Hilaree Nelson, a pioneering ski mountaineer known for making artful turns in improbable places, with dozens of first descents from atop major and lesser-known peaks, died in an avalanche Monday while skiing from the Himalayan summit of Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain. She was 49.
Jim Morrison, her life and climbing partner, who accompanied her to Nepal, confirmed that her body was found Wednesday far below where she had fallen, near the summit.
Ms. Nelson was the first female captain of the North Face athlete team, a global crew of sponsored adventurers encompassing mountaineering, climbing, backcountry skiing, and other pursuits. She was named a National Geographic “explorer of the year” in 2018. In 2019, Outside magazine called her “the most accomplished female ski pioneer of her generation.”
She was as adept at going up as she was at coming down. In 2012, she climbed to the top of Mount Everest and neighboring Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest peak, within 24 hours — the first woman to do so.
In September 2018, she returned to Lhotse’s 27,940-foot summit so she could ski down the famed Lhotse Couloir alongside Morrison.
“It’s so hard to put into words,” Ms. Nelson said after that expedition. “I put my skis on while looking at the tallest peak in the world. There’s not a soul on it. It’s airy and beautiful and intimidating and scary all at the same time.”
Climber Conrad Anker, an occasional expedition partner, said in a phone interview Wednesday that the Lhotse expedition was as consequential a mountaineering feat as any in the past decade. While Ms. Nelson was considered a pioneer for women in adventure sports, he said, her feats deserved no gender qualifier.
“She was equal to men,” Anker said. “She was there with the strongest men, an equal to Jim. In that sense, her ability to take on gender perceptions was pretty remarkable.”
The Lhotse descent cemented Ms. Nelson’s status in the mostly unsung world of ski mountaineering, where pursuits are performed in remote high corners of the world under dangerous and changing conditions.
“People had been trying it for decades, and she and Jim got it,” Cody Townsend, another top ski mountaineer who sometimes shared adventures with Ms. Nelson, said by phone. “And they made it look kind of easy, which was Hilaree’s signature.”
Ms. Nelson had a reputation for artistry and patience, Townsend said. She set sights on some projects for many years, waiting for the right time to complete them.
“She was a mountaineer that didn’t push it just to push it — she was there to get it when it was perfect and get it done,” Townsend said. “She had a 20-year track record of accomplishments because of that.”
But consequences were always a misstep or a fall away. On Monday in Nepal, a particularly cold and windy morning, Ms. Nelson and Morrison climbed to the 26,781-foot corniced and serrated summit of Manaslu. After strapping on the skis they had carried to the top, Morrison said, the pair headed downhill.
Ms. Nelson was soon swept from her feet by a small avalanche. Morrison was not caught by the growing slide, but he was helpless as he watched her disappear down the mountain.
Immediate search efforts by Morrison and Sherpa guides came up empty. A full search-and-rescue mission was delayed by the poor weather until the next morning.
Morrison and Mingma Tenzi Sherpa found Ms. Nelson’s body after parts of two days had been spent scanning the mountain by helicopter. An avalanche had apparently blown her off a cliff onto the south face of the mountain, said Sachindra Yadav, an expedition liaison officer from the Gorkha district, which includes Manaslu. The body was taken to Kathmandu, Nepal.
“My loss is indescribable and I am focused on her children and their steps forward,” Morrison wrote on Instagram. “Hilaree Nelson is the most inspiring person in life and now her energy will guide our collective souls.”
Ms. Nelson was a longtime resident of Telluride, Colo., where she frequently traipsed and trained in the surrounding San Juan Mountains and worked for years waiting tables. Most of her biggest adventures came after she became a mother to two boys.
“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night,” she once said, “and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time.”
Hilaree Nelson was born in Seattle on Dec. 13, 1972, to Stanley and Robin Nelson and grew up there. She and her siblings would ride a bus on weekends to ski at Stevens Pass in the Cascades. But water was the family’s focus. Her mother refinished wood boats, and her father, who ran a family car dealership, took the family on weekslong sailing trips.
“We had tons of independence at 5 years old,” Ms. Nelson said a few years ago. “That was a huge part of learning how to be by myself, which is a surprisingly huge part of mountaineering.”
Besides Morrison and her parents, she leaves her sons, Graydon and Quinn, now teenagers, from her marriage to Brian O’Neill, which ended in divorce; and her siblings.
After attending Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Ms. Nelson headed to France to hone her skiing and mountaineering skills over five winters near Chamonix.
She soon gained sponsorships, most notably with the North Face, with a current roster of outdoor athletes that includes climber Alex Honnold and explorer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin.
In 2014, Ms. Nelson received a National Geographic Explorers grant to lead an ultimately unsuccessful expedition to Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in Myanmar. The trip was riddled with problems and became the basis of a short documentary, “Down to Nothing.”
But she joined the National Geographic Live Speaker series and later, teaming with Morrison, burnished her reputation with a series of successes.
In 2017, the two, along with Chris Figenshau, made the first American ascent and the first ski descent of India’s 21,165-foot Papsura, a photogenic pyramid-shaped mountain known to mountaineers as “the Peak of Evil.”
It was the culmination of a long-held obsession for Ms. Nelson, who first saw the Papsura in a photo 20 years earlier and failed to reach the summit in a 2013 attempt.
“It was a picture of the most aesthetic, appealing, beautiful, rugged, strong mountain that I’d ever seen,” she told National Geographic, which awarded the team “explorer of the year” honors in 2018. Ms. Nelson and Morrison returned from India and, on Denali in Alaska, climbed Cassin Ridge and skied down the Messner Couloir.
That same year, the North Face named her the captain of its athletes team, an honor previously bestowed on just one other mountaineer: Anker.
The timeless lure of the Himalaya, the world’s highest mountains, brought Ms. Nelson and Morrison to Manaslu. For years, most climbers, led by guides, stopped at a fore summit. But with recent emphasis on exactitude, explorers are reevaluating their summits and, in some cases, returning to mountains to end any uncertainty.
It was from that precarious true summit, covered in fresh snow, that Ms. Nelson and Morrison headed downhill. Within moments, Ms. Nelson was lost in a slough that became an avalanche.
“I’ve always had this crazy fear, my whole life, of having every day be the same,” Ms. Nelson told Outside in 2019. “And if I dig really deep, that’s my motivation, to get outside, to train, to be in my sport, and to forever continue learning.”