The ever-ascending athlete talks motherhood, mountaineering and “The Peak of Evil” ahead of her Redwood City Nat Geo talk.
By Emily Olson
For most people, a life of ups-and-downs is merely a metaphor. For Hilaree O’Neill, it comes with the job.
The professional mountaineer boasts a resume filled with pioneering ascents and descents. She was the first woman to climb both Everest and its 8,000-meter neighbor, Lhotse, in a 24-hour period. She was the first to ski down all five of the Mongolian Altai’s “Holy Peaks.” She’s explored volcanoes along remote regions in Russia and cut turns down the Himalayan summit in Tibet. Outside Magazine named her one of the most adventurous women in the world of sports.
Now a 44-year-old mother of two living in Telluride, Colo., O’Neill takes breaks from adventuring to recount tales from the mountaintops with the 2017 National Geographic speaker series. On Dec. 6, she’ll be at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre to present “Point of No Return,” the story of an ambitious trek to Myanmar’s forgotten peak, Hkakabo Razi. The mission was simple: to determine if the summit was the highest point in Southeast Asia. The process was anything but. O’Neill and her team faced danger from their first train ride to their last, icy stretch to the summit. She calls the expedition her most life-threatening yet.
We caught up with O’Neill ahead of her talk, which, admittedly, is no easy feat. She doesn’t stay still for long.
First, I have to ask: Where are you right now?
I’m on a multi-day climbing trip in the desert outside of Las Vegas. It’s all red rock and remote. It’s a really, really beautiful place. This trip is kind of training-oriented, but really it’s just for fun.
Did you bring your family with you?
No, just my boyfriend, who is also a climber. It’s nice to have a partner who is so accessible. I’m divorced, and I have two boys, but they’re with their dad this week.
What do your kids think of your job?
That’s still to be determined, but I think they’re intrigued by it. They’re finally understanding what I do. They’ve been to a couple Nat Geo shows with me. They’ve hiked into base camp in Nepal and Africa. I try to do as much with them as I can.
I’m wondering what your own childhood was like…did you always aspire to be a professional mountaineer?
No, that all happened by chance. I grew up in Seattle. I spent my childhood growing up on this old wooden boat in the northwest passage, up in Canada. My family would go for weeks at a time and just live off the land, in the wild. And then my parents got my siblings and me into skiing when I was 3, even though they didn’t ski.
But, overall, my time in the mountains was pretty minimal compared to everything else. I did a lot of traditional sports: basketball, soccer, track. I got into mountaineering when I went to Colorado College to study biology. It’s a pretty small school and runs on a block system: you take just one class at a time for three and a half weeks and then you get a five day break, which worked great for me. During the breaks, we’d go climbing and skiing. Then I’d go back to class.
It wasn’t long after college that you became the first woman to descend the Bubble Fun Couloir in the Tetons of Wyoming, which earned you sponsorship with the North Face. How did you make the leap from college weekend warrior to formidable professional athlete?
[laughs] Well, I guess I should have explained that I got a little obsessed… I already knew how to ski, but college was where I learned how to climb. I put the two together in mountaineering. I always wanted to travel, and I knew this was a way to do it. I was never a good tourist in the traditional sense.
After I graduated from college, I moved straight to the Chamonix Valley [in France], and that was how I committed. The Chamonix Valley is the adventurous place where it all happens. It has such a history of mountaineering combined with skiing, and it’s a traditional way of learning that we don’t have in the states. I pretty much learned everything there in three years. [She also earned the European Women’s Extreme Skiing Champion title.] Then I came back and did the Bubble Fun Couloir. I was 26.
Needless to say, you’ve done quite a bit since then. Do you feel like chasing adventure has left you craving more? Are you more willing to take risks, or are you more cautious now?
I mean, my approach is just completely different because mountaineering is an experience-based thing. I always think of the 10,000-hour rule, which stipulates that if you’ve done one thing for 10,000 hours you become at ease and natural, an expert. I’m for sure at that point now.
I wouldn’t say I’m more willing to take risks, but I’d say I really want to use my experience while I have the strength. That’s not so much a physical thing, but a mental thing. It’s all a bit like travelling: You get a place in mind that you want to go and experience, and then you go and it opens your mind to all these other places.
You’ve written about how you’d dreamt of going to Myanmar for over 15 years. What went through your mind when you received the National Geographic grant and realized you were not only going, but would be serving as the team leader?
Oh, it was excitement and a lot of nerves. There was a big weight attached — a lot of trepidation toward the trip — because it’d been an area that was closed for so long. That made it difficult to find out any information about the peak. It was basically two years in the making from when we got the grant and when we went.
Besides the travel and equipment logistics, what do you do to prepare for an expedition that big?
