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Athletes & Explorers

Oct 19, 2018

Outdoor Moms: Hilaree Nelson – Mother of Two, Mountaineering Hero to All

2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, ski descent of Papsura, first woman to summit two 8,000m peaks in 24 hours… mother of two.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

‘Outdoor Moms’ is a new series, profiling mothers pursuing their sport, all while taking care of family. You can read the first article on world-famous kayaker, Emily Lussin, here.

“You know just when you have that skin crawl on the back of your neck. Like, we are not in a good place. We need to move.”

One week ago, Hilaree Nelson was in Nepal completing one of the biggest expeditions of her 20 year ski mountaineering career. Today, she is sitting at home in Telluride, Colorado, just having finished the hectic morning routine of packing lunches and getting her two kids to school on time.

She is telling me the story of when her crew got stuck in a storm between Camp 1 and Camp 2. Instead of pushing on through the whiteout, they decided to set up an interim camp and wait it out. “We were all huddled in this little single-wall, three-person tent. It was storming out pretty good and we started hearing avalanches coming down… One avalanche was a little too loud and a little too close, so we left the tent standing and we got out and started trying to navigate in the whiteout.” Once the weather cleared, the team safely made their way to Camp 2. Two days later, Nelson and her climbing partner, Jim Morrison, returned to the interim camp to gather the gear they had left behind. What they found was the remains of a massive avalanche that had ripped across the camp, scattering gear everywhere and throwing it into crevasses. “It was a little crazy. We were kinda like, ‘oh wow I am really glad we didn’t stay there’.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Less than two weeks later, Nelson and Morrison found themselves atop the summit of Mt. Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Four hours after that, they both arrived back at Camp 2, having just completed the first ever ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir.

Skiing a 50 degree slope for 7,000 feet would be an impossible task for some of the most dedicated skiers out there. Add in the fact that they did it at 8,000 meters elevation after spending the previous 14 hours on a summit push, and the feat becomes unimaginable.

Read about Hilaree’s Lhotse Expedition here.

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

For Nelson, who has previously skied both Cho Oyu in Tibet and Papsura in India, this achievement is one of the highlights of her career.
But her career as a ski mountaineer is only half of her life.

Nelson’s two sons, Graydon and Quinn, are the other half.

Summit of Wilson Peak, Telluride, CO. Graydon and Quinn’s second 14’er.

“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time”

“I have two boys. They are 9 and 11. Graydon is the younger one and Quinn is the older one. They are crazy little boys… They are really into skiing, they are both alpine racing, they are currently in mountain biking camp after school, they go to climbing club after school, and they are really obsessed with lacrosse. And they both really like math too!” Between expeditions, working as The North Face team captain, and being a mother of two, it is a wonder Hilaree is able to juggle it all. And from what it sounds like, both her kids are on a path towards being just as busy as she is!

Instead of letting the busy schedules stress her out, Nelson embraces it.
“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time. It just doesn’t miss a beat… It’s fun to be a mother.”

As Nelson talks about motherhood, her face lights up with pride. “I like how unpredictable it is. I’ve always been a bit terrified of every day being the same, and kids are a sure-fire way to make every day different and an unknown adventure.” Nelson describes the unpredictability of her children as one of her favorite parts of being a mom. As she recounts the chaos of motherhood, I can’t help but think how this mirrors the other half of life. Weather forecasts, snowpack predictions, snowpack stability, and even personal mental and physical strength are all factors that can be unpredictable during a ski mountaineering expedition, much like children can be unpredictable during motherhood.

Nelson climbs Skyline Arete with younger son, Graydon.

“It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit”

Taking on two very different roles as both mother and mountain athlete requires a unique mindset that Nelson has adapted over the past 11 years. “The emotional roller coaster I ride is sometimes very difficult on my kids. I am so stressed to leave them before I go on a trip, and then I turn into that climber person. It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit so I can focus on what I am climbing. Then when I come home, it is really hard to switch back into mother. You know, I am full mother when I am home. I am in the classroom, I am picking them up from sports, I am taking them to ski races, cooking them dinner, making them lunch. I am just mom, like what moms do. It is almost like I am two different people living in one body.”

