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They set off for the summit before dawn, steps lit by a waning moon.
Above them loomed the jagged outline of Lhotse, rising 27,940 feet, and, to the north, the shadow of Everest. Below stretched a vast expanse of white—ravines and gullies, frozen rivers of ice—and beyond that Nepal. Somewhere over the horizon lay everything the pair often tried to escape: the cities and highways, the clatter, the dark memories.
They communicated without words, conserving energy, James Morrison in front and Hilaree Nelson a few steps behind. Alpine ski blades framed their packs. They’d need to move fast at the summit; according to Morrison’s calculations, they had 12 hours before weather arrived. If they made it, though—if the chute was passable, if they maintained an elevated pace, if the winds held—they’d have a shot at doing something no human had: summiting and then skiing the Dream Line, a track of snow down the western side of the peak. Among mountaineers, it had become a Holy Grail.
Morrison and Nelson wanted to be the first to descend it, of course, but that was only one of the reasons they had traveled to the other side of the world, assuming risks some peers felt too great.
Their other motives were more elemental. And more complicated.
Neither was really meant for this world, the one of conference calls and Starbucks.
Morrison made his break early. During the 1980s his family enjoyed a pleasant middle-class existence in Walnut Creek, Calif. Jim and his older brother, John, deconstructed cardboard boxes and slid down near-vertical hills at the base of Mount Diablo. At one point Jim tied a rope to the base of a toilet on the second floor of the house, then tossed the other end out the window, trusting it would hold as he rappelled the stucco exterior. It did.
Mountains captivated him. By his senior year in high school Jim had finagled an “independent study” project on the slopes in Tahoe. After trying college—it didn’t take—he began entering extreme skiing competitions, finishing seventh at the 1998 European championships, in Chamonix. He saw a life unfolding: backcountry trips, sponsors, a world devoid of traditional responsibilities.
As for Nelson, she was supposed to be a power forward. Or at least that was her father’s dream. Stan ran the family car dealership in Seattle and filmed all of Hilaree’s games as she led Shorewood High to the state tournament, raging at refs or coaches who didn’t see what he did in his daughter. But at Colorado College, a Division III school, she chose not to play, creating a rift with her father. Instead, she majored in biology, graduated and headed to Europe for five months—which turned into five years. The endurance, wiry strength and body control that had helped her on the court translated to skiing and climbing. Like Jim, she competed in the European championships in Chamonix. In 1996, she took first place. By 1999, The North Face was sponsoring her.
Then, in 2000, she met a real estate agent named Brian O’Neill. The two clicked. She began thinking about a family. A different sort of life.
Thousands of miles away, Morrison entertained similar thoughts. By this point he had earned a reputation for gnarly descents, which gained him sponsors and appearances in ski films.
Then he met Katie Jackson. She had shoulder-length brown hair, intense brown eyes and a no-b.s. way about her. They’d first crossed paths at a Tahoe house party. He was just off crutches after blowing an ACL. She appraised his leg and told him she’d walked on to the Georgetown hoops team. ACLs aren’t so bad, she said, so get off the couch and stop complaining.
Jim had sparred back, as alphas do, launching into a soliloquy on something or other.
“It seems like you have a theory for everything,” Katie interjected. ”So, what’s your theory on love?”
Jim paused. He didn’t have one.
“I think you know within four dates,” she said.
“O.K.,” he replied. “How do I get the first date?”
“This is the first date,” she said.
Jim was floored: “I’m thinking, Holy s—, who is this girl?” He spent the night chasing her around the party. He finally got her number, scrawled on a scrap of cardboard from a Bud 12-pack. He got his second date. Then a third. For that one, Katie flew to Tahoe. She had her private pilot’s license.
In time, she helped teach him to fly. And, when he traveled to Europe for ski competitions, she came along. At one, a sponsor rep noticed the way Jim looked at Katie, then pulled him aside. “What are you doing?” the rep asked. “You know you’re going to have to choose, right?”
So he did. Jim chose Katie. The couple married in 2000 and settled down in Truckee, Calif. Jim started his own home-building company. Katie worked in real estate. In 2004, Wyatt was born, followed 15 months later by Hannah. The family adopted an energetic golden retriever named Cody, who waited in the hallway for the kids to get home every day. Jim became that dad in the polo shirt, belt and khaki shorts. To his surprise, he loved it.
