Published: May 1, 2019

Point of No Return

On May 7, the Auditorium Theatre’s 2018-19 National Geographic Live Series, celebrating inspirational women, concludes with Point of No Return, featuring the accomplished mountain climber, adventurer, and National Geographic explorer Hilaree Nelson. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Nelson got her start as a skier on the Cascade Mountains in Washington state when she was just 3 years old. Read on to learn more about Nelson’s career highlights, the obstacles she’s had to overcome, and what it feels like to ski down the world’s fourth-tallest mountain!

Auditorium Theatre (AUD): How did you get your start as a mountain climber? When did you know you wanted to do this professionally?

Hilaree Nelson (HN): I got my start with The North Face (TNF) back in 1999. I had been living and climbing in Chamonix, France and interviewed with TNF to go on an expedition to India for some high altitude ski mountaineering. It was on that trip that I fell in love with mountain climbing and simultaneously decided I wanted to pursue the sport as a profession.

AUD: You’ve climbed and skied some of the highest mountain peaks in the world. Can you pick a favorite expedition or place to climb?

HN: I love India and have been there many times for climbing. The mountains are endless and the culture of the country is wild and foreign. Another place that had a major impact on me was the Isle of South Georgia near the Antarctic Circle. I’ve only been there the one time but we had to go there by a small schooner and the wildlife was absolutely incredible. The mountains and the weather were humbling, to say the least. Outside of the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, it’s one of the wildest places I’ve ever been.

AUD: Last year, you were part of a pair that accomplished the first-ever complete ski descent of Mt. Lhotse — the fourth-highest mountain in the world! So not only did you have to climb the mountain, you also skied back down. Can you describe that journey? For us Midwesterners who are barely familiar with hills, let alone mountains, what does it feel like to ski 8,516 meters down a peak?

HN: This was a longtime dream of mine to ski this particular line off of Lhtose. I had climbed the peak before, in 2012, and knew that with the right conditions it was possible. We took a lot of risks in order to be in the right place at the right time and it paid off for our team. Standing on the summit with our entire view filled by the southeast ridge of Mt. Everest, buckling our ski boots and stepping into our bindings, was perhaps the single coolest feeling I’ve ever had in the mountains. The air is very thin so skiing is incredibly strenuous and difficult. I had to stop every few turns to catch my breath. The conditions were challenging and there was no room for error. I think a huge part of our success was the teamwork involved in reaching the summit and then again, knowing my partner so well that we could descend safely.

AUD: You’re an accomplished explorer and mountaineer. What’s a career highlight that you are most proud of?

HN: Skiing Lhotse, of course. I’m also really proud of climbing and skiing the Papsura peak in India in 2017. It was a first American ascent, only the 2nd ascent of the route we climbed and first-ever ski descent. I had failed on the peak on a previous attempt, and to return and have success was definitely a career highlight.

AUD: You’ve said that you’ve faced some obstacles as a woman in a male-dominated field — and this came into play when you were climbing the mountain Hkakabo Razi in Burma, which you’ll talk about in Point of No Return. How have you overcome these obstacles? Have things changed in the field at all in the past few years?

HN: I often find myself as the only woman on an expedition team. There were obstacles when I was first starting out because I very much needed to prove my abilities. I overcame most of those obstacles through persistence, being an attentive and active learner, and through working really, really hard. With that said, however, I have found that generally speaking, there have been more opportunities in the world as a mountaineer because I am a woman. Hkakabo Razi was unique in that, unlike any of my previous expeditions, our whole team was not able to go for the summit together due to the technicality of the climb and a lack of resources available to us. The team was then divided along gender lines and the two women, myself and Emily Harrington, were immediately dismissed as the weak links. It was very unfortunate that things transpired the way they did. In general, I have found men to be very supportive and respectful of their female counterparts and I see that only improving in the future.

AUD: Do you have any advice for young women (or young people in general!) who want to be explorers/adventurers/mountain climbers?

HN: My best advice would be to take the first step. I find it very easy in our modern world to talk oneself out of adventure, out of risk-taking and to settle into a comfortable and easy life. In order to be an explorer/adventurer or a climber you have to go exploring and engage in adventures. Take that first step, be open-minded, and when met with inevitable failures, find resilience and continue to move forward.