This year witnessed the beginning and end of wars, the global rollout of the pandemic, and plenty innovations. It also saw its fair share of births and deaths. While such losses happen worldwide every day, the passing of people who pioneered change and transformed industries for future generations is worth recognizing and remembering. In this five-part story series, learn more about five of the most notable deaths in 2022.
Achieving success is no ordinary climb, and it’s different for everyone. While life goals and other milestones require hard work and determination, attempting to reach the summits of the world’s tallest mountains is a hike unlike any other. Thus, the life—and passing this year—of Hilaree Nelson is noteworthy as a testament of strength and inspiration for every mountaineer worldwide.
The Beginnings of A Ski Mountaineer
Born in Seattle, Washington- on December 13, 1972, Nelson started skiing as a child every weekend at Stevens Pass in Washington’s Cascades. While she found skiing and mountaineering as great pastimes, she felt no passion for them until she left her hometown for college. Her time at Colorado College sparked her curiosity and ambitions for the sport.
After graduating from college, Nelson booked a one-way flight to Chamonix, France, that started her lifelong career as a conqueror of the mountains. She spent her first seasons in Chamonix learning the ins and outs of ski mountaineering and igniting her passion. While doing so, she entered various skiing competitions. One season turned into five, and in 1996 she won the European extreme ski competition.
In 1999, her skills and wins gave her more visibility, resulting in sponsorship with The North Face. The partnership allowed Nelson more opportunities for expeditions to the world’s highest and most remote mountains. The ski mountaineer fought for every opportunity as a sponsored athlete, and her ambition and drive made her excel in the field of expedition-style climbing and skiing.
“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.” -Hilaree Nelson
Road to Fame and Glory
Nelson’s sponsorship with The North Face team gave her numerous expeditions and experiences that eventually led to her legendary success in 2012. On her three-month Everest expedition with other mountaineers under The North Face, she made history by reaching the summits of Mt. Everest and Lhotse within 24 hours. Nelson became the first woman to climb two of the world’s highest mountains in one day and ski down on their slopes after. She followed this international achievement by becoming the first female to descend the Makalu La Couloir on Makalu, another 8,000-meter mountain in the Himalayas.
While her Everest expedition success garnered her worldwide recognition, it was her expedition in Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar in 2014 that made her memorable. Along with her team, she received a National Geographic Explorers grant to lead an expedition to the little-known peak of the Southeast Asian country. Although the mission was unsuccessful, the experience earned her a spot to share her stories across the country.
In 2017, the Men’s Journal named Nelson one of the most adventurous women of the last 25 years. In the same year, Hilaree made another successful summit at Papsura, or The Peak of Devil, one of the highest mountains in India. She achieved it in less than two weeks after her arrival to the country, making her the first American to climb the mountain and the first person to ski down Papsura with almost no visibility.
All her previous expeditions and successes earned her position as the captain of The North Face Athlete Team and 2018’s National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
“She was a force, strong and powerful, but she also was not afraid to be vulnerable, express her fears, and be honest. There was this tenderness and rawness about her that she was willing to share with us, especially younger women.” -Emily Harrington, Professional rock climber, and adventurer, on Hilaree Nelson
Boldly Living Until the End
Nelson continued her adventures to the most remote peaks worldwide. During the pandemic, all her adventures turned to a halt. She used the time to balance her life outside of ski mountaineering and enjoy other pleasures in life with her family. Soon after the pandemic allowed her to travel, she and her partner, Jim Morrison, continued their adventures to the world’s tallest mountains.
On September 26, 2022, Nelson and Morrison reached the summit of Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world. Like any other expedition, she prepared for her descent on skis. However, on her ski down the slopes of Manaslu, Nelson triggered a small avalanche and was swept away. After two days of search operations, Morrison and the search team found her 5,000 feet south of the Nepalese mountain. She was 49.
“Oftentimes in life, people want to play it safe, and we make everything around us—especially in the Western world—to be comfortable and safe, and so we can make choices where you can see where that road is going to take you, and I’ve always been prone to making a choice that I don’t know where it’s going to take me. ” – Hilaree Nelson
Nelson’s achievements and wanderlust inspired many young female mountaineers to persevere. She pushed boundaries and allowed everyone to follow their dreams without fear. Her legacy encourages aspiring ski mountaineers to live boldly and truthfully.
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