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Interview: Hilaree Nelson on Her First Descent of Lhotse

Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison make the first ever ski descent of Lhotse, the world's fourth tallest mountain.

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Hilaree Nelson of Telluride, Colorado and Jim Morrison of Tahoe, Colorado completed the first ever complete ski descent of Lhotse (8,516 meters), the word’s fourth tallest peak, on September 30th. Morrison and Nelson completed the descent via the Lhotse Couloir—familiarly knowns as the “Dream Line.” It drops 7,000 vertical feet from the summit all the way to the base of the mountain.

The pair completed their historic first descent without once having to rope up, rappel, or de-ski on the way down.

Rock and Ice caught up with Nelson on the phone to talk a little more about the descent. Her resume even before Lhotse was among the best around, with descents of the Messner Couloir on Denali (6,190 meters); Cho Oyu (8,188 meters), the world’s sixth highest peak without supplemental oxygen; and the five holy peaks in Mongolia; and a first descent of Papsura Peak, India, among others.

Read the interview below the break!

Q&A with Hilaree Nelson

How long have you been thinking about this descent?

I’d known about the Lhotse couloir for a long time. The line off the summit is just so unique and iconic. I actually climbed Lhotse before and could see the beauty of the line—it’s very dramatic.

I had never exactly proposed the trip before, but I had talked about it at length with people at The North Face. The North Face has an athlete proposal cycle and after skiing the Messner Couloir (on Denali), I felt good, I felt like the time was right. It was one of the biggest things on my “bucket list,” or whatever you want to call it.

I finally proposed the trip in November of last year and it took on lots and lots of different forms. The team grew and shrank, plans changed. It all came together at the last minute. We managed to get it done by the skin of our teeth. Jim actually managed to get all the logistics done in a matter of two weeks. Seriously, three weeks before we left, we didn’t even know if we were going or not!

What kind of conditions did you guys find on the mountain?

My experience with Lhotse has only ever been in the spring, when there’s never any snow. Based on that, I thought the fall would be best. Other skiers who have tried it in the spring have failed because of conditions or altitude or being pulled away to help on rescues.

Post earthquake, there’s been lots of climbing on Lhotse in the spring and you can’t really ski it when there are other people there. It’s super dangerous with other people going up as you’re coming down setting off sluff avalanches. We could get tangled in their fixed lines too, for example. There is a tight choke in the couloir and if it’s filled with fixed ropes, there is no way you could ski it.

But, on the flip side, were there alone in the fall which makes it a lot more work on the Sherpas’ part to break trail for us. Basically, we had a lot of luck and got good conditions.

And the line itself—what was it like??

It’s a pretty perfect couloir. One side looking up is a vertical cliff. As you go up, you are hugging that side. It has an hourglass-type shape and a majority of the line averages around 50 degrees.

The choke pitch is steeper obviously and the summit point is also pitched really steep. The summit pinnacle, which is about 150 feet long approaches 60 degrees. Up there it was really rotten sugar snow, like waist deep sugar snow. Jim actually skied the first few turns on that super steep part.

Once you approach the top of the hourglass the pitch mellows out to around 40 degrees, but that’s really the only point like that. We regrouped on that section and went on through a really gnarly wind slab.

What ultimately was the best part of the skiing was getting through that choke, which is only about a ski length wide. It was amazing because you really could ski the entire line top to bottom!

The couloir is frickin’ cold and ominous and every turn was really consequential. But it slowly starts to open up as you go down, and the steep cliffs on the sides begin to open up and you get the most spectacular views as you begin to roll west. It all sort of happens at once: You get out of the darkness, leave the cold north-facing aspect, and get into the sun. It’s just beautiful.

Then you get onto the Lhotse face, which is massive and we were able to just traverse all the way across. At that point we were actually smiling and laughing, it’s way more relaxed. The skiing was still consequential, of course, but it was a more consistently good snow conditions and we could see what was coming.

Did you rope up for any of the descent?

Nope, we were not roped up at all and we skied the entire thing. We actually stopped at Camp 3 and picked up some of our gear. One of our Sherpa actually made us some tea while we were at camp. After that we skied the rest of the way down.

How difficult is it skiing at such a high altitude?

It’s just really slow. After we got out of the choke, there was a patch of good, solid, soft consistent snow, and both Jim and I were able to link four or five turns. Until then, it was one turn, kick, slide, kick, slide, turn; just very slow.

It’s the kind of skiing that demands all the skills in your bag of tricks. I love that though. I think it’s super fun to have it be complicated, for it to be thoughtful skiing. But when we linked those turns [after the choke] and looked around I was like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe where we are!’ You can see all these mountains and all this snow and it’s very overwhelming to think about where you are in moments like that.

What did you training-wise to prepare for the trip?

We did some huge days in Telluride. Some really grueling 10-hour days where we climbed 11 or 12 Thirteeners all in one ridge.

We also did tons of super scrappy downhill running. We couldn’t figure out how to train for this type of skiing so we just did a lot of downhill running.

Jim had climbed Everest and Cho Oyu in May, so Lhotse was his third 8,ooo-meter peak in three months. Actually, he even skied Cho Oyu and half of Everest. I tried my best to catch up to him in terms of high altitude training.

Telluride is a great place to train. And Jim came back totally trashed from his climbs so it actually gave me a good chance to catch up. The best thing was that, mentally, we thought the couloir was going to be way less skiable than it was. When we realized we could ski it all, that was mental prep enough. It made us even more stoked to be there.

When you finally made it to the top of the line and it was time to transition to skis, what was going through your head?

Even in the last hour of climbing, I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to ski when I’m so tired? I don’t think we’re gong to make it.’ There was so much going through my head, but as soon as I put my skis on I was like, ‘This is so much better.’ My energy was back and I was excited.

I think part of it is just the change over from one discipline to another. Plus, I have such a love of skiing and I feel so comfortable on skis. I think the buildup was the difficult part but once I had skis on my feet, I kept thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is awesome.’ It was a complete mental switch. We had a great safety net, the conditions were good, and I was excited to ski.

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