October 14, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cecilia Timberg | Photo by Nick Kalisz, courtesy of the Seattle Metropolitan
On Sept. 26, pioneering ski mountaineer and Colorado College graduate Hillaree Nelson went missing on an expedition in Nepal. She had summited Manaslu, a 26,781-foot mountain, with her climbing and life partner Jim Morrison earlier that day. On the descent, Morrison had watched a small avalanche knock her down the Southern slope of the mountain. With the aid of a helicopter crew, search and rescue, and a sherpa, Morrison located her body two days later.
Nelson left in her wake an incredible ski mountaineering legacy. She grew up in Seattle and graduated from CC in 1996. Soon after, she moved to France to further her mountaineering skills.
Nelson’s athletic attitude towards the mountains allowed her to quickly become a world-class ski mountaineer. On a three-month expedition in 2012, Nelson became the first ever woman to climb Everest and Lhotse in a 24-hour window. She then went on to be the first female to descend the Makalu La Couloir on Makalu, a 27,766-foot Himalayan mountain.
“With Hilaree, it was not about being a woman in the backcountry ski world, it was about being an accomplished individual and being creative about line choices,” said Penelope Thornton ’25, a CC ski mountaineer who has viewed Nelson as a role model since she began backcountry skiing in 2019.
Nelson was not only completing objectives that were impressive or unheard of ‘for a woman,’ she was doing ski descents that no other humans had ever done.
In 2017 she was first to descend Papsura Peak in the Indian Himalayas, with Morrison and photographer Chris Figenshua. Nelson and Morrison then made the first ever ski descent of Lhotse in 2018.
It was not only her revolutionary descents, but also Nelson’s relationship with the mountains that set her apart as a mountaineer.
“The approach that she took to being in the backcountry wasn’t about conquering peaks or making all these summits, but rather about being playful and being a force,” said Thronton.
The global outdoor community has been mourning the loss of a role model, mountain partner, and friend. Outpouring of affection for Nelson flooded social media in the days following her death.
Besides a mountaineer and skier, Nelson was also a mother of two young sons.
“I was heartbroken for her family. Any mountaineer having the responsibility of having children and also doing things that put your life at risk brings a lot into question for me,” said Thornton. Thornton asks herself often whether it is moral for her to have both a family and goals that put her at objective risk.
“I want to be like her but at the same time I don’t want my family to deal with me dying ever,” said Thornton.
Watching Nelson as a mother and a mountaineer, Thornton sees how her experience of raising a family affected the way Nelson engaged with the mountains.
“She was amazing because of the energy she brought to the mountains, which comes partially from the experience of being a woman and a mother. You gain a gentle reverence from it,” said Thornton.
Ultimately, Nelson was an image of a strong mother and mountaineer. She put value and energy into both her family and adventure lives. Her death was not the fault of carelessness in the mountains, but was due to the risks that every mountaineer faces each time they go into the backcountry.
“The power of her body and her mind to complete all these incredibly challenging things and then come out of it with the most centered attitude and positive outlook on things,” said Thornton. “She had a lot of respect and reverence for the mountains as well as humility. She was an image but also human, which is what the horrible accident revealed.”