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A pair of skis for Hilaree: Remembering an accomplished mountaineer

 Grayden O’Neill with a pair of Blizzards designed as a tribute to his mom, Hilaree Nelson.
Gavin McGough
Grayden O’Neill with a pair of Blizzards designed as a tribute to his mom, Hilaree Nelson.

In Telluride, a pair of limited edition skis are making an impact. They're a tribute to Hilaree Nelson, an accomplished ski mountaineer who called Telluride home.

Off the sidewalk across from the Gondola Station at Oak Street Plaza, Grayden Stanley O’Neill stands by a ski locker with his latest gear. They’re a pair of Blizzards released last fall, which glow pink and blue with the mottled shades of watercolor. At the tips, a mountain peak emerges.

“I’m not sure 100% what the mountain is,” says O’Neill, “but I think it’s the Lhotse Mountain which is the fourth tallest in the world, because there’s a very obvious couloir through the top of it on one of the skis.”

Acclaimed ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson, and her partner Jim Morrison, completed the first ski descent of that couloir in 2018. For many, the mountain is synonymous with Nelson and her legacy.

“I think it was probably the biggest milestone for her, and one of her happiest moments,” says O’Neill.

Nelson, O’Neill’s mother, died in September 2022 while skiing on Mt. Manaslu in Nepal. The Blizzard skis are a tribute to Nelson, and they're also a memorial. On the right ski, a lone howls into the mountain air.

O’Neill points down below to the ski tips, where two wolf cubs are huddled, looking playfully down the slope.

“It seems to me they would represent me and my brother. Or it could also represent her passion for the mountains. The colors — the red — could represent her passion for the mountains.” 

The skis have made a splash in Telluride, and though they’re a super limited edition release, with fewer than 200 made, quite a few of those pairs have made it to the Box Canyon that Nelson called home.

“Already when I was home for winter break I saw a majority of people who knew her were skiing on them, and I thought that was super cool, and super lucky to be part of that,” says Maia Coe, who grew up in Telluride and now goes to school — and skis — in Bozeman, Montana.

Many in Telluride who sought out a pair knew Hilaree personally, either as a close friend, or someone about town who was an inspiration: embodying the spirit of the mountain life. Nelson was a friend of Coe’s family when she was growing up, but, she says, Hilaree was also just Hilaree.

“She’s the most badass woman ever, of course! And my mom would tell me all these stories about her, and we would watch these films about her, and I just felt so lucky to know her as well,” says Coe. 

This sentiment resonated with many who spoke about the skis, and the legacy of Nelson. Fern Garber is a Telluride local who knew Nelson around town, and first heard of the skis through her job at Jagged Edge.

“Being a female skier, and being out in the mountains, and having those skis underneath my feet, it makes me feel like I have her with me.” reflects Garber.

“Also, as a woman, just to be able to represent how amazing she was as an athlete and how hard she pushed and what she was able to accomplish during her career — I’m proud to represent that for her and carry on her legacy.”

The watercolors which grace the limited edition skis are the work of Malia Reeves, a painter and ski patroller from Taos, New Mexico. She was unsurprised to hear many were resonating with a sense of feminine power contained within the skies and within Hilaree’s legacy.

“As a professional full-time ski patroller in a very male-dominated work space, I think about the women who have set that path before me all the time, and Hilaree is definitely one of those women. Some of them are women in my personal life, such as my mother, who was a ski patroller in the ‘80s, and some of them are women like Hilaree who have shown not just me, but really the whole world, what is possible,” Reeves says. 

A picture book honoring Nelson titled Leader of the Pack was also produced as part of the project. A collaboration between Reeves, artist Soleil Patterson, and writer Kimberly Beekman, all proceeds from the sale of the book, and from the skis themselves, go to the Hilaree Nelson Fund, which Blizzard established to fund projects empowering women in the outdoors.

Reeves says she originally designed the skis with just a lone wolf, but found it was too stark, too solitary to fit Nelson’s story. She added a whole pack of wolves, and then in the final design she says they decided just to go with two wolf cubs on the back of the skis.

“Which kind of metaphorically represent her family and her two sons, but also represent all of us who had the privilege of being in the pack under her leadership.” 

Grayden O’Neill, back on Oak Street Plaza, felt similarly. The skis brought a sense of resonance, a sense of proximity to his mom.

“It’s kind of memory that’s enclosed into people who knew her and loved her. Plus, when they’re in the mountains skiing it’s really nice to have something of a memory of her and imagine that you’re skiing with her.”

It seems in Telluride, and slopes beyond, those memories of Nelson are alive and burning bright.

Copyright 2024 KOTO. To see more, visit KOTO.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Copyright 2024 Aspen Public Radio . To see more, visit Aspen Public Radio.

Gavin McGough