An Interview with Hilaree O’Neill
Editor: Thank you for sharing some of your time with us, Hilaree! It is such an honor for us, we do appreciate it.
First of all, congratulations to you for being included in Women’s Adventure Magazine’s Most Inspiring Adventure Women of 2014! That is absolutely fabulous!
Hilaree O’Neill: Thanks Vera, it was a pretty cool surprise. I had a crazy, hectic and really fun year between traveling to Tanzania and climbing Kilimanjaro with my husband and kids, a ski trip to Greenland with Sherpa Cinemas and, finally, the ultimate suffer-fest adventure with Emily Harrington in Myanmar. It’s been a total whirlwind the last 12 months - I barely left my house in December!!
Editor: Your expedition was to exotic Myanmar with Emily Harrington (a fellow winner of the award), and we’re so very proud of both of you. But it seems that it was a really hard and difficult adventure as well.
Looking back, what are your personal thoughts on it?
Hilaree O’Neill: I think I am coming to terms with the fact that, ultimately, the trip was unsuccessful in that we didn’t reach the summit of Hkakabo Razi. I put a lot of heart and soul into the Myanmar expedition and every one of us on that trip had to dig so damn deep to make it through- it was an experience that definitely left a mark, for better and for worse.
But the mountain isn’t going anywhere, it will be there for another day. What I really came away with was an experience, an adventure, that brought me back to my roots, to my early days of trips to unknown regions and unclimbed peaks; Mongolia, India, the Kamchatka Peninsula and Baffin Island. We had a lot of difficult logistical and team dynamics but everyone came home in one piece and I was privileged to see an incredibly remote part of this world.
Editor: You and Emily both took quite a beating physically, clearly this was not for the faint-hearted. The jungle, the insects, the injuries, the climb…wow!
The power and inner strength you displayed is phenomenal, and it certainly shows that when it comes to raw toughness, you are a name that people will not soon forget.
How does it feel to be so strong? I bet you’re an amazing mom, too!
Hilaree O’Neill: I really love (although not always in the moment) pushing myself mentally and physically to the extreme limit but I’ve learned a whole new limit since having kids. Everyday of raising my boys is always a challenge because it’s new territory for both my husband and I and with my job and his job and the amount we both travel our lives are a continual work in progress. But I like it that way. I’ve never been good at sitting still!
In the case of Myanmar, it was completely out of the box for both Emily and I, as well as the rest of the team. Neither of us had spent any time in the jungle and it was the most trying medium I have ever traveled through. As a mountain person, I am used to horizons and open sky and views, none of which existed in the jungle. Instead it was very claustrophobic and oppressive - I felt lost all of the time and not in control and therefore strung out in a way I’ve never really experienced before.
We would hike 15 miles a day and our end point was only 200 feet higher than when we started but we must have done upwards of 4000ft of climbing as the trail careened up and down innumerable steep ravines. We all hoped to feel more in our element once we got to the mountain but Hkakabo was big and mysterious and secretive as well, just like the jungle. I was definitely pulling from reserves I didn’t know I even had.
Editor: How fascinating...talk about rugged! Any plans to go back to Myanmar again someday or are you moving on to more adventures?
Hilaree O’Neill: I’m definitely not ruling it out but, for now, I think I will stick with some mountains that are a little easier to get to!! Being away for 7 weeks is getting harder on my kids too. My older son really missed me and he was sad a lot of the time. I might have to wait to go back to Hkakbo when the family can come with me!!
Editor: That sounds fantastic! Speaking of adventure, your expedition to Greenland was beyond amazing! You, John, Lucas and Ralph were in for quite ride! You were the only woman on that expedition.
You’re a super-talented, powerful skier and only you know what it must have felt like to go down on a mountain that steep.
What was that feeling like?
Hilaree O’Neill: Hah, I was so nervous about Greenland. Not only was I the only woman but I was kind of a lot older than the rest of the guys in the group, all of whom are at the top of their game in skiing and snowboarding. I was the seasoned expedition member, not the one throwing back-flips off the lips of massive crevasses so, even though I knew all the guys pretty well, I was totally intimidated.
I wasn’t prepared for how steep the ski lines were going to be - most of the ascents were two ice axes on bullet proof snow and ice. In the end, though, I like that kind of calculated skiing. I wasn’t ripping the lines like Johnny, Lucas and Ralph but I was having a ton of fun and that kind of no-fall-or-you-die skiing really makes me dig deep.
Editor: What about that fog? It nearly made you guys wonder what’s going on…when you’ve put so much planning into something and those glitches get in the way, it makes the true athlete depend on their maturity and patience.
You guys had to be really patient with Mother Nature, eh?
