The AJ Interview: Hilaree Nelson on Aging, Obsession, and Life as a Role Model

We’re deeply saddened by the loss of Hilaree Nelson this week. She leaves behind two children, a loving partner, and a hard-earned legacy of badass accomplishments on the highest mountains on earth. We interviewed Nelson two years ago and are republishing the piece today to allow casual readers the chance to learn a bit more about one of the greats. – Ed.

Pro ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson has spent the last two decades going big and getting gnarly in the world’s most iconic mountain ranges, and her resume shows it: Multiple first descents on Canada’s remote Baffin Island. First woman to tag both Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest peak, and its neighbor, Everest, in a single day. The first climb of India’s Papasura by an American—followed by the first ski descent from the summit. And on and on.

These exceptional efforts have earned Nelson a barrage of admiration and accolades, including being named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2018, that mark her as one of the most accomplished, ground-breaking contemporary ski mountaineers of any gender.

But if she’s inclined to rest on her laurels, maybe relax a bit after twenty years in the game, Nelson has a funny way of showing it. In 2018, she became the second-ever team captain of The North Face’s Athlete Team, taking the baton from fellow mountaineer Conrad Anker during a tumultuous period when the brand not only moved its headquarters (and shed some of its core staff), but also saw it reeling from the deaths of three star alpinists—David Lama, Hansjörg Auer, and Jess Roskelley—who were caught in an avalanche while attempting a climb on Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies.

And in September 2018, Nelson, along with her partner Jim Morrison, returned to the Himalaya to complete the first ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, a steep, spicy, and highly coveted run known as the Dream Line. Their successful effort was documented in the short film Lhotse, which is currently showing as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival’s World Tour.

Even while she’s out there getting after it (she completed an expedition to Antarctica in January and is eyeing one to Alaska next month), Nelson is also determined to give back. She peppers her calendar with speaking engagements that promote the idea that we can all “dare greatly” in our everyday lives, and she’s stepping more firmly into her role as part of Protect Our Winters’ Athlete Alliance, raising both awareness and cash for the organization’s “Crush it for Climate” campaign, which meshes the innate desire to document our every drip of sweat on Strava with fundraising that supports the organization’s climate change advocacy efforts.

“A few years ago, we basically didn’t have a winter in Telluride. My younger son was probably 6 or 7 at the time, and he would come upstairs every morning, plaster his face against the glass pane, and say, ‘Where’s the snow?’ He’d be almost in tears,” says Nelson. “I’m not perfect in my activism, but in realizing how fast this is all happening, I recognized that all of this is going to fall on my kids. I really want to be able to look back and say—Okay, I did something about this. I tried to do something about this.”

We recently talked with Nelson about the complications of being a role model, how she really feels about being a mom who goes big in the mountains, and the one reason she keeps pushing her own boundaries.



AJ: Between Lhotse, public speaking engagements, social media, and interviews that you’ve done, you don’t shy away from personal topics. Why do you choose to be so open?
I often don’t think it’s a choice; it’s just who I am. I have to be careful about the interviews or filming projects I take on, or how deep they’re going to go, because if somebody asks me a personal question, I’m going to tell them my personal story. I wish I had canned answers that kept my emotions and my personal life somewhat separate, but that’s just not how I tick. Sometimes it bites me in the ass; sometimes I think it helps other people. It’s really exhausting to always be open and put myself out there, but I really can’t imagine being any other way.

I feel like I’ve been given a gift to be able to be good at something in life, to be able to follow that and be super passionate about it. Because I have been given a path to follow, I feel very selfish in many ways, and the way that I balance that is by being honest and telling my story as best I can to help other people. I realize most people aren’t going to walk out the door, go climb Lhotse, and try to ski down an 8,000-meter peak, but I think a lot of people face the same challenges that I do, like leaving their kids to go to work for the day.

The line between passion and obsession is not always incredibly clear for me

So many stories about you dive heavily into your role as a mom, and in the last few years, at least, also make specific mention of your age. How do you feel about the narrative being so heavily centered on these topics?
I mean, I wish I could keep my age a secret, but then again, I’ve also been through it—I’m 47 years old. I feel good. I am definitely getting older, I can’t get off the couch the same way, but that’s part of my motivation to keep pushing. I don’t feel like I’ve reached my total potential in my occupation yet, so I’m still pushing into that and exploring it. We’re all aging—what can we do with that? How can we look at it differently? How can we take care of ourselves, push ourselves, or just constantly work on getting to know ourselves better?

