Dubbed one of the most adventurous women in the world of sports by Outside magazine and “the matriarch of mountaineering” by the Seattle Times, Hilaree Nelson O’Neill has seen her fair share of expeditions. Born in the Pacific Northwest, Nelson O’Neill has piled up a list of accomplishments over a 20-year career that would put her in the conversation with the most seasoned of adventurers.
In 2017, she reached the summit of India’s Mt. Papsura, a 6,451-metre peak known in local lore as the “Peak of Evil” — a mountain that, next to its twin of Dharamsura (the “Peak of Good”), changes in height according to how much good or evil exists in the world at any given moment, so the story goes. Making matters more difficult, she and her climbing partners descended by skis once they reached the top.
“It’s a solid 55-degree pitch, and you’ve got maybe a millimetre of this crunchy snow on top of blue ice, and you’re in this whiteout — a total whiteout,” she says. “You can’t even tell the blue ice from the places where there are snow, and you know that there’s this bottomless pit below you that just wants to eat you up and spit you out.”
“You know that there’s this bottomless pit below you that just wants to eat you up and spit you out.” – Hilaree Nelson O’Neill
Nelson O’Neill would be recognized by National Geographic as one of the publication’s 2018 Adventurers of the Year for the feat, hardly the first in her list of accomplishments. In 2012, she became the first woman to climb two 8,000-metre peaks in 24 hours, summiting Mt. Everest and Lhotse while dealing with two torn ligaments in her ankle.
“It was freezing cold. If you took your goggles off, your eyeballs would freeze,” says Nelson O’Neill.
For most people, a trek to the top of Everest would stand as the pinnacle of accomplishment and adventure. For Nelson O’Neill, it’s practically a footnote. Perhaps her greatest story of all is that of her failed trip to Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi, a remote peak believed to be the tallest in Southeast Asia. She went on the expedition in 2014, looking for a “classic adventure” after the commercialized experience on Everest.
“We thought that it would be a really great idea to craft this as an old-fashioned expedition, which meant we went overland all the way from the main city, Yangon — which is way in the south of Myanmar — and we travelled some 1,000 miles before we even got to where we started walking,” says Nelson O’Neill.
“We had one or two pictures of the peak from a Japanese guy that had climbed there in the mid-nineties, but we weren’t even sure that they were photos of the actual mountain. So it was incredibly difficult to plan. All of the logistics were so loose, and we had to be really ready for things to not quite go as we expected.”
“I really just love pushing myself and getting in those situations, and it hasn’t abated as of yet.” – Hilaree Nelson O’Neill
True to form, things did not go as expected. The team encountered setback after setback on the way and were running critically low on food supplies by the time they arrived at base camp. A series of arguments nearly threatened to fracture the fragile bonds of the team, and the group of five became a group of three for the final push to the summit, one which ultimately had to be called off.
“I almost quit my life of expedition athlete after that expedition,” she says.
Now four years later, Nelson O’Neill can look back on the adventure and laugh.
“You have to have a mindset where you go in with the expectation that things are going to go as you planned, but the flexibility and the relaxedness to adapt, and change, and laugh at things,” she says.
O’Neill has also learned to live with the threat of danger that comes with each expedition.“We all have fears,” she says, “and it can be so debilitating, but if you’ve never experienced fear and faced it … you’re not living. I remind myself of that all the time. It is that fear that we should be seeking out, that we should looking for, in order to enrich our lives.”