At this summerís Outdoor Retailer trade show Backcountry Magazine had the chance to sit down the ski mountaineer Hilaree OíNeill. We talked about skiing, womenís sports and the lure of Everest with this world class athlete.
Hilaree O'Neill early on her Everest climb.
We wanted to start this straight off with a big question. How do you feel about the state of womenís skiing?
I think, when you talk about womenís skiing itís great. When you talk about extreme skiing, ski mountaineering and traveling to the big mountains in Asia, it is definitely not on the rise. If anything it is flattening out or decreasing. Which is where I see it going. I donít know too many people coming up behind me who are really into the big mountains and I think there are a few reasons for that.
I think slope-side stuff, like half-pipe, park-style skiing, and sidecountry and all that is growing so much that itís taking the attention of the young skiers. What I do is something very few women start with when theyíre young. Itís something that comes with age. It takes a long time to get the mountaineering skills and the drive to combine the two because there is no doubt that when youíre ski mountaineering in the big mountains itís a hell of a lot more mountaineering than skiing. Like on Everest, I carried my skis to Camp 2 and took 10 turns down to Camp 1 and spent the rest of the time climbing. So you have to have a love for climbing. And for me I skied my whole life and didnít come into climbing and mountaineering until later. But in the end, I actually love that [the climbing] as much as, if not more, than skiing. So you have to have a love for both Ďcause ski mountaineering is a lot of carrying skis.
So youíre saying there are a finite number of women who ski at the high-end and theyíre all getting pulled into the tricks and the jumps?
Yeah, because I think that skiing in itself has gotten really FUN. And itís exploratory right now. There is new equipment, and new things being built, and itís different new and exciting again. All these new sports are in the Olympics. There is this cool draw, and if youíre really high-end youíll get drawn there first. And thatís not to say those women wonít eventually go to ski mountaineering later. Like take Ingrid Backstrom for example, sheís done movies and sheís also slowly transitioning herself and could become an amazing ski mountaineer when she is in her 30ís and 40ís.
But, on the menís side it seems like there are plenty of young men ski mountaineering, and skiing the large peaks.
I think again it goes back to the hardcore alpine climbing side of it. There are a lot more men in the mountaineering/alpine climbing world than women, and when you add ski mountaineering you decrease the amount of women even more.
But you seem to have made it. You donít seem to have a problem going for some pretty ambitious ski-mountaineering objectives.
And with your cohort it seems like there are a lot of other women doing ski mountaineering, but looking behind you there arenít a lot of women coming up.
I know. And maybe sexy isnít the right word. But girls like being hip, and wearing cool clothes, and being in a social environment, and ski mountaineering is the antithesis of that. Youíre wearing down suits, and hanging out with bearded dudes in the middle of nowhere, and youíre gone for long periods of time. Itís a hard sport to continue doing with a family. You know, I think of the draw of women to surfing. Itís fun, itís accessible, itís sexy. Ski mountaineering doesnít have those things so much. I find it amazing, Ďcause I think it is so core, and I like getting my ass kicked, and it does that, and itís scary and an adrenaline rush. But itís not on the mainstream. A lot of people donít know much about it.
Did you have role models when you got into this?
I did. But they werenít ski mountaineers; they were like Wendy Fisher and Kristen Ulmer. Amazing skiers. But beyond that I look to men. I mean there were female mountaineers but not a lot doing both. Itís a very nichey sport, and itís expensive too. And your chances of success areÖ you get one shot. While if youíre talking about something thatís more accessible, takes a shorter amount of time, you have more chances of success.
If youíd come into the sport today, would you still be into the mountains or would you be in the park?
You know my experience came from living in Chamonix, and that was all about the climbing, and I donít know if I would have. I was removed from all that. I lived in Chamonix for five/six years and that was all about going uphill to go downhill, so I donít know if Iíd be influenced by the park, but it wasnít around 15 years ago.
Well that is really what the backcountry is all about. Not sitting on your butt to get the next run. What drew you into that?
The whole reason I even went to Chamonix was because of ďBlizzard of Aahhs.Ē (That totally dates me.) But I finished school, and I was going to go live over there for a winter, and I didnít even know I was going to have the reaction that I did. I wasnít even familiar with the uphill. And, I went over there and did my first few forays off the Aiguille du Midi with no rope and no harness. And I was like; ďWell, I didnít kill myself so I should learn how to actually do this.Ē And, for me I started going uphill and I was into it. Iím good at it. I have the body and the stamina for it. And I just freakin loved it. The satisfaction was like nothing Iíd ever felt. And of course I was in Chamonix, which is the best place to learn.
