Hilaree Nelson has grabbed another world first. On Sept. 30, Nelson and her climbing partner, Jim Morrison, summited and then skied Lhotse, becoming the first to scale the 27,940-foot peak and then descend from the summit on skis.
The fourth-highest mountain in the world, Lhotse is the site of a previous achievement of Nelson’s. In 2012, the Tellurider became the first woman in the world to climb two 8,000-plus-meter peaks in 24 hours, when she scaled Lhotse and its neighbor, Mount Everest.
Nelson said that a number of factors on this expedition, which took 18 days from base camp to the summit, combined beautifully to help make it a success.
“It’s taken a couple of weeks to really sink in,” Nelson said, following her return to Telluride. “But I realize now how many things just clicked.”
The very first factor was a decision made long before she and Morrison — described by Nelson as “my partner in climbing and in life” — arrived in Nepal: the decision to climb in the autumn, instead of the far busier spring.
The result? Nelson, Morrison and their support team — five Sherpas, two icefall doctors, and photographers Dutch Simpson and Nick Kalisz — had the route all to themselves.
“We were completely alone,” she said. “We were kicking down these slushy sugar-snow avalanches (on the route) and we didn’t need to worry about anyone else.”
The second factor was snow.
“The object was to ski Lhotse,” Nelson explained. “It has a genuine ski line, a plumb drop straight from the top at 28,000 feet to the bottom at 21,000 feet.”
Snow, then, is handy.
“Thankfully, it was totally filled in,” Nelson said. “There was way more snow than I could possibly have hoped for. It meant that we could put our skis on at the top and never have to take them off.”
Also helpful was the weather on the day that Nelson and Morrison, starting at Camp 3, planned to reach the summit.
“The day was beautiful,” Nelson described. “We skipped Camp 4, which made for a long hike. We started at 24,000 feet. That last 4,000 feet to the summit took about 12 hours.”
Nelson said the Sherpas had gone ahead the day before to break trail, but the trail had filled in overnight, so they had to break it again.
“We were punching through wind crust,” Nelson said. “We got about 2,500 feet up and got in the couloir and were postholing to our knees. We got oxygen on at that point and that for sure helped, but it still took several hours after that. We were under a pretty intense time crunch, because the forecast was changing. The winds were going to pick up by mid-afternoon, which greatly affects temperature, snow conditions, everything, even if it is sunny. By the time we left the summit, which is in the sun, the wind wasn’t too bad. When we started skiing, it was windy, but we were protected in the couloir.”
Thus began Nelson and Morrison’s descent of the 7,000-foot line, beginning just off Lhotse’s rocky, triangular summit with a 1,800-foot-long couloir.
“My emotions were more than any other big ski I have attempted,” she said. “I was really pinching myself. It was hard for both of us to believe. There was so much serendipity and luck. It was really fun. Eventually you are on these 25-degree rollers and then suddenly its 6 p.m. and you’re done.”
While the day — which involved the 12-hour trek to the top and then four hours of skiing down — might have been serendipitous, it wasn’t without risks.
“It’s crazy the things that can go wrong,” Nelson said. “We got a late start one day and there is this huge face that faces the sun. Over the years, maybe because of climate change, there’s more and more rock exposed and it’s really crappy rock. It can be pretty hot up there. Sometimes it’s in the 90s or 100 degrees. The snow melts and then these rocks come loose. A massive rock came down and almost took out Nick, one of the photographers.
“Everything is on such a grand scale up there that it is hard to appreciate the power of how things move.”
With this latest feat, Nelson has added to an already lustrous career. Outside magazine described her as “one of the most accomplished expedition leaders and ski mountaineers in the world.” National Geographic named her one of their Adventurers of the Year for 2018.
Adventurer, climber, skier, record-breaker. Nelson is also mother to sons Grayden and Quinn.
“It’s much easier now that they are 9 and 11 years old,” she said of balancing motherhood with her career. “They have lacrosse and climbing and after-school stuff. I used to make food and put it in the freezer, now it’s a little different. In some ways, it’s harder. I don’t have the same level of involvement as I used too, although it still takes a ton of planning.”
She added, “Before I would just go and they would have no appreciation of where I was going because they were so young. Now, I explain where I am going and what I am going to do.”
Nelson pointed out that expedition timeframes are “very loose. If we finish early, I can come home early, which is great. But if I have to extend my time away, I’m a wreck.”
And then there’s the change of gears moving from parent to climber and back again.
“I got home on a Sunday, and Monday morning I was packing lunches,” Nelson said. “Sometimes I still struggle being two people in one body … but when I get home, I am 100 percent present and Mom. I feel very lucky.”