INTERVIEW Hilaree Nelson

Over the Summit

In September of 2018, Hillary Nelson has succeeded to ski downhill after reaching the summit of the Lhotse (8516m), a mountain next to Everest. She is the captain of THE NORTH FACE athlete team and mother.
What drives her to continue the most challenging venture: to carry a ski on her back, climbing and sliding down from the tops of steep high peaks around the globe?
Photo by Nick Kalisz Written by Coyote

Realization of a Great Dream

On September 30, 2008, Hillary Nelson and her partner Jim Morrison made her first ski downhill from the top of the world's fourth highest mountain, Lhotse. It was an adventure that lasted almost 17 hours, with a quick attack from the third camp to the top and downhill along the west face of Lhotse along the couloir. Hillary named this downhill route "Dream Line," as it was the route that made her dream come true. This triumph was selected as the Adventure of the Year of National Geographic Magazine, the same year, and left a large footprint in the history of humankind. We asked Nelson, who came to Japan as one of THE NORTH FACE Athlete, about how she feels, now that her adventure has ended.
"Lhotse is not only an iconic mountain but a tough one in terms of the highly variable weather. Thus, the challenge of skiing down Lhotse, to me, meant an important chance to express myself towards the world both as an athlete and creator. A large expedition like this will test a climber’s comprehensive skills such as experience, technique, and physical strength just to mention a few. In addition, the ability to precisely and quickly create and accomplish an accurate plan is the key to success. Luck is important too, of course. As the slopes of Lhotse usually only have little snow left, we were only lucky to find enough snow left to go down from the summit in this expedition.

 I had already climbed Lhotse when I went climbing Everest in 2012, and I have always dreamed of sliding Lhotse ever since. Now that my longtime dream has finally come true, I feel empty as if someone punched a hole through my heart. When I get down to the base camp, I’m always wondering where to climb next, but now it just feels like I’m completely burned out in a good way. But I think the next challenge may come around soon. "

Nelson's skiing career started at the age of three. Based in Stevens Pass, in the Cascade Range in Washington, Nelson practiced her free-skiing skills through competing with her brother and sister. Having gained independence and freedom by skiing, she moved her base to Chamonix, France, to work more seriously on ski after graduating from university. At the time, it was her admiration for Scott Schmidt, a free ski legend who she saw in numbers of ski films, that drove her into skiing.

"I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could also climb and slide down a large mountain like the Alps. I used to go alpine climbing and skiing, but when I skied down the Alps, I felt as if I was completely unprofessional and amateur - someone who knew nothing about alpine skiing. I did not understand how to read the weather in the Alps or how to walk on a glacier. I was shocked to know that what I had been doing was nothing compared to what I faced at the Alps. And then, I decided to go back to alpine ski school for five years to relearn from scratch. "

Off to a Next Venture

With enough experience of alpine skiing in the Alps, Hilary Nelson chose the Himalayas as the stage for her next challenge. In February of 1991, at the age of twenty-six, she experienced her first Himalayan climb.

"It was only natural for me to look at the grand Himalayas as my next step after growing up in the United States and experiencing various climbs in Chamonix. The timing was right as well since I was both physically and mentally prepared to face the height. The first mountain to climb was Diotima, one of the India Himalaya, with a height of 6001 meters. But even after spending a month in Diotima, trying to adapt to heights, I was not able to adapt to heights, let alone ski down the mountain. Although I thought that I had the skills to successfully tackle the height of the Himalayas, my body could not adapt to the stress and physical exhaustion of camping on the peak of the mountain for a month. Unlike Chamonix and the mountains in the United States, there is no city downhill. The fact that I felt cut off from civilization was, mentally and physically, very painful. "

Nelson’s failure at the Himalayas highlighted her weaknesses, which she later made a huge leap by overcoming them one by one.

