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    The Professional: Hilaree O'Neill


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    HILAREE O'NEILL - Age: 43, Extreme Skier, Mountaineer

    O’Neill in the Langtang region of Nepal. Photo: Tim Kemple.In 1996 Hilaree O'Neill won the European Women's Extreme Skiing Championship on Chamonix, France.“Full disclosure, I think only three women competed that year,” she says. The championships was O'Neill's first ski event—she entered hoping to win enough prize money to stay in Chamonix through the summer. Soon, O'Neill was a race regular. In her down time, she practiced alpine climbing. “I was there off and on for five years,” she says. “It was like another college, and I was totally hooked. In the Alps, ski mountaineering transcends any single sport. So for me, it has always meant alpinism as well.”

    A Global Athlete with The North Face since 2002, O’Neill has pioneered first ski descents in Russia, India, Argentina and South Georgia Island, explored deep into the Alaska backcountry, skied from the summit of Cho Oyu, and was the first woman to climb both Mt. Everest and Lhotse within 24 hours.

    In the fall of 1998, an injury forced O’Neill to stay with a friend in Jackson, Wyoming. She used that break to take avalanche and rope management courses, studying ski mountaineering as a science. “Rob DesLauriers told me to try for sponsorship,” she says. “Before that, I didn’t know my skillset could be a career.” O’Neill met with The North Face in the fall of 1999, and two months later she headed to India for her first expedition. “I loved both the cultural and adventure sides,” she says. “So I started taking medical classes, Ski Guide AMGA, stuff like that.” Two years later, O’Neill signed onto The North Face’s team.

    O’Neill loading up in Southeast Greenland. Photo: Adam Clark/Sherpas.Soon, O’Neill was leading expeditions. Beginning with a trip to Mongolia in 2002, “I organized a lot of all-women trips in those early years,” she says. “It was the best way to learn route finding, navigation, logistics and patience.” That composure also helped O’Neill progress as an alpinist. “Like any craft, you learn ski mountaineering in baby steps,” she says. “I’m still far from perfecting it.” With the packing list up to her, O’Neill recognized the importance of durable and versatile  gear. “It’s imperative on every trip,” she says. “I take one of each thing, and I’m confident it won’t blow out on me.” Three years after claiming the first descent of all five Holy Peaks in the Mongolian Altai range, O’Neill set her sights on Nepal.

    In October 2005, O’Neill topped out Cho Oyo (26,906 feet) and skied off the summit. “It was my first time at really high altitude,” she says. “I did it without supplemental oxygen; in hindsight, that was a big commitment.” Seven years later, O’Neill returned to the range in May 2012 and linked Everest and Lhotse. “Everest was a 50-below, windy ridge walk, and Lhotse was a protected couloir ascent,” she says, “but I was able to use the same North Face down suit on both climbs, and stay comfortable.” O’Neill is looking forward to sharing her experiences on her upcoming National Geographic lecture tour—then it’s back to the mountains.

    “I’ve been looking back on my career lately,” O’Neill says, “and I feel fortunate; no regrets.”


    Hilaree O’Neill is a professional ski mountaineer and alpinist, based in Telluride, Colorado. She will speak about her career for the National Geographic Live! series in early 2017.

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