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The Dog That Hilaree Nelson Loved

The first time her dog, Buck, encountered a skier, he attacked. Eventually, things changed.

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Editor’s note: This story was first published in SKI Magazine in 2004. Nelson died on September 26, 2022, when she skied off the southern slope of 26,781-foot Manaslu in the Himalayas. She was descending from the true summit with her partner Jim Morrison.

Before it’s too late, give it up for skiing’s most accomplished powderhound. Hilaree Nelson O’Neill has surfed a tsunami of publicity lately, especially in the outdoor press. The North Face’s preeminent female athlete-mountaineer-skier, O’Neill appears in Warren Miller flicks, notches first descents down 6,000-meter Himalayan peaks, and makes pioneering expeditions to the wild frontiers of Mongolia and South Georgia Island. Magazine editors haven’t failed to notice that she’s also a buff, 5-foot 10-inch hybrid of Marcia Brady and Carrie-Anne Moss—thus, the profiles in Skiing, Sports Illustrated Women, Outside, and others. O’Neill deserves her success—she earned it on every cliff she hopped and every trail she broke.

But she didn’t attain stardom alone. Just as Roy Horn got his name in lights thanks to the cooperation of white tigers better behaved than the nearly homicidal Montecore, Hilaree O’Neill has leaned on her dog, a black lab named Turbo Buckshot Ace (“Buck for short). Now, as Buck struggles to reach his 98th canine birthday, the time is long overdue to appreciate him, not just as O’Neill’s pet, but as one of the finest skiing dogs to slide ass-first down a mountain.

Buck was born on March 3, 1990, in LaConner, Washington. His family, which was, after all, a bunch of dogs, gave him up for adoption to Hilaree—a junior in a Seattle high school at the time. They bonded deeply, despite a couple of scary incidents: Young Hilaree cut young Buck with a boat propeller, and once backed over him with a car. (Buck was sleeping behind the rear tire. Bad dog, Buck. Bad dog.)

The joys of skiing were not immediately apparent to the pup. The first time Buck encountered a skier, he attacked. “Buck saw a 12-year-old boy ski out of some woods, and he ran and tackled the kid, knocking him out of his bindings, O’Neill says. “He just didn’t get it—the skiing thing. And he cut his chin open on the kid’s edges. He had to get 12 stitches and wear one of those lamp shades that keep dogs from chewing their wounds. Indeed, the “cone of silence” became like a favorite toque to Buck. “He wore those a lot”, says O’Neill. “Once, when I didn’t have any money for the vet, I made him one. Buck ran around with a cardboard box on his head.”

O’Neill attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs and brought Buck along for her sophomore through senior years. It was there, on backcountry jaunts down 14,110-foot Pike’s Peak, that Buck learned to follow his master and ski, dammit, ski. He wasn’t a natural, like some bouncy border collies we know. “He’s a lab, so he’s not light or springy,” O’Neill says. “On snow, he’s more a plugger who slides down whatever he can. Still, he bit into skiing like it was a rawhide bone. For one, he could play outdoors right next to his owner—a lab’s ultimate obsession. Two, he had an overheated big dog’s boundless love for snow: At his heaviest, Buck weighed a bearlike 115 pounds. Even now, in his frail old age, he hovers around 85.

The volcanoes of the Northwest, New Mexico’s Sangre de Christos, and various Colorado Rockies all relinquished themselves to Buck’s paws in the mid-nineties. Buck slobbered over all of them but wagged his tail most over steeps. Says O’Neill: “Steeps make it much easier for him to get his bulk down. So, like any jaded North American powderhound hungering for pitch and vertical, Buck eventually found his way to the Alps. O’Neill checked Buck in and made the brutal flight from Seattle to Geneva, then caught trains to Chamonix.

With Buck’s support, O’Neill flowered as a skier—placing high in the Alps’ various extreme competitions, derbies, and races. Buck traveled happily alongside her, and why not? He loved the cheese and saucisson diet. Besides, he had a typical lab reaction to human whimsies: “Yup, yup, yo, whatever you say, master, it’s okay by me. Yup, yup, yo…. Almost every day, Buck hung out—unleashed—at the mid station of the Grands Montets tram while O’Neill skied. He naturally gravitated to the restaurant. “That’s how Buck got fat,” laments O’Neill. “People would feed him constantly. There’s actually a word for what happened next: hyperexcretion. “I’d ski down with him from the mid-station, and he’d poo all over the run.”

Though French restaurants and groceries allow dogs, even behemoths like Buck, the upper Grands Montets tram does not. Buck knew this on some level, yet it still chapped him to see Hilaree ascend without him. One day, she noticed Buck hanging by the ticket checkers with a funny look on his massive skull as she boarded the tram. Unbeknownst to her, Buck promptly snuck into the next car. Lifties at the top tried to catch him but failed. Buck ran and caught up with a friend of Hilaree’s who was skiing some heinous chutes off the back. “He did those, flying over crevasses like he did a lot of descents: ass-first, says O’Neill. “Because he was 20 pounds overweight, his butt would take over and he’d go down backward.”

From then on, you couldn’t stop Buck; you could only hope to contain him. At notoriously dangerous La Grave, Buck did what few humans can: two straight descents of the 9,000-vertical-foot pitch. When O’Neill moved to St. Moritz, Switzerland, Buck rode the La Diavolezza tram and huffed down glaciers and peaks. Eventually, Buck’s powder jones led him to heli-ski. He even flew a mission or two with Swiss Rescue. Once he got conditioned to the emergency bell, he’d run and try to hide in the heli every time it rang. Paramedics had to yank him out before flying off to locate the victims. Then Buck became a victim of love. He and Hilaree moved to Telluride after Hilaree became engaged to heli-guide Brian O’Neill. You may have seen Buck at the town gondola station, hanging out and waiting for his owner, food scraps, or both.

While prohibited from American lifts and helis, Buck skied the Colorado backcountry religiously until two years ago. Then, while trumping along in deep powder, he over-rotated in a smear turn and blew out his right rear knee. The injury and lack of skiing traumatized him, and in his misery, he ate a fat rubber band used to hold skis together. He endured several stomach pumpings, then surgery to remove the blockage.

So ended the ski career of a pooch who, according to O’Neill, “has had more face shots than any other dog. Only Zudnik, the legendary wolf-husky mix who appeared with owner Scott Kennett in several Warren Miller films, could rival Buck’s vertical-feet totals. Unfortunately, in late in 2003, Buck was found to have a large tumor between his stomach and spleen. His days were numbered.

O’Neill looks at the graying, limping, constantly panting Buck, but sees the fresh-faced pup that accompanied her to ski fame. “My favorite memory,” she says, “is from St. Moritz, when I was working summers affixing logs to helicopters. I’d look up the 80-meter rope and see Buck’s big black head looking down at me.”

Soon—much too soon—Buck will be looking down on his beloved ski partner from an even higher perch, a place where tumors, leashes, and rules don’t exist, and dogs are free to ski forever.