OURAY – Telluride-based mountaineer and North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill brings the amazing story of her groundbreaking adventures in the Himalaya to the Wright Opera House on Saturday, July 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Combining a passion for exploration, mountains and skiing, O’Neill has traveled to some of the most exotic mountain ranges on earth. In 2012, she was one of six North Face athletes to be a part of National Geographic’s Everest Expedition, where she became the first female to connect two 8000 meter peaks in a day after climbing Everest and Lhotse back-to-back.
As O’Neill tells it, 2012 was a “crazy year to be climbing Everest,” with bad weather, scarce snow and overcrowding conspiring to lead to the deaths of six climbers.
The crowd scene at base camp was like something out of Telluride’s Bluegrass Festival, O’Neill said – complete with rave parties and techno music. “Not what you would think of at 18,000 feet.”
The crowd scene on the mountain was just as crazy in its own way, due mainly to the ripple effects of bad weather.
Eventually, in the second of only two weather windows that opened up during the whole climbing season, O’Neill and her climbing partners made it to the summit of Everest, which they shared with about 60 other climbers.
Even so, it was an unforgettable feeling to stand on the world’s highest peak. They arrived right at sunrise. “You could see that fabled Everest shadow going out over the Himalaya,” O’Neill said. “It was stunning.”
On their way down, O’Neill and her teammates again became entangled in an endless conga line of climbers that were still making their bid for the summit, and had the macabre experience of filing past the corpse of a German climber who had died of a heart attack during a previous summit window several days earlier, when the weather had turned foul.
“His guide had cut him from the line and his body was like 20 feet below, just laying there,” O’Neill said. “At no point did I think I was going to die, but I was just like, ‘This is how people die.’”
Just hours after descending Everest, O’Neill successfully summited nearby Lhotse, becoming the first woman ever to link up the two 8,000 meter peaks in a single day. Her experience on Lhotse could not have been more different, with its summit “the size of a hood of a car, with room for two to four people, max.”
While O’Neill is best-known for this particular adventure, it is hardly the only notable achievement in her mountaineering career. She’s skied from the Himalayan summit of Cho Oyu in Tibet and climbed and skied several high peaks in Bolivia and Argentina. Elsewhere, she’s cut turns on remote volcanoes in the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, in Mongolia, Pakistan, Lebanon, as well as many first descents in the tight couloirs of Baffin Island.
Born and raised in the Northwest, O’Neill began skiing at age 3 at Steven’s Pass in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Eventually she moved to the Chamonix Valley of France where she learned most of what she needed to know in order to pursue a daring career in ski mountaineering, for which Outside Magazine has named her one of the most adventurous women in the world of sports.
As if to underscore that title, O’Neill is currently planning an expedition to Myanmar in the fall. “It’s a trip 12 years in the making,” she said.
The National Geographic-sponsored adventure entails trekking through the Burmese jungle for 200 miles, then accessing the eastern end of the Himalayas, with their stunning, practically unclimbed 19,000-foot peaks.
The adventure will be a reunion of sorts, gathering back together several members of the 2012 Everest expedition, including National Geographic writer Mark Jenkins, and fellow North Face athletes Cory Richards and Emily Harrington.
For O’Neill, the adventure will be an antidote to the experience they had on Everest.
“Coming back from that crazy circus of climbing, Burma epitomizes the exact opposite,” she said. “It’s a very rarely traveled area.”
In addition to her travels as an athlete for The North Face, O’Neill is a mother to two young boys. Although they have changed her life profoundly, her passion for the mountains has not abated. Indeed, she and her husband are raising their sons to love the outdoors, and particularly the beautiful San Juan Mountains, as much as their parents.
“They don’t have an option,” she joked.
O’Neill’s presentation in Ouray this Saturday reprises a lecture she gave at the Sheridan Opera House last March as a fundraiser for the dZi Foundation. This time, box office proceeds will be donated to the Friends of the Wright Opera House. Tickets cost $15 and are available online (thewrightoperahouse.com) or at the Wright box office.
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