The Road Not Taken an interview with Everest climber Hilaree O’Neill

 

A professional ski mountaineer for more than 13 years climber Hilaree O’Neill started out her career at a very young age. Skiing since the age of three she spent most of her early days on the many 14,000-foot peaks near where she went to school in Colorado.

“When I finished college I moved to Chamonix in France for about 5 years,” she said in an interview. “And that brought in sort of the more big mountain high altitude stuff with glaciers and ice climbing and all that kind of stuff. That kind of brought all the pieces together”

In 1999 she came to the attention of the North Face pro mountaineering team. Looking for elite female athlete to round out their roster TNF connected with O’Neill at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, UT. With solid climbing skills and a resume packed with ascents both North America and Europe she was just who they were they looking for.

“And three weeks later I was on a plane to the India Himalaya,” she said So that was my first big expedition and from then on I was hooked!”

For more than a decade O’Neill has put in two to three trips to the Himalaya each year. And in the middle of very busy career she managed to find time to get married and give birth to two sons. As a wife and mother she’s still at the top of her game as world class mountaineer. Most recently in 2012, during one of the most challenging climbing seasons ever, O’Neill made a successful ascent of Mount Everest and then climbed to the top near by Lotse another 8,000 meter peak both on the same day. On tour with the North Face speakers series O’Neill visited Madison, WI to sit down and share her story a a presentation she calls the Road Not Taken.

O’Neill:
It was a huge learning curve going from the states the Chamonix was the first big learning curve of getting into skiing with ropes and harnesses and all that kind of stuff and then going from the Alps to Himalayas was a massive learning curve going from both culturally and myself personally in the sport because all of the sudden now it was becoming more about the climbing and less about the skiing and so really had to focus on those climbing skills more than the skiing for the first time in my life. It was also about sustaining mental toughness over three four five six week periods and being out and exposed for long periods of time. You know a lot of winter camping, a lot of storms. So it was a very steep learning curve. You know I think right after India I went to Russia and spent…got stuck in a storm and spent six days in a snow cave with a bunch of Russians. You know like where am I? So yes it was a steep learning curve.

JM:
So now what motivates you to do that kind of thing. You obviously had this great opportunity, but what made you stick with it?

O’Neill:
I just love the satisfaction I get from the adventure of it. Expeditions really are different in that you can plan to the best of your abilities and it never turns out the way you planned it. There’s always something new that you never expected, the climbing’s harder or easier or just different. And that’s the part of it I love. And I really like challenging myself. High altitude obviously is something that’s always been a major draw for me and I like the simplicity of it.

JM:
So now through the course of all that you also had an opportunity to fall in love and get married and started to raise a family. You’ve got a husband and a family and two small boys at home. I’ve heard you say in previous interviews that being a parent is infinitely more difficult or more challenging a mountaineer. Well I’ve got to know, what is it about parenting that making is so much difficult than being a climber?

O’Neill:
Well parenting I think you are not always operating within your own decisions, your choices. A lot of what you’re doing is at the need or the call of your children and it’s just very different. To leave and go on a mountaineering trip you’re choosing things. You have actually have some silence. You can sleep at night, you know things like that. When you’re home with two super active little boys it’s totally cliche to say it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love but it’s so true. It’s very difficult. It’s challenging mentally. You’re always worried if you’re being a good parent or making the wrong decisions for your kids, or the right decisions. And when you’re out in the mountains, when I’m doing this job I know it so well. A lot of the guessing game is out of it for me at this point. Where as with kids, it’s a day to day thing that you’re learning all the time. It’s challenging.

JM:
So what’s the most difficult part about being away from them for such a long period of time while you’re on expedition?

O’Neill:
Right now I think it’s their age.
JM:
Yeah, they’re 3 and 5. They’re young kids.
O’Neill:
Yeah I mean my younger son, he turned 3 while I was on Everest and at that age they just change so drastically from week to week. They’re growing, their vocabulary is increasing. You know obviously previous expeditions, but they’re learning how to walk, getting out of diapers, like there’s these huge changes at this young of an age, so that part I find really difficult, you know missing this, missing this thing and missing that thing. For them I think actually me being away will be harder as they get older ’cause for now they don’t have a great concept of time and what not. You know even for my youngest it’s like I went out for dinner and came back 10 weeks laters. But as they get older it’s going to be more difficult for them and right now it’s more difficult for me. I think for sure.

