Finding Balance as a Mother and Mountaineer: Hilaree O’Neill

I was first introduced to Hilaree O’Neill through an article on Outside Magazine back in May 2012. It was hard not to notice the piece, thanks to its title: Mother on the Mountain: Hilaree O’Neill, Live from Everest Base Camp. It caught my eye for two main reasons. First, I had just launched The Adventures in Parenthood Project, and my thoughts were dominated by the topic of outdoor adventurers pursuing their passions, even as parents, and some really pushing the limits. Second, I had been at Everest Base Camp just a half-year before. I wasn’t there to climb, but the whole feeling of that place was fresh in my mind.

As I read the article it stirred up a lot of questions for me. Sometimes it’s hard to read emotion in words, and I was left wondering how O’Neill really felt about being in the public spotlight, away from her kids, climbing a big peak. How do you manage emotion on a mountain that big? How do you take risks knowing you have tiny humans back at home waiting for their mama to come home?

Hilaree O'Neill at Camp 3, Sara Umga La Pass, 4884m, Punlab Himalayas, India. March 2013. Photo by Chris Figenshau.

Hilaree O’Neill at Camp 3, Sara Umga La Pass, 4884m, Punlab Himalayas, India. March 2013. Photo by Chris Figenshau.

When I heard that O’Neill, based out of Telluride, Colorado, was coming to give a presentation at The North Face store in Banff back in November 2013, I fired her an email and she graciously agreed to meet with me. For two hours we ate quinoa salad, sipped lattes and peeled back the layers and complexity behind that headline, behind the “mother on the mountain.”

Ski Mountaineer. Sponsored Athlete. Mother.

Originally from Seattle, Washington, O’Neill always knew she wanted to have a family. Like many outdoor athletes dedicated to their careers, sports and lifestyles, however, it was something she put off. Being 11 years older, her husband Brian was keen to have children right away when they got married in September 2002. But, O’Neill –  a sponsored athlete with The North Face – was 29 at the time and just getting into her career. A few years later, Brian, who was then working as a heli-ski guide, was caught in an avalanche and though he survived, he suffered a broken neck and faced a long recovery. The ordeal made O’Neill realize just how short life is and she questioned why she was waiting to have children. Three years later, at age 34, O’Neill was pregnant with her first child.

Looking ahead to motherhood, O’Neill contemplated what her life would look like as a parent and a sponsored athlete. Her own mother was very dedicated to her children, but had an adventurous spirit that often went untapped. This had a great impact on O’Neill, who was determined to continue pursuing her career in ski mountaineering when she became a mother. She includes her sons in this process. To train for Everest she’d go skiing with her then four-year-old and carry her two-year-old all over the mountain. As she told Outside, “It’s pretty good training carrying 35 pounds of moving, kicking weight for two hours, especially when he’s got his skis and boots on.”

Family photo in Telluride, Colorado (November 2013). Photo courtesy Hilaree O'Neill.

Family photo in Telluride, Colorado (November 2013). Photo courtesy Hilaree O’Neill.

Summit. Separation. Spotlight.

For many mothers of young children, it’s a stretch just to go to Las Vegas for a long weekend, or on a week-long backcountry trip. My daughter is now 10 months old, but the fact that I’m still breastfeeding aside, I can’t fathom leaving her for more than a night or two, let alone heading off to climb an 8000-metre peak. But, when O’Neill’s first-born, Quinn, was just ten months old, she left on an eight-week trip to Pakistan to climb and ski Gasherbrum II (8035 m). It was an expedition she had proposed several times over the previous few years and, as Murphy’s Law would have it, it was finally approved the year her son was born.

It was easy for me to make the assumption that because O’Neill agreed to do the trip, she didn’t have any issues leaving her family and tackling a huge peak. Our conversation over coffee that day revealed a new mother pulled in two directions. At this point, O’Neill had been a North Face athlete for eight years and this was a pivotal moment in her career. She put herself in this position by proposing the trip in the first place. “I felt like there was this spotlight on me,” she explained. What’s she gonna do?

In the end, she went ahead with it, and found people to be tremendously supportive. “Part of the drive to do this trip was that I was afraid I’d be too long out of the mountains,” O’Neill said. “In order to stay on your game you have to keep doing it.” But in retrospect she feels the expedition came too early in motherhood. It took two weeks to get to base camp and she experienced two weeks of meltdowns. Then on their first night at base camp, a climber came looking for help getting his partner out of a crevasse. The climber could not be retrieved and died there. This awful situation offered O’Neill no reassurance, and she questioned what she was doing there.

O'Neill skiing down Unnamed Peak, Punjab Himalaya, India 5,500m. If you look closely, you can see Camp 3 below in the middle of the photo on the flat portion of the glacier. Photo by Chris Figenshau.

O’Neill skiing down Unnamed Peak, Punjab Himalaya, India 5,500m. If you look closely, you can see Camp 3 below in the middle of the photo on the flat portion of the glacier. Photo by Chris Figenshau.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to myself,” she said. She partially attributes their failure to summit to her stress and inability to cope with the separation from her family. She simply couldn’t get home soon enough. “But, if I had waited another year it would have been too late,” O’Neill explained. Despite her failed attempt to reach the summit of Gasherbrum II, the expedition provided her with a benchmark on her new journey as both a professional ski mountaineer and mother. And three weeks after returning home from Pakistan, O’Neill got pregnant with their second son, Grayden.

Parenting. Passion. Perseverance.

