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What Happened to Legendary Mountaineers Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson?
It's a story of unimaginable tragedy and eternal love.
When I travel to new places, I always look at the tourists and wonder about their reasons for being there. Sometimes, it’s simple — a bachelorette party, a friend’s birthday, a retreat. And other times, it’s much more nebulous. It’s self-discovery. An attempt to escape reality. A search for something that’s missing.
Three years ago, I went skiing in Lake Tahoe with some really good friends. (They skied ... I, on the other hand, ended up scared out of my mind at the top of a mountain frantically trying to figure out how I would get down because my two-hour lesson didn’t sufficiently prepare me for this course.) I saw people flying down the slopes, and I couldn’t help but think, “Why on God’s green earth would humans travel so far to voluntarily throw themselves off mountains?”
All of that was put into serious perspective after I read a must-read profile titled, Love and Lhotse. I understood that sometimes people do things for reasons nearly impossible to articulate.
For Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison, for example, skiing wasn’t a choice. It was the only option. In 2018, they made history after completing the first ski descent of the 27,940-foot Lhotse, the fourth-highest mountain in the world.
But what’s even crazier than the feat itself is the why behind it. Jim lost his family in a tragic, unexpected accident, and for him, there’s no return to normal. His wife and two children died in an airplane crash in 2011. He may spend the rest of his life trying to fill some void in hopes of creating permanence in an impermanent world. But what he’s truly searching for is a small semblance of peace.
And for Jim, that peace is found only in the mountains — even in the face of unimaginable risk, failure, and a probable death. The best way forward, he says, is to “find calm in the suffering.”
Four days after the crash, he said this at the funeral: “I don’t really have a purpose anymore. I can either take my own life or I can live life in their honor. I don’t think the first will make them proud of me. So I’ve decided to do the second.”
Jim realized that as long as he kept moving, he found, he could cope. In 2013, he climbed Ama Dablam in Nepal. Two years later he signed on with a group to try the first ski descent of Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world.
That’s where he met fellow climber Hilaree Nelson. A deep friendship formed thanks to his openness about the accident and her warmth and willingness to listen. In 2017, the two became a couple and embarked on bigger and more daring adventures together — eventually making history after they descended Lhotse.
Together, they were unstoppable, becoming two of the world’s very best mountaineers. Hilaree became widely regarded as the most prolific ski mountaineer of her generation. She was the first female to link two 8000m peaks, Everest and Lhotse, in one 24-hour push. She was also the first female captain of the North Face athlete team. Most importantly, she was a mother to two sons, who both compete in alpine racing.
Yesterday, I began thinking about Jim and Hilaree and wondering what they were up to since I read their profile in 2020. When I typed “Hilaree Nelson” into Google, the first result to pop up was a New York Times article from September 2022 titled, “Hilaree Nelson, 49, a Top Ski Mountaineer, Is Dead in Avalanche.”
I froze. Surely, this couldn’t be right.
But it was true. Hilaree had died in an avalanche while skiing from the Himalayan summit of Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain. What’s even worse is that Jim was skiing alongside her that day. I felt shivers down my spine as I read this part of the article:
Ms. Nelson was soon swept from her feet by a small avalanche. Mr. Morrison was not caught by the growing slide, but he was helpless as he watched Ms. Nelson disappear down the mountain.
Twelve years after losing his family, Jim is now grieving the loss of his life partner Hilaree.
He wrote on Instagram: “I’m on a lifelong journey to work through the pain of losing these incredible people in my life.”
In another post, he posted a quote by spiritual leader Sogyal Rinpoche: “The realization of impermanence is paradoxically the only thing we can hold on to, perhaps our only lasting possession. It is like the sky, or the earth. No matter how much everything around us may change or collapse, they endure.”
I’ll leave you with this beautiful mini-documentary of Jim and Hilaree’s Lhotse expedition here: