Hilaree Nelson
Hilaree Nelson; (photo/The North Face)

Hilaree Nelson, Lauded Ski Mountaineer & The North Face Captain, Dies on Manaslu

Today, a helicopter search confirmed the award-winning athlete died on Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest peak.

Hilaree Nelson and her partner, ski mountaineer Jim Morrison, had descended plenty of big mountains together before. The duo attempted a ski descent from the summit of Manaslu on Monday, but Nelson went missing.

Capt. Surendra Poudel of Simrik Air said a helicopter search today located the 49-year-old’s body about 6,200 feet from the 26,781-foot summit, according to The Washington Post. Poudel recovered the body, the outlet said, after adverse weather conditions hampered search efforts for 2 days.

Bigyan Koirala, an official at Nepal’s Department of Tourism, told the Washington Post that the helicopter dropped two Sherpas and Morrison to search for the body on Wednesday morning. Rescuers on Tuesday’s aerial searches for Nelson had seen a ski and some clothing, according to Explorersweb.

“The body has been badly damaged,” Poudel told the Washington Post. “It took an hour and a half to retrieve the body that was buried half in the snow.”

Morrison, who made it down, described the incident on Instagram. He wrote that the two skiers reached the Manaslu summit at 10:42 a.m. on Sept. 26 and started down right away. Soon, he wrote, Nelson triggered a small avalanche.

“She was swept off her feet and carried down a narrow snow slope down the south side (opposite from climbing route) of the mountain,” he stated.

 

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A post shared by Jim Morrison (@jimwmorrison)


Nelson first went missing while skiing from the summit in Nepal on Sept. 25. The Himalayan Times first said that Nelson reportedly fell into a crevasse while descending from the mountain’s true summit and fell about 80 feet.

Other sources brought the exact circumstances into question, and The Inertia and Explorersweb both reported she could have also fallen off a steep face.

“The duo reached the true summit of Manaslu at 11:30 a.m. local time. And about 15 minute[s] later I got a call from our staff at base camp that her ski blade skidded off and she fell off the other side of the peak,” Jiban Ghimire, managing director of the Shangri-La Nepal Trek, told Everest Chronicle.

Nelson previously said via Instagram that she hadn’t felt as confident on the mountain as she might have hoped.

 

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A post shared by Hilaree Nelson (@hilareenelson)

“Back bent and head down,” she wrote. “I haven’t felt as sure-footed on Manaslu as I have on past adventures into the thin atmosphere of the high Himalaya. These past weeks have tested my resilience in new ways. The constant monsoon with its incessant rain and humidity has made me hopelessly homesick.”

Two separate avalanches occurred between Camp 3 and Camp 4 on Monday, but neither apparently played a role in Nelson’s disappearance.

However, they did wreak havoc among other climbers high on Manaslu. The incidents resulted in at least one confirmed death and 12 injuries — and stranded a rescue helicopter by Monday.

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Hilaree Nelson: A Life in the Mountains

Hilaree Nelson spent her life establishing herself as one of the most notable female ski mountaineers in recent memory.

Nelson’s rangy athleticism became apparent when she was a teenager, Sports Illustrated reported, and her father hoped she would choose basketball. Instead, she left for Europe right after graduating from Colorado College with a biology degree and immediately strapped on the sticks.

She began her career as a competitive skier, reportedly winning a European women’s championship event in 1996. But the mountains beckoned her to higher adventure, and she followed the call.

In 2002, she made the first ski descent of the Mongolian Altai Mountains’ Five Holy peaks, which center around a UNESCO World Heritage site and rise above 4,000 m. In 2005, she pushed the envelope further, successfully skiing from the summit of Cho Oyu (26,830 feet). And in 2012, Nelson tagged Everest and Lhotse to become the first woman to summit two 8,000m peaks in less than 24 hours.

But in a lifetime of “firsts” and female firsts, Nelson rendered her defining moment in 2018. That year, she and Morrison completed the first-ever ski descent of Lhotse. The accomplishment earned Nelson the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award.

Nelson and Morrison’s relationship ran as deep as the committed athletic bond they shared. Their friendship started when they helped each other survive two stricken marriages that both ended in the early 2010s: Morrison’s after his wife, Katie, and two children died in a plane crash, Nelson’s after a rending divorce.

The aftermath, and their respective reactions to it, shook each athlete to their core. But they self-stabilized through companionship and recovered their adventurous lifestyles in time.

Nelson remained a self-described “avid proponent of wild places” like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and held the philosophy that such places “have huge significance in the well-being of both the planet and the human psyche.”

Nelson resided in Telluride, Colo., with her two teenage sons. She was 49.

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Sam Anderson
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Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.