High-altitude alpinist Hilaree O’Neill is unlike most of her fellow climbers hunkered down at Everest Base Camp this week, waiting for a weather window to make their summit push. For starters, she came prepared to ski off the South Col. And out of some 600 alpinists vying for the top this season, she is one of the only mothers on the mountain.
O’Neill, 39, is a member of The North Face/National Geographic team that’s attempting the Southeast Ridge. (Expedition leader Conrad Anker also plans to try the West Ridge route, to recreate the 1963 first American ascent of the peak; his partner on that route, alpinist and National Geographic photographer Cory Richards, had to be evacuated last week after suffering from altitude sickness at Camp II, and Anker’s West Ridge plans remain in flux.) A veteran ski mountaineer, she’s managed to juggle a full expedition schedule—including ski descents of Denali and Cho Oyu—while raising two young sons, four-year-old Quinn and two-year-old Grayden, at home in Telluride.
I talked to Hilaree by cell phone from Base Camp at 17,000 feet last night. It was morning on Mount Everest, and she and the rest of her team were gearing up for a day of ice climbing and team strategizing about how and when to go for the top. It’s hard not to get a huge vicarious thrill when your phone rings, and it’s Everest Base Camp calling, especially when the climber on the other end of the phone is willing to dish about finding the balance between motherhood and mountains, the high risks of climbing Everest this season, and her unorthodox approach to training for the top of the world.