Years passed. His company thrived. Then, in March 2011, Katie flew the plane they had bought—a single-engine Cessna 210—down to L.A. to see a friend, bringing Wyatt and Hannah, now six and five, at the last minute. Jim stayed behind for work. He knew he put in too many hours, but he envisioned scaling back. He told Katie as much on the phone the night of Saturday, March 19, as she packed to return to Truckee the following morning. “I’ve almost got this locked in,” he said.
That night, a storm rolled in, coating the slopes of Tahoe a brilliant white. As Katie and the kids took off, Jim took advantage of an epic powder day.
Three hours into shredding KT, at Squaw, his ski caught on something under the snow. His ankle wrenched sideways. He made it down on one ski, then called Katie. She always knew what to do.
Katie didn’t answer, so he texted. Then texted again. Annoyance turned to worry. It wasn’t like her not to check in. He forgot about the throbbing in his ankle. He got home and checked FlightAware,
which tracks planes by tail number.
The page loaded: a green line originating at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Midway through the route, it just stopped.
Hilaree still isn’t sure what went wrong.
The approach was simple: Gather speed, then cross a short snow bridge over a shallow creek. But her client seemed nervous, so Hilaree hung back.
By now, she had guided for a decade, after moving to Telluride, Colo., with Brian. They’d married and had two kids: Quinn in 2007 and Grayden two years after. Hilaree loved parenting; she also fought to maintain her career. And now here she was, seven months after Grayden’s birth, on her first morning back guiding. It was a routine heli-skiing trip in the Mineral Creek Basin in Colorado: three experienced older men and one of their girlfriends, a 50-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif. They had connected immediately. Hilaree prided herself on helping women to push past fear. So now, as she faced the two-foot-wide stream crossing on a snowboard, Hilaree advised her: Keep up your speed. I’ll be right behind you.
But she came in too slow. Wobbling, she tipped backward, falling though sugar snow, the exceptionally cold, dry powder unique to the region. Her helmet hit the water first and lodged between a rock and the creek bed. By the time Hilaree and another guide got her out, the woman had stopped breathing and had no pulse. San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters deemed it “one of those freak things.”
Her boyfriend—who had been carrying a ring, intending to propose later that day—didn’t blame the guides. “They tried to save her, and I am forever grateful,” he told the Telluride Daily Planet. Hilaree was less forgiving of herself.
Death came with the territory in her line of work. This was different, though. This was Telluride, not Machu Picchu. A two-foot stream jump, not a high-altitude descent. She couldn’t let it go. Guilt. Regret. Then, rage. “I lost my s— for a long time,” she says. Her temper flared. She threw furniture, broke her foot kicking a chair. Panic attacks descended. She took Xanax. Drank too much. Tried EMDR. Swallowed Ambien in hopes of sleep that refused to come. Her marriage began to crumble. She tried a break from climbing and guiding. That only made her feel worse, though. She was adrift, unsure of herself.
For the funeral, Morrison prepared a few words.
“I don’t really have a purpose anymore,” he told mourners four days after the crash. “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.”
In the weeks after, Morrison looped. One moment he’d be doing laundry, the next on the floor, curled up, crying. Walking to the top of the driveway felt like a monumental accomplishment.
He became consumed with figuring out what occurred, badgering the FAA for details and hiring a specialist to use computer modeling to re-create the crash. He persuaded a friend to ride shotgun while he flew a Cessna on the same route. They found the wreck site. It provided certainty, if not closure. The NTSB’s final accident report read, “The investigation was unable to determine the specific reasons for the loss of control and resulting aerodynamic spin.”
Being home only exacerbated his grief. The house felt enormous. Cody stationed himself at the end of the hallway, refusing to budge until his family came home. The dog died a year later. Jim believes he never really recovered.
Morrison tried one therapist, then another, then a life coach. He talked with author Eckhart Tolle, after listening to his book The Power of Now. Tolle told him he didn’t have to “get over” the loss—like a backpack, you put it on and take it with you.
