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Hilaree Nelson was one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers ever. She made dozens of first descents from some of the highest peaks in the world and encouraged everyone who met her to revel in the adventures of life.
Get to know Emily Harrington, who read us the story of Hilaree Nelson. Emily is professional rock climber, mountaineer, and sport climbing champion. Hear about how she faces her fear and what it feels like to climb to the top of a mountain!
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Emily Harrington. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producers were Joy Smith and Jes Wolfe. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
Imagine you’re about to summit Lhotse, one of the most majestic and tallest mountain peaks in the world.
You’ve been climbing with your trusted team for almost a month, only stopping to eat or sleep when you can. The air is so cold and thin, you can barely breathe, even with an oxygen mask. Your limbs are shaking from exertion as you place one foot down on a shelf of thick, glacial ice…and then another foot…
And then, day breaks! The sun edges up from below, turning the Himalayas a shimmering golden color. Your whole body feels like it’s radiating with the purest feelings of wonder, gratitude and amazement. With one last hoist, you get yourself fully to the summit, gasping for joy.
You made it!
Only this is just the beginning.
I’m Emily Harrington, a professional rock climber, mountaineer, and sport climbing champion. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Hilaree Nelson — one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers ever. Hilaree was the captain of The North Face Global Athlete Team, and made dozens of first descents from some of the highest peaks in the world. Hilaree was and will always be the mother of two boys, a daring adventurer, and an inspiration to us all.
On a snowy day in December, 1972, Stanley and Robin Nelson welcomed their youngest child into the world. Her name was Hilaree Janet Nelson.
Hilaree had three older siblings and was always up for an adventure. Hilaree loved sports — especially running, soccer, and basketball. She was a power forward on a state-ranked basketball team and played with the same group of friends from the time she was eight until she was eighteen! Sometimes, Hilaree’s parents let all three of their kids get on a bus together to go to Stevens Pass, Washington where they rushed down the ski slopes, laughing into the wind.
But the place where Hilaree learned the most about herself was out on the water. Hilaree’s mom worked in Seattle refinishing boats. Every summer, the Nelsons set sail for three to five weeks. To Hilaree, it often felt like they were out in the middle of nowhere, set adrift. “I learned how to be still,” Hilaree said. “And self-reliant.”
It wasn’t until she left home and went to Colorado College that Hilaree started rock climbing and got into more serious skiing. The fourteen-thousand-foot mountain known as Pikes Peak stood like a snow-capped beacon, calling for Hilaree to explore. She felt such a rush of adrenaline and purpose as she headed up these rocky paths. Even her fingertips had to be strong to keep a good grip as she climbed. She also felt at peace here — singularly focussed and fully present; awake and alive.
After Hilaree graduated college, she booked a one-way ticket to Europe so she could experience new landscapes. She lived in a place called Chamonix in France, and fell in love with the Alps, which is a stunning mountain range that spreads across eight different countries. Hilaree planned to stay there for maybe five months, but it turned into five years!
She was drawn to those mountains, with their crystalline peaks, winding rivers and lush valleys. It was a whole new challenge for her. In order to climb safely here, Hilaree had to use a harness, crampons, a rope, and a big pack of supplies. To get down, she had to ski through snowstorms on slick glaciers!
More than anything, though, this is where Hilaree learned how to embrace the unpredictability of each moment. Even with all of her planning and preparing, there was still so much mystery. The winds could pick up or the ice could crack under her feet. She had to adjust and adapt in a split second.
This is what Hilaree loved the most about her time in the Alps — she got a bigger sense of what it meant to exist as a human being in nature; to focus solely on her next step and be in awe of her surroundings.
Hilaree worked several different jobs so she could get outside as much as possible. Within just a few years, she became so skilled at big-mountain skiing, that she won the European Women’s Extreme Skiing Championship in Chamonix.
She also started mentoring other young women in the mountains. At that time, ski mountaineering was dominated by male athletes. Hilaree was determined to change that. She knew that as a woman, she had unique values and perspectives that were essential for these treks. Whenever she met someone starting out in this field, Hilaree was generous, genuine, and encouraging. She saw how each climber could contribute to the group and create a greater whole. And in 1999, The North Face offered her sponsorship, which meant Hilaree could get paid to lead expeditions to the biggest and most remote mountains in the world.
Hilaree was thrilled. She planned treks throughout Europe and Asia, pushing her body and mind as far as they could go, carving out a new path for herself, and for all the women she led.
In 2007, Hilaree embarked on a completely different kind of journey — she became a mom. She was very proud to give birth to her sons, two years apart. They were both filled with her wild enthusiasm and sense of adventure.
Still, Hilaree knew no matter how much she loved motherhood, she had to get back to the mountains. She felt restless only staying at home, and wanted to show her kids that people come alive in all sorts of ways.