Iím sure youíve been asked what itís like going into the mountains as a mother. Weíd like to ask you, ďWhat is it like being asked that question, and know that no one is asking Conrad Anker the same question even though he has three kids and a wife back at home?Ē
Thatís been a big topic of conversation. I mean on this last trip to Everest, it seemed like no one wanted to talk to me about the trip, only about being a mother on the trip. So it came up a lot, Ďcause while I may have been the only mother on the whole mountain, probably 70 percent of the men there were fathers. And, because mountaineers, especially high altitude-mountaineers tend to be older so theyíre more likely to have kids. And itís interesting, cause I feel so strong and passionate about what Iím doing, almost more so than ever. I really feel like the kids can fit into that life. Its very important to me to have good partners. You can never take out the risk, but sitting at home isnít 100 percent safe either. So I do the best I can, to make it as safe as I can. And the kids are always at the back of mind, but to be honest I would like a little bit of focus to be taken off from the fact that I am a mom. Itís really hard. I want people to be inspired, even if itís just, ďIím going to go for run, if sheís a mom and can do that. Or Iím going to get out of my pajamas cause itís two oíclock in the afternoon and I am going to make something happen.Ē If I could influence someone that way it would be awesome. But Iíd also really just like to have a conversation about climbing and skiing. And I know it will change. My kids are young. It is risky. I do spend a lot of time away from them, and people find that intriguing either in a good way or a bad way. It runs the whole spectrum.
Iíve been getting that question a lot, and some people are fascinatedby what I do because I am a mom. But there is that climber side of me that just wants to climb. My family, weíre making it work and figuring out how to make it work, Ďcause there is no doubt that it is harder for the mom to be away than the dad to be away, at least when the kids are three and five. At that age the mother has more of a role. And the kids may not feel that way, it may just be meÖ
Will you go back to Everest?
I am glutton for punishment, and a huge self-critic. So Iím thinking I should have done this, I would have done that.
Do you have any of those examples? What youíd change, orÖ.
Well, even doing the Everest/Lhotse linkup, why did we rest so long? We should have just done that in 12 hours. Or I really wanted to do Everest without oxygen. No American woman has done it. But beyond the status thing, Iím really intrigued with how my body works at altitude, and I know I could do it. But the stars just have to align so well to be able to do it. And to have watched Conrad be patient and wait for thirty hours at 8000m to climb without oxygen. I just didnít have that confidence or patience, but heís been on the mountain before. And now I see what it takes, and I get it. I like pushing myself harder.
It sounded pretty miserable, from reading your blog postsÖ
Well, from the skiing side, I was really bummed. It was hard when we had to take our skis down.
Imagine taking six months of planning, 10 weeks away from my kids, all the effort it took to get away from my kids, all the time it took to get the kit right, the training. The part that people donít see is when youíre at home, with a three- and a five-year old, and for me to get in shape and keep my skills sharp is the scariest part Ďcause Iím not out there every day anymore. So, it took a lot for me to be like, ďIím confident enough on my skis that I can ski from the summit of Everest.Ē There was so much work that went into that.
How did you train for that?
Well, it didnít help that it was worst winter weíve had in so long that it was hard to even get into the backcountry. Itís easy enough to do the strength training, but how do you get out on something really steep and exposed and scary over and over again so itís habit? I had help from my husband Heíd help me get out there, finding friends on the right days, even if it was just mini golf, trying to find little areas where I could be stuck on a cliff or getting the rope out and rappelling through things. And this year we were forced to make it up a lot. I ended up going ice climbing a ton, and Iím not an ice climber. I love it, but I am skier first so I always go skiing, but this year the skiing was bad so I went ice climbing. And it was great. It was a great way to get used to the exposure. ĎCause my biggest worry going on these trips is that Iím not out there every day anymore so how do I stay sharp? So thatís what I did. I just went ice climbing a bunch to get used to the exposure and the attitude.
How hard was it to give up that goal and bring your skis down?
It took a lot. I had to be convinced to bring my skis down. I was holding on until the last second saying, ďWhat if we could just bring them up to Camp 3.Ē And it was so hopeless. It was 100-year-old blue ice, with rocks stuck in there. You could not ski. Seventy percent of the climb was rock. The whole triangle face, which is usually snow, was rock. Bodies that have been buried for 20 years were out. And I was still like, ďWell we could try.Ē It was really hard. I was bummed. And thatís why I want to go back in the fall and ski it.
Would you want to lead the expedition?
Umm Iíd be fine with that. Iíve led a lot of expeditions. Iíd like to go back with Kris [Erickson]. Itís the second year in a row heís missed it. He was there last year when it could have been skied. This year it was all rock.
For me, I love climbing, but I want to ski down.
Whatís your prediction for this winter?
Is it going to be good or bad?
Itís going to be good. Iím glass half-full. But I would take an average winter. Just an average snowfall winter.