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a six-part series profiling athletes reaching the next level in their sport.

Madaleine Sorkin
Story by Kimberly Beekman

Between life and death is a rope. Attached to it is Hilaree O’Neill. On belay, squinting up at her, sweating, and straining to hear her, is me.

Between life and death is a rope. Attached to it is Hilaree O’Neill. On belay, squinting up at her, sweating, and straining to hear her, is me.

Hilaree, one of the world’s best ski mountaineers and the first woman ever to have summited both Everest and Lhotse in 24 hours, is leading me up a three-pitch climb to Telluride’s via ferrata. With her long limbs stemming her body hundreds of feet above the Telluride valley, it’s clear that it’s only when she’s in a state of discomfort that she truly feels comfortable. It’s also clear that she trusts me far more than she should. As we roped up, I explained again that it’s been years since I’ve climbed, and that I can’t even remember how a multipitch climb works. “Don’t worry,” she said, dipping her hand into her chalk bag. “It’ll come back to you when you’re at the anchor.” We’re on the last pitch now and I feel raindrops on my arms, which are shaking, but not nearly as much as my legs. I’m not really climbing; I’m more heaving myself from one chalk-spot to the next and scraping off good knee skin along the way. “I don’t mean to rush you,” Hilaree calls, laughing, from above, where dark clouds have blotted out the sun, “but hurry up.”

Photo by Chris Figenshau

Just yesterday, after months of trying to schedule time between her expeditions, I walked up the steps to her wide-open townhouse door, wondering the same things I always do when I’m about to meet a superhero: What is it that separates her from normal people? And is she nice?

I called hello as I walked in, and I heard her coming up the stairs. Watery alpine light poured in through the tall wraparound windows, and casual disorder—photo equipment on the counter, kids’ art hanging on the fridge, a dinosaur with its arm unattached on the floor—made me feel instantly at home. She had sent me a text while I was en route from Montrose: “I’m a little behind on my housekeeping.” Normal enough.

She came around the corner to give me a huge hug, and I posted up at the bar while she did some dishes left over from the morning. She’s rangy and ageless, with warm eyes and rich olive skin. Then there are her veins. They’re like raging rivers running down her biceps, branching into tributaries that course through her forearms. Not so normal.

Photo by Cory Richards
She’s rangy and ageless, with warm eyes and rich olive skin. Then there are her veins.

Before she took me downstairs to her kids’ room—10-year-old Quinn and eight-year-old Grayden would sleep with her for the night—I noticed a climbing hold screwed into the transom above the dining table, probably 10 feet up, presumably for doing pull-ups while dangling from her fingertips. We walked downstairs and around the corner, and I stopped at the partially open door to her office. The wall was draped ceiling to floor with ropes, helmets, harnesses, shoes, and more climbing gear than I’d ever seen in a single place, with several pairs of DPS skis mounted with Dynafits stacked to the side. Her passport and maps littered the desk. I stopped and stared. I couldn’t help it. It was like a museum of her accomplishments. This was the gear that got her to the summit of both Everest and Lhotse in just 24 hours, and that she used to ski off the summit of Denali in 2011. This was the gear that, just this year, she used on the first ski descent of Papsura, India, and on what was likely the first female ski descent of the Messner Couloir combined with an alpine climb of Denali’s Cassin Ridge. This was the gear that, over the years, had taken her to inscribe artful turns on obscure peaks in Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Lebanon—16 countries total. And this was the gear that nearly took her to the summit of the highest peak in Southeast Asia, a doomed expedition she referred to, wincing a little, simply as “Burma.”

She conceived Burma to be the anti-Everest expedition, completely wild and uncharted, to summit and officially document the altitude of the highest peak in Southeast Asia.
Hkakabo Razi is believed to be Burma's highest mountain, and with its height of 5,881 metres (19,295 ft) the probable highest mountain in South East Asia. It is located in the northern Myanmar state of Kachin in an outlying subrange of the Greater Himalayan mountain system near the border tri-point with India and China. Hkakabo Razi
Photo by Cory Richards
Photo by Renan Ozturk

A little sheepishly, I took a photo of it before dumping my pack in the boys’ room, which was cute and full of regular boy things. We walked back upstairs and, because she eats (a lot), she suggested we go to lunch at La Cocina de Luz.

