The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt


Athletes & Explorers

May 17, 2018

Johanne Defay: Surfer No. 5

A surfing star from a young age, Johanne had to make some tough life decisions when her main sponsor dropped her.


Supriya Vohra

Now ranked No. 5 in the world, she’s making a steady comeback, despite the brands that think she’s too athletic for a bikini.

Story by Supriya Vohra and images by Armand Dayde. Originally published in The Outdoor Journal print edition, Spring 2017.

Johanne was 19-years-old when she found herself at a crossroads in life. She had already been surfing professionally for nine years when Roxy, her main sponsor, refused to renew her contract. She had to choose if she wanted to continue surfing, or go back to a ‘normal life’ like the rest of her friends.

“I realised that, you are 19-years-old, you have been following something passionately since you were a child. And now you have to make a choice. Do you want to go back to school? Do you really want to keep surfing? Do you not like it? Do you want a normal life with education and a normal job? So a lot of questions just came up and I was like okay, I think I I really want to continue surfing, because it is a really cool opportunity to have right now,” says the French pro-surfer.

Photo © Armand Dayde

How it All Began

Johanne was 20 months old when her parents decided to shift to Réunion Island, a region of France and an island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. “Réunion Island is a little bit like Hawaii, but not so American,” Johanne explains. “You have a nicer cultural mix here. People are from everywhere. It’s been so nice to grow up here.”

“The place is mostly known for its amazing trails for running and hiking in the mountains. Surfing became big only 20 years ago, I think. When my dad used to surf there were only two, three people here. It’s grown like crazy now!” she exclaims.

Her father, a doctor and mother, a nurse, always supported her outdoorsy pursuits. “I tried gymnastics for two years when I was very little. But I didn’t enjoy it much. It’s a very strict discipline and I don’t think I have a personality for it.” Johanne shrugs.

“I still have this image in my mind so clear,” she says when asked about her introduction to the sport. “I remember walking on the beach near our house with my father, and there was a surfing lesson going on, and my dad just asked this guy “Hey so my daughter is interested to learn, how can we go about this?” and poof!, that’s how it all began. I was probably eight years old then, and started going for competitions in two years time,” she says. “I just enjoyed surfing so much, and there was such a good dynamic in Réunion Island. There used to be these weekend competitions, and girls of my age were competing, and I loved taking part in them,” she carries on to explain about her competitions.

Her first big moment arrived when she was 12-years-old, and surf brand Roxy decided to sponsor her. She won a bunch of competitions in Réunion Island that got her a ticket to travel all over France, where she met the main Roxy team. The following year, at the age of 13, she became a pro-surfer and started participating in a number of junior events in Europe. She celebrated her 14th birthday in Hawaii, won her first Junior European Champion Title at the age of 15 (she was the youngest to win at the time) and also participated in her first world championship at 15.

She always managed to be amongst the top surfers in every competition, making it to the semis and the finals every time. Consistency was her best friend.

Training Hard and Winning Big

By the time she turned 19 towards the end of 2012, Roxy, her main sponsor decided not to renew her contract. That’s when Johanne decided she really wanted surfing to be part of her life, and she had to take it very seriously. She made a strategy with her parents.
With their support and a couple of part-time jobs, she decided to focus on her physical training and participate in her last year of the European Junior Tour. She also decided to give herself two years to do the World Qualifying Series (WQS), which, if she performed well would qualify her for the World Championship Tour (WCT), a coveted championship that qualifies only 17 of the top girls in the world.

Joel Hauss, a friend of her father’s, was a coach for triathletes and trained his son for the Olympics. He along with his friend Nicolas Conradi decided to take it upon themselves to train Johanne to become physically superfit. In the spring of 2013, a few months before the WQS began, she began training in earnest. She would have two to four training sessions a day. She would begin her day by going for a run, have breakfast, go surfing, eat, have a nap, go for a bike ride or skate, and towards the end of the day work on crossfit training.

Within a year, in 2013, she won her third and final European Junior Champion title and qualified for the WCT. Earlier this year, she won the Fiji Women’s Pro and is now ranked overall No. 5 amongst the female surfers in the world. She attributes her success to her training regimen, initially handled by Joel and Nicolas, and then Simon Paillard, her boyfriend and current overall coach. A sports journalist and triathlete based in Réunion Island, Simon was introduced to Johanne via Joel, and started off as her mental strength coach. Joel’s busy schedule coaching his son ended up with Simon becoming her overall coach.

“Training is super essential,” says Johanne. “And you know, it is only in the recent years, six or seven years that surfing has been taken seriously. Surfers are now putting more physical training as part of their routine, something that pro surfers with serious career ambitions should do anyway.”

Sponsors and Female Athletes

Her major sponsors currently include SuperDry and GoPro, and she, along with her boyfriend handle all her social media and communications. No surfing brand has sponsored her yet, despite her being ranked among the top ten surfers in the world for the last three years.

Photo © Armand Dayde

“Brands don’t look at female athletes as just athletes. I didn’t have a sponsor for four years, and some girls below my level had some big sponsors being given the money that I would never really get,” she explains quite calmly when asked why surf brands haven’t supported her.

“I think as a woman surfer you are judged more than on just the way you are doing your sport. I think brands sometimes get lost about what they want. Do they want just to sell something, are they just looking for perfect bodies in beautiful places or do they want athletes? And I don’t think they get as lost for boys,” she says.

“Girls get less pay than boys anyway. And I just feel being judged on something else apart from surfing is not good. And I feel it is kind of tricky, and surfing is a lifestyle, and has not been treated professionally,” she shrugs.

These views may soon change, as the Olympics committee has officially declared that surfing will be included as a sport in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. When asked if she has Olympic dreams, Johanne’s face lights up. “Yes of course! I would love to compete in the Olympics in 2020! I am just waiting for them to decide the selection process for it,” she says.

She recently completed the Women’s Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour at Maui, Hawaii, finishing the year as the 5th best female surfer in the world.

Photo © Armand Dayde

“The best days are those when the weather is perfect and you get to ride the wave. I’m very lucky and happy to have that all the time,” she signs off with a smile.

Update: At the time of online publishing, May 11, 2018, Johanne Defay’s world ranking is listed at #7.

Feature Image © Armand Dayde

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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.



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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