Hilaree O’Neill: I was probably the most accustomed to dealing with hiccups from mother Nature and how much she can put a wrench in the best laid plans. We were trying to make the most of it but the fog, combined with the really poor skiing conditions put a dent in all of our spirits.
But Mother Nature has a funny way of surprising you even in the worst of times. There was a day when Johnny and I just kept climbing higher and higher trying to get above the fog. The result was one of the most magical afternoon/evenings I’ve ever had. Eventually the whole group joined us and we all skied the best snow of the whole trip above a sea of clouds with all these jagged summits floating all around us.
Of course, that far north the sunsets last for hours so we stayed above the clouds as long as we could. The hardest part of the day was knowing we would have to descend back into the pea soup fog!
Editor: That sounds simply beautiful! How old were you when you fell in love with skiing?
Hilaree O’Neill: Wow, really young! It probably wasn’t until I started high school, though, that I really had to work to keep it a part of my life. I was really into basketball and our coach forbid any other sports during winter. In order to keep skiing I had to start teaching up at Steven’s Pass so that I could claim skiing was an income generating job. I was allowed to go up on Sundays and teach little kids all through high school and that was it for skiing for me, apart from X-mas vacations. When high school ended I quit basketball and my whole life became all about the mountains.
I think about that time of my life a lot these days. With our boys, skiing is so accessible and second nature for them. We live only a few blocks from the lifts and I can only hope that they will love the sport as much as their mom and dad.
Editor: I'm pretty sure, they're going to make you super-proud some day soon! Where were you when you saw skiing for the first time?
Hilaree O’Neill: I was little, 3 years old so I can’t say I remember it that well. I vaguely recall being on the bunny slope at Stevens Pass, in Washington, with my mom, older brother and sister. It was sunny and the chairlift was pink and I freaking loved it!
Editor: Who were your skiing mentors and what were the profound lessons you learned from them, that your fans can learn, too?
Hilaree O’Neill: My biggest skiing mentors came into my life during this same time period, age 6-14. My sister and my main coaches, Brian Hearst and RJ Nichoalds, taught me not only to see skiing as a lifestyle versus a sport, but also engrained in me that to be good, it took hard work. I was always the only girl skiing with the boys and Brian Hearst, especially, always treated me equally and expected the same level of skill and daring that he did from the other kids. I’m so grateful to all of them because it set me up for the life I live now and the life I want for our kids.
Editor: Great teachers and great lessons, indeed. What are your all-time favorite skiing locations?
Hilaree O’Neill: Stevens pass, WA; Telluride, CO; Grand Montets in Chamonix, France
Editor: What are your thoughts on the preservation of nature and climate change?
I ask because it directly affects the sport of skiing and snowboarding.
Hilaree O’Neill: Interestingly enough I am sitting in my office looking outside as snow melts and drips off my roof. I live in Telluride at nearly 9000ft and we are supposed to have a high of 57 degrees today- in January. I find it terribly depressing at times, actually. With the traveling I do, especially to the extremes latitudes and extreme elevations, the effects of climate change are the most dramatic. These places are the worlds’ watersheds and they are disappearing.
I really respect Jeremy Jones and the work he’s done with Protect Our Winters to get into the school systems and work to educate the younger generations because awareness is the first step to changing our bad habits. Maybe if parents hear it from their kids, people will make changes in their lives. It’s just that it’s going to be a very long and difficult road.
Editor: What is it like to be one of the world’s best athletes as well as a mom who is so beloved by her children?
Hilaree O’Neill: You are too kind! Well, sometimes I really wish I had chosen to be a tennis player or a surfer, or maybe I should’ve stuck with basketball! I love what I do so much but it is very hard to have the long weeks away from my kids. And talk about gear intensive. Holy smokes. I love showing up at the airport, ready for 40 hours of travel because I’m headed to the middle of China or something, and I’m checking in with 15 massive duffel bags. Is there any other sport like that!?!?!?
I guess the upside to being a mountaineer is that I am still doing it professionally at the age of 42 and, especially with high altitude stuff, I feel like I’m still getting better and stronger. Although these days I’m not the off-the-couch athlete I used to be. I am recently discovering the inside of the local gym and the benefits of working with a trainer.
The kids are incredibly tolerant of my profession but I’d be naïve to say it’s not hard on them. Brian and I both love to travel so I am hoping in the future to take the whole family on some good adventures. In 2014, we all went to Tanzania and both the kids walked 2/3rds of the way up Kilimanjaro. In the summer, we spent a few weeks traveling around Costa Rica and I hope to go to Nepal with everyone this coming fall.
Editor: How do you find the balance to do both things well? You’re a role model to so many moms.
