Hilaree O’Neill: Himalayas-Bound With Skis (and Sons) in Tow

Hilaree O'Neill on expedition in southeast Greenland.
Hilaree O'Neill on expedition in southeast Greenland. Adam Clark
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Telluride-based skier and North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill has some serious notches in her expedition belt: The first woman to complete a link-up of Mount Everest and Llotse in 24 hours has also made first ski descents of mountains from South America to Mongolia and carved turns in untouched couloirs from Baffin Island to Greenland. In her career, O'Neill has overcome storms, injuries, exposure, and formidable routes to reach her goals. Her next expedition, however, poses an entirely new kind of challenge: getting her two young sons, 6 and 8, to base camp of the Himalayan peak Makalu, at elevation 17,000 feet.

O’Neill is joining a team that includes fellow North Face athletes Emily Harrington and Kit DesLauriers for what they have dubbed Project Makalu. The goal is twofold: To climb and be the first to ski off the summit of the fifth-tallest peak in the world—the 27,825-foot, pyramid-shaped Makalu—and to raise awareness about expedition tourism in post-earthquake Nepal. Both O’Neill and Harrington will be attempting the ascent without supplemental oxygen.

And this time, O’Neill is adding an extra layer to the challenge by bringing the family—husband Brian and sons Quinn and Grayden—with her.

O’Neill sat down with RootsRated before she left this week to talk about Nepal, Colorado peak-linking, and prepping her kids for the long haul to base camp.

This rendering show's the team's planned route on Makalu.
This rendering show's the team's planned route on Makalu. Courtesy of Hilaree O'Neill

What is the objective of the expedition? The objective is to climb and make a first ski descent on Makalu. We have a team of five—Emily Harrington and Kit DesLauriers as well as Emily’s boyfriend, Adrian Ballinger, an IFMGA [International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations] guide who owns Alpenglow Expeditions out of Squaw, and Jim Morrison, Adrian’s climbing partner, who is also out of Squaw. My kids and husband are coming into base camp, which is at 17,000 feet, and they'll leave when we continue on. How did the trip come about? Emily proposed the idea to me before Burma (fall 2014 Hkakabu Razi expedition). Since Everest, another 8,000-meter peak has just been on my mind. And Makalu is a stunningly beautiful mountain. So the trip had been planned before the earthquake. After the earthquake, a lot of people have stopped going to Nepal. Tourism and climbing are down 75-80 percent. We want to raise awareness that the country needs tourism to return as part of its recovery. So we’re sticking with the expedition. It’s with excitement and anxiety that there are no other teams that will be there. So it’s going to be a totally difference experience. It’s pretty rare right now for 8,000-meter peaks to not have any people on them.

Brian and Hilaree O'Neill on the summit of Ballard Mountain near Telluride on a recent sunny day.
Brian and Hilaree O'Neill on the summit of Ballard Mountain near Telluride on a recent sunny day. Courtesy of Hilaree O'Neill

How have you been training in Telluride?

I’ve been trying to get up high and stay high. There are so many awesome ridge connects in the San Juan Mountains. I’ve been doing that as much as I can, but the weather has been pretty limiting. I’ve done Ballard several times, Ajax three times, and linked up Ajax, Telluride Peak, and Trico Peak. I’ve been trying to rock climb a little bit more to get used to the exposure and ropes. And then mountain biking as much as possible.

How have you been preparing your sons?

I’ve been taking the boys on hikes. They hiked a 14er last summer and also went to Kilimanjaro, where they hiked 14 miles and went up to over 14,000 feet. I can also carry Grayden, the 6-year-old, if he gets tired. I’m not so worried about them on the mountain; it’s more the travel to the mountain and keeping them from getting sick.

Hilaree O'Neill skiing with her sons Quinn and Grayden on the Telluride Ski Resort.
Hilaree O'Neill skiing with her sons Quinn and Grayden on the Telluride Ski Resort. Courtesy of Hilaree O'Neill

What will be the biggest challenges of this expedition? I’m trying to do this without oxygen. The highest I’ve been without oxygen is Cho Oyu (26,906 feet). I’m a little nervous about it because I feel like how you adapt to altitude is a coin toss, no matter how strong or prepared you are. But I have also done it a lot, and I’m seasoned enough to know my body ... It’s a technical peak with a lot of route finding, and the route has changed due to icefall from the earthquake. But every climb ultimately depends on conditions. We’re hoping it’s filled in, so we can ski all the way down.

How are you feeling about it? 

I’m excited. It’s a North Face trip with Outside Online, and we’ll be taking photos, writing and telling our stories so people can keep track of it online. I’m always thankful for all the support and want to thank everyone—including the girls I’ve been dragging on hikes all summer.

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