JM:
OK you just came off of Everest and I think it’s fair to that 2012 was probably one of the most challenging years on the mountain in a long time. Can you give me an idea as to what you expedition experience was like during that particular season of climbing.

O’Neill:
Well I … It was difficult. First of all, you know if was my dream to take my skis to the top of Everest. And we figured out fairly early on that that wasn’t going to happen so that was a pretty big disappointment and bringing my skis down the mountain I was like ok I totally got to readjust my thinking and just focus on climbing. The climbing was much more difficult in that there was no snow. You climbing on and ice. The majority of the summit day was on rock which is super unusual. Just speaking the Sherpas who climbed 10, 12, 14 times up the mountain had never seen conditions as poor as this. That also…being a professional climber you have some experience of crampons on rock and all that kind of stuff, but I think a lot of the guided clients, it made already difficult climbing much more difficult for them and so it slowed down everybody’s paces. There was more fatigue. All that kind of stuff involved and it made it very challenging.

JM: And plus there were a lot of people there too. I think that at any one point there were as many as 600 people trying to make a summit bid this season? How was that in terms of just being able to navigate your own expedition?

O’Neill:
Ironically we had gotten to basecamp pretty early and for however it worked out most of our rotations seemed to be at opposite times of other people. A ration is when you’re kind of moving up the mountain to a camp and coming down. So for me that whole part, moving up the mountain and our acclimatizing and all that felt very, like we were the only ones on the mountain. You there were definitely a thousand people at basecamp at any given time. But those times we were moving on the mountain and getting ready to go for the summit we were the only people at camp 3. We were the first people at camp 2. It was much more of a solitary experience than I expected. But because again of the weather pushing everybody basically into three days of summiting in the end of may, going for the summit was a completely different experience. We decided not to take the first window simply because we knew there would be hundreds of people going for the summit. It was going to be crazy. And we’d hoped that by going on the second window we wouldn’t have that but it was still…so basically that first day there were still 300 climbers on the southeast ridge. And the day we went there were about 150 climbers on the southeast ridge.

JM: That’s still a lot of people.

O’Neill:
Oh a ton of people and it was chaos. For me the most important thing about climbing at high altitude is being able to go at your own pace. And you could not do that. I found that really dangerous and frustrating.

JM:
But you were able to successfully summit, which is terrific. But you took that experience and you went with Chris Ericsson to climb Lotse the very same day.

O’Neill:
yes!
JM:
How did that go? Because frankly that’s an amazing feat in and of itself. Tell me how those two experiences differed for you in terms of summiting Everest under really bad conditions and then going over across the valley to Lotse.

O’Neill:
Well like a sort of a hard fact that can kind of outline the difference a little bit is that both summit days on Everest and Lotse you’re gaining about the same amount of altitude. And for Everest it took Chris and I 12 hours round trip and Lotse took 5 hours. To give you an idea of how the line of people slows you down and takes you out of your climbing game and it misses with you head and so many other effects. So for me climbing Everest was frustrating, more frustrating that anything. Then climbing Lotse was just beautiful, fabulous. The summits were very different, the climbers themselves were very different. Everest is a ridge climb with a very wide flat summit. Lotse is a coulouir so it’s very consistently steep. It’s one straight line that goes up and then the summit is also very steep and small. You can only fit maybe four people on the summit at any given time. So two totally different climbs. Being a skier I’m much more comfortable climbing in coulouirs than on ridges. So over all I found Lotse to be akin to the kind of climbing I’m used to and the mountain, high altitude experience I was expecting. Everest was just really crowded and it was really scary because of that. Lotse was must like “Alright! I feel like I’m on my game now.” I’m moving the way I want to move and so it was a much better way to end the whole trip.

JM:
It seems to me that Everest is getting to so popular and there are so many people that are trying to make it to the summit. What do you think about some of the other place there are to climb, I mean the Khumbu Valley and other parts of Himalaya. How do you convince people that there are other mountains left to climb that might offer a different or better experience.

O’Neill:
You know I don’t think you will convince people of that. People want to climb Everest. It’s the highest mountain in the world. People are always going to want to climb it. I do believe that over all there are more climbers in the world than there were 10 years and what not and more access. So some of those smaller other peaks will be attractive to the person that isn’t solely focused just on Everest. You know of course now having been on Everest and climbed it. I would love to go back to the Khumbu and climb some of the other peaks around there. And I’m sure there are plenty of climbers that feel that way. But you’re still going to Everest. So there are so many 7,000 meter peaks. Numptse right there has hardly every been climbed and it’s right next door to Everest. And just tons of other peaks, but I still don’t think you’re going to convince people not to climb Everest. Like, it’s just going to get more and more popular. And you know hopefully they’ll find that there’ll some better way of regulating it or something at some point in the future. I’m not sure.