Nelson’s somewhat double identity life is what defines her. But it didn’t come easy. She describes her comeback from childbirth as the single most difficult challenge she has had to overcome. “Getting back to being an athlete after having babies was about the hardest thing I have ever done. In fact, it was so difficult that it almost makes climbing and expeditions look easy.” Her first son was born via a relatively “easy” c-section. Her second… not so easy. Hours of surgery for both mother and son, combined with blood loss and blood poisoning resulted in Nelson taking an entire year off from athletics.

By the time she returned to training and to the mountains, her mental strength had taken a huge hit. “I pushed hard to get back in it, but it was really difficult. It was really challenging on my confidence.”

All challenges aside, getting back into it was worth it. Having just completed one of the most iconic ski descents in history, Nelson was eager to show her boys some media from the Lhotse expedition. Nelson’s recount of their response made me giggle. “They looked at some video stuff of it yesterday and some photos… I mean, they are hard to impress, my kids.” With notable ski descents around the world, as well as being the first woman to climb two 8,000 meter peaks in 24 hours (Everest and Lhotse), and being named a 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, I am actually not surprised her sons are so hard to impress. She has set the bar pretty high!

Nelson says the boys are finally at an age where they are starting to become aware of what her career means. One of the most challenging aspects of it – long stretches away from home. Recently having gone through a difficult divorce, the challenge of leaving her kids for long periods of time becomes even more apparent. When she is in Nepal, the kids stay with their father. With the recent addition of 3G internet access to Everest Base Camp, it has been easier for her to stay in touch with her kids. However, a month is still a month, and time spent away isn’t easy. Nelson says she used to feel guilt when she left her kids, but now she has learned to view her career as a positive influence in their lives. “It has taken a long time for me to realize that having my job and being a mother has been beneficial to my kids for them to see me be a person, individually, and trust in that. It was a struggle for me for a long time that I was hurting my kids by continuing my profession. But I see now their joy and their support for what I do, and we can have rational conversations about it. I see that they are proud of me. I see that they appreciate what I do, and see me as a person. So I think it has all been worth it, but it wasn’t without a lot of tears and a lot of difficult times.”

“I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous”

Another challenge of her career – the danger. Ski mountaineering is one of the most risky sports any mountain athlete can partake in. At ages 9 and 11, Nelson’s kids are just beginning to understand the danger associated with it. “Skiing and mountain climbing to them, it has always just been a part of their lives as long as they can remember. I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous. I don’t know if they are okay with it, but it’s just what I do, and they love what I do.”

The first time Graydon and Quinn skied in the rain. “Being from Washington State, I grew up skiing in the rain and it was fun to see my kids reaction to the adverse weather. Of course, they thought we were crazy…”

“Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Danger and challenges aside, Graydon and Quinn look up to their mom with the utmost admiration. The boys support her career, and are proud of her accomplishments. Between their mom’s career, as well as their own personal experiences, the boys have started viewing mountain sports less as hobbies, and instead, a way of life. “Both my boys consider skiing not even a sport for them. They learned it as soon as they learned how to walk. It’s just a way of life. It’s how they play.” Nelson says she isn’t going to push the boys into climbing and mountaineering. However, despite her lack of effort, both boys have already made a list of the mountains they hope to summit. “First they are going to climb Mt. Baker, and then Rainier, and then they want to climb Denali. Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Both boys have already been to Makalu base camp, as well as summited several 14,000ft peaks in Colorado. When they were ages four and six, they made it most of the way up Kilimanjaro, but in Nelson’s words, they were “a little bit little” to make it to the top.

Family time on Telluride Via Ferrata.