He tried. As long as Morrison 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, near the border of Nepal, China and Tibet. Two of the climbers who made the attempt he knew. The third he had never met, though he remembered her from the podium, years before in Chamonix.
When Nelson arrived for the Makalu expedition, her marriage, career and confidence were all cratering. She hadn’t slept a full night since the guiding accident. A year earlier she had led a team on a failed attempt to become the first to summit and document Hkakabo Razi in Burma, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.
Now she was in Nepal, hoping the trip would provide equilibrium. As they ascended, the quartet spent long days at a series of base camps, adjusting to the altitude. They passed time by playing cards and watching movies. Forced proximity can create friction or fast-track friendships. The latter occurred. One afternoon, while watching Castaway on an iPad inside a tent, Morrison broke down. He saw himself in the film: a man forced to cast away everything from his life, until nothing remained. He thought of Katie, and the kids. He began crying and then talking, telling Nelson—practically a stranger—the story of the accident and the years after. How he blamed himself. How he felt guilty that he was alive. Nelson sat there, she recalls, “trying not to insert myself, just to listen.”
They never made the summit of Makalu, thwarted
by the threat of avalanches. Still, the group made for a good team. At the end of the trip they vowed to reunite for another expedition. Something epic. Something unprecedented.
One peak in particular fascinated them, visible in the distance during their climb: Lhotse.
A year passed. The trip never materialized. Life intervened.
Shortly after Makalu, Nelson’s marriage, long imperiled, ended. It was no time to take on epic adventures. She now split custody. She was entering her 40s with two kids, in a punishing, unstable vocation that required elite fitness.
She decided to take a year off from major trips. To keep in shape, she began running seriously for the first time, finishing an Ironman and an ultramarathon. She climbed her first big wall, found some sort of groove. One morning she awoke and realized she’d slept through the night.
She also kept in touch with Morrison. They made good training partners. Each abided little crap. Each could go all day and still have fuel left in the tank. Each understood and respected risks, and knew loss. Both loved the puzzle of planning a trip. Hilaree also felt drawn to Jim’s confidence and positivity. As she explains: “It sounds simplified, but his thing is, Yes. Yes, we can do that. That’s not something I’d heard a lot in my life, going back to when I was a kid.”
Over time a friendship deepened. They became a couple. In 2017 they headed to the Indian Himalayas to attempt the first ski descent of Papsura, the Peak of Evil. “I’d never gone on a big expedition with a significant other,” she says. “I was afraid he may not see the same thing I saw in this mountain.” Then, when they got high enough to glimpse the summit, Jim stopped and stared, then began to cry. Hilaree felt relief. It felt to her like a watershed moment: “Jim let me have that space where it was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I’m ready.’ He was really supportive in me chasing my dream.”
For Morrison, the trip only fueled his desire. He yearned to go faster. Do more. And he wanted to do it with Hilaree. But she had her kids and her life. Jim? All he had was his business, an empty house and memories. Interactions hadn’t become much easier. Eventually he just came right out with it when people asked if he had kids. I used to but they were killed in a plane crash. That usually ended the conversation.
The only place the world made sense was the mountains. So Morrison headed back, as often as he could. In the spring of 2018 he joined a team climbing Everest. By that point he’d spent decades in the backcountry. Still, he’d never experienced what happened next. As he passed 28,500 feet, some distance ahead of the group, the world narrowed until all that existed was the rasping of his breath and the snow beneath his boots. Then, whether it was hypoxia brought on by the thin air or a combination of exertion, deprivation and adrenaline, his reality began to shift. It was as if, he’d later say, the boundary between the living and the dead became permeable, if only for a moment. In time, he and Nelson would give it a name: the netherworld. For the next 30 minutes—or maybe it was 20, or maybe only five—he felt their presence for the first time since the accident: Katie and Wyatt and Hannah. For years Morrison had longed for that moment, “searched for some sign in my house.” He laughed and cried at the same time.
And then, as quickly as the feeling arrived, it was gone.
Upon returning from Nepal, Morrison needed to head back. Immediately. By now, Nelson was ready. In June 2018 they began talking about Lhotse again. It was not the obvious choice.