I spent the next two hours sitting at a patio table, my arms sticking to the vinyl table covering as I filled my notebook, trying to sketch out why she is who she is. She spoke thoughtfully, carefully, often pausing and almost grimacing at times, the tendons plucking out of her neck. Hilaree is gracious, funny, and, yes, super nice, but she has a hardness about her, a wall inside. It’s not prohibitive in the sense that it keeps people out or her in—it’s just strong. Even when she throws herself wide open, I still feel it.

She grew up in Seattle, the youngest of three. Her father owned a successful car dealership, her parents are still married, and she remains close with her family. But—there went the tendons again—her childhood was marked by struggle with a father who both loved and pushed her hard. At first, she said, “My father drove us to be athletic.” Then as the interview went on, “He was the dad that got kicked out of games by the refs.” And finally, “I was the youngest and I was good at sports, so I was spared from a lot of my dad’s intensity.”


Hilaree excelled at basketball, soccer, and track. She worked hard to be an athlete, and in doing so deftly dodged conflict. “I wanted everyone to be happy,” she said. “My siblings always joked about how I figured out how to duck and dive everything.”

Skiing at that time was “a background sport,” something she and her siblings would do on winter weekends when her parents put them on the Greyhound bus to Stevens Pass, Washington. Her most formative childhood experiences happened on water. Her mother worked on boats, refinishing teak and mahogany in boatyards around Seattle, and every summer her dad captained the family for three to five weeks “on a wooden boat in the middle of nowhere,” Hilaree said. “We had tons of independence at five years old. That was a huge part of learning how to be by myself, which is a surprisingly huge part of mountaineering.”

Indeed, ski mountaineering is itself a dichotomy between freedom and being stuck: There’s a giant mountain out there, but you’re often trapped for days on end in a two-man tent on a precipice waiting out the weather. On that boat, “I learned how to be still,” she said, “and self-reliant.”

So, of all pursuits, how did she choose this niche-within-niche sport? Defiance is a strong undercurrent to her passion here, an internal riptide perhaps intensified by her admittedly nonconfrontational nature. She could have played college basketball as her father wanted, but instead she moved to Chamonix, put on a harness, and scared herself shitless. “I ended up doing something totally obscure,” she said. “Because in the mountains, there’s no sideline. Nowhere for my dad to watch me from… Yet it was still something that would make him proud of me. I always wanted my dad to be proud of me.” So the inherently deadly sport of ski mountaineering became, ironically, her escape route—safe because she was out of her father’s sight lines yet still within his circle of approval.

There’s another kind of escape she alluded to here—escape from herself. The endless sufferfests with a heavy pack take her mind off of internal pain, keeping her buoyed above her own dark waters. And the fear of making one slip that would send her tomahawking into a crevasse? That’s what gives her focus and relief. “It keeps my mind from going to hell and back,” she said. “I have to literally think about what’s right in front of me.”

Which might explain why Hilaree has pushed herself this past year on back-to-back expeditions to tick off a whole new set of firsts in her career. She’s been in the middle of a painful divorce—is there any other kind?—from her husband of 14 years, Brian O’Neill. “I feel like I’ve done a lot of difficult things in my life,” she said, looking up at the sky and rubbing her face, “and nothing compares to this.”

Suddenly, despite her muscles and her summits and her beauty and her charmed Telluride life, we became two friends, talking about normal, real human stuff.

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Up on the via ferrata, she walks along casually and clips into and out of the cable with spidery fingers above a 600-foot drop, with the Bridal Veil Falls gushing like a fire hose from last night’s rain in the background. I laugh out loud about something she asked me earlier. “When Hilaree O’Neill asks if you’re comfortable with exposure,” I yell up to her, “she’s not just talking about a spot without any trees.”

I catch up to her on the cable, and ask if it’s ever difficult to get people in far-flung places to take her seriously because she’s a woman. She laughs and tells me a story about when she was in Lebanon, a guy tried to buy her for three—and then five—goats. Then I ask her about getting older—she’s 44—and how much longer she plans on doing this. She stops for a second, drops one hand off the rock and turns to me. “Fuck it. The men can do it, I can do it too. Conrad’s doing it, Jimmy Chin’s my age, and no one’s telling them they can’t do it.”

