Hilaree Nelson O’Neill’s obsession with the Peak of Evil began with a photograph given to her by a pilot during her first ever mountaineering expedition. She was 25 years old, in the Himalayas, and it was 1999.
“It was a picture of the most aesthetic, appealing, beautiful, rugged, strong mountain that I'd ever seen,” she says.
Later, Nelson O’Neill discovered that the mountain, located in Himachal Pradesh of northern India, was actually part of a twin summit known by many names. Officially, the dual summits, each over 21,000 feet, were called Dharamsura and Papsura— the Peaks of Good and Evil.
Papsura, the Peak of Evil, with its perfect pyramidal architecture, sharp rocky aretes, and plumb snow-choked couloir bisecting its face, captured her imagination.
“It became something of an obsession,” she says.
Since that serendipitous moment of being given a photo of Papsura, Nelson O’Neill, worked to solidify a reputation as one of the foremost ski mountaineers in the world. Today, she’s a veteran of over 40 expeditions, including a successful one to Everest and Lhotse in 2012 with National Geographic.
“For some strange reason,” says Nelson O’Neil, “after Everest, Papsura just popped back into my head. I couldn’t shake that picture.”
In 2013, with few useful details about the peak and many formidable logistical hurdles involved in accessing the mountain, Nelson O’Neill put together an expedition with six experienced skiers and climbers to attempt to climb and ski Papsura.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t make it very far on the mountain,” she says. “One of our team members got edema and had to be flow out. The mountain wasn’t in shape. It was just too early. It was just kind of a crushing endeavor. It actually began what ended up being a succession of failures in my life. Failed expeditions and a failed marriage.”
Of Peaks and Valleys
In 2014, Nelson O’Neill joined a National Geographic expedition to Myanmar with the goal of climbing Hkakabo Razi, considered to potentially be Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain. Tensions between some of her teammates and another unsuccessful mountaineering trip left Nelson O’Neill feeling lost.
“There have been a lot of times in my life, especially when coming home from Myanmar, when I just never wanted to go outside again, never wanted to engage in relationships, and, I don’t know, I just wanted to be a different person,” she says. “The mountains, I think, are very good at throwing our negativity back at us.”
In 2016, Nelson O’Neill decided she’d instead focus on staying close to home to be with her kids, then ages 6 and 8. She signed up for Ironman triathlons and ran her first ultrarace. She climbed her first big wall. She gave herself space.
Ultimately, she decided she really wanted to go back to try Papsura again. “As much as I wanted to be able to let this mountain go, I just couldn’t. I felt like it was that lifeline pulling me back up and out of the hole I was in.”
Putting It All Together
By 2017, Nelson O’Neill had secured the funding for a return mission to Papsura and convinced two solid partners to join: Chris Figenshau, who was part of the original 2013 Papsura team, and Jim Morrison, a California skier who was now also her boyfriend.
Prior to leaving for India, Nelson O’Neil and Morrison trained together by skiing the dangerous, technical couloirs in the mountains surrounding Telluride. Most years, these lines are too dangerous even to attempt. But with an unusually good snowpack in 2017 and the motivation to train for Papsura, Nelson O’Neill and Morrison managed to ski 14 of Telluride’s most fearsome couloirs in just over two months—by itself a tremendous achievement.
“I really like that technical descending style versus ripping a big Alaska heli-line,” says Nelson O’Neill. “I have much more of a math brain, and my favorite type of skiing combines technical difficulty and route finding. These couloirs all fit into that.”
Then it was off to India. With better planning and logistics, not to mention a gift of good weather and conditions, the trio found themselves standing on the summit of Papsura just 12 days after landing in Delhi.
For Nelson O’Neill, it was the culmination of a dream nearly two decades in the making. But what remained—the ski descent—suddenly seemed more like a nightmare. Beneath them was a 2,000-foot, 60-degree face, covered in ice and under low-visibility conditions.
Methodically, slowly, carefully, however, the trio completed a technical descent on skis.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
“We pushed ourselves really hard, maybe over pushed ourselves in a lot of ways,” says Nelson O’Neill. “It was scary, it was one of the hardest single days I’ve ever had. It was really intense, but it just worked out in the way it can only work out when you have a good team.”
Then, two weeks after returning home from Papsura, instead of going to the beach or taking a break, Nelson O’Neill and Morrison repacked their bags and headed straight to Denali in Alaska. They climbed the Cassin Ridge and skied the Messner face, capping off an impressive, hard-charging hat trick of mountaineering.
“For Hilary and Jim, that stretch of six months was pretty far out there,” says Adrian Ballinger, an Everest mountain guide from California who nominated Nelson O’Neill for Adventurer of the Year. “It just felt like Hilaree, in particular, broke through in 2017.”
Nelson O’Neill has been called the best female ski mountaineer of her generation, but Ballinger states that she might actually just be the best ski mountaineer of her generation, period. “To be a badass mom, in her 40s, skiing this hard, doing trips like this, is really unusual,” he says.
Reflecting on being that 25-year-old first looking at that photo of Papsura, Nelson O’Neill says, “I remember just being in awe of it, and thinking it was so out of my league. And then to have my chance to climb it in 2013 right as my whole personal life was falling part, it became intensely personal. It just came to signify not giving up.
“Now, if I combine everything we did in 2017, it was just the most success I’ve had in the mountains in a half dozen years. I see it as the start of a new relationship—a mending of my relationship with the mountains. Putting it all together felt pretty lucky.”