Hilaree O’Neill: Balance is a tricky word - It’s more like my husband and I are standing on opposite ends of a see-saw and as soon as we get ourselves properly weighted, one of us coughs or scratches an itch and the whole thing falls apart. Then we start over again.
The thing I find about raising kids is that it constantly changes and one of the few things that keeps the insanity from going totally richter is routine. Obviously, with my job and my time away it is very difficult to maintain a routine. I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is that if it’s worth it, it usually takes a lot of really hard work. But there are times when I feel like I’m spread too thin and my marriage, job and kids suffer for it.
Editor: That's understandable, but I'm sure you know how to keep things secure and together.
What is the one thing your fans would love to know about you, but don’t.
Hilaree O’Neill: I love down days. I grew up in Seattle and was accustomed to the days inside while it poured rain outside. Now, in Colorado, it’s harder to justify the lazy couch day when it’s sunny all the time. But, nevertheless, I like to sneak them in, with the boys if I can. We watch silly movies and eat popcorn…
Editor: Sounds like fun! Let’s talk music and books…when you have time, what kind of books do you read and what kind of music do you love?
Hilaree O’Neill: I really love books and music. That is one great thing about big expeditions is there is down time and during that time I can read and read and read. I typically have a pretty hard time falling asleep without reading a few chapters in a book. My favorite books from growing up are Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. On my nightstand right now, I have Coco Chanel, Mr. Pembrookes 24 hr Book Store, This is Where I leave You and Heart of the Sea. Pretty random. My favorite radio stations are Alt Nation, Spectrum and Classic Vinyl on Sirius.
Editor: Cool choices. Do you enjoy watching movies? Any favorites?
Hilaree O’Neill: I do like watching movies. I really get into the Action/Adventure genre and I love kids movies - Despicable Me, Monsters Inc, How to Train Your Dragon. I also like movies about traveling - surprise surprise.
Editor: What did you think of Valley Uprising?
Hilaree O’Neill: I’ve only seen it once, when it premiered at the Outdoor Retailer Show this past summer. I enjoyed the film a lot. The amount of research and collaboration that went into its production was impressive. There was so much history that it had to be very hard for those guys to streamline the film and keep it at feature length.
Editor: Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Hilaree…we are so glad to have had the chance to speak to you, and hope to catch up with you again with another interview soon.
Hilaree O’Neill: Thanks Vera, it’s great to be a part of your online magazine.
I’ve read so many of your recent interviews and am just psyched to be a part of such a cool publication.
Editor: The pleasure is entirely mine. Thank you!
Interview conducted by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Editor of the Facebook Page: 'An Interview With'.
Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
Interview © Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Photo Credits: Emily Harrington and Adam Clark, images used with Hilaree's written permission.
Facebook Page: Hilaree O'Neill
Climbed Everest and Lhotse, May 2012: First Female Link of Everest and Lhotse Summits in 24 Hours
Ski Exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, May 2010
Attempted ski descent of Gasherbrum II, Pakistan, turned around at 7500m, June 2008
Ski exploration in Prince William Sound, Alaska, April 2007
Climbed and skied several peaks throughout Bolivia, Spring 2006
Skied from the summit of Cho Oyu in Nepal
Kamchatka, Russia: exploring the region via helicopter and ski touring
Cerro Mercedario Ski Expedition: first ski descent of the south face of Mercedario, from 19,500 feet, Los Andes, Argentina
Mongolian Altai Women’s Expedition: first ski descent of all five of the “Holy Peaks” of the Mongolian Altai
South Georgia Island Ski and Snowboard Expedition: first ski descent of Mt. Norman
Mt. Waddington Ski Expedition: first female descent of the northwest summit of Waddington and Combatant Couloir
Hannuman Tibba Women’s Expedition: first ski descent of RFHP, a 2,500-meter couloir in the Himachal Pradesh region of India
Aconcagua Ski Expedition: summited via Polish Glacier Direct in Los Andes, Argentina
Kamchatka Women’s Ski Expedition: first ski descent of Mt. Udina and Mt. Zimina, as well as the first female ski descent of Mt. Tolbachik
Lebanon Ski Expedition: ski descent Qornet as-Sawda, 3,090 meters: traverse of the Mt. Lebanon Range
The Monta Rosa via Grenz Glacier from Switzerland into Italy, ski descent of the Marinelli Couloir, longest couloir in the Alps
Buck Mountain: first female ski descent of Bubble Fun Couloir, The Tetons, Wyoming
1996 European Women’s Extreme Skiing Champion, Chamonix, France
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On the Cover:
Honored In Women’s Adventure Magazine’s
Most Inspiring Adventure Women of 2014
Cover Date: February 2nd, 2015