Hilaree Nelson finds the ‘Point of No Return’ with National Geographic Live presentation
What: Park City Institute will present National Geographic Live! Point of No Return with Hilaree Nelson When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30 Where: Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd. Cost: $29 and $49 Web: parkcityinstitute.org.
In October 2014, Hilaree Nelson attempted to lead an exhibition to scale Hkakabo Razi, a remote peak in Myanmar’s portion of the Himalayas.
The venture didn’t go as planned. Nelson, along with her team — writer Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, filmmaker Renan Ozturk, climber Emily Harrington and video assistant Taylor Rees – nearly lost their lives. The experience became the subject of Ozturk and Rees’s 2015 documentary, “Down to Nothing.”
Nelson will recount the lack of food, the abundance of bickering and the culture shock that added up to the excursion’s near-disasterous failure when the Park City Institute presents “National Geographic Live! Point of No Return” at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
Nelson, who had planned the trip for more than two years, said the biggest reason for its failure came down to ego.
“We overestimated our rad-ness, to be blunt, and Mother Nature has a way of humbling you when you think you know everything,” she said.
The team felt prepared to climb all of the mountain’s 19,295 feet because they all had bagged 8,000-meter (a class of mountains approaching 30,000 feet that includes Mount Everest and K2) peaks multiple times, according to Nelson.
“We had all been on major suffer-fests — 10-week expeditions climbing the unknown, and things like that — but we underestimated the objective in altitude and distance,” she said. “None of us alpine climbers were used to spending two weeks walking through a jungle, and being fully dependent on guides. The language barrier alone was a challenge.”
Once on the mountain, Nelson and her team fought the elements, which were harsher than expected.
“This mountain is located at the eastern end of the Himalayas, trapped between the high plateau of Tibet and the low ends of the jungle,” she said. “We didn’t know how that would affect the weather, and how ferocious the winds and cold was going to be.”
Nelson — the first woman to climb both Mount Everest and Lhotse in 24 hours — felt the burden, responsibility and culpability of being the expedition leader.
“(I asked) the people you go with to sacrifice time away from home, family and friends to fulfill a dream that was ultimately, mine,” she said.
The trip challenged Nelson’s skillset as the team ran out of food and dealt with a wind chill courtesy of 70 mph gusts. The challenges didn’t just come from the elements, though.
“It’s hard being a female leading this type of exhibition and dealing with intense personalities — mine included,” she said. “I’m a mother. I sometimes bring mothering into climbing and that’s something that you shouldn’t do.”
Nelson confessed that the experience broke her psyche.
“I never wanted to get to that nether-land of ‘We might not make it out,’ or ‘We may lose someone on the way’ or ‘We may not come back with all of our fingers and toes,’ but I was there,” she said. “It’s a place I never want to be again.”
Although the team didn’t accomplish their goal, there were no casualties. And Nelson came back a wiser adventurer.
“I learned a lot about separating my own personal ego from this drive of feeling that I have to prove myself over and over again,” said Nelson, whose first name is coincidentally homophonous with the last name of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first explorer to summit Mount Everest.
She also learned a lot about communication.
“It’s all about finding that balance between tyranny and democracy,” she said. “The way you make decisions affects how you work with your teammates. You can’t assume things, because making assumptions in dramatic conditions can be dangerous.”
Nelson had heard about Hkakabo Razi, which rises to 5,000 meters in prominence, in 2001 from a climbing partner.
“We tried to get an expedition funded through my main sponsor, North Face, but due to (Myanmar’s) politics, the area was closed going on 20 years,” she said.
The area opened to the world in 2012 during the early stages of Myanmar’s modern-era democratization movement.
“That was when I met Mark Jenkins, who was a staff writer for National Geographic, at the time,” Nelson said. “The two of us put in a proposal for an explorer’s grant after I returned from Everest, and I think National Geographic was excited to have explorers like us who have experience in remote locations to test the waters and see what we could accomplish.”
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