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Remembering world-renowned Colorado mountaineer and skier Hilaree Nelson

Hilaree O'Neill_ Papsura Expedition 2017. Himachal Pradesh, India.
Chris Figenshau
Hilaree O'Neill_ Papsura Expedition 2017. Himachal Pradesh, India.

When you think of giants in the world of mountaineering and adventure, one name inevitably rises to the top.

Hilaree Nelson was the best of her time.

“We love Hilaree for her energy and her motivation. It was always equal to men in the mountains and incredibly strong in that sense,” saids 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 notes 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 September 26th 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 a world renowned ski mountaineer.

In a career that spanned decades, Nelson became the first decent on dozens of mountains, on more than 40 expeditions in 16 different countries.

She was the first person to complete a ski decent of Lhotse, 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 decent Paupsura Peak.

She was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and a North Face Athlete, captain of the North Face Team.

But even with all her accomplishments, speak 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. 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,” said Anker.

“It was a cross between a wonderful parent and an expedition leader.”

Suzan Beraza got to know Nelson through her work with Mountainfilm. She remembers being a little intimidated to start.

“I’ve always looked up to Hilaree and admired her, and thought she was the coolest woman ever. 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,” Beraza remembers.

“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,” she said.

Beraza adds 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,” said Beraza.

“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. 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,” said Anker.

“Her ability and motivation has touched many people and specifically really encouraged women to pursue their dreams, you know they had the skills and ability to go do it,” said Beraza.

"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. 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 love, Jim.

This story from KOTO was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Julia Caulfield is the news director at KOTO in Telluride.