Telluride skier Hilaree Nelson talks about career, aging as endurance athlete
Like any professional athlete, Hilaree Nelson has been forced to change her tactics with age. Now 46, the Telluride-based skier and adventurer knows her body isn’t what it once was, but this hasn’t necessarily slowed her down.
“I’ve done this so long and put so much time into it my senses are so adapted to what I do that I’m so much more efficient and better at it, even if I’m not physically even close to as strong as I was in my 20s,” Nelson said in a recent interview with The Aspen Times. “Another big part of it is I love it. That gives me a greater ability to take risks. Even if I fail, I’m excited I got the chance to be there and to try.”
Nelson, an athlete with The North Face and an icon in the world of big-mountain skiing, was in Aspen last week as a speaker at Aspen Ideas Festival. Her sessions included a discussion on being an endurance athlete as well as what it means being an athlete past 40.
One of the questions faced was if “40 is the new 20 for pro athletes,” a question that comes up with the continued success of people like New England quarterback Tom Brady and the timeless tennis star Roger Federer. Her answer was more or less a no, but she does believe athletes are approaching age much differently than in the past.
“We don’t have the mindset of, ‘Oh, well I just turned 40, so I can’t be an athlete anymore,’” Nelson said. “There is more efficiency. There is more knowledge. There is more wisdom and mental strength when you are 40. So it’s a totally different approach to being an athlete. So I don’t think 40s are the new 20s, but I think 40s are totally being reinvented.”
Nelson is a prime example of this. She’s continued to set the bar into her 40s, having been named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2018. Only last fall, Nelson and boyfriend Jim Morrison, another of the sport’s icons, completed a historic climb and ski of Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world.
Physically and mentally, Nelson said she is still plenty strong. But what is just as important is having the desire to keep going, something she admits to struggling with anymore.
“I still have big plans. I still have a few audacious mountain ski goals out there,” she said. “I’m literally at the peak of doing what I do, but what is waning for me is the motivation. I’m not totally jonesing to go spend four weeks in a single-walled tent in the snow at 21,000 feet. I used to really love that, but I’m not as motivated. I kind of like having a hot shower and the creature comforts.”
As experienced as anyone on big mountains, Nelson spends a lot of her time these days sharing her stories through events like Aspen Ideas Festival. It’s where she sees her life going, although her days on the mountain are far from over.
“There are all these different offshoots to my climbing/skiing trajectory that have been really enjoyable,” she said, “and hopefully that’s where I can kind of end up going as I slowly pull away from the big mountains and sleeping in tents at high altitude.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT EVEREST
Plenty familiar with the Himalayas — she was the first woman to climb two 8,000-meter peaks in 24 hours when she summited Everest and Lhotse — Nelson was asked her thoughts on Everest’s overcrowding issue. The topic came to the forefront this spring after climber Nirmal Purja posted a photo on social media of a line of people waiting to summit the world’s highest peak back in May.
“It makes it really dangerous to have that many people on a single climb. That part is tough,” Nelson said. “The main reason for it being such an issue this year — and this is the same thing that happened to me when I was there in 2012, so that’s how I can speak to it — is the weather just didn’t offer up any summit opportunities early on, so everyone was forced into one week of climbing for the summit.”
Nelson said a solution could be to have more people look into the fall climbing period. When she and her team skied Lhotse last autumn, Nelson said they were the only people on the mountain.
When weather cooperates, overcrowding isn’t likely to become a huge issue on Everest. But when it doesn’t, that’s when tragedy tends to happen.
“How do you address that?” Nelson asked. “If people want to climb Everest they should be able to try. But I don’t know. I wish there was some way to insure people were spread out.”
AN UPHILL FAN
Nelson admitted to being a big fan of Aspen Skiing Co.’s generous uphilling policies. The Roaring Fork Valley has become a hotbed for in-bounds uphilling during the winter, but she does hope people don’t get too ahead of themselves when trying to take those skills into the backcountry.
“It gives those who don’t necessarily have the backcountry skills a place to get this incredible exercise. I’ve been to Aspen and I’ve done the skimo touring up Aspen Mountain and it’s social and it’s fun and it motivates you to get up early and get on the mountain,” Nelson said. “My worry is we are not taking the time to learn. We have a bunch of really good skiers that may not have those backcountry skills, and put those two together and it’s dangerous and tragic.”
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This past season brought with it Hailey Swirbul’s greatest individual result as a professional cross-country ski racer. But any real satisfaction she received always came when racing alongside her teammates, notably during world champs.