As much as the boys idolize her, Nelson is reminded every day that they are still kids. They go to school, they play tag at recess, they wrestle, fight, cry, laugh, and most of the time are completely unconcerned with Nelson’s career as a world-renowned ski mountaineer.

“The best thing in the world is going on these expeditions that mean so much to me, but then coming home and having kids that in some ways are oblivious to what I do and are just kids… It’s awesome. It’s just a great thing to have in my life.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Cover Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

 

Read about Hilaree Nelson’s ascent and ski descent of Papsura, The Peak of Evil here.

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Athletes & Explorers

Aug 06, 2019

In Defense of the Struggle.

Mountain bike racer Alicia Leggett reflects on how the obstacles she's faced have made her a better competitor and a stronger person.

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WRITTEN BY

Alicia Leggett

Like many ambitious people, I hate being bad at things.

Here’s my problem: It’s hard to become good at anything worthwhile without sucking for a while.

I’m a pro mountain bike racer, and last summer was my first season of world-level international racing. I raced in six countries as part of the Enduro World Series and traveled to races outside of North America for the first time. And although this was the season I’d been dreaming of for years, it was the hardest and most frustrating season of my life. More importantly, it took a lot of work to get there, and it will take much more work to keep progressing.

My 2018 season kicked off in March with races in Chile and Columbia, countries I’d never visited but had researched obsessively since I first looked at the season calendar. Living in Missoula, MT, I had spent most of the winter off the bike. I also received my bike for this year the week before I left for South America, so although I was beyond excited and itching to escape the snow, I wasn’t exactly prepared to compete with the world’s best.

“I remember crying in the shower”

I had done what I could. Moving to somewhere warm and dry wasn’t an option for me last winter, so I made the most of things and embraced the mental break from riding. I skied more days than I didn’t ski, I learned to enjoy running in the snow (and started borrowing my favorite dog, who became a great running buddy) and I started lifting heavier and more consistently than I ever have. Still, when I showed up to the start line at 11,000 feet in the Chilean Andes, I struggled.

The two-day race was brutal. I remember crying in the shower after the first day, dreading the morning when I’d have to wake up and do it again. But somehow, those two days are imprinted in my mind as two of the best days of my life. The Chilean sky is beautiful. The mountains are rugged. The terrain made me feel like I was riding on another planet. A week later, I raced in the Colombian jungle, in a mess of tire-sucking mud and suffocating humidity. I reveled in the misery.

“I’m not here to write about the times things went well”

All things considered, those two South American races went all right, and I collected a couple of race results I can be proud of, but I returned to the U.S. battered, exhausted and demoralized. But things improved from there. I put one foot in front of the other, took one pedal stroke at a time, and kept moving. I spent time riding my favorite trails, taking bike park laps and racing at the regional level for the next few months. I started running women’s clinics in my area, continued coaching teenagers and generally had a great time riding my bike. I won four regional races in a row, which was exciting proof of my growth as a rider. But I’m not here to write about the times’ things went well. This is a defence of the struggle.

After racing the Enduro World Series round in Whistler, I returned home and focused on preparing for the season’s final races in Spain and Italy.

The first day of racing in Spain was one of my best race days ever. I climbed about 6,000 feet and raced four tricky stages to land myself in 19th of 41 of the world’s best racers heading into the next day. I was so excited I could hardly sleep – I loved the course, and being in the top half of the EWS field felt great. I just needed to keep my riding smooth through the next day and I’d land myself in the top 20.

On the first stage of the next day, things fell apart. My dropper lever got stuck engaged and my seat kept popping up, which was not helpful in steep, rocky terrain. I crashed. Hard. I finished the stage, much slower than I wanted to, then admitted to myself that I might not finish the race. I looked like I had an extra elbow in the center of my chest and it hurt to breathe. I watched a volunteer wheel my bike away and felt my high hopes disappear.

