Don’t ask professional mountaineer, North Face Global Team member and Telluride mom Hilaree O’Neill how accomplished (and rad) a mountaineer she is. She won’t tell you. Even after her most recent feat.
On May 25, at around 5 a.m. Nepalese time, O’Neill summitted Mount Everest (elevation 8850 meters) as a member of The North Face and National Geographic Everest Expedition 2012. But that isn’t the impressive part.
After summitting Everest, instead of returning to Camp 2 (6500 meters) or Base Camp (5400 meters) to recover, she descended to Camp 4 (7926 meters) to rest with teammate Kris Erickson for just over 12 hours. At 10:30 that same night, O’Neill and Erickson suited back up – this time to climb nearby Lhotse (8516 meters). They left Camp 4 early the next morning – around 1:30 a.m. – and, according to O’Neill, reached the summit of Lhotse in about three hours.
In a 24-hour period, the two successfully summitted two 8,000-meter peaks.
O’Neill is rumored to be the first woman to pull off these two peaks in that timeframe – an accolade she cannot confirm, and doesn’t seem to be concerned about.
O’Neill was in the Himalayas as one of six North Face athletes as part of National Geographic’s Everest Expedition 2012, an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first American summit of the world’s highest mountain. The trip was sponsored by National Geographic and The North Face, with collaboration from Montana State University and the Mayo Clinic, and included mountaineers, writers, medical researchers, geology professors, and live feeds from base camp.
According to O’Neill, between the Mayo Clinic scientists and media, there was a lot going on Base Camp to provide welcome distractions from the waiting – the part of mountaineering she claims is the hardest. And this year, because of high winds (on Everest this means winds of over 100 mph) and drier-than-normal conditions, there was a lot of waiting.
O’Neill arrived at Base Camp on April 10. It wasn’t until 45 days later that her opportunity to summit arrived. For the rest of her team, the wait was longer – 54 days. Because she is the mother of two young boys, and because the expedition would take so long, O’Neill arrived after the rest of the group.
“Our plan was to get there early and give ourselves time for this late summit,” she said. “But the vision was to get an early summit. In the last few years there were summit windows on May 5, and in the second week of May – like the tenth to the fourteenth.”
On Everest, the winds persisted and the summit windows came later than normal.
“The jetstream wouldn’t move off the summit,” O’Neill said. “There were winds of 100 miles an hour plus. It sounds like a fricking freight train over your tent; it’s one of most disturbing sounds I’ve heard – that jetstream charging over your tent.”
While on the mountain, O’Neill and her team used the time to acclimatize by progressively making trips up to the higher camps. During their first rotation up the mountain they climbed to Camp 2 (6500 meters); the second and third to Camp 3 (7400 meters); and then during their fourth rotation they made their summit bid.
On May 24, at around 9 p.m., the team consisting of North Face Team members Kris Erickson, Sam Elias, Emily Harrington and O’Neill left Camp 4 for the summit. Conrad Anker, who was also a part of the team and originally slated to climb a western route called the Hornbein Route, opted to stay at Camp 4.
In her blog, O’Neill wrote, “From the minute I left the tent, I just knew it was going to be a constant struggle. I put my crampons on wrong and within minutes of leaving camp, one fell off and then the other. I missed the start of the fixed ropes and ended up scrambling on blue ice trying to find them. I couldn’t get my oxygen mask to fit well and it kept fogging up my goggles which then iced over. The weather was not what it was supposed to be, the wind was blowing a steady 20 mph and when we left the tent, the temperature was already -28 degrees Celsius, way too cold.”
In retrospect, O’Neill believes she fumbled because she was a scared – not of the climbing in front of her, but of the crowds. She explained that this year the crowds were particularly bad because there simply weren’t as many summit windows as in years past. For the most part, she explained, the majority of western climbers, of which she estimated there were 300, plus another 300 Sherpas, had to summit on one of three days – the May 19, 25 or 26.
O’Neill and her team had already bypassed trying for the summit on May 19 – the day on which four climbers died – because of the anticipated crowds. She was disheartened on May 25, when the mountain was still apparently crowded with climbers.
“The crowds force you to climb at a pace you don’t want to climb at,” O’Neill said. “It’s way too slow to where you are like freezing, then you have to run past like ten people at a time. Then you’re dying [from the effort] – you have no control of your pace.”
O’Neill and her team had hoped to leave Camp 4 for the summit late enough to give the crowds enough space, so as to not catch up with them too quickly, but early enough to give themselves enough time to summit and descend. Within an hour of climbing, they had already caught up with the earlier groups, and found themselves in a line of climbers.
“I was terrified the morning we left,” O’Neill said. “I thought we left too early; it was anywhere between 30 to 50 below with wind chill and we had to step over three bodies of people who had died days earlier.”