"I mainly improved two things. First, I worked on cross-country competition to strengthen my physical strength. Then, in order to make up for my greatest weakness, which is the lack of mental strength to endure long-term expedition, I focused on studying and understanding the geography of the expeditionary destination ahead of time. I remembered the terrain and routes, how long it took to get to a certain point, and also tried to make a detailed plan that was realistic enough to implement it in every expedition. Even though the ski downhill at Diotima, which was my first big expedition, has failed, it always added to my motivation to improve for the next challenge.”
After the Indian Himalaya Expedition, Hillary has achieved the countless feat. In 2005, six years later, she succeeded in the first ski slope down from the top of an eight thousand meter peak of Cho Oyu (8,210m). In 2008, she climbed the Gasher Brum II peak (8,035m). She even successfully skied downhill from the top of Denali (6,190m) Alaska, in 2011. And in the year 2012, she has become the first woman to traverse the Everest (8,848m) and Lhotse within 24 hours. From there, Nelson started challenging the possibility of an adventure that nobody has been able to achieve: becoming the first woman to ski down Makaru (8,463m) in 2005, went on to the second Denali expedition in 2001 to climb from a difficult route of Kashinridge and descent the Messner Couloir...ect. She went through countless other adventures in mountains all around the globe. And the ski downhill from Lhotse, last year, could be said that it’s the culmination of all the challenges she’s been through.

Where does the motivation for her venture come from? Nelson smiled when she heard this question as if she was amazed by the unforeseen inquiry. She opened her mouth after a little silence.

"Since I was little, I have always been the type of girl who would choose the harder option. I might have been a strange child to other people’s eyes. I’m not clear where the source of my motivation for adventure reside from, but I have always known that even if I try something difficult and I fail, I will be able to learn and grow from the experience. I think that is why I was able to take on challenges after challenges even though it may have seemed impossible. This not only applies to expeditions but also I do this in my daily life. Instead of spending the day doing repetitive tasks, I want to try new things, meet new people, experience different cultures, and expand my horizons. Now that I think of it, maybe this is where my motivation comes from."

In Between a Mother and Venturer

Hillary Nelson has two sons, 9 and 11 years old (at the time of the interview). Even though she is a mother with two young sons, she balances work with family and continues to go on a large expedition, facing danger every year. How does she manage to be a mother and an adventurer - two characters that seem to have conflicting aspects?

"I think of my two sons as a part of me. So when I go on an expedition, I often take my sons with me. We’ve been doing a five-hundred-mile road trip every year, ever since my sons were one and two years old. When my son turned four, he climbed Kilimanjaro (5895 m) in Africa, and by the age of six, he camped with me in Makaru, Nepal, walking about a hundred kilometers to the base camp. In all honesty, it must be truly challenging for them, but because I think they are part of me, I want them to see and feel what I’m experiencing. I don’t necessarily want them to become an Alpine climber. I just want my sons to know how large the world is, and see it for themselves. Crazy mom aren’t I?”

Hillary appeared with her two sons at THE NORTH FACE Global Athletes Summit in Puerto Rico last November. As she travels around the world with THE NORTH FACE, she takes her sons on every business trip. By showing how she loves THE NORTH FACE and what kind of work she is doing, she says she wants to share her life with her sons.
“It might be another motivation; my mother's influence lays in the background of my behavior. The 50s to 70s, when my mother lived, was an age without a concept of gender equality. Despite living in America, women had to live by strict rules and their behavior was highly restricted by men. Of course, women couldn't even play their favorite sports. I would see my mother as a parent, but not as an individual with a unique interest or hobby. But I didn’t want that for my sons. I wanted them to view me not only as their mother but also as an adventurer. It may be a small voice, but because it is a time that equal gender rights are being realized in the world, I wanted to promote women's social advancement through THE NORTH FACE. I regard that as my mission.”

THE NORTH FACE has a team consisting of one of the world's leading athletes in every genre of outdoor sports. Last year, Nelson was appointed captain of the global athlete team at THE NORTH FACE. What are the prospects of the team that she hopes to build from now on?

"I think that being chosen as the captain of THE NORTH FACE was incredibly fortunate. Looking back through the 20 years since I became an athlete at THE NORTH FACE, I realized that I was able to change because I kept trying. Thus, I’d like to think about what I can do for the team this time. I think that one of my goals is to create an environment in the team where anyone can discuss topics like physical risks and potential accidents that comes with any expedition or social debate in regards to the importance of adventure itself - basically, creating an environment where young generation athletes can grow with peace of mind. When I joined the team at 25, no one told me what I needed to know at that time. Now, there are more teen athletes playing an active role in the team compared to twenty years ago. I’m sure they will experience more as they grow, but I would like to build an environment where younger athletes will be able to rely upon veteran athletes without hesitation.”


Hilaree Nelson

Hillary Nelson was Born in 1973, Northwest U.S.A. Currently serves as the captain of THE NORTH FACE global athlete team. She has successfully made several downhill trips from the Himalayan peak and has experience of dissenting mountains around the world such as but not limited to India, Bolivia, Argentina, Lebanon, and Baffin Island.