We stop for a minute as the path narrows and skirts a rock spire that looks like something out of Dr. Seuss. I ask Hilaree about her own mother, and what she was like growing up. She thinks for a minute, and then says, “She was an adventurous spirit who never got to explore the world on her own terms. That deeply affected my perspective,” she says. “When I had my first kid, I freaked out that I wouldn’t be able to do it all. You only get one shot at this world, and I didn’t want to lose mine.” So when her son Quinn was only 10 months old, she planned an expedition to Pakistan to prove to herself that she could. “I quit breastfeeding the day I left,” she says. She cried. A lot. “I know now that was a bit over the top,” she says, but her children remain a large part of why she pushes herself so hard: If she can teach them to stay true to their passions, whatever they may be, that will be her greatest legacy.

We get through the cliff and descend into the valley on the steep trail, and as we get down into the forest it smells like mint and green and rock and dirt and life. She carries the artfully coiled rope on her back, her quickdraws jangling off her harness as she walks. I bring up Burma because, well, how could I not?

Hilaree is best known for her greatest failure—an ironic stab that clearly pains her still. She conceived Burma to be the anti-Everest expedition, completely wild and uncharted, to summit and officially document the altitude of the highest peak in Southeast Asia. Though the crew defied odds and starvation and came home alive, the trip was seen as a disaster in the climbing community. Hilaree’s male teammates asked her and another female climber to step down from being on the summit team because they did not feel they were strong enough alpine climbers, and the men went on to attempt—but not reach—the summit alone, leaving the two women stranded with no ropes in a tent above a cliff for two days.

On the trail, Hilaree falls quiet for a few seconds, and then tells me extremely convincingly that she’s comfortable with failure. That it’s just part of her job. Sure, she strives for success, but it’s the discovery part that drives her. “My dad was so anti-failure—I can’t tell you how many times I still hear about missing a basketball shot. I just took it the other way. I fail all the time. It’s my way of being defiant. I think that’s why I take on these huge projects.”

And what does her father think of her career and her accomplishments now? She laughs. “He thinks it’s really cool.”

Photo by Cory Richards
Photo by Chris Figenshau
Photo by Chris Figenshau
“But I know that inside, I’m a little more obsessive, particular, and driven.”

The next morning, I walk upstairs and sit at a kitchen barstool. Hilaree’s making pancakes, brewing coffee, frying bacon, packing lunches, taking the iPad away from her kids, digging out swim trunks from the laundry, and answering my invasive questions. “Feet down, face your plate. You guys, come on,” she says as they squirm on their stools. And, like every other mom I know, she never sits down.

She pours us coffee and then pours heavy whipping cream into her cup. “Oh jeez, I’m not awake yet,” she says, and then reaches back into the fridge to find the half-and-half.

With breakfast mostly eaten, Grayden jumps up on the counter to grab a snack for his lunch, and Quinn lumbers around half-asleep still, his long hair hanging in his face. “Eight minutes!” she calls, cueing them into a frenzy of backpack packing (the dinosaur—and his arm—barely make it in) and toothbrushing. Brushing hair is, apparently, out of the question.

The carpool comes, and the boys walk outside, Grayden wearing both straps of his backpack and Quinn wearing only one shoe with the other in his hand. “Quinn, your backpack!” shouts Hilaree, following them out with it.

“Grayden wakes up prepared,” she says. “Quinn…he’ll go to school in the middle of winter without shoes on.” We talk about how it’s easy to determine pure personality in kids, before they’ve formed consciousness about what others think of them. Which makes me curious how Hilaree thinks others see her, and if or how that perception alters her own.

“I think I seem to other people like a laid-back, go-with-the-flow kind of person,” she says around bites of her kids’ unfinished pancakes. “But I know that inside, I’m a little more obsessive, particular, and driven.”

She puts the bacon pan in the sink and the water makes it sizzle and steam. She deftly turns it off with her wrist, then looks at me and says, “And I always feel like I’m barely hanging on by my fingernails.”

Which, of course, is exactly where she belongs.

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Story / Kimberly Beekman Design & Development / Austin Branham Lead Series Editor / Leslie Hittmeier Series Producer / McKell Favrot Back End Engineer / Andrew Wells Photos / Jimmy Chin, Chris Figenshau, Renan Ozturk & Cory Richards Executive Producers / Drew Holt, Steve Jones & Todd Jones