The Mother on the Mountain: Hilaree O'Neill, Live From Everest Base Camp
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.
Is this your longest trip away from your kids?
Yeah. When my first son was 10 months old, I went to Pakistan for eight weeks, but since having two, this is the longest. I really just go on one long expedition a year. Last year I was on Denali for three weeks. This one is 10 weeks, which is off the charts.
How do you make the decision to be gone for so long?
It’s hard because there’s so much guilt. I almost want to keep it a secret that I’m gone for so long. I’m so afraid of getting such backlash for it. But that hasn’t been the case at all. Everybody who knows I’m doing it has been so supportive. My first reaction when I heard about the opportunity to go to Everest was that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, that it was too long and it would be impossible for me mentally and from a family standpoint. But the shocking part of it was, I kept it secret for a couple weeks, and then when I finally told my husband, he was like, “You have to go.”
So then you started coming around?
Yeah, it was maybe four months’ notice, so I had that time to come around to it. Leading up to it was so stressful. I felt like I was totally useless as a mom because I was so stressed about leaving. On my shorter trips, I could leave and have everything set up everyday, from preschool to babysitters, but when it’s two months, it’s impossible. You just can’t organize that much time. It was a total whirlwind, but once I get on the plane, I’m OK.
How do you prep your kids for your absence?
That’s the challenging part. My two-year-old doesn’t understand. For him when I left, it was the same as if I were leaving to go out for dinner. He just knew he was being left with someone other than me and he was pissed and bummed. But at the same time, now he’s totally fine because he doesn’t have that concept of time. The older one—it’s harder. He kind of gets it. I was trying to show him on the globe where I was going, how far away I was going. As soon as I started packing, he was pulling things out of my bag and hiding them. I’m missing a few things, but nothing crucial, which is cool [laughs].
Does he understand what you do?
He doesn’t. He just thinks, Oh, Mom’s going to climb a mountain. One time I went to Alaska, so every time I leave he says, Oh Mom is going to Alaska. That’s what Mom does. She goes to Alaska. It’s pretty funny.
Do you climb and ski with your kids?
I take them climbing, but it’s more like roll around in the dirt and get your rope tied up in knots. This year I skied with them a ton because the skiing was so bad. My four-year-old got 40 days on his ski pass, which is pretty funny. Everyone was asking me how I was training for Everest and I was like, well I take them skiing and the four-year-old skis and I just carry the two-year-old everywhere all over the mountain, and he’s kicking me with his skis and covering my eyes with his hands and punching me. It’s pretty good training carrying 35 pounds of moving, kicking weight for two hours, especially when he’s got his skis and boots on. [Laughter.] Yup, that’s my training.
How do you deal with the risks of high-altitude climbing, and the possibility of the worst happening?
I wish I had a succinct answer for that, but I don’t. A big draw for this trip was the team. It’s people I trust implicitly, and that’s a huge part of the decision to do a trip or not. Obviously trying to ski Everest is risky, but I feel like so much of it is what I’ve done for so long, and it’s such a part of me. But then that’s kind of a cop-out because you’re walking through an ice fall, where you have no control if a serac falls on you or not. Because I have kids, I have an increased clarity and focus that I actually think it makes me a better climber. Because I know the risks I’m taking and I know that I better pay really fricking good attention or I’ll make a mistake. It’s not infallible by any means. I can’t live without that adrenaline rush and intensity I get from scary situations.
How do you keep in touch with your family while you’re gone?
This is another factor. I’m calling you on a cell phone from Everest Base Camp, so I can call them everyday, which is huge. Last spring I did a trip to Denali that was three weeks and I only got to call home once, and it was really difficult. Here I’m calling them every three days. When I’m up on the mountain, I’ll call them once on the sat phone. Even so, they’re so young, it’s hard to have a conversation with them.
What do you miss the most?
Oh, I just miss them. The first few weeks have been fine. We’re kind of getting into the mid-expedition lull when the morale dips, and we’re not busy on the mountain. When it’s busy, I’m fine. I miss putting them to bed, and being at the park and watching them run around. My husband just took Quinn to his kindergarten registration, and I miss that. And I’m going to miss his preschool graduation. My younger son is going to turn three on the 21st of May, which I’m going to miss, which is gnarly. There’s no doubt that in the life I’ve chosen, I miss a lot of shit. It’s a bummer.
Do you think there’s still a double standard for women adventure athletes in high-risk expeditions and sports?
