Hilaree Nelson on Training for the “Mixed Bag” of 8,000-Meter Peaks

Laura Larson

Hilaree Nelson doesn’t mind a bit of scrappiness on her ski tours. In fact, she embraces the discomfort as essential training for the unique challenges of climbing and descending the world’s biggest mountains. With a resume that includes the first female ascent of two 8,000-meter peaks—Everest and Lhotse—in under 24 hours and the first ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, Hilaree is no stranger to the variables and demands of high altitude. She knows, both intuitively and from experience, what she needs to do to arrive prepared.

“You have to take that element of ‘faster is better’ out of it to some extent and really focus on the conditions and what it is you’re training for and what kind of bang for your buck you’re getting,” she says. “Sometimes you want to be out for 10 hours a day, even if it’s something you’ve done in 4 hours. You want to be on your hands and feet, crawling over logs, having to adapt to what’s in front of you. If you want to relate it to 8,000-meter peaks, it’s always such a mixed bag. It’s never what you expect.”

Two really warm storms this November pasted the San Juan Mountains above her home in Telluride, Colorado, with an unusually firm snowpack. She and her partner, fellow ski mountaineer Jim Morrison, also a North Face athlete and COROS Pro Athlete, were able to access ski tours that typically don’t come into condition until February or March. But to reach the impressive snow up high, they needed to navigate cumbersome, low-snow approaches over rocks and downed trees, often with their skis strapped to their packs. In the third week of November, after skiing Sheep Chute, they found themselves exiting over old avalanche debris. They had to keep their tips up to avoid snagging something while crossing paths littered with thousands of trees.

“That’s the kind of stuff that even though it doesn’t produce the best results when I’m looking at my COROS VERTIX watch and it’s telling me that I was moving 1 mile in 2 hours, I can read into that and see heart rate and see elevation gains and differences,” she explains. “That’s the best training for big peaks.”

In the spirit of those full-body November tours, long, slow days are the norm at high altitude. The day she and Jim skied the Lhotse Couloir in 2018, it took them 12 hours to ascend from 24,000 feet to the summit at 28,000 feet, then another 4 hours to descend. This underscores the necessity of, as Hilaree puts it, “training for how to manage your power over a massive endurance effort.”

On a hundred-mile road ride, even if it’s hilly, your output will be fairly consistent. Ski mountaineering, especially at elevation, is inherently inconsistent. “Maybe you’re doing 2,000 feet of crampon walking on stiff ice, and it’s really efficient and an equal use of power,” she says, “but then the conditions change and all of a sudden you’re post-holing, and then you have this rock cliff you have to get up and over where the snow has turned to sugar and you’re wallowing to your waist. The output of power to make those 50 feet go by is of a magnitude so much greater than in the 5 hours prior to that, and you have to be able to reserve that energy.” On a multiweek trip, you have to reserve that energy day after day, up to and through your ultimate objective—often in extreme conditions.

This means that once Hilaree and Jim are on the move, it’s all about pacing. They go fast enough to not spend too much time exposed to hazards, but not so fast that breathing becomes labored or they start sweating profusely. It’s a careful balance, a calculated efficiency, that Hilaree has calibrated over dozens of expeditions and decades spent playing in the mountains.

She started downhill skiing at age three with her older brother and sister at a ski area near their home in Seattle, Washington. Although the Pacific Northwest is a mecca for ski mountaineering in the United States, with its glaciers and snow and volcanoes, she didn’t learn about ski touring until going to college in Colorado. Her friends got her into it, and it wasn’t long before she was joining them skinning up and skiing down 14ers. Watching a movie featuring Scot Schmidt skiing in Chamonix made her want to move to the French Alps. As a graduation gift, her parents gave her a one-way ticket to Europe. To spite them for not giving her a return ticket, she stayed for five years.

Chamonix, with its valley-to-peak trams and lack of boundaries, is where Hilaree learned about ski mountaineering, glaciers, alpine climbing, and ice climbing. It’s where she connected with The North Face and started going on expeditions. For years, those expeditions have guided her training and shaped each season.

Then Covid-19 hit and put a full stop to her and Jim’s 2020 expedition plans. They have been much closer to home than usual this year. Instead of spending 6 hours in the mountains, she helps her two boys get from one online class to the next. She does Zoom calls and troubleshoots their internet. To counter all the sitting, which has reactivated back problems that started after the birth of her second son, she’s been doing more yoga. She carved out a space downstairs where for 20 minutes or so she’ll flow along to an online video from a local instructor. The stretching and core engagement help ease her back pain. She’s also been doing workouts on their Beastmaker hangboard and squats on the BOSU ball she keeps under her desk.

With their travels looking increasingly possible for 2021, Hilaree and Jim now have challenges to work toward and look forward to. Their “special November” of early-season tours near Telluride represents the first training block on a nearly yearlong path to a September 2021 trip to the Himalaya.

“One of the complicating factors is that we’re going to the Himalaya in the fall to try to ski, but we’re training throughout the summer not skiing. So even starting in November, we’re looking at trying to ski these different objectives with very specific challenges within them that will complement the training for this Himalayan expedition,” she explains, “knowing that [in the] summer we’re going to be doing sports completely outside of the sport we’re training for.”