JM:
I would imagine just with all the objective hazards of climbing Everest it would become less appealing to, and I’ll just say it, people who are real climbers as opposed to people who will climb Everest and never, ever climb anything ever again.

O’Neill:
Well I think Everest is becoming less appealing to people who are real climbers, or what not. But at the same time I spent 13, 14 years of my life climbing big mountains all over the world and the chance came to me to climb Everest and I jumped on it. So it’s not to so that you know real climbers will or will not climb Everest. They’ll probably climb a bunch of other peaks, but it’s like if Everest does come across the table and you find yourself in that situation you’ll probably say, “Yes, I’m going to climb Everest.” The thing about Everest is there’s so many different routes up that mountain. And the only place you’re going to find crowds is on the southeast ridge. So if you want to climb Everest and you want to climb it in a fashion that’s more true alpine still and away from the crowds you can climb the West ridge. The can climb the Kanchun Face, the North Face, I mean there’re are tons of different routes on it. Your chances of success will good down dramatically, but you’ll get that solitary experience that alpine climbers are often looking for. Just don’t go on the Southeast ridge.

JM:
So for you, as you move forward in your career, what are your aspirations? What do you hope to accomplish with all of this?

O’Neill:
You know that’s a funny question. I don’t think I’ve ever in my career had a clear goal as to what I want to say about how I did this and this when I’m at the end of my…, when I’m not climbing as much as I’m climbing now. But basically I really like high altitude. And it’s not because I want to take off 14 8,000-meter peaks. I am just so amazed at how my body responds to altitude and it’s just this insane way of pushing the limits and testing yourself. So I definitely see myself climbing other 8,000 meter peaks. I’ve skied one. I’d like to ski another one. There are definitely a few out there that are very good for skiing. And then the other side of what I’d like to do is go as polar opposite as I can which is to go to the most remote mountains that you can find, where you don’t have maps and not even you sat phone works and you’re just there. And so those are the two ends of the spectrum for me. And that’s where I see myself going in the future.

JM:
You’re probably one of the few mountaineers at the top of her game that’s a mom. And I would imagine that you don’t have very many role models. Is there anybody out there who you consider a hero whose career that you try to emulate?

O’Neill:
You know it’s difficult. I definitely wish that I could go out and seek advice for where I’m supposed to with this and how I’m supposed to balance this things and I don’t necessarily find that outlet for me. I feel like I am trying to figure it out by myself. But at the same time, yeah I definitely have climbers that I totally have heroes who do all kinds of different kinds of climbing, but they’re not necessarily mothers or women either for that matter. Conrad (Anker), I’m so privileged to do so many trips with him over the last few years. There’s a lot of french climbers that I sort of looked up to in my years in Chamonix. So there’s definitely people out there, but it’s not quite the, I haven’t quite found the mentor when it comes to balancing the mom and climbing yet.

JM:
Here’s what I find really interesting then, do you have other younger women climbers who might look up to you as a role model and what advice to have for them if they’re trying to balance that being a climber with being a mom?

O’Neill:
It is funny. I’ve definitely had a lot, a lot meaning a half and dozen or more women that I’ve talked to over the last few years since I’ve had kids calling me and being like “I’m a heli-ski guide and I’m pregnant. Can I keep flying? Can I keep guiding while I’m pregant? How do you balance you sponsored career? And once you have kids how do your sponsors react? Will they still support you? What have you had to do? So yeah I guess in some ways it’s great to be able to pass on what I’m learning. I’m still learning it, but I’ve definitely be sought out to get to give advice. I’m happy to give it. I can’t say that it’s spot on but I have been and it’s great, I’m glad to know that like other women are seeing what I do and doing it themselves. So it’s good.

JM:
Well again, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. This has been a great conversation.

O’Neill:
Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Hilaree O’Neill lives with her family in Telluride, Colorado. You can learn more about her life in climbing online. Visit TheNorthFace.com and the exploration link.

Music this week by BViloin and Gingger Shankar and The Shanghai Restoration Project

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company

 

 

 

Thanks for listening. But you know I want to hear from you so please send a message with your questions comments and criticisms to info@joytripproject.com. Go be joyfully. And until next time.
Take care

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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