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Pioneering ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson died in a fall on Manaslu on September 26th. Nelson was widely regarded as one of the finest mountaineers of her generation, her peerless vision for forging new ski descents over the past two decades inspired countless skiers and alpinists.
With a remarkable talent for leadership, The North Face named Nelson the captain of their athlete team, a title given to only legendary alpinist Conrad Anker before her. Today, SKI looks back on some of the highlights of Nelson’s magnificent career.
1. The Lhotse Couloir
On September 30, 2018, Nelson and her partner Jim Morrison climbed and skied the first descent of the Lhotse Couloir, a narrow 2,000-foot chute peaking at a steepness of 60 degrees off the summit block of the world’s fourth highest mountain. The pair skied 7,000 feet from the 27,940-foot summit down the Lhotse face back to Camp 2. The face had been attempted by roughly 25 people, according to ski mountaineer Adrian Ballinger, but only one other skier has gotten remotely close to an integral descent of the couloir. The Lhotse Couloir is widely regarded as a holy grail of high-altitude ski mountaineering.
2. Lhotse and Everest in a 24-Hour Push
Nelson was the first woman to summit both Lhotse and Mount Everest in 24 hours. The two peaks share a ridgeline and much of the same route, but it is extraordinarily rare to complete the climb to Everest after bagging Lhotse, spending hours in the “death zone”—above 25,000 feet, where the body starts essentially eating itself alive. Nelson tore all the ligaments in her ankles but made it back to base camp safely—though she felt she could have been even faster.
3. First Descent of Papsura
After a failed attempt to ski Papsura, a 21,165-foot peak in Himachal Pradesh, India in 2013, Nelson and Morrison returned four years later with photographer Chris Figenshau to what locals call “The peak of evil” for another go. The trio summited Papsura just 12 days after their arrival in India in near-whiteout conditions. They skied off the summit with no visibility down a 60-degree face, the fog making it impossible to tell snow sections from ice. They skied the 3000-foot face in near constant chatter, just to determine where the other was and skied on belay from a single ice screw for the rope to better illuminate the slope.
4. Baffin Island Expedition
In 2007, Nelson led an all-women team of skiers (including then-25-year-old Ingrid Backstrom) on a journey across the east coast of Baffin Island, scoring numerous first descents of steep couloirs cut through imposing granite towers. The group of women trekked over 70 miles from Clyde River toward the Gibbs Fjord, ticking more than half a dozen steep unskied lines along the way in temps far below zero.
5. Denali Cassin to Messner
Just two weeks after returning from Papsura, Nelson completed a wild ascent of North America’s highest peak. She climbed the Cassin Ridge, a classic and challenging rock and ice climb over five days in spring conditions, and then scored the first female descent of the coveted Messner Couloir. First climbed by Reinhold Messner (but first skied by Sylvain Saudan), the couloir drops 5,000 feet off the 20,320-foot summit and plunges between 35 and 55 degrees toward the glacier.
6. First Female Descent of the Bubble Fun Couloir
One of Nelson’s first noteworthy descents, the Bubble Fun Couloir off the north face of Buck Mountain in the Tetons, put her on the map. The couloir, which rises sharply above Taggart Creek, as only seen about a dozen ski descents—by 2022—but in 1999, Nelson was a pioneer. The line is steep and rocky and ends in a 200-foot cliff with scant options for a rappel anchor. Before she skied it, Nelson was a dirtbag with a few years in Cham (and a European Extreme Skiing title) under her belt. A few weeks later the North Face put her on a plane to India to ski her first 6,000-meter peak.
7. Holy Peaks of the Altai
In 2002, Nelson was part of a team that climbed and skied all five “Holy Peaks” in the Mongolian Altai mountains. The peaks are the centerpiece of a UNESCO world heritage site that requires extremely remote travel.
8. Makalu La French Couloir
Nelson joined a team of athletes Kit DesLauriers, Adrian Ballinger, and Emily Harrington to climb and ski the world’s fifth highest peak. Though they put their skis on 15 meters below the true summit and rappelled a 200-foot pitch of pure rock, Nelson was able to make the first female descent of the French Couloir, an imposing 1000-foot chute just beneath the summit ridge.
9. Skied from the summit of Cho Oyo
In 2005, Nelson and North Face teammates Kasha Rigby and Willie Benegas summited Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak and skied off the summit without the use of supplemental oxygen.
Lifelong friends like athletes Emily Harrington and Jessica Baker credit Nelson’s mentorship and drive with enriching their lives. Nelson accomplished titanic feats of ski mountaineering while raising two boys, often drawing criticism for the risks she took as a mother—she responded that her kids never knew another life, and they loved the adventures. She was a giant of the sport, and she will be missed. Here are some of the tributes to Nelson from those in the ski community.