I’d made it through the whole season without any serious crashes or mechanical problems. Why did the problems have to show up at one of the races I cared about the most?

At least I had one race left. After a round of chest x-rays (verdict: nothing broken) and a few days of rest, I was ready to ride again. I drove to Italy, fixed my bike and studied the course. Practice day arrived, and it was the first day I could move around without chest pain, so I considered that a good sign, until I caught my front wheel in a corner and body-slammed the ground. Once practice was over, I started to feel everything.

My chest still hurt and I had a massive bruise on my quad left from the previous crash. On top of that, I’d landed on a big rock just inside my hipbone and my bloody arm had started to swell.

“I crossed an ocean for this,” I kept thinking.

I showed up to the start line battered but determined to make the best of things. I just had four race stages left in my season. I would show up and ride my best.

I hadn’t quite learned the lesson the previous week: Sometimes, things just fall apart. We can’t control all of it. And if we could control it, where would the adventure be?

I controlled the variables I could, but in that final race, my luck had run out.

I bent my derailleur on a rock on the first stage. I also broke my chain guide on the first stage. My chain broke on the second stage as I tried to sprint up a hill with my limited gear range. I rode a clean but conservative third stage before lining up at the top of the fourth stage.

My entire season had built up to that moment. I left the U.S. riding better than ever before, and I’d made sure everything on my bike was dialed. I’d take all the steps I could to set myself up for success, and things still hadn’t gone my way. Regardless, I had to keep giving my all. The last stage that day was my favorite, and I went in for redemption.

I knew I shouldn’t set my hopes too high. After a few minutes of riding fast, skipping through technical rock sections and pedaling hard whenever I had the chance, I felt my chain drop off my chainring and all I could do was try to keep my momentum. So much for having a good stage. I dropped into one of the most iconic sections in all of enduro racing, a rocky corridor lined with thousands of cheering spectators that feels like it goes directly down the ridge to the Mediterranean. It was incredible. After a brutal day, when it felt like everything went wrong, I crossed the line ecstatic.

An article I read once explained that gamblers experience a bigger rush when they almost win than when they actually win. That’s part of what keeps them coming back. I think I’m the same way. For the entire trip, I had great race stages interrupted by the most frustrating moments of my season. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling awful over and over, in just a few seconds each time. Those races showed me that I could be on-pace with where I wanted to be, racing with the best of them, but reminded me to never take a good result for granted.

“Learn to love struggling”

If I’d finished the season the way I wanted to, I would probably be content, and maybe I wouldn’t train as hard through the off-season. I can use my unfinished business with the EWS as motivation to come back stronger. I learned much more from the Europe races than I ever learned from races that went well, and I will focus on everything I can carry forward with me into future races. I learned about on-the-go bike fixes and gained practice staying calm when things felt disastrous, which, as it turns out, is important.

I’m now in the middle of my 2019 race season, and haven’t forgotten last year’s lessons. I’ve had a few explosive, unprecedented results so far this year, so I know I’ve internalized at least some of what I learned. Each setback has poured a bit more fuel on the fire, and I’m back, mentally and physically tougher than ever.

I’ve heard so many times that we can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react. I’m choosing to learn whenever I can.

Years of riding bikes has shown me the value in doing things that are difficult. The most fun trails are usually the ones I’m good at riding, so I make myself ride the ones I don’t enjoy. I look for technical climbs, off-camber corners and tight switchbacks, which I would love to avoid. And these days, I can think of a few trails I used to hate that I now find satisfying.

Riding bikes is hard. Crashing out of a race sucks. Mechanical problems also suck. Both at once… well, you get the idea, but that’s mountain biking sometimes, and life. We are all doing the best we can with what we know.

So, my advice to anyone reading: Learn to love struggling. Do the things that are hard, especially when you don’t want to. If a ride or race falls apart, find the lesson and keep moving. You’ll prove to yourself, over and over, that you can survive.

 

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