Record-breaking mountaineer Hilaree Nelson passes away

Gillian Reynolds

On Wednesday, Sept. 28, famous mountaineer and skier Hilaree Nelson was found dead after a fall off the Himalayan Mountain Range in Kathmandu, Nepal. Nelson was skiing with her partner Jim Morrison when rough weather conditions led to an avalanche that separated them. She left behind Morrison and her two sons. Nelson was an extreme skier, whose inspirational career lasted over 20 years. In 2012, she became the first woman to summit the 8000-meter peak, Mount Everest, and the adjacent Lhoste mountain within 24 hours. In 2018, Nelson received the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Award.

Contently seated upon a mountaintop, Nelson grins at the breathtaking views around her. (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

In her career she embarked on over 40 expeditions in over 16 countries.

Tamalpais High School senior Drake Miller is an avid skier and mountaineer who has tracked Hilaree’s social media and her overall progress since she first skied Mt. Everest and Lhotse, and admires her accomplishments.

“[Her death] really struck me because I’ve been following her skiing for several years now, [and] she’s done some crazy stuff. All the stuff she does is death-defying,” Miller said. 

Miller first started following Nelson after she and Morrison skied Lhotse. He was impressed, especially with Nelson being a woman who was performing at such a high level in a male-dominated sport. 

“Not many women are huge in the ski and mountaineering community, and [Nelson] was just someone who stood so far ahead of every man [and] every woman. She was out there crushing it,” Miller said. 

Those who worked closely with Nelson saw her success behind the scenes and knew her as a kind and committed person. Matt Sharkey, Chief Brand Officer for Into Technologies, became close friends with Nelson in 2018 when he was the Global Director of Sports Marketing at The North Face, and got to know her better when she joined the North Face Team, a global elite team of athletes across outdoor disciplines. He watched her grow as she pursued a career in alpinism, the climbing of high mountains and alps. 

“I think one of the most remarkable things about Hilaree is how humble she was as an individual when questioned about who she was and her pursuits, yet [was] fiercely determined to accomplish the most incredible things in alpinism ever. You don’t really see that duality in too many individuals,” Sharkey said. 

Nelson specifically left an imprint for women in the sport of alpinism and paved the way for many other influential women in mountaineering. She not only dominated the sport as a whole, but inspired people to pursue their dreams and to not be afraid to challenge themselves. 

“Without question, she’s the most accomplished female alpinist of her generation, and I know that she was proud of that and she was honored to be a mentor to other women in a sport that had been predominantly dominated by male and patriarchal culture,” Sharkey said. 

The ski industry, described by Sharkey as what used to be an “old boys club,” had been used to characterize many sports cultures. Yet, Nelson did not await permission to represent women in the outdoors or to challenge herself. 

“She was not cavalier at all about what she did in the mountains. She was highly calculated and highly prepared and trained very hard for everything that she ever went out and sought to accomplish,” Sharkey said. 

As someone who watched Nelson from a professional standpoint but also grew to know her as a close friend, Sharkey saw her become a role model for the mountaineering community itself. He emphasizes that her inspiration will carry on through coming generations. 

“She’s a hero to me on a personal level, and that has absolutely nothing to do with her gender and has everything to do with who she was as a human being. … It will not end with her. [Her great-grandchildren] will still be talking about the incredible human being that she was,” Sharkey said. 

Preparing an intense backpack full of medical and snow supplies for her next expedition, Nelson concentrates on ensuring she checks off each vital piece of gear. (Photo courtesy of Adventure Equipped)

Nelson made those around her feel constantly inspired and appreciated. Professional skier Hadley Hammer further illuminates how special Nelson was after first meeting her on the North Face team, similar to Sharkey’s experience of getting to know her on the same team. 

“Hilaree always felt like more of a big sister to all of us. … She was just a really down-to-earth human,” Hammer said. 

Regardless of gender, Nelson’s accomplishments and expeditions were groundbreaking and pushed boundaries that had never been challenged before. Despite the dangers, Nelson continued to be drawn to the mountains. Hammer felt that the familiar feeling of attraction and love for the mountains kept Nelson going.

“First and foremost, that joyfulness of skiing really kept her in the mountains, and I think she was always curious about what she was capable of. … She had no reason to stop,” Hammer said. 

Hammer describes Nelson as a leader who demanded to be treated the same on each expedition as anyone else. Nelson’s sureness in herself continues to inspire people and show the importance of pursuing what you love while staying true to who you are. 

“She was an incredible person that led her life [in] her [own] way… She knew who she was and I really respect her for that,” Hammer said. 

Nelson’s bravery, kindness and inspiring actions will continue to prove how exceptional she truly was. Known as one of the best mountaineers of her generation and an extreme influence who changed ski and mountaineer culture for the better, Nelson lives on through her legacy.