It’s the spring of 2017, and Hilaree Nelson is standing on the summit of 21,165-foot Papsura Peak, a.k.a. the Peak of Evil, in the Himachal Pradesh region of the Indian Himalayas. She’s been waiting for this moment for two decades, ever since she first glimpsed the peak. Her first attempt to climb it, in 2013, failed. But now here she is. She and her partners—boyfriend Jim Morrison and longtime friend and photographer Chris Figenshau—have been above 18,000 feet for the past 30 hours. They haven’t eaten much, and Hilaree can see the exhaustion pools in their eyes. She smiles inside the hood of her parka, adjusts her goggles, cinches the strap of her self-arrest ski pole, and clicks into the skis she’s hauled thousands of miles so she can drop this line she’s been obsessed with for so long.
The shot runs 3,000 feet, at an angle of 50-plus degrees. A combination of punchy snow and hidden ice makes the exposure that much more intimidating. One wrong move and you cartwheel until you die. Hilaree is “scared shitless” of the ridiculously high-stakes terrain. But after leapfrogging with Morrison for a bit, everything in Hilaree’s action-packed and extremely successful life—the parenting, the sponsors, the mentoring, the expedition planning—disappears and she simply becomes the Leader of a Line She Has Eyed for Nearly 20 Years.
With a ski mountaineering career that’s spanned decades and included dozens of first descents and expeditions to 16 countries and counting, 45-year-old Hilaree has learned to morph into whatever identity a given scenario calls for. If that sounds borderline schizophrenic, it isn’t. It’s just that Hilaree wants so much in life—and is so many things to so many people—that accomplishing it all demands she embody different personas.
Of course, before she became one of the best ski mountaineers of her generation, a mother to two boys, and one of The North Face’s most tenured athletes, she was just a lanky jock growing up in Seattle. Then a ski coach at Stevens Pass, in Washington’s Cascade Range, convinced her to join a weekend team. Unlike her big-mountain skiing contemporaries Chris Davenport and the late Shane McConkey, Hilaree never bashed a single gate growing up—she preferred to freeski. Her love of ripping natural terrain eventually led her to France’s Chamonix Valley, where she wriggled into a harness, terrified herself on the plummeting couloirs, and won the 1996 Women’s Extreme Skiing Championships.
While there, she met another rare, expedition-dreaming woman skier, Kasha Rigby, and between 1999 and 2001 the two planned, funded, and traveled to remote peaks in Lebanon, Russia, India, and South America. Enter Hilaree, Rising Star Expedition Skier. The North Face offered her a spot on its athlete team in 1999. In the years since, she has climbed and skied a greatest-hits list of summits around the world: Cho Oyu, Makalu, Everest, Denali, and Lhotse, to name a few.
And then, at the height of her career, Hilaree decided to have children with her then husband, Brian O’Neill. By 2007 she was the mother of Quinn, followed in 2009 by Greyden. Today she is Hilaree, Working Mother of Two, with the Most Exciting Job in the World.
As a North Face athlete and ambassador, she’s third in the chain of command in terms of tenure, after Pete Athans and Conrad Anker. As a teammate, she is a peer and someone to idolize. “From the first big expedition I did with her, she’s been totally dialed and meticulously put together,” says her colleague and expedition photographer Jimmy Chin. “And after all this time, her passion and motivation just seem to be growing. It’s not easy to juggle family life with being a professional mountain athlete, and she does it with grace and composure.” Teammate and climber Emily Harrington is more succinct: “She’s the woman I’ve looked up to since I started branching out into bigger mountain objectives around six years ago.”
The problem with chasing such rarefied objectives? It’s risky. When ski mountaineers have kids, they tend to scale back on the big-mountain exposure. Hilaree calls this “downshifting their tolerance for fear.” The question became how to remain that Working Mother of Two without giving up the Most Exciting Job in the World. The solution: Nelson morphed into a Mothering and Mountaineering Über-Tactician.
When she’s at home in Telluride, she’s fully in the moment with her boys, and when she’s on an expedition, she’s laser-focused on the decisions that keep you alive. One day she’s at home, cooking, taking the kids to ski races, joining their field trips, and teasing them with kisses. The next day, she’s out in the mountains, waking up in a tent, knowing the kids are in a safe place—with their dad, her family, and a network of loving friends. Then she’s on the move again, chasing the beam of her headlamp to another exotic peak. “I’m finally in a place of self-acceptance,” she says.
That newfound self-approval has allowed Hilaree to burn hotter and brighter as a mother and an alpinist. When self-doubt creeps in, her guiding star is her sister Ann-Margaret Johnson, who shoots family photography. “She’s always checking in on me as a calm, supportive person that I can bounce ideas off of. When I’m hard on myself, she says, ‘Look at all these things you’re trying to balance. Take a breath—you’re on track and doing well.’”
Already on the docket for this spring: Finish the National Geographic Live tour, ski some Sierra fourteeners, and spend two weeks in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, climbing and skiing with fellow The North Face athlete Kit DesLauriers. That and more skiing and climbing in Telluride with Greyden and Quinn. On track indeed.
Her advice to other women with little kids and big dreams? Dream away—with love, they can take it. “Kids are the center of your life, but they don’t always need to be told that every day,” she says. “If they see you following your inspiration, it will teach them to find their own life direction.”
Who knows, maybe someday the boys will be looking through the logbooks and they’ll learn that Hilaree was Not Only the First Mom but the First Human Explorer to rip that 3,000-foot, 50-degree line off Papsura.
For more than 50 years, The North Face has empowered people to push their boundaries in the outdoors. Today, they are enabling the future of all exploration by celebrating creators, athletes, educators, innovators. Relentless and unexpected explorers—role models who move mountains.