TELLURIDE – Local Himalayan mountaineer and North Face athlete Hilaree O’Neill presents “Everest and Lhotse, the First Female Connect of Two 8,000 Meter Peaks in a Day,” on Monday, March 31 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride.
The event is a fundraiser for the dZi Foundation, and will conclude with a brief presentation from dZi Executive Director Mark Rikkers on “Deep Development in Nepal.”
O’Neill, a mother of two young boys, was one of six North Face athletes to be a part of National Geographic’s Everest Expedition 2012, and became the first female to connect two 8000 meter peaks in a day after climbing Everest and Lhotse back-to-back.
Her upcoming presentation for the dZi Foundation marks the first time that she will publicly discuss the celebrated feat.
“I haven’t had the right opportunity or inspiration,” she reflected, relaxing with a chai outside the Steaming Bean on a sunny afternoon last week. “I have done so many expeditions and so many trips that have been so amazing; it’s hard for me to just focus on Everest. But once you have climbed Everest, it’s all anyone wants to hear about. I think that’s probably why I have been a little hesitant to do a full show just about that.”
That being said, O’Neill has an amazing story to tell. 2012 was a “crazy” year to be climbing Everest, she said, with bad weather, scarce snow and overcrowding conspiring to lead to the deaths of six climbers.
The crowd scene at base camp was like something out of Bluegrass. “Seriously. There were rave parties,” O’Neill said. “With techno music in this 20-meter dome. Not what you would think of at 18,000 feet.”
The crowd scene on the mountain was just as crazy in its own way, due mainly to the ripple effects of the bad weather.
“This was the problem with 2012,” O’Neill said. “The weather just didn’t cooperate at all. In theory, in a good year, people would start summiting in early May and you’d have 10-15 summit windows. We didn’t have that. It was total chaos as a result.”
Even though O’Neill’s team came with the best of intentions to summit in early May, they found themselves “stuck right in the congo line,” she said.
Eventually, in the second of only two weather windows that opened up during the whole climbing season, O’Neill and her climbing partners did make it to the summit. “We were coming up this low ridge and couldn’t see anybody, so for a second I thought we were going to be on the summit alone, even though my better judgement should have known otherwise,” she recalled. “Then you come over final crest and there were like 60 people standing there. It was hard to even get on the true summit.”
Even so, it was an unforgettable feeling to stand on the world’s highest peak. They arrived right at sunrise. “You could see that fabled Everest shadow going out over the Himalaya,” she said. “It was stunning.”
It was also incredibly cold – about 50 degrees below zero. “We didn’t linger,” she said. “We were only there 20 minutes.”
On their way down, they again became entangled in the endless congo line of climbers that were still making their bid for the summit.
“We got to the top of the Hillary Step, about an eight minute walk from the summit going down, and we were stuck there for almost an hour, just waiting for people to come up and over,” she recalled. “By the time we actually got through, there were 50 people standing behind us trying to get down. The line went up and back almost to the summit.”
There was nothing to do but to stand there, waiting. Nearby was the corpse of a German climber who had died of a heart attack during a previous summit window several days earlier, when the weather had turned foul. After he died, “His guide cut him from the line and his body was like 20 feet below, just laying there,” O’Neill said. “At no point did I think I was going to die, but I was just like, ‘This is how people die.’”
Her experience climbing Lhotse just hours later could not have been more different.
“Lhotse is more what I am used to climbing, a couloir nestled in this thing with high walls,” she said. “The summit is the size of a hood of a car, with room for two to four people, max.”
O’Neill used supplemental oxygen to reach both summits. But it turns out, she probably didn’t have to. One of the more interesting aspects of the 2012 National Geographic Everest expedition was its focus on researching the physiological effects of climbing and living at altitude for Sherpas and the North Face athletes.
“Five docs from the Mayo Clinic hiked into base camp and set up a medical tent and ran tests on us,” O’Neill said. “Blood tests, VO2 maxes, ultrasounds looking at our lungs and checking our heart valves, lung profusion tests and lung volume tests, sleep tests. It was a pretty thorough study.”
And basically, she said, “It showed we were all super well acclimatized. The amount of confidence that gives you is priceless.”
As local renowned high altitude medicine expert Peter Hackett said, it is not always a given that even a very well-conditioned athlete will do well at extremely high altitude.
In 1981, Hackett himself summited Everest while monitoring the physiological response of fellow climbers and has since spent his career developing groundbreaking treatments for altitude sickness. He was last at Everest base camp in 2010.
“You can be very fit and not do well at altitude,” he said. “Your breathing response at high altitude is genetically determined. Hilaree has to be blessed with a certain genetic endowment that allows her to tolerate extreme altitude fairly well. Her genetic makeup definitely helps with what she does – plus training, stamina, perseverance and endurance.”
Hackett suspects it is this latter quartet of qualities that enabled O’Neill to accomplish the back-to-back summits of Everest and Lhotse.
“For most people – and I’m one of them – I cannot imagine dragging myself out of a tent to go uphill instead of downhill after summiting Everest,” he said. “Are you out of your mind? Most people who come down have had it and can’t go back up. Sherpas will sometimes, but it’s considered extraordinary.”
O’Neill is excited to be presenting her story for the dZi Foundation, whose work in Nepal she greatly admires. She and dZi Executive Director Mark Rikkers have known each other for years; they both used to work as guides for Telluride Helitrax.
While there are hundreds of NGOs in Nepal, the thing that sets dZi apart is its focus on community-led development and the concept of unnati, a Nepali term for holistic community prosperity.
“We don’t go in with preconceived notions about what a community needs or wants. That differentiates us right away,” Rikkers explained.
Rikkers, who lives in Ophir, said that dZi has been focused lately on building far-flung donor bases in places like California’s Bay Area and the U.K. “Now, we are looking to expand awareness and support in our own backyard,” he said. “Not that many people here in Telluride know about the work that we do.”
Entry to Monday’s presentation is free, and tax-deductible donations will be gratefully accepted after the event. Doors open at 6 p.m. “Show up early; seating will fill up!” Rikkers said.