Hilaree Nelson talks close calls in Antarctica
Alpenglow Sports Winter Speaker Series event raises over $70K for Boys and Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe
When a climbing group has hundreds of expeditions under its belt, it might suffer from “expert syndrome.”
That’s when the group has plenty of experience, and believes it knows what it’s doing.
“Sometimes that can work against you, right?” said Hilaree Nelson, who spoke Feb. 3 at the Winter Speaker Series hosted by Alpenglow Sports “And maybe even put you in more danger than if you didn’t think you know as much as you knew.”
Nelson is a professional skier who has made many first descents around the globe. The event she spoke at brought in over $70,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe.
Around $10,000 came from raffles and libations, and the remainder came from five anonymous donors who call themselves the “donor party.”
Mindy Carbajal, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe, kicked off the speaker event by giving an update on the local nonprofit.
“In the past year we opened back up our doors and we got kids back in our building, back with our staff — connecting, recreating, engaging in enrichment activities.” Carbajal said.
“When schools were navigating through COVID … we were able to stay open that entire time and help kids, especially kids of essential workers and from really challenging circumstances and support them in distance learning,” she added.
Nelson’s story was entitled “Truth or Consequence,” and was about some close calls Nelson and her partner, Jim Morrison, ran into while skiing in Antarctica in January 2020.
Also in attendance on the trip were climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Garret Madison.
Nelson began by addressing the fact that the season of 2020-21 was one of the deadliest in regards to avalanche incidents in North America, and especially in Colorado where Nelson resides.
The group was expected to climb two peaks in the Ellsworth Mountains — Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica at around 16,000 feet; and Mount Tyree, at around 15,900 feet.
During the trip, Nelson retrieved information from other guides in the Ellsworth Mountains that weather conditions were unusual for that time of year from a warm, wet storm that had blown through the region in November 2019. As a result the guides were seeing things they had never encountered before, including warmer temperatures and more moisture in the atmosphere.
“It left this really crazy hard layer of ice almost on all the mountains,” Nelson said.
As a result of these weather conditions, avalanches began to happen for the first time in 20 years, said Nelson.
Eventually the group began their trek up Mount Vinson early one morning and noticed instability in the snow on their ascent.
The team summited at the top of Vinson around midnight, Nelson said it was below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
After reaching the summit, Nelson and several other members began their descent on skis back to one of the camps.
At the camp the rest of the team broke off to go down a more conventional route without skis.
Nelson and Morrison stayed back to do some route finding, hoping to ski most of the way down back to the base, and chose a slope that turned out to be unstable.
“As soon as I got out there I froze… I just felt every hair on my body stand on end.” Nelson said.
As Morrison made a turn the whole slope fractured, and he traversed left, averting the danger of the avalanche happening just next to him.
Not allowing the avalanche scare to deter them from their goal, the group soon after began their ascent of Mount Tyree.
They found the same hazardous conditions to be present on their ascent.
“As we were approaching… there was a massive settlement, a whump, that was the biggest one I have ever felt in my life. It basically reverberated what felt like about a kilometer out in front our ski tips.” Nelson said.
The group later descended down to base camp when a snowstorm came in which delayed their next ascent.
On the last day the group attempted to do their last ascent of Tyree, camping that night at several thousand feet, when Nelson became ill and made her way back down to high camp. The rest of the group summited and then began their descent.
The group was deciding how it would descend, hoping to ski down. It knew that it would be risky, but was also possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“This would be the run of your life, but you don’t want it to be your last,” Jimmy Chin said. “It’s always hard to call because it’s like you’re here, you’re in Antarctica… the snow conditions look awesome. But if this was at home and you could come back to it, I wouldn’t ski it today. It’s too dangerous.”
Nelson discussed the importance of noticing these red flags and celebrated the fact that the rest of the team had made the responsible and difficult decision to down climb with their skis on their backs, with the exception of Anker ditching his skis on the mountain.
“I would not say we played it safe by any stretch of the imagination. We pushed the envelope as hard as we could and ultimately had good conversations… and were able to come home in one piece,” Nelson said.
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