Though the fourth-highest peak in the world, Lhotse bears little of the cachet of its neighbor, Everest. Movies are not made about Lhotse. Thrill seekers do not crowd it. Swiss climbers first summited it in 1956, but its middle peak remained the highest unclimbed spot on the planet until 2001. Lhotse holds particular appeal for skiers due to its unusual architecture. Under the right conditions, a thin ribbon of snow traces a jagged line off the peak, curving through a narrow rock chute for 1,500 vertical feet before emptying out onto the 5,000-foot Lhotse Face.
An expedition would require six months of prep and at least five weeks in Nepal, longer than Nelson
had spent away from the kids in three years. Their window would be narrow. Only at the end of
September does a brief moment exist—as few as two days—when the peak can be both snowbound and skiable. It’s impossible to know for sure. The line is only visible from near the summit.
Make the top, and you still must deal with the descent itself. Not only is the couloir 60 degrees but it’s also self-sloughing, meaning avalanches roll down constantly. Still, Nelson had dreamed of it for decades, Morrison since he was a kid. They persuaded The North Face to pony up funding, then lined up photographers, sherpas and a helicopter pilot. By August, they were ready to launch.
The team included Morrison, Nelson and five sherpas—Tashi Sherpa, Ila Sherpa, Urken Sherpa, Fura Sherpa and leader Palden Namgyal Sherpa, who had climbed Everest nine times—as well as two photographers, Nick Kalisz and Dutch Simpson,
neither of whom had been above 21,000 feet.
Weather delayed the start. Then their skis were late arriving. They wasted valuable days waiting. Now they’d need to move even faster. It would take 30 to 33 days to get to the peak. That put them into October, when storms roll in. They’d need to shave days off when they could. Complicating matters, they were utterly alone on the mountain, meaning Jim and Hilaree’s team would be breaking through deep snow and ice the whole way up.
The clock ticked as they headed into the basin at the bottom of the peaks. At this altitude they could hear and see the avalanches, seracs breaking, clouds of snow rolling down the mountain. As they pushed toward Camp Two, a storm rolled in, the snow thick as gauze. Already, Palden Namgye Sherpa felt their pace unrealistic. He and the sherpas turned around to head back to Camp One to wait out the storm.
But Morrison and Nelson pushed on, deciding to wait it out with the photographers in a single-wall, superlight three-person tent. Each avalanche sounded like a 747 engine. Morrison claimed not to be worried. The other three weren’t so sure. “We gotta move,” Nelson finally shouted. “Now!”
Leaving the tent, they roped to one another and began climbing. An hour in, they realized they’d gone the wrong direction. Eventually, they made it to a relatively safe area. Two days later, upon returning to pick up their gear, it was gone. An avalanche had swept it into a crevasse.
Above 20,000 feet, where Morrison and Nelson pitched camp to acclimatize, the body can no longer be trusted. Hunger dissipates even as the body, absorbing food less efficiently, needs more fuel. Less oxygen reaches the brain, making sleep difficult. Every task becomes laborious. The world shrinks.
At night the couple organized their gear, each item integral. A sleeping bag became an ecosystem: the pee bottle (altitude makes you go more), the GU energy packets, the batteries, stored next to the body to keep them from shorting. They became fixated on weight. Morrison thought he should carry more; he weighed more, after all. Nelson hated that logic. She wanted to be equals in everything.
In reality, she hated anything that divided her by gender, even implicitly. Early in her career she had found that male climbers, impatient to keep going, would often just solve the problem for an inexperienced female peer rather than teaching, making mentors hard to come by. Sherpas tended to listen to men more than women. Locals often held antiquated notions. Once, in Lebanon, a man tried to buy her for three goats.
Now, as she pushed back, Morrison told her weight wouldn’t matter if they didn’t make their window. A storm was set to hit on the night of Sept. 30. He did the math: To ski Lhotse, they would need to be off the summit by 2 p.m. at the latest. They would have to skip Camp Four entirely.
It further complicated matters that Morrison and Nelson were not only trying to make history but also trying out a relationship. And love brings with it vulnerability. Which is great if you’re going on vacation together, and not so great if you’re about to enter something called the death zone.
