When you think of giants in the world of mountaineering and adventure, one name inevitably rises to the top: Hilaree Nelson.
“We love Hilaree for her energy and her motivation. It was always equal to men in the mountains and incredibly strong in that sense,” said Conrad Anker, a friend of Nelson and fellow mountaineer.
Together Nelson and Anker climbed Denali and Everest, and took an expedition to Antarctica. But Anker noted it wasn’t Nelson’s ability to climb or ski the most impressive peaks that sticks out.
“As a professional, she was always an advocate for women, and when she elevated women, she elevated everyone,” he recalled.
Nelson passed away on Sept. 26 after getting caught in an avalanche on Mt. Manaslu in Nepal. She was 49 years old.
Nelson grew up in Seattle, Washington, where she spent her winters skiing Stevens Pass in the Cascades. After graduating from college she went to Chamonix, France for a winter, which turned into five years, and Nelson began her journey as a world renowned ski mountaineer.
In a career that spanned decades, Nelson snagged the first descent on dozens of mountains, on more than 40 expeditions in 16 different countries. She was the first person to complete a ski descent of Lhotse and the first woman to link Everest and Lhotse in a 24-hour push. She completed a double summit of Denali, and was the first person to ski down Papsura Peak. She was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and a North Face Athlete — the captain of the North Face Team.
But even with all her accomplishments, speaking to those who knew Nelson, it’s her heart that leaves the greatest impact.
Anker remembers their expedition on Denali.
“She was with a group of younger skiers and snowboarders and she was great,” Anker said. “She was like the den mother. She was there making sure we were fed, and making sure the youngsters were doing their bit and tidying up. It was a cross between a wonderful parent and an expedition leader.”
Suzan Beraza got to know Nelson through her work with Mountainfilm, a Telluride film festival. She remembered being a little intimidated to start.
“I’ve always looked up to Hilaree and admired her, and thought she was the coolest woman ever,” Beraza said. “Then getting to know her, it was just this other side of her. She wasn’t intimidating at all. Because of all her accomplishments, I thought ‘wow, she’s just kind of, an untouchable woman.’ But she was just the opposite. She was caring and giving, and generous with her time. And just had the most beautiful easy laugh, and just a hell of a fun person.”
Beraza added that while the world knew Nelson as a trailblazer in mountaineering, she was so much more than that.
“She just was an incredible community member for Telluride, incredibly generous with her time, being an amazing mother, and incredible partner,” Beraza said. “She was just a warm, loving, kind person, and her being a mountaineer was just a small part of who she really was.”
Still, it’s hard to understate Nelson’s importance in the world of mountaineering, especially for women.
“Hilaree’s legacy will rest upon empowering women to pursue big mountain dreams,” Anker said. “Whether it’s working as a ski guide with a helicopter outfit, or being a team captain at the North Face, or climbing Everest and Lhotse in a day. Her ability and motivation has touched many people and specifically really encouraged women to pursue their dreams.”
“She was a complete role model for women and showing that you can have these accomplishments and achieve your goals and still be a mother,” said Beraza. “Often women are held at a different standard for that than men — where men can go off and do all these things and have children, women are kind of judged to say ‘oh no, you can’t do that. You’re a woman.’ She really broke that wide open, and showed that it is important for women to have dreams and to follow those dreams.”
Nelson is survived by her two children — Grayden and Quinn — and her partner, Jim Morrison.
That story from Aspen Public Radio was shared with us via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. including KHOL.