A pint-sized three-year-old rips down the slopes, clad in a trash bag emblazoned with the Stevens Pass logo meant to block the rain while she keeps up with her big brother. Four decades later, she makes careful turns down the narrow couloirs of Lhotse, the mountain next door to Everest, a route she calls “a perfect plumb line that goes 7,000 feet straight down.” The September descent made Hilaree Nelson, along with ski and life partner Jim Morrison, the first to ever ski the fourth-highest mountain in the world.
Nelson’s ski down 27,940-foot Lhotse may have begun off a veritable cliff and passed through choke points just 170 centimeters wide—all in thin air just shy of the cruising altitude of a 737—“but at least it wasn’t raining.” She laughs as she compares the Himalayan feat to her Stevens childhood. Skiing in rain was no problem then; she was so small the free trash bag ponchos covered her past the knee.
Now the captain of North Face’s lauded athlete team (a crew that includes the likes of Free Solo’s Alex Honnold and Jimmy Chin), Colorado-based Nelson is a bona fide professional adventurer. Her groundbreaking career as a ski mountaineer includes record descents, far-flung expeditions, and the first ski of an Indian mountain literally called the Peak of Evil.
Nelson wasn’t confident they’d successfully haul their skis up Lhotse until she’d reached the top. “Even standing 100 feet below the summit, I didn’t think we were gonna make it.” She was drawn up, and then down, not for a place in the record books, but because never-done routes offer the thrill of going in without any knowledge of what’s worked before.
“There’s no map telling you how to do something. That’s where the creativity of what I do comes into play. It’s this blank canvas.”