That’s the funny part. There’s maybe 600 people climbing here, and I bet I’m one of the only mothers. Maybe 75 percent of our team has kids; a lot of mountaineers are older, late 30s and 40s, so many of the men here have kids and family at home. I don’t think the double standard comes from the public anymore as much as it comes from the mothers themselves. I don’t know how to explain it. I mean this in a good way. It’s really hard to leave your kids for 10 weeks, and it’s really hard not to impose guilt on yourself. The thing that’s been shocking for me is that I haven’t had any negative feedback doing what I’m doing. Of course if I went and got myself killed, it might be a different story.
I'm thinking of when Alison Hargreaves died on K2 [in 1995], she left behind two kids, and she got a lot of flak.
Yeah, what was that, 15 years ago? I really honestly think things have changed since then. Just based on how much support I’ve gotten.
You’ve said that expeditions are easier than raising kids. Does that go for spending 10 weeks on Everest?
You know, now that I’ve been here for five weeks and I’m living through it, the expedition and climbing is harder because I have kids. Just because I miss them, and I have that heart tug for them, so it makes it a little harder to enjoy the downtime and really focus on being in the present. This year in particular, the conditions on Everest are incredibly difficult. The Lhotse Face is 5,000 feet of blue ice. There’s rock fall, and all these crazy objective hazards that aren’t normally as bad as they are this year. There was a huge avalanche on Nuptse that should have killed 20 people but didn’t. It’s really intense.
So what does that mean for your summit window and your plans to ski off the south side?
Right now there’s no chance of skiing off it. My skis are at Camp 2 and are probably going to stay there. Basically even the climbing is compromised unless we get some snow because the rock fall is so tremendous right now. We have a strong team of ice climbers, so the ice itself is no problem. It’s just the stuff we can’t control. Right now we’re all ready. We’re acclimatized and ready to go for the summit, but we’re probably going to pull back and maybe even go down to the forest and hang out for a few days and push our summit window back until the third week of May. We’ve been at Base Camp so long, and the morale’s kind of dipping, and you just need a change of scenery. And it’d be nice to just walk for a long time and maybe get some thicker air. Even though we’re so well acclimatized to 17,000 feet, your muscles just don’t recoup. Everybody’s got the Khumbu cough, so we’re just trying to buy ourselves some patience and time and that might come in the form of moving a little bit.
So you could go now but are choosing not to?
We’re on the South Col route, so they fix lines all the way to the summit, and right now it’s only fixed maybe halfway, so there just hasn’t been a weather window to allow the fixing to get finished. The mountain’s not even ready to see any climbers. If it doesn’t change, maybe we’ll climb it alpine style without the ropes, but that’s totally another road.
How are you staying sane with all this downtime at Base Camp?
That’s a good question. Like I said, having a lot of downtime makes the whole kid/family thing so much harder, so Base Camp right now is kind of interesting because we have the whole Mayo Clinic here, so we’ve been doing tons of studies. They have $400,000 in equipment in The North Face domes, and we’re doing lung tests and ultrasounds and weighing ourselves. Yesterday we went running through the moraine to test respiration, and today we’re gong to go ice climbing. It’s pretty cool actually. I think I would be puling my hair out if we didn’t have this amazing physiology research going on.
Sounds like Everest's gone high-tech.
I’ve got music on my iPhone and movies on my iPad, and I’ve been writing a blog and playing with photos, so that’s entertaining, too. It’s crazy digital up here. I have my iPad charging from a solar panel right now. Everybody’s on their computers and Instagramming.
Can you get Pandora up there?
No. Well, you probably could, but it would cost an arm and a leg. [Laughter.] We’ve been here two weeks, and we’ve used $6,000 worth of Internet. Before we left we designated one of the guys on the team, Phil Henderson [field director for the National Outdoor Leadership School], to really dial in the music. So we’ve had some amazing tunes the whole time.
What are you listening to?
He’s got this Kenyan soul-rap stuff that’s been amazing. I wish I knew the name of it, it’s unbelievable.
How’s everyone’s health, after Cory’s scare with altitude sickness?
We’re all doing good. The whole Cory thing is a total bummer. I just miss him being here because he was a great source of entertainment and humor. It sucks that it’s this trip, but it happens to all of us. Especially the route he was trying to take on, whenever you’re dealing with heart and lungs at altitude, it’s super scary. And it if happened again ... it’s just not a risk worth taking. And he’s young. He’ll be back here again. The trip I went on to Pakistan, we didn’t summit. We had to turn around. We just had really bad weather. For me, I was taking eight weeks away from my son, in Pakistan, and probably won’t ever get back there again, and you know, it just didn’t work out. It was heartbreaking.
Is there a chance that the weather just won’t cooperate and there’s not going to be a window for a big summit push?
Of course there’s always that chance, but we have time on our side. We just have to be able to be patient, which is harder than it sounds. Of course there’s that chance, but I think we all have faith that it’ll come around eventually.
Thanks, Hilaree. Stay safe up there.