There seems to be a double standard when talking about mothers in particular, participating in what some might call higher-risk endeavors like ski mountaineering. Do you think this kind of scrutiny is fair? Is there a way we can shift this conversation to a more positive one?
When it first started becoming such a big part of my story that I was a mom and still doing this, I was really resistant to it. But then my feelings shifted a bit because I am a mom and I am doing it. I decided to open myself up to telling that story because I got asked so often by so many younger female athletes: How do you do this? Why do you do this? What motivates you? How do you balance it all? I thought that if I was open about it, then more moms out there might hear my story and choose to do things a little differently than they originally thought they could.

I think fatherhood has changed so much in the last twenty years. Men, at least the men I know, are so much more involved as fathers and they don’t have the platforms to tell their story as fathers and doing what they do. I’d really like to see these conversations happen with more male athletes, as well. How do they balance it? How do they do it?

I don’t think I could do it again—leaving on expeditions when my kids were young. It’s so hard. That’s part of the story I want told—it’s not easy; it’s so hard. But a lot of the other choices we have are so hard. I mean, look at the alternative of working 9-5 or being a stay at home mom; different things work for different people. I just want to be a good mom, and I think doing what I do helps me be a good mom.


Flipping that conversation, have the risks you’ve taken, and the fact that you so often go big in your endeavors actually benefitted your kids?
Yes, I definitely think it has. When people look at this lifestyle of mine from the outside, it seems crazy—how can you do that with kids? But you have to understand that for my kids, this has been their entire life. This is what they know. This is what is normal for them. This is who their mom is. Do they love it when I’m gone for extended periods of time? No, they don’t. But they love the adventures. They love the people, the climbing partners that are part of my life. They love traveling. They go to my slideshows. It’s funny—the other day I was on a gondola here in Telluride with these women who started asking me: Do you live here? What do you do? I was trying to explain what I do and my youngest son said, “Mom, just tell them what you do—you climb mountains, but Sherpas do all the work.” I was like—That isn’t how it works! Their interpretation of it all is so different. But I try to incorporate them into that life so much, going to their school, talking to their classroom when they’re talking about different continents and geography and climate change. I try to bring them into the whole story.

A lot of people look up to you as a role model, even an icon—how does it feel to know that people look at you that way? Do you feel a call to live up to those expectations?
It’s a little weird, for sure. I mean, when I first started doing this, I didn’t even know what I was doing, what I was getting into, where it would lead, how I could make a living at it—you know, all of those questions that I think most people have when they start down a certain path. At this point in my life, to be a role model, to be in that position, I feel really fortunate. But I don’t want people to see a role model as an icon, as this perfect thing, because that’s not what it is. I’m not perfect. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’m just living life, and I really want people to understand that to get to be successful at anything takes a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal; I want to be seen as a role model who’s a real person and who helps people understand that they can do great things while being very imperfect.

I think anyone would forgive you for dialing it back after notching so many accomplishments over the years; what motivates you to keep pushing so hard?
I guess I am my own worst critic. After I climbed Everest and Lhotse, I had been awake for, like, 50 hours. I had pneumonia, I had torn all the ligaments in my ankle, I could barely even walk downhill. And I’d just hear that voice in my head that was like, “What the F-word? You should have done that. You could have totally done that faster. You shouldn’t have done this, that, and the other thing,” and that’s just how my brain works. I’m making it sound really negative, but it’s not. It’s just that I have this crazy inner drive that sometimes I don’t even feel like I have control of. It’s like the line between passion and obsession is not always incredibly clear for me. Maybe other people see these as huge accomplishments, but I see them as places where I’ve learned a lot and now I want to take what I’ve learned and apply it to some other objective.

I have this whole process where I start to think about something that I want to do, and then I’ll be like, No, no, no, no. None of this is actually verbally outside of my head; it’s all inside. And then I’ll start waking up in cold sweats in the middle of the night because I’ll have dreamt that I’m in this place and I’m like—Oh, shit. The process is starting again. I can’t stop it. Eventually I start talking about it to one close friend and then I’m like, Oh yeah, this is totally going to happen now. I’ve been told that I’m very good at manifesting things.


All in-piece photos courtesy Hilaree Nelson via Instagram. Top photo: The North Face



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