I’ve been an athlete my whole life, so the physical stuff is already there. I know my body. I exercise on a regular basis just to stay sane.
The part that I always have to work on is the mental training with technical stuff: ropes, gear, exposure. I do a lot of rappelling and ice climbing. This particular trip was a tough season because we went in the fall. A spring trip is a much easier thing to train for because you can practice on ice all winter.
I also work on endurance, but being a mom is pretty good for training mentally in that respect.
I don’t want to get too much into the Myanmar trip since you’ll be recounting the juicy details in the upcoming talk [Note: The story is a gnarly and twisted, rife with suspense and surprises. It’s worth listening to, even if you’re not the mountaineering type.] But I do want to know: Would you do this particular expedition again?
I would, yeah. It was one of those trips that pushed me right up to the edge. So I’d do it again, but maybe with a different team. I’ve been on 40 expeditions in my life, and this was the most complicated team dynamics, something I’ve never really experienced before.
But the trip itself was incredibly compelling. It was beautiful and raw like no other place I’ve ever been. Possibly the hardest and most physically and mentally challenging thing ever, but that’s what I seek out. That’s what I love. It’s taken me awhile to come around to it, but it was incredible.
Of your five-person team, three were male. You’ve mentioned there were differences in male and female communication styles. Do you think gender divides may have been the root of some of the team discontent?
To be the female leader of a big expedition is very rare. I wish I could say I had it dialed and knew how to make it work perfectly every time, but I didn’t. I still don’t. I’m still learning, and it’s okay to still be learning at 44 years-old. I don’t want to ever stop.
But sometimes when it comes to gender stuff, and old school vs. new school — especially in these extreme environments when everyone is strung out — it’s just really hard. It’s a fine line to walk.
I’m curious about your relationship with the other female on the trip, Emily Harrington, who you specifically invited despite her relative youth and lack of experience. There’s not a lot of female mountaineers, and you’ve earned quite a few “first female to” recognitions. Do you see yourself as a mentor for Harrington in any way?
Emily and I have done a bunch of stuff together. The first thing we did was spend two months together climbing Everest when she was 25. I’d like to think I was very much a mentor to her on that trip, but I also saw something in her that made her excited about our friendship: Her willingness to try new things and fail. People want to just do the things they’re good at. Emily is good at a lot of things, but she’s also willing to do things that are out of her wheelhouse.
I think in a lot of ways I’ve been a mentor to her, but it goes both ways. I work really hard at keeping an open mind and not getting tunnel vision, but Emily gave me a different insight into keeping an open mind. Her reverse mentoring is something I didn’t really expect.
Speaking of good characteristics to foster, what kind of advice would you give to amateur mountaineers looking to improve? What characteristics would they need to develop?
They need a sense of humor. They need to not be afraid to fail. They need to never think they know everything; that gets you in trouble. That’s just good advice for life though.
You also need to be a good listener and be observant. You need to see and relate to who you’re with. In my experience, it’s more about the people you climb with than about the mountain. It’s possible to have success on an expedition without actually reaching the summit.
What makes an expedition a success?
This is something I definitely learned in Myanmar. Of all the trips I’ve done, I’ve actually accomplished the physical goal I set out after maybe 50 percent of the time. Obviously, there’s been times I’ve been really bummed about not completing this that or the other thing, but there’s always been this integral part of thinking at least our team was successful. Myanmar was different in that our team fell apart.
But I think you can still find some sort of success in the adventure itself. I love faraway places where you don’t know what to expect. I like the trips you can’t plan for because there’s so many ways for it to go wrong. It’s being able to navigate all that and make it home in one piece.
That’s the thing about Myanmar: thank god we all made it home in one piece.
Of all the things you have accomplished, what are you proudest of?
It just happened this last spring. I’ve had an obsession with this 21,252-foot mountain in India called Papsura, “The Peak of Evil.” It’s totally obscure. It was one of the first peaks I saw when I did my first expedition in 1999.
I did an expedition there in 2013, and we didn’t get anywhere. But I went back in May 2017, and we climbed it and were able to ski down. It had never been skied, and it was the first American ascent.
I’m really proud of it because I stuck with it. I mean it’s called “The Peak of Evil,” you really can’t beat that.
What did you do to celebrate?
The reward is always just coming home. It’s all really simple. Hanging out with my kids, taking a shower, drinking a glass of wine, seeing my friends, sleeping in…
And then deciding where to go next?
[laughs] Oh yeah.
Hilaree O’Neill will be recounting her gritty Myanmar adventure at the Fox Theater in Redwood City on December 6th, as part of the National Geographic Live speaker series. You can buy tickets for the event here.
See more imagery by Renan Ozturk and Cory Richards.