For Hilaree Nelson, skiing is the gateway to possibility. Outside magazine named her one of the most adventurous women in the world of sports. She is celebrated for being the first woman to have climbed both Everest and its neighbor, Lhotse, in a single 24-hour period.
Nelson started skiing at age three at Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Shortly after graduating from Colorado College, she took a leap of faith and moved to Chamonix, France, to explore the world of ski mountaineering and climbing. In 1999 Nelson skied the Bubble Fun Couloir on Wyoming’s Buck Mountain, a technical run that drops into a 61-foot cliff. It was the first female descent, and it caught the attention of The North Face. Less than a month later, The North Face sent her on her first expedition to India’s Deo Tibba, in the Himalaya. Two years later, the company signed Nelson as one of their professional athletes. She joined legendary climbers and extreme athletes from multiple disciplines.
Nelson has since cut turns down volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia and mountains in Mongolia, India, Lebanon, and Baffin Island, entering the record books for high-altitude innovation and prowess.
As the recipient of a National Geographic Explorers grant, Nelson led a team of alpinists, photographers, and filmmakers to attempt a first ascent of Hkakabo Razi in northern Myanmar in 2014. The film about their adventure and well-publicized feuding, Down to Nothing, won the Best Cinematography Award at the Telluride Mountainfilm festival in 2015. Most recently, Nelson attempted another Himalayan giant, Makalu, which was named by Outside as one of the “most badass adventures of 2015.”
Between expeditions, Nelson spends her time with her husband and their two boys in Telluride, Colorado. In addition to ski mountaineering, Nelson has contributed articles to Outside magazine online, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic’s The Call of Everest, Ski Journal, and Outdoor Journal, among others.
In the fall of 2014, a National Geographic team set out on what they knew would be a harrowing first ascent to the summit of Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi to measure it and determine if it is indeed Southeast Asia’s highest point. What they didn’t realize was that the greatest obstacle wouldn’t be dwindling rations, grueling jungle hikes, or the life-threatening hypothermia. It was the force of conflicting personalities that threatened to unravel the entire endeavor. Leader Hilaree O’Neill recounts the tough decisions she had to make to keep the team together, accompanied by photographer Cory Richards’s dramatic stills and clips from Renan Ozturk’s award-winning documentary film, Down to Nothing.