Since the Pakistan expedition, O’Neill acknowledges that things have gotten much easier. Her successful ascents of Everest (8848 m) and Lhotse (8516 m) in May 2012 – she was the first female to link the two in under 24 hours – proves this. O’Neill’s transition to parenthood also teaches outdoor adventurers an important lesson: that it may seem farfetched that we’ll ever find a balance between our real outdoor passions and responsibilities as parents, but if it’s something we truly want, we’ll eventually find a way.

I think this balance depends on a couple of factors, however. In The Transition to Parenthood: 5 Things I Didn’t Consider, I wrote about how having help really does make things easier. And as my interview with O’Neill revealed, your ability to ‘get away’ depends on the support network you have back at home. Brian, who works as a realtor, bears most of the parental responsibility while O’Neill is away, though at times family comes from Seattle and Boston to help. They also have a great community of friends who pitch in to help.

With son, Grayden, in City of Rocks, Idaho, during their summer road trip. Photo courtesy Hilaree O'Neill.

With son, Grayden, in City of Rocks, Idaho, during their summer road trip. Photo courtesy Hilaree O’Neill.

And among many other factors, a mother’s own risk management during outdoor sports and her ability to cope with potentially risky and life-threatening situations will determine at what level she is able to continue pursuing her passions. As O’Neill remarked, many parents lower their risk level after having kids. “It’s been different for me,” she said. “I don’t want to seek out risk, but I’m able to manage it.” Motherhood has made her even more cautious and attentive in her climbing.

Coming down from the summit of Lhotse really put this to the test:

“We were walking down blue ice with crampons on. I’d been awake for 50 hours and above 8000 metres for 40 hours. I had hardly eaten. I had 200 m to go down a dangerous section and just had to tell myself to focus, focus, focus. My mind started wandering, and I caught my crampon on my pants. I started falling and caught myself. All I could think of was: you have to get home.

The boys in down suits while O'Neill was packing for Everest. Photo courtesy Hilaree O'Neill.

The boys in down suits while O’Neill was packing for Everest. Photo courtesy Hilaree O’Neill.

Clarity. Freedom. The Present.

But what happens if she doesn’t get home?

This is something O’Neill has spent a lot of time thinking about. While it is a complex issue, for O’Neill a lot of it comes down to recognizing how little control we have in life. “I’m very aware of the gift of life and and also how fleeting it can be,” she said. “I make sure to tell my boys how much I love them every single day.”

Ultimately two near-death experiences in just the last year brought her some clarity: that even though she didn’t want it to happen, it was OK. In those moments when she thought it was all over, she felt some peace and calm. These realizations have given her a little bit of freedom – not an excuse to get out there and be reckless. “I have to stay on my game more than I’ve ever been,” she said. “Be more present to the present.”

Still, O’Neill struggles with the balance.

“People have this perception of me that I’ve got it all figured out,” she said. “But it’s a struggle every day and every trip is different, whether it’s three days in Canada or four weeks in India.”

Things are changing as her boys are getting older, too. They are beginning to ask really intelligent questions and become increasingly aware of what mom does. These are all new things for O’Neill to navigate as she continues to strike that balance as a mother and a ski mountaineer. In the meantime, she is pursuing some adventures with her boys. Each summer, they escape on a five-week road trip through the Lower 48. This past January she took them to Tanzania to hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro (5895 m) as a family, and the boys made it all the way to 4200 m.

Click on thumbnails to view slideshow.

If I’ve learned anything through The Adventures in Parenthood Project and my time with O’Neill it’s that the transition to parenthood is an ongoing process, that perhaps all of parenthood is an ongoing transition. “It takes constant evolving,” O’Neill said.

As Price Pritchett once said, however, “Change always comes bearing gifts.” If, like O’Neill, we can persevere and accept that balance requires constant adaptation, we’ll encounter new gifts along the way.

Everest may have been the highest point O’Neill reached on the Earth, but I think there are many more high points to come in her life as a mother and a mountaineer.

Learn more about Hilaree O’Neill at hilareeoneill.com and in this interview on the Joy Trip Project.

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9 responses to “Finding Balance as a Mother and Mountaineer: Hilaree O’Neill

  1. Awesome. This is a really thoughtful and great write-up. Kudos to Hilaree for being so honest. There is so much judgement in the world of parenting that it’s easy to fly to one extreme or another. It’s wonderful to hear about somebody doing amazing and beautiful things, and still human and worried like the rest of us.

    • Thanks, Kate. I agree with you – it was so refreshing to dig a bit deeper into the complexities involved in such a balance as motherhood and a professional ski mountaineering career. I remember my first feelings reading that article and then how I felt talking to Hilaree face-to-face. Our conversation just flowed so smoothly. I don’t take that for granted.

  2. I love this piece. I’ve thought a lot about what the balancing act of motherhood and mountaineering must be like for her. It’s wonderful to read her own words and to see how empathetically you contextualize her decisions. Thank you.

  3. She is an amazing woman. There are actually a few of them right here in Telluride that follow their passions on the mountain as mothers. It just seems normal to see this when you live in the mountains and people live for the outdoors and/or making a living at it. Another local Mom, Laura, summited Aconcagua and Denali last year and helps runs the guide service Mountain Trip. In reality they are probably in just as much danger stepping into the San Juan mountains (highest avy risk in the world) than Everest or other peaks.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jen. It helps when it’s a bit more of a ‘norm’ in one’s community, I suppose. I know that Hilaree felt tremendous support from people – not as much flak as I think she probably even expected. One thing I’ve learned is that there are so many more ‘models’ of the parenting/passion/career balance out there – we just have to be open to other possibilities working for people even when we ourselves can’t fathom it. It’s all about what works for, as Caroline George put it, the “you, the me and the we.”

  4. Pingback: Meet Hilaree O'Neill: Mother and Professional Mountaineer - Women's Adventure Magazine·

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