So, in 2012, Hilaree set out to do something that had never been done before — climb Mount Everest and the mountain next to it known as Lhotse within a 24-hour window. These are two of the tallest mountains in the world, each measuring well over twenty-five thousand feet tall! Once again, Hilaree showed she was not only incredibly strong physically, but also mentally. And yet, as she headed down Lhotse for the last descent on loose, icy rock, she was so exhausted and oxygen-deprived that she started seeing things.
“My kids just appeared in my mind so clearly,” Hilaree said. “They were like, ‘Wake up. You have to get down.’”
It felt like her kids were guiding her back.
Focus, focus, she repeated as she descended slowly, cautiously. It was terrifying not knowing if she’d get home to hold them again. All she could do was concentrate on one slippery step at a time. She channeled all of her energy as an athlete, a woman, and a mother. And she did make it those last 5,000 feet to camp, setting a new world record and solidifying her place as a living legend!
Not every expedition that Hilaree embarked on was deemed a success though. In 2014, she led a quest to summit Hkakabo Razi, which is an isolated peak in Myanmar, and thought to be the highest in Southeast Asia. Hilaree wanted her team to really get to know the land; to take their time and hike mindfully, camping in villages and speaking with the people who called this mountain their home.
Even with Hilaree’s best-laid plans however, these expeditions could be treacherous; they were at the mercy of the mountains. Hilaree’s team ran out of food and didn’t make it to the top of Hkakabo Razi. When they came home without officially documenting this uncharted peak, many people called the trip a “failure” or blamed Hilaree for what happened. It hurt to hear this, but it also made her more determined than ever to lead and explore in her own way.
If there was something that sounded impossible, Hilaree was ready to give it a go. In many ways, she needed these physical challenges to help process all that she was dealing with emotionally. By 2014, Hilaree was going through a painful divorce. She also struggled to find a balance between motherhood and big mountaineering. For a few years, she felt lost and untethered. She needed to show herself and her sons that there were no boundaries when you gave yourself fully to the mountains.
In 2017, Hilaree got back out there. She made history as the first person to ever climb up and ski down the 21,298-foot peak in the Indian Himalayas known as Papsura. Papsura was especially monumental to Hilaree, and not just because of its rugged terrain and staggering height. Hilaree had been dreaming about Papsura for close to twenty years! She’d first laid eyes on it in 1999, when she was starting as a professional ski mountaineer. She’d tried this climb before and hadn’t reached the top, and now, she was back, after years of training and preparing.
Hilaree called that the most intense day of her life. She started at three am, climbing incredibly steep walls of ice and snow. Then a monsoon swept through, and she had to trek through dense fog that made it very hard to see. Once at the summit, she and her team waited hours for the storm to pass and skied down, getting to camp by the light of a cell phone. It was harrowing, exhilarating, bone-chilling and triumphant.
Which leads us back to the top of that mythical mountain shrouded in sparkling snow, known as Lhotse.
It was autumn of 2018, and Hilaree and her life partner, Jim, had already been climbing with their stalwart sherpas for twenty-nine days. At this extreme height, everyone was oxygen-deprived and depleted. And yet, there was no time to rest at the summit. They had just a few hours before the winds were due to pick back up. Once that happened, they’d lose all hope of skiing down.
When the sun rose, Hilaree felt a surge of daring possibility. The path down was just a narrow split in the rocks, no wider than their skies, called a couloir. Nobody had ever been able to ski down this thin corridor before.
As Jim says, “The universe grants you a moment, and you take it.”
They flew down the couloir, turning and carving at astounding speed. It was beyond Hilaree’s wildest imagination, this current of energy and fluidity connecting her body with the earth. She was soaring — weightless and at one with all of her extraordinary surroundings — her truest and most courageous self.
Hilaree will always be revered as one of the most intrepid ski mountaineers of all time. As a professional athlete, she traveled to sixteen different countries, reaching summits in Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan and Antarctica, just to name a few. She was named captain of The North Face Athlete Team, and one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year. She campaigned for strong environmental policy with the nonprofit Protect Our Winters and served on the board of the American Alpine Club.
But the title she was most proud of was being called mom. She gave birth to two incredible boys and to a movement of female adventurers. As a mom and a leader, Hilaree was fiercely resilient and deeply compassionate. From the highest heights to the ocean floor, she loved this earth and all its mysteries.
Tragically, Hilaree died during an expedition in September of 2022, after summiting a 26,781-foot peak in Nepal known as Manaslu. She was with her partner Jim, doing what she loved to do most — climbing and skiing from incredible heights. She knew the risks she was taking as she set out on her adventure. And she embraced the fact that anything could happen.
No matter what, Hilaree Nelson is a rebel through and through. Not just because she was so strong or helped redefine female athleticism. But because she believed that every day on this planet is a miracle, and that there’s no greater joy than stepping into the unknown. That is Hilaree’s legacy.