Hilaree Nelson, ski mountaineer who was the first woman to ascend two 8,000m peaks in 24 hours – obituary

Hilaree Nelson: she was 'as stubborn as hell', said a friend. 'She was so passionate' - Nick Kalisz
Hilaree Nelson: she was 'as stubborn as hell', said a friend. 'She was so passionate' - Nick Kalisz

Hilaree Nelson, who has died aged 49 while skiing off Manaslu in Nepal, the world’s eighth highest mountain, was an inspiring and much-loved adventure skier famed for her exploratory climbs and first descents on mountains around the world.

Over the past two decades she had undertaken more than 40 expeditions to 16 countries, exploring some of the world’s highest mountains – usually with a pair of skis.

In 2012, she became the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks, Mount Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. Six years later, with her partner Jim Morrison, she became the first to ski from Lhotse’s summit, a terrifyingly steep north-facing couloir that drops some 1,800ft before spilling out on to the 5,000ft Lhotse face.

“If you’re a skier, like me, it’s this hidden gem of a ski descent that makes the fourth highest mountain in the world something to obsess over,” she wrote, describing it as “this crazy dream, the obsession that had been burning under my skin for years”.

At around 2am on the morning of September 30 2018 she and Morrison set off on a clear night with the temperature around -20°F (-28ºC). It took them 12 hours to climb the 4,000ft of sugary snow to the summit. There they stepped into their skis, Nelson doing this while holding on to the summit ridge with her right hand for balance.

She then followed Morrison, dropping into the chute, which at its steepest was 55 degrees and just six feet wide. Two and a half hours later they were safely at Camp 3.

Hilaree Nelson was born on December 13 1972 in Seattle, Washington. Her mother refinished wooden boats, while her father ran a family car dealership. She got the adventure bug early; her father would take the family on weeks-long sailing trips and she and her siblings learnt to ski in the local Cascades mountains.

She was also fiercely competitive from the start. Educated at Shorewood High School, the 5ft 11in Nelson helped to lead her basketball team to a third-place finish in the Washington State Championships. She later attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

With her partner Jim Morrison in Nepal in 2018 - Niranjan Shrestha/AP
With her partner Jim Morrison in Nepal in 2018 - Niranjan Shrestha/AP

From there she headed to Chamonix in the French Alps, the traditional proving ground for extreme skiers and climbers. In 1996 she won the European extreme ski competition in Chamonix and in 1990 she picked up a sponsorship deal with The North Face, which allowed her to go on expeditions to countries such as Mongolia, India, Russia and Greenland.

In 2014 she led an audacious expedition to a little-known peak in the far northern reaches of Myanmar, Hkakabo Razi, a story told in the award-winning film, Down to Nothing.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, for Nelson it represented the opportunity to do an “old-school” adventure away from the crowds and off the map. During the four-month expedition the team came close to running out of food and were driven to the limits of their endurance, ultimately failing to reach the summit.

In 2017 she tackled the 21,165ft Papsura, known as “the Peak of Evil”, with Morrison. It had been a dream two decades in the making. The pair made the first American ascent of the mountain, then made the icy, 3,000ft, 60-degree virgin ski descent with almost no visibility. Later that year they headed to Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska, climbing the Cassin Ridge and skiing the Messner couloir.

Success in these kinds of endeavours requires not only a cool head, extraordinary fitness and an extremely high technical ability in both climbing and skiing. It also requires prodigious organisational skills – as well as another characteristic with which Nelson was gifted. “Hilaree was stubborn as hell,” one friend recalled. “She was so passionate.”

In 2018 Nelson was named captain of the North Face Athlete team, a title only one other athlete has held. That year she also picked up a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award.

“A lot of things I’ve done are a first, but only a female first,” Nelson once reflected in a video for her sponsor. “But when I hear the 25-year-old athletes coming up, they don’t want that female disclaimer anymore. Now we’re past that. We can throw down just as hard as the men.”

Nelson died while skiing off Manaslu with her partner Jim Morrison. He survives her together with her two children from an earlier marriage.

Hilaree Nelson, born December 13 1972, died September 26 2022