When the mountain wins: How the death of a legendary mountaineer forces us to face the nature of risk

Some mountains were never meant to be climbed. Human beings did not evolve to ascend 8,000 meters into the unforgiving atmosphere of the Himalaya and return. Yet, there are a select handful with an equally unforgiving resolve that do so every year, demonstrating an utterly ruthless and inspiring disregard for the mortal limits imposed on them. 

However, when they do not return heroic, we are forced into an uncomfortable reckoning with the very nature of adventure sports and their inherent perils.


Claimed by the mountain

On Sept. 28, 2022, the body of legendary mountaineer Hilaree Nelson was recovered from the slopes of Manaslu. Having summited the 26,781-foot Himalayan mountain with her partner, Jim Morrison, just two days prior, Nelson had been swept away during their descent by a small avalanche, falling 5,000 feet down the mountain.

Nelson’s accomplishments are as numerous as they are varied. Becoming the first woman to summit both Mount Everest and Lhotse in one day, bagging many first ski-descents of particularly treacherous mountains and leaving a legacy of environmental activism are all among the most defining characteristics of her career.

To many in the world of high-alpine adventure, Nelson seemed superhuman. The captain of The North Face’s Global Athlete Team, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and a mother of two, she inhabited an aura of exceptional vigor. 

So, how does a mountain swallow up one as seemingly invincible as her, and how does that reflect on the core of the wild endeavors many of us chase?


Not just big mountains

Not everyone has the desire to venture into the wholly alien and inhumane world of the Himalaya’s loftiest crags, but even the weekend warriors setting out on a relatively benign day-hike must at times come to grips with the risks married to the wilderness.

The great outdoors, in all their vast beauty and potential for adventure, demand respect. Hubris and incompetence are surefire methods of finding oneself injured or dead, especially in the very outdoors they hold so dear. Any adventurer who truly values the wild knows this and puts in their proper due diligence before setting out. 

The majority of outdoor-related injuries and deaths are due to human error. These days, equipment is as safe as can be, and there is no reason to engage in any given activity without the proper safety nets, whether they be the guidance of someone experienced or one’s own expertise.

According to data collected by the National Park Service, the top three causes of all deaths in national parks — constituting a mere fraction of the hundreds of millions of annual visitors — were drowning, motor accidents and falls. Of those falls, the majority were during relatively mundane activities like walking rather than those often perceived as dangerous like rock climbing. Of the vehicle-related deaths, 23% were influenced by alcohol.

Wasatch Magazine reports that one is more likely to be killed by a dog than wildlife in the outdoors; from 2000-2009, there were roughly three fatal attacks from bears a year. Additionally, one is also more likely to die from accidental poisoning than skiing or mountain biking. 

Truthfully, the chances of being seriously injured or killed are higher while driving to campus than while enjoying outdoor sports in a responsible way. The fact persists, however, that there remain risks inextricably linked to the outdoors that will always be present despite our attempts to mitigate them as best we can.


Adventure is an agreement

Even the most experienced adventurers must at times tussle with the harsh realities of the wild Earth. High-alpine extremists in particular, such as Nelson, submit themselves to the most inhospitable conditions on the planet: below-freezing temperatures, dangerous avalanche terrain rigged with all-consuming crevasses, and the notorious “death zone:” the atmospheric heights these mountains often tower into, in which one’s body begins to die. 

There is no compromising with nature on these risks; when an alpinist commits to summiting a mountain such as Manaslu, they are agreeing to them. 

Yet, one does not need to knowingly cheat death to engage with risk. The very act of stepping into the domain of the untamed natural world is one of defiance, a willing submission to a world entirely apart from one’s own in which wild things roam and the elements dominate. 

While the probability of succumbing to these perils is low, should one exercise the proper caution, they remain indisputable, and nature can surprise even the most prepared. Catastrophic events like extreme weather, flash floods and avalanches can materialize seemingly out of nowhere, and bad luck does not discriminate. Though only roughly three hikers are killed by bears annually, those are three hikers that likely did not see it coming. 


What is the wild worth?

Each time one sets out on an outdoor excursion, there occurs an unspoken agreement between the adventurer and adventure itself: an agreement of respect and acknowledgement. For many, the risk is worth the reward, and with the proper respect of the wild and a demonstration of responsibility and caution, most return home with great stories to tell.

But we must always ask the question: What is it worth? 

Nelson leaves behind two children and a loving partner. Countless before her have similarly left many mourning. 

The outdoors are a place of endless excitement, respite and beauty, and are generally very safe. However, one must always carry with them the understanding of wild nature and an acceptance of what it is worth to them.


Story by: Jared Clawson
Photos courtesy of Mike Markov, Rohit Tandon, Patrick Hendry and Leio McLaren on Unsplash.