March will bring #CrushIt4Climate, a monthlong multisport vertfest put on by Strava and Protect Our Winters (POW). POW is a climate-focused organization she and Jim support as part of its athlete alliance. As dedicated as Hilaree is to the cause, she’s mildly concerned that Jim, who can be “like a pit bull,” will get too gung-ho about racking up the vertical. “I’m a little afraid he’s going to go, ‘We have to climb 5 million feet in the month of March!’”

With all that gain under their skins, Hilaree and Jim are hoping to go to Alaska in April to ski a longtime dream line of his on University Peak. Then in May she’ll travel to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with her friend Kit DesLauriers. They’ve already skied the four highest peaks up there and are aiming to ski the fifth. But their real goal is to traverse part of the coastal plain, an area about to be opened up for lease sales for oil drilling, in order to bring back stories and images with a climate component.

The summer will be spent with her kids in Telluride, where she and Jim will train on two wheels—road biking for aerobic endurance and threshold workouts, mountain biking to hone hand-eye coordination and agility. “There are totally different points to each of them,” she observes, “but they’re super complementary to skiing and to high altitude.”

Once a week or every two weeks, she’ll throw in a “lung-buster,” where she’ll push the pace all the way to the end, focusing on maximum output. She considers a big ride to be 100 miles, with most of her outings in the 25-to-40-mile range. If they’re at Jim’s place on Lake Tahoe, she’ll do the 80-mile ride around the lake that boasts 4,500 feet of elevation gain.

Throughout her training, Hilaree will consult her COROS VERTIX watch data to measure progress and track her exertion. She uses the Ski Touring mode the most, though she admits to often neglecting to switch over into descent mode at the top. She’s looking forward to the upcoming release of an auto-recognition feature, as well as a shift in the standard of measurement from distance over time to elevation gain over time. According to her, ski mountaineers tend to be more interested in how fast they can ascend 1,000 feet rather than in how much distance they cover.

She also pays close attention to her heart rate, curious to know at what heart rate she starts to get out of breath and when she begins to sweat. She plans to start using a chest strap monitor soon, which should help her pinpoint her heart rate zones with greater accuracy. And while she believes the watch’s oxygen saturation measurement (SpO2) isn’t spot on, she finds it to be accurate against itself; she notes how it’s trending as she ascends. (The trend of SpO2 is more important than the actual reading when tracking altitude acclimatization.)

The COROS team implemented this priceless feedback immediately in order to improve the current ski touring mode. Real-time R&D from athletes like Hilaree and Jim allows COROS to continually fine-tune what is already one of the most advanced and accurate high-alpine training watches on the planet.

While Hilaree is a master of the endurance side of the equation, she acknowledges that she tends to “fall short” when it comes to power and strength training. To address that deficit, this summer she plans to have a local physical therapist program strength for her in TrainingPeaks, which she’ll then be able to sync with her VERTIX. She’ll couple that with her usual regimen of climbing, which is crucial for keeping her accustomed to heights. She devotes “just as much directed training toward exposure as I do toward fitness and nutrition. I have to get myself hanging off of ropes over things and stay in that kind of environment or I get freaked out,” she admits.

About 10 weeks before their end-of-August departure, Hilaree and Jim will begin to “cheat” a little bit by pre-acclimatizing in an altitude tent. They already live high, at about 9,000 feet, and train even higher, but they have found that it helps to sleep high as well—starting at a simulated 10,000 feet and working up to 21,000 feet.

Another key strategy is to put on several pounds of extra weight, preferably fat. This prepares her for exerting herself in an environment that she knows will suppress her appetite and rev up her body’s metabolic engine. “It’s kind of sweet. I’m like, ‘I guess I will have that extra scoop of ice cream!’”

At super-high altitude, the average person burns around 6,000 calories just at rest as the body produces more red blood cells and works to stay warm. Counterintuitively, you almost have to force yourself to eat: “You know on a realistic level, on a subconscious level, that you have to eat, but you don’t want to eat, and your body doesn’t digest food well and your taste changes,” Hilaree explains. “I can’t really handle sweet, sugary foods once I start getting in those higher elevations, so I’m eating ramen soup and Pringles, things that are really not good for you but are super-high in fats and salt.”

On their Lhotse summit day in 2018, Hilaree estimates that she ate two Clif BLOKS and half an energy bar and drank a half liter of water. (Stopping to hydrate seemed, in her words, like “wasted effort,” given the elevation and the fact that her skis were lashed A-frame-style to the outside of her pack.) Knowing they wouldn’t eat much on the go, she and Jim fueled up at 2 a.m. that morning with half-liter coffee drinks—a blend of Alpine Start and protein mix—and salami and oatmeal, food that would stick with them.

But it’s never enough. “On the back end, you’re expecting it to take weeks if not a couple months to fully recover from that effort,” Hilaree says.

For her this lengthy recovery period involves “a gradual ramping up to eating real meals again,” as well as “easy-motion exercises” that don’t get her heart rate up. There’s also a brief, enjoyable window where she still feels superhumanly hyper-acclimatized. Yet her legs, two concrete blocks, remind her to prioritize rest. Just like ski touring around obstacles and fighting through waist-deep snow, getting back to a place where she can run and ride and ski again takes patience. It’s a different type of concerted effort.

For Hilaree, all of this—the rough-and-tumble ski tours she and Jim do in training, the nutrition difficulties, the long, grueling days above 20,000 feet—is “pretty fun in a twisted way.” She loves each twisted piece of it, which is why she’s always hungering for more. You don’t break barriers at 8,000 meters without the fire to see just how far and high your body can go.