’s the worst that happens when you put yourself out there? Someone says no, and really that’s not that bad.
RG: That is some great advice! And finally, what makes YOU a Rebel Girl?
HN: I think what makes me a Rebel Girl is that I always just found my own path, and a lot of the reason for that was I like to experiment. I wasn’t afraid to be bad at something, so I would put myself out there and I’d say yes to things that scared me. I learned how to swim, like really swim when I was probably 40 years old, just trying new things and saying yes, and being willing to sort of embarrass yourself a little bit along the way.