They began Day 29 before 2 a.m., flanked by Fu Tashi Sherpa, Ila Nuru Sherpa, and Dutch and Nick. (The other sherpas had set trail the day before.) The terrain was alternately rock, ice and snow. Sometimes they waded through drifts; sometimes they crawled on all fours. As they passed 25,000 feet, progress slowed in the thinning air. Step. Pause. Breathe. Step.
A little after 5 a.m., dawn broke. The light grew in the east, a warming pink, then hit the tips of the peaks and, finally, washed over them. Nelson paused to take it in, enraptured—later, she would wonder if that moment was as close to the meaning of life as you can get—then continued on.
By noon, with 1,200 feet to go, they had entered the death zone. At this elevation humans can survive for only a limited time. Their bodies were now actively working against them, siphoning energy reserves, impeding judgment. Their pace slowed. Nelson lifted the oxygen mask to her face. Instantly, she knew something was wrong. Introducing oxygen to a depleted body at that altitude can spike body temperature. From nearly hypothermic, she went to broiling. Morrison watched as she began disrobing. Off came the mittens. The hat. The down jacket. “KEEP GOING!” she yelled.
So he did. Ten feet. Then he weighed his options. “She is, I use the words fiercely independent in some of these situations,” Morrison says. A chivalrous boyfriend would help in a moment like this; Nelson hated chivalry.
He decided to wait it out. Within 10 minutes, Nelson calmed down after what she later deemed “my hissy fit.” In general, she has come to embrace such moments. She hates how male climbers often pigeonhole women as being “too emotional.” Maybe, Nelson posits, letting off steam isn’t such a bad thing: “Perhaps more men should try it.”
Now, masks on, they made for the summit. They had yet to glimpse the couloir in full, which meant they still had no idea if they could ski it. It seemed a crazy notion: climb for a month and not know if you’ll even be able to achieve your objective. Then, roughly 500 feet from the top, Morrison exited a narrow, rocky chute, and there it was, the Dream Line. Not only was there snow, but a ton of snow.
By now, they could see the summit; they also knew the final climb was technical, a thin 100-foot passage through walls that shed ice and rock.
The last time Nelson had been on this stretch was 2012. That spring, a Czech climber, Milan Sedlacek, preceded her group, climbing solo, without oxygen. What happened during his descent is so common at extreme altitudes that it has a name: sitting down to die. You take a quick break, but that slows the respiratory rate, depriving a body already on code red. Hypothermia sets in.
Nelson had come across Sedlacek’s body in 2012, frozen in its final pose, eyes open, mouth ajar, garbed in red down jacket, yellow boots and black beanie. The image haunted her for years. And she knew he was still here, somewhere, under the snow, as removing bodies is both costly and dangerous. Now she feared punching through with her crampons or ice axe and discovering him.
But she did not punch through. And the weather held. And half an hour later the six climbers had made it: the top, a ridge no bigger than a large canoe, with steep cliffs on either side.
For a few moments they reveled in the tableau before Morrison and Nelson pulled skis from either side of their packs and strapped in. (To save time, they had climbed in ski boots.) Only later would they realize how close they’d cut it: They summited at 1: 45 p.m. and, as Hilaree wrote in her journal that night, “Wind picked up at 2: 20.”
Finally, the challenge and reward: the descent. Jim clicked on his GoPro and leaped off the ridge. The snow felt like a crust of candy. Each breath was like pulling sand through his throat. He didn’t care. He connected a jump turn to another jump turn, then a third, a feat at normal altitude, to say nothing of 27,000 feet. Nelson followed, and now each carved giant S-curves into the powder. They had climbed 4,140 vertical feet in 12 hours. And now, at a point when most climbers faced a grueling descent, which can be more dangerous than the climb, they instead floated down the snow, which Morrison called “a panel of snow unrelatable to anything you’ve skied or seen anywhere else.”
Three hours later, they finally hit rock.
And that, they assumed, was that. Then, three days later, they touched down in a helicopter in Kathmandu to find a film crew waiting. The world seemed to care. Not just the adventure world but the rest of it. Which was all great, but it wasn’t why they had done it.
