Hilaree Nelson: Adventurer, Explorer, Pioneer

Hilaree Nelson. For nearly two weeks, it’s been a name I can’t seem to get out of my head and a name that I keep coming back to. And for a good reason.

From a recent article in Outside Magazine: “Hilaree had a distinctive sense of wanderlust that propelled her through more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries. Along the way, she explored some of the tallest mountains on the planet, often carrying her skis along with her for the ride down. In 2012, she became the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks, Mount Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. Six years later, Nelson returned to Lhotse to become the first to ski from its summit.”

Not unlike Joan Merriam Smith, she was an unassuming, fearless, female adventurer. Only instead of flying planes, she took on mountains. Weighed calculated risks. She persisted and persevered through setbacks and letdowns. Guided by a deep passion, she lived her life unapologetically, accomplishing the seemingly impossible, never giving up, and serving as a beacon to others … all the while raising two boys.

A September of 2021 drone image showing climbers nearing the summit of Nepal’s Manaslu (image source)

On September 26th, 2022, after summiting the world’s 8th highest mountain known as Manaslu in the country of Nepal, Hilaree and her partner Jim Morrison began their descent when she triggered an avalanche, sweeping her off the side of the mountain. For those unfamiliar with the news, below follows a brief recap from the headlines:

Shortly after the incident, Jim wrote on Instagram:

“‘On September 26th at 10:42 am, we reached the true summit of Manaslu in tough conditions,’ he said. ‘We quickly transitioned from climbing to skiing in cold and wind with a plan to ski around the corner and regroup with our Sherpa team. I skied first, and after a few turns, Hilaree followed and started a small avalanche. She was swept off her feet and carried down a narrow snow slope down the south side (opposite from climbing route) … I did everything I could to locate her but was unable to go down the face as I hoped to find her alive and live my life with her.'”

Of course, while learning about this news, I couldn’t help but think of Joan Merriam Smith, who also died unexpectedly and tragically, and far too young, while also doing something she loved and lived for.

While I didn’t know Hilaree, I did have correspondence with her regarding a TEDx talk. While I didn’t follow her closely, I was aware of the things she was accomplishing through both social and traditional media. And while I don’t know Jim, I did know his wife and children, who also died tragically in 2011. (An excellent backstory about Jim and Hilaree from a February 2020 article of Sports Illustrated is here.) Needless to say, I was SO inspired by Hilaree’s example, which makes it all the more difficult to acknowledge that she is now gone.

With the vast outpouring of support and sentiments being shared across the web, it’s evident that that impact of her loss is being felt far and wide. In the spirit of women adventurers that we’ve lost way too soon, below is one of the best tributes I’ve seen. The first few minutes involve a recap from fellow endurance athlete Rich Roll, followed by the re-release of an interview she gave about her life, accomplishments and reflections in her very own words.

For me one thing is certain: while her loss is an utter tragedy for her children, her partner Jim, and her family (not to mention women in general and the world at large), she lived her life to the fullest and will continue to serve as an example of greatness for generations to come.