ABOVE THE CLOUDS AND BEYOND THE BRINK
Hilaree was born in Seattle, Washington state. She was taught to ski when she was three years old.
When she was at college she would go skiing at the weekends in the Cascade Mountains.
As soon as she finished college she bought a one-way ticket to Chamonix in France, intending to stay there for one winter. There she learned the intricacies of ski mountaineering.
She also won her first World Extreme Skiing competition, becoming the 1996 European Women’s Extreme Skiing champion.
One winter in France quickly turned into five. But it was on her first visit to India that the real ski mountaineering bug took hold.
Hilaree returned to the USA. There she married mountaineer Brian O’Neill. They had two sons, Quinn and Graydon, and lived in Telluride, Colorado.
There she became the ‘North Face Global Athletic Team’ captain and was selected for the University of Montana State Everest Education Expedition in 2012.
She got to climb Everest. She sprained her ankle just before the ascent. It was purple and very swollen. She just wrapped it up and got on with the climb.
But she didn’t enjoy it as much as she thought she would. It was very overcrowded and she found it disappointing. “Everest was a beautiful summit but also an incredibly frustrating climb, always bumping up behind another climber”.
But it was during the descent that she had her eureka moment, as she looked over at the neighbouring mountain, Lhotse – the fourth biggest peak in the world (8,516 metres). “I stared and stared at that beautiful mountain and realised we could climb another mountain and be by ourselves”.
As soon as she got to the bottom of Everest she took her team over to Lhotse and started climbing it.
Therefore, Hilaree became the first woman to summit two 8 kilometre plus peaks in one 24-hour attempt (and the first woman to climb Everest in a day). That day was the 25th of May 2012.
“It was the hardest mental push I have ever made in my life. My mind had to completely take over beyond the physical. I learned about the power of determination”.
Soon after this Hilaree and Brian got divorced. The children stayed with her and she soon got another partner, mountaineer Jim Morrison. The two began to climb together.
She also took up Ironman competitions and ultra-marathons – always pushing herself.
Hilaree had over 40 expeditions in 16 different countries. She did the first ski descents on both Baffin and South Georgia Islands, and on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia. She skied the Teton Range in the Rocky Mountains and in Argentina. She even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a broken leg.
In 2018, with her partner Jim, they completed the first ski descent of her favourite mountain, Lhotse. The route they took from the very summit was called the ‘Lhotse Couloir’. They did it without surplus oxygen.
Jim always called Hilaree “My captain.” He was always in awe of her courage and daring.
She was the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year 2018 and thus received a National Explorers Grant – which enabled her to try more extreme challenges. She also worked for them as a ‘live speaker’. “There’s so much aversion to risk taking. I don’t think that’s the direction we should be going. You have to take risks if you want to learn anything about yourself”.
She was also named as one of Men’s Journals ’25 Most Adventurous Women of the Last 25 Years’. “I like places with no maps. Where no-one has ever been before. That’s my sweet spot”.
Recently they skied down the 8,1633 metre Mount Manaslu in Nepal. On the way down they were hit by an avalanche and Hilaree fell down a crevase – a fall of 1800 metres. Her ski guide said her blade skidded and she just fell off the mountain.
The others in the group, including Jim, were forced to ski on and could only raise the alarm at the bottom.
Any rescue attempt was hampered by appalling weather conditions (three other climbers were killed elsewhere on Manaslu on the same day). It took 2 days to recover Hilaree’s body.
She received a traditional Nepalese funeral.
Jim said of Hilaree, “There are no words to describe the love for this woman, my life partner, my lover, my best friend and my mountain partner. She has been the beacon of light in my life, day in and day out.”
RIP – Reaching Immense Peaks