Additionally, the dry conditions of the mountain made it more challenging for most; instead of walking on snow with their crampons for the majority of the climb, there was more rock exposure than usual. Climbing on rock with crampons is difficult for climbers who are untrained, which applies to many attempting to climb Everest. And when one person moves slowly, it causes backups.
On the descent, O’Neill recalls waiting at the climb’s most technical part, the Hilary Step, for an hour.
“At the end of the hour, there were 60 people waiting to get down, one at time,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill explained that this is where the danger lies – in exposure. Folks can literally freeze to death as they wait in lines, and/or run out of oxygen and die from exhaustion.
“I underestimated what an obsession it is for people, who may have never climbed anything in their lives, to climb Everest,” she said. “People are obsessed with it. They put in a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of sacrifice. They make bad decisions.”
This year, 10 climbers died attempting Everest; 240 summitted.
But even with the waiting and the crowds, O’Neill is grateful she got to summit. “I finally got to go to Khumbu, to see all the mountains I’ve heard about my entire climbing career. To stand on the summit of Everest you’re looking at Cho Oyu, Kangchenjunga, Manaslu. You can see curvature of earth; it’s amazing.”
The highlight for O’Neill, however, was to turn around and attempt Lhotse, literally 12 hours after getting down from Everest.
“It made Everest better,” O’Neill said. “I was depressed after; it was not my thing. The weather was so cold – Oh my God – it was so cold and I was beat up after.”
In fact, O’Neill was coughing up blood for a few hours at Camp 4 as she rested. But as she waited, the wind died, the weather warmed and according to her, “It was one of those days in the mountains; you don’t want to talk about too much so as not to jinx it.”
As Erickson and O’Neill readied for Lhotse, Anker, waiting (for more than 32 hours) at Camp 4 since the team left for Everest, felt good enough to summit, without oxygen.
“Conrad stayed at Camp 4 without oxygen from 1p.m. on the 24th until 1 a.m. on the 26th,” O’Neill recalled incredulously. “Camp 4 is at 7950 meters, which is basically the summit of most 8000 meter peaks. He just hung out there for 32 hours without oxygen, [and] then climbed Everest without oxygen.”
Using oxygen while climbing Everest, and other 8000-meter peaks, has been a source of controversy in the mountaineering world. According to a National Geographic blog, To Os or Not to Os, famed Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner notoriously said that “climbing Everest with oxygen is like climbing a 6,000-meter peak, not an 8,000-meter peak.”
Although O’Neill would have preferred to have climbed without oxygen, given the conditions, she chose to use it.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal [to use oxygen or not],” O’Neill said, “but for me personally, I want to climb without oxygen. Not because I don’t think the mountain should be climbed without O2, but I know my body could do it.”
Tests run by the Mayo Clinic at Base Camp substantiate her claim. O’Neill explained that the Mayo Clinic team didn’t find a lot of differences between the North Face athletes and others, except for in one test measuring lung profusion – the ability transfer gases from your lungs into you blood and muscles, and for your body to then actually use it.
“We’re there [in places like Everest] because our body does good at altitude,” O’Neill said, of the team. “The surface area of our lungs is massive compared to someone who doesn’t do as well at altitude. It’s not so much their volume, but the ability for lungs to profuse the O2, that is in our system.”
Additionally, the Mayo Clinic team found that O’Neill and Erickson were able to recover after increasing their heart rates extremely quickly.
“At Base Camp, when we did VO2 testing, we’d get our heart rate up to 120 [beats per minute]; then, within 10 seconds of rest, it would go down to 60,” she said. “It would drop like a stone.”
Ultimately, O’Neill decided to use oxygen and try for both summits. Back home in Telluride now, with a little distance from the expedition, she feels satisfied with her decision, and extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to summit Lhotse.
“Lhotse has the most amazing view of Everest,” O’Neill said. “We sat down, had a snack and watched the headlamps move up Everest. It was just quiet and cool.”
On Lhotse, she noted, there was just one other group of climbers that day.
While on the expedition, O’Neill garnered a lot of attention, not because she is a talented mountaineer, but because she is a mother – something she believes gives her motivation and a beneficial perspective to her mountaineering pursuits.
“I think my mindset is different [because I’m a mom],” she said. “If I’m taking all of this time away from my family, I want to make the most of it.”
However, in a May 4 Outside Online interview from Base Camp, titled The Mother on the Mountain, readers responded to O’Neill’s choices with a mixture of admiration and harsh criticism.
“Obviously, it’s something that is a topic,” O’Neill said. “There are a million fathers up there – a ton – but not so many moms. It doesn’t affect me when I’m climbing, and it isn’t a big deal amongst my team.”
What’s next? O’Neill sighed and looked at the unpacked boxes from her family’s recent move as she picked Goldfish and Pirate’s Booty out of one of her son’s snack bowls.
“Tomorrow, we leave for Mexico,” she said.
Now all she needs to do is find her swimsuit.