5280.com Exclusive: Q&A with Ski Mountaineer Hilaree O'Neill

November 2013

On August 13, 1995, just three months after becoming the first woman and the second person to climb Everest alone, unsupported, and without supplemental oxygen, British climbing phenom Alison Hargreaves died while descending from the summit of Pakistan’s K2. The mountaineering world lost one of its brightest stars; Kate and Tom Hargreaves, just four and six, lost their mother. 

After the shock of Hargreaves’ death subsided, the press latched on to the motherhood storyline. In numerous articles, Hargreaves was criticized for pursuing a high-risk passion while having two small children at home. Equal criticism, though, was not leveled at fathers on the same mountains, including two British men who died just days before Hargreaves on a nearby peak.

Seventeen years later, in May 2012, Telluride ski mountaineer Hilaree O’Neill’s children were nearly the same ages as Hargreaves’ when O’Neill stood atop Everest and then, less than 24 hours later, on top of neighboring 27,940-foot Lhotse, becoming perhaps the first woman to conquer both peaks in one day. Happily, O’Neill made it home safely, but if she had not, her family likely would have been spared any posthumous criticism. O’Neill says she sees little evidence of the double standard that existed for mothers in Hargreaves’ era today.

In this exclusive interview with O'Neill, we explore the notion of double standards and prejudice in extreme sports today. 

5280: What has your experience been with the notion of the double standard in adventure sports?

O’Neill: There’s definitely a double standard when it comes to pay… laughs… Whether you’re a mom or just a female athlete in the mountaineering or alternative ski world, without a doubt. And there was a point when I started having kids six years ago, where I thought, “I’m going to lose all my sponsors, and this is all going to come to an end.” But it didn’t. It didn’t at all actually.

5280: It actually seems like being a mom and an extreme athlete has been a big part of the conversation for you.

O’Neill: Yeah. It’s definitely a curiosity—what I do—for a lot of people, and both in good ways and bad ways. I think a lot of athletes, once they have kids, they make the decision themselves, not necessarily pressure from sponsors or whatever, to lessen that involvement with their sort of sport. And when I was pregnant and having kids, I didn’t know how I was going to feel after I had them, and I was totally open to it. I thought, “OK, maybe I’m not going to have the same risk tolerance.” But I came away from having kids, and I did have that same desire, and the sponsors and the trips were still there. But it’s really hard. There’s no doubt.

5280: Do most other people in the mountains with you have kids?

O’Neill: On Everest, most of the guides on the mountain had kids. At high altitude you kind of get better once you’re like 35 to 50. You get better at suffering; you have more mental toughness. And that’s a huge part, I think, of why I like high altitude. I have this crazy mental toughness after having kids. I’m like nothing can be as hard as having kids. Even this morning, getting my kids to school was an hour of total chaos and craziness—and I’m thinking, “Wow, I don’t know, spending three weeks climbing Denali is pretty chill compared to this.”

5280: You mentioned that the same sort of public pressure not to take risks that followed Alison Hargreaves doesn’t exist anymore. That instead, it comes from the mothers themselves?

O’Neill: It’s more like we do it to ourselves, I think. I am so driven by guilt sometimes that whatever anybody out there can say about me, it’s not going to be any worse than what I’ve already said to myself about what I’m doing. I can’t even explain what’s in me that still motivates me to fight that guilt—about beating myself up about leaving my kids and doing dangerous things—that still motivates me to go and do it.

5280: While your work environment is more extreme than a lot of folks, the situation you’re describing—guilt and questioning the decision to return to work or not—sounds like something a lot of women struggle with, whether you’re in the mountains or the boardroom.

O’Neill: It’s so true. I have so many friends here who have to put their kids, starting at six months old, in preschool five-days-a-week from 8 to 5. And talking to them, it’s the same thing: “God I don’t want to do this, but I have to.” And with what I do, yes I’m gone for big chunks of time. But it is just part of who I am, and I get so much from it. Sometimes I get so confined by what our society is these days, and the only way for me to break out of that is to just push myself as far as I can to the most extreme limits of my endurance. And when I come back, it gives me that sort of sanity.

5280: Are there any other, you mentioned sort of pay equity, but are there other sort of gender issues you see in adventure sports? 

O’Neill: I think I’m at a place now, I’ve been doing it long enough, that there’s not a lot of discrimination. We’re kind of a little past that. 

5280: What about gender differences in how people approach the sports?

O’Neill: I grew up with a brother who teased me and tortured me and pushed me in sports. So I feel like I have kind of a thick skin when it comes to doing what I do. And guys are kind of short and abrupt. There’s not that sort of nurturing environment that you get when you’re on women’s trips. But with that said, in order to get to where I’m at, I feel like I had to do a lot of women’s trips along the way, so that I could be in an environment that was more open to letting me figure stuff out myself—from learning how to read maps to making key decisions on where to go up or to go down. At the point where I’m at in the sport, now, there aren’t a lot of women to choose from, so most of my partners end up being men, and I’m fine with it. The main the thing with what I do, and I’m sure this also applies to business, is having a good team and people who can function and get along. 

To find about more about Hilaree O'Neill, and what it means to be a woman in Colorado, read "The Colorado Woman."

—Image courtesy of Chris Figenshau