Nelson, 49, and his partner, Jim Morrison, were skiing from the 26,775ft summit of Mount Manaslu – the eighth highest mountain in the world – in what Morrison described as “challenging conditions” on Monday when an avalanche swept through is produced. After authorities searched for two days, her body was found on Wednesday.
“We quickly went from climbing to skiing in the cold and wind with a plan to ski around the corner and regroup with our Sherpa team. I skied first and after a few turns Hilaree followed and started a small avalanche. She was swept up and carried down a narrow snow slope on the south side (opposite of the climbing route) of the mountain over 5000 [feet]Morrison wrote on Instagram. “I did everything I could to locate her but couldn’t get my face down as I was hoping to find her alive and live my life with her.”
Morrison wrote that the Telluride, Colorado skier’s body was found with the help of an “incredibly skilled pilot ‘who was able to land at 22,000 feet’ and Mingma Tenzi Sherpa. The news stunned those who knew Nelson.
“Hilaree has been a force in my life and career since moving to Telluride straight out of college in the 90s,” wrote Adrian Ballinger, mountain guide, skier/climber and founder of Alpenglow. Expeditions, on Instagram. “At first, she was just an untouchable idol at a ski resort. Then a hero on the pages of Nat Geo and The North Face. In 2012, she became a friend. And finally, in 2015, a partner in It is this trip, to attempt together the first descent on skis of Makalu, on which I linger since its fall on Manaslu.
Nelson and Morrison, from Tahoe, Calif., were among hundreds of climbers who, with local guides, attempted to reach the summit during Nepal’s fall climbing season. Nelson and Morrison had a wealth of experience, having summited Mount Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest mountain, in 2018.
Ballinger called Nelson, the mother of two young sons, “an incredible force in life” who had mentored his wife, Emily Harrington, also a mountaineer and adventurer, “in all things life and the mountains – from snow bathing at 21,000 feet discovering her power, strength and confidence, to beat the boys at arm wrestling, and so often, up and down the mountain She showed me the way to lead a life adventure in the big mountains and raising a family – which is taking her 5 and 7 year olds on a two-week trek at 17,000 feet through leeches, mud and monsoon in Nepal – Hilaree has done it and they thrived.
Over the past two decades, Nelson had participated in around 40 expeditions and was considered “the most prolific female ski mountaineer of her generation” by one of her sponsors, North Face. She grew up in Seattle and spent weekends at Stevens Pass in Washington’s Cascades. According to The North Face, her post-graduate visit to Chamonix, France, at the foot of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, got her hooked on the sport.
She became the first woman to climb two of the world’s tallest mountains, Mount Everest and nearby Mount Lhotse, in 24 hours in 2014. Four years later, she and Morrison became the first to ski down from the summit of 27,940 feet from Lhotse. She wrote in 2019 about the struggles of balancing her mountaineering career with motherhood. Nelson said she went on an expedition when she was six months pregnant and took pay cuts because, for an elite climber, “being pregnant was treated like an injury”. Harrington, who is pregnant with her first child, paid tribute to her decade of friendship and outdoor camaraderie with Nelson, praising her as a trailblazer for women in sport.
“I write this to tell you that beyond this tragedy, Hilaree was a force to be remembered not for this accident or even for the physical mountains she climbed and descended with such expertise, but for shamelessly paving the way for women in this space to be everything they want to be,” she wrote on Instagram. “She innovated and shattered expectations with a unique combination of grace and courage that only a true leader possesses.”
Harrington praised her “intense desire to find her perceived limit and push past it, balanced by her calm demeanor and tenderness as a friend and mentor. She was the best. His influence and dedication to his passion paved the way for future generations and will live on in all of us. Hils will miss our world, but we are better off because of who she was and the monumental impact she had on all of us.
Morrison wrote of his indescribable loss of ‘that wife, my life partner, my lover, my best friend and my mountain partner’ and focused on his sons’ ‘steps forward’. @hilareenelson is the most inspiring person in life and now her energy will guide our collective souls. Peace be with us all. Pray for his family and his community which extends widely across our planet. I am devastated by the loss of her.
Last week, Nelson wrote about the battle against the elements that brings exhaustion and exhilaration to the sport of extreme skiing.
“Back bent and head down. I didn’t feel as sure about Manaslu as I did on my past adventures in the thin atmosphere of the high Himalayas. The past few weeks have tested my resilience in new ways. The constant monsoon with its incessant rains and humidity made me desperately nostalgic. I am challenged to find the peace and inspiration of the mountain while it is constantly shrouded in mist.
An attempt to reach the summit had to be abandoned, “knowing that it would be like carrying our skis all the way up the mountain if, big if here, we tried to reach a summit again. It was the best thing what we could do.
“As soon as I made the first turn in sticky hot powder, in total white, all the weight and seriousness that had plagued me this whole trip faded away. Together with @jimwmorrison we skied around 4,500 [feet] of the 6,000 [-foot] downhill in British Columbia [base camp]. It was full of shenanigans abseiling on seracs [ridges of ice] with our skis on, posing for photos with uphill climbers. Laughing, running…and generally finally being present and actually seeing what I’ve been seeing for weeks but not absorbing (hope that makes sense). We returned to BC soaked, in the pouring rain, just in time for a hearty BC dinner. Smiling and laughing were amazing!