Why? It’s the inescapable question for people like Morrison and Nelson. Why take such risks? Why climb a mountain’s sheer face without ropes, or cross an ocean solo, or surf swells that rise like skyscrapers?
Often, people who do not do these things make assumptions about those who do. That they are adrenaline junkies or they harbor a death wish. And sometimes that’s the case. But not always.
Now it is April, half a year after the descent, and they are in Tahoe together, at Jim’s house on the lake. Sitting on a couch—Jim lean and cross-legged, wearing a hat, Hilaree in a T-shirt, veins ridging on her arms—they look like hummingbirds in forced repose. At the moment, they are between expeditions. They make do, skiing and climbing locally.
Professionally, they know their window is narrowing. Morrison is 45; Nelson is 47. In the meantime, they want to do as much as possible, Morrison’s business continues to thrive. Nelson spends 40 days a year making appearances and speeches for The North Face. She thought she’d hate it, but she likes that she can model achievement to young girls, women and moms.
But the idea of settling down still freaks them out. “I’m so much more terrified of getting in some routine where every day is the same, where everything’s just comfortable and easy,” Nelson says. “And I don’t know how to really explain why that terrifies me so much, but even just saying it makes me want to start crying.”
She doesn’t know why she’s like this. When she came back from the failed mission in Burma, she couldn’t bring herself to shower or sleep in a bed. All she wanted to eat was rice. Says Nelson, “My one really close friend in Telluride—she doesn’t get necessarily what I do, but she gets me. She’s just like, ‘You’re fine. You’ll be fine. Just deal with it. You got this.’ But I’m like, ‘I haven’t had a shower in months. I don’t know how—I haven’t looked at myself.’ There’s no reflective surfaces when you’re climbing. You’re just who you are. And to come home and have a closet full of jeans and be like, Oh my God, I don’t know what to wear. . . .”
Maybe, she wonders, she’s just different. Does this make her a bad mother? A good one? “I don’t know. I tell myself a lot that the risks I take and the places I go are eventually good for my kids, and that they’re learning about their mom as an individual, too, as a person seeing that I have a passion and I’m in tune with that in living a life.”
For years she wanted to impress her father. On some level, she still does. After years of questioning her career choice, Stan is now a huge fan. He drives to Seattle to hear her speak and calls Jim all geeked up about her exploits.
As for Jim, Hilaree knows their relationship will never be normal: “Sometimes I get more emotional about it than he does because it’s sad. I mean, I would give anything to meet his kids. I can’t even imagine what his daughter would be like. I’d bet she’d just be a frickin’ hellion. We all have s— in our life that makes us who we are. I wish that wasn’t his background, but it is.”
At one point after the crash, Morrison read a book called StrengthsFinder 2.0. The idea is to determine your personality type. His wasn’t much of a mystery: the Achiever. As author Tom Rath describes it, “You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible to feel good about yourself.”
Morrison knows he’s using achievement as therapy. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. “To a large degree, the mountains saved my life,” he says. “They created a space for me to thrive and find happiness and feel alive and feel like I have something I can accomplish.” The urge is constant. Just the night before, he says, when they returned home in his camper van, he felt the pull. “As I was getting out, I was like, I kind of want to spend the night in the van. I was cognizant of my thought, of wanting to do it, even though I hadn’t been home.” He continues. “What does that say about me?”
Morrison knows life will be complicated. It will never get easier telling people what happened to his family, and he can never replicate what he had with them. He tries to stay in the now but regrets linger. He wishes that, just once, “I’d taken Wyatt to school and picked him up the same day.”
There is no return to normal, whatever that is. He may spend the rest of his life trying to fill some void, trying to create permanence in an impermanent world. Or at least keep the past and future at bay. “I’m not sure if I’m back where I started,” he says, “or somewhere else, just going around and around.”
So far, the best way forward he’s found is to strip it all down—to, as he says, “find calm in the suffering.” Or, as Nelson says, “I think the mountains are the only place for him.”
He knows this might not be your choice. But ask him why he does it—why he seeks risk and scales peaks—and Morrison will tell you it’s not a choice, exactly. That you go where you find your peace. And that’s where he finds his.
This story appears in the February 2020 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.