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Before She Died, Hilaree Nelson Taught Me How to Cope with Death

Hadley Hammer looks to Nelson’s example in this moment of heartbreak

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I feel shaken this week in the aftermath of Hilaree Nelson’s death on September 26 on Manaslu in Nepal. My internal compass is spinning. There’s a cliche Proust quote that goes something like “Never meet the people you admire, you’ll be disappointed.” To that, I call bullshit, because one of the people I admire most since the moment I met her is Hilaree. She was a hero to so many of us. Hilaree was bold in their accomplishments but humble in the telling. She was determined in her passions but tender with beginners. She squeezed everything she could from every moment outside in nature, and would also take the time for a two-hour call with a friend. She was a hero who led in the way she followed her internal compass. 

For those of us who spend our lives in the mountains, we all know risking death is part of the game of life. Still, this feels unbelievable. Hil felt like one of the invincible ones. She was pushing her boundaries for the last 25-plus years, making incredible descents far after most of her peers had hung it up. I can’t think of many men or women skiing at her level at 49. Who continued to carry out that passion, who continued to explore what they were capable of for so long.

Still, all the usual questions come up— how do we support those in her inner circle that are faced with the hardest loss? How do we accept that we can’t call or laugh with someone who felt like a big sister? How do we continue to live a life in the mountains while staying alive?

Despite a lot of experience with loss and trauma, I feel like a beginner again. When I heard the news, I wanted to call her. Even in her death, I wanted Hilaree’s thoughts and advice. Luckily I have it, saved in our messages from when I lost my partner, Austrian alpinist David Lama, in an avalanche in 2019. She taught so many of us so much, including how to go on living without her. These are messages from her I’d like to share with you now. 

“I love you.” 

In the ways she lived, it was obvious that Hilaree loved. She loved skiing. She loved her partner Jim Morrison. She loved her friends. She loved sausages and good wine. But more than anything, nobody was more loved than her sons Quinn and Grayden. She integrated them into her world as best she could, bringing them to The North Face athlete summits, arranging her trips around time with them, taking them to basecamps, and gushing about them any chance she got. Her choice to live a life of risk did not mean she was blithe about her role as a mother. She knew being a parent and an athlete didn’t have to be a choice between the two, but instead lived fully as both. 

“Hang in there and just take one step at a time.”

Hang. In. There. I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase as the last five years have been heavy with personal loss. My dad, recently deceased, would say it often. And when you slow it down, it takes on a new meaning. Hang…stay…be…in this place of sadness, anger, confusion, of grief. We can’t skirt around these emotions. We just need to be brave enough to experience them. Hilaree was known for telling people to get tough when it was needed, and I thought about that when the wave caused by her absence comes crashing. Hang in the wave, it will pass.

“I also know what it feels like to find that person. You are special and he was your match and he loved you.”

Jim was Hilaree’s person. They loved each other deeply and vibrantly. My first interaction with them as a couple was at a Protect Our Winters athlete summit. Jim always had his hands wrapped around Hilaree, while sitting at a conference table and while waiting to get on a chairlift. They were handsy and making out like teenagers. But they were in their 40s. Jim and Hilaree set such a high example of a relationship. Love like you’re 18. Support your partner in their dreams. Jim was always fostering and supporting Hilaree’s need to be in the mountains. He fostered her leadership and her sense of adventure. Hilaree would light up from a day of skiing with an equal brightness as a day spent close to Jim. 

“I don’t know how, today, you adapt to life without that person and that future.”

Despite spending time in places few are able to go, Hilaree was also good at living in the valleys. She was so grounded in the reality of life. This came out in her no-bullshit way of telling the truth. She was a mentor to most people she touched, but not the kind that promised to have any answers. Instead, she was the kind of person that was willing to live out the questions with you. 

“I do know that you have an entire community of people that love you and want to support you and help you through this. “

Hilaree was reluctant to be named the Team Captain for The North Face and almost too humble to take the job. But it was an obvious choice. She had been mentoring many of us for years. Somehow, she was always able to get in a full day’s adventure and still have time to talk through planning a trip, working through contract insecurity, or talking through pregnancy with one of the many female athletes she was close to. She was there when tragedy struck the mountain community—her door always open, phone calls made, checking in months and years after accidents. She fought to keep the outdoor community together through her work with sponsors, film festivals, and non-profits. She led by example, always showing rather than telling.  While I think she would be blushing seeing us all celebrate her in remembrance, she would also be proud to see her community come together to carry each other and her family through her death.

“I hate to throw out a stupid metaphor, but it’s a big fucking mountain you have to climb and if you look at the whole thing it’s going to be too overwhelming.” 

It’s impossible when someone dies in the mountain not to think about the choices we make going into them. It’s impossible not to question the value. It often leaves me paralyzed. When I try to explain the path I want to take in life, Hilaree is my example. Her accident makes me question that. It makes me panic that my livelihood is somewhat dependent on achieving that same level of success. My mind can spin. But Hilaree would tell me to just take one step. Go for one run. Go sport climbing, then think about alpine climbing again. Go ride chairlifts before dropping into the backcountry. She wasn’t obsessed with finding reason, and maybe we shouldn’t be either. But she was obsessed with living, being in the present. One step at a time will get us somewhere.

“The light will come out again, I promise.” 

Hilaree was a light. It showed in her eyes when she talked about her boys and when she talked about skiing. But also when she was messing up. She could deliver this deep belly laugh when shit was hitting the fan. She was playful and hilarious. There were times for seriousness, but Hilaree seemed to laugh her way through any of the rest. She took her joy seriously, believing in the best of life even while witnessing some of the worst. 

“His impact on you and your future was real and tangible and don’t forget that. That is with you forever.”

Hilaree’s impact on all of us will continue, far after we are gone ourselves. She set the boot pack, not just for women, but as a woman in the mountains I know what she did made it easier for me to do what I do. Hilaree wasn’t just an inspiration, she was making real change. She taught us how to lead an expedition. She taught us how to believe in ourselves. She taught us how we can be parents and athletes. She taught us what to eat in the mountains, what gear works for women, and how to pee in a tent with men. She taught us how to be not just great in our athletic achievement, but equally so in our kindness and treatment of others. It is up to us to keep her spirit alive in continuing her quest to expand our boundaries in and out of the mountains. 

“I do think it’s all a bit fucked up, but we also get to live life with deep emotion and passion.”

We all struggle to know what to do with our drive to be in the mountains. And Hilaree lived bravely in the paradox. She questioned if it was worth it till literally the very end. She was willing to live a life with unanswered questions. Bold enough to fumble and struggle and make mistakes in life; willing to live without knowing it all. Willing to live with both the, “Oh fuck, this person dying is sad,” and the, “Holy shit, this view is beautiful.” She was willing to live as a human flailing and succeeding, avoiding perfection and unwilling to be pigeonholed into one existence.

The only time I heard her talk about regret was when she realized she had let others take away her leadership. Her regret came from not standing in her own strength. Her regret never seemed to be about her failures. For her, the cliche is true: She died doing what she loved. More importantly, she lived doing it too. Hilaree showed us how to live as a mother, a skier, a climber, a friend, a lover, a mountain partner, a captain, and a teammate, and in doing so taught us how we can move forward without her here. She will remain a hero, a mentor, and our captain in eternity.