TELLURIDE – The last time I saw Hilaree Nelson – a few weeks ago, when our townie bikes crossed paths on Telluride’s main drag – we exchanged a customary greeting.
“Never stop exploring!” I shouted.
“Never!” she yelled back, beaming her luminescent smile.
“Never Stop Exploring” is, of course, the longtime motto of The North Face, the company that tapped Nelson as a sponsored mountaineer back in 1999. In time, Nelson shone the brightest of the company’s mountaineering all-stars, mentoring a growing stable of mountain athletes.
In 2012, she became the first woman to summit two 8,000-meter peaks, Mount Everest and Lhotse, in a single 24-hour push. Later she became the first woman to ski from Lhotse’s summit. Nelson died last month on another Himalayan expedition with her life partner and professional skier Jim Morrison after triggering an avalanche on Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest peak on the planet.
On a heartbreakingly beautiful Saturday afternoon, Telluride celebrated Nelson’s pioneering life. Many speakers on the stage in Telluride Town Park, as well as dozens of local friends, praised her humility and warmth.
They all sounded awfully familiar: Hilaree never took herself too seriously. She never behaved like an elitist (though she was truly elite) in this town of 2,600 in Southwest Colorado. If I told her, for instance, that I was headed to the hardware store for potting soil, she’d invariably reply, “Well, never stop exploring!”
“There was something truly genuine about her,” said Stash Wislocki, technical director for Telluride’s Mountainfilm festival. “When you ran into her on the street, she didn’t vibe superstar ski personality. She listened when you talked to her, and she cared. Between the expeditions and Telluride motherhood, she walked in two different worlds. Yet you always felt you knew her and felt her friendship.”
The magnanimous, effervescent Nelson enjoyed inside jokes and personal conversations with lots of us here. Yet she held no strong attachments to Telluride or Colorado’s Western Slope before turning 30. Born and raised in Washington state, she attended Colorado College on the Front Range but bolted for the French Alps shortly after graduation. It was in Argentière, just upvalley from Chamonix, where Hilaree honed her big mountain chops and won an extreme skiing championship.
Hilaree wound up in the San Juan Mountains after marrying oft-photographed big-mountain skier Brian O’Neill, whom she met on a ski expedition to Argentina’s 22,837-foot Aconcagua. Currently a real estate broker, O’Neill’s been here since the 1980s. Before their 2002 wedding, O’Neill worked as a heli-skiing guide and was named a Cosmopolitan magazine Bachelor of the Month. Hilaree, essentially, married into Telluride royalty and quickly assembled legions of close friends. The couple, who divorced, also bore two sons, Quinn and Graydon.
At Nelson’s Oct. 15 memorial, tears flowed like cascades down Telluride’s landmark Bridal Veil Falls. Forty-foot tall tents of brightly colored prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. The scene was stunning, even by the lofty beauty standards of the Four Corners region. A light glaze of white snow powdered the higher peaks. Below, purple mountains bled down to forests colored green, red and yellow. Not far away, the San Miguel River sparkled brilliantly.
First up: a video presentation with slides of Nelson in Telluride and far, far beyond. The tribute included a candid interview with Nelson proclaiming, “Life is this crazy, messy thing and you’ve got to take note of that.”
Professional rock climber Timmy O’Neill (no relation to Brian) emceed the memorial. He began by urging the crowd of 500 to not mourn Hilaree’s passing but to “celebrate ecstatically her incredible life ... by, among other things, throwing confetti.”
In a decidedly Telluride-in-October twist, O’Neill hurled handfuls of golden aspen leaves. He noted bright foliage cloaking every horizon: “For Hilaree, the mountains are wearing memorial garlands,” he said.
The distinctly Telluride gathering included mountain bikers still in helmets and gloves, yogis stretching and hacky-sackers a-kicking. On an uncharacteristically warm day in the bucolic park, women sported the same sleeveless summer dresses they wear to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in June. The thrumming of the adjacent skate park and periodic yaps of dogs made the ceremony sound unlike any funeral for a 49-year-old mother of two.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Jimmy Chin took the stage, praising Nelson as “an Athena in Gore-Tex.” Her best Telluride friends – Gabby Anstey McDonald, Robyn Shaw, and Wendy Jacobs Hampton – followed, spinning yarns and sharing anecdotes that emphasized Hilaree’s profound Tellurideness.
Said Anstey, “She always begged me to give up telemarking for alpine skiing. ‘Free the heel, lose your friends,’ Hil told me. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when she gave me a downhill setup from her ski sponsors, that I finally joined the right team. I haven’t telemarked since.”
One of the best spots to walk dogs in Telluride is, oddly, the Lone Tree Cemetery. Shaw recalled early morning calls from Hil, pleading “meet me in the cemetery with some coffee and your dogs. We took care of each other like a true family,” Shaw continued. “I’ll always remember the times Hil would receive a big shipment of North Face gear (more stuff than she could use herself). She’d text us all and say, ‘Guys, it’s a REALLY GOOD day to be at my house!’”
Following the “Telluride Girlfriends” was Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper. The senator, who’d worked with Hilaree and her friends at Protect Our Winters on climate initiatives, noted her mountaineering achievements and fierce environmentalism before hailing Nelson as the ultimate embodiment of the “Colorado spirit.”
After the ceremony, after the last Modelo can was retrieved from a pair of sweating copper tubs, folks gathered in a driveway across the street from Town Park. No senators were present, but Jeremy Jones, the big-mountain snowboarder who founded POW was. So was Chris Davenport, the first skier to conquer all 54 Colorado 14ers in a single year; Dr. Peter Hackett, legendary high-altitude medicine specialist and tour physician for the Rolling Stones; Winter X-Games athletes Jared Ogden and Travis Spitzer and assorted Telluride locals.
One, Melanie Kent, remembered how Hilaree helped her son Cedar Palmer grow from struggling skier to a North Face Ambassador himself through generous gifts of both gear and time.
“She was such a humble, solid member of this community,” Kent said, echoing a sentiment expressed often in the beautiful memorial ceremony. “Hilaree just wanted everybody to have a good time in the mountains.”
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An earlier version of this story had an incorrect byline.