Climbing with Kids: Hilaree O’Neill Interview
Hilaree O’Neill is one of the most well rounded mountain athletes out there. She is the first woman to climb two 8000 meter peaks in 24 hours and has continued to push the envelope with big mountain expeditions for decades. Along with being a truly inspirational athlete, she is also the mother of two young boys. She recently returned from an expedition to Makalu, where her boys joined her on the trek to basecamp. She was super kind to do an incredible and open interview on the life of a professional athlete and mother. I hope you draw as much inspiration from it as I did.
Can you tell me a little about your journey into the sport of skiing and mountaineering?
I grew up skiing from the age of 3. I remember staying at a ketchum hotel and getting out wearing tiny goggles for my very first ski. Ski vacations were amazing, they sort of paved my interest in mountaineering. But it wasn’t until college that I ventured into the mountaineering side of the sport. I remember my first rock climb ever at age 19 in the Garden of the Gods outside of Colorado Springs and I fell in love with that sport first. Eventually, the same friends that took me rock climbing also took me up my first 14’er and then again, on my first ski tour a year or so later. I was absurdly hooked and obsessed with all of it. My friends even got me a pullover printed with our rock climbing club logo on the chest! I absolutely adored that hoodie and would wear it at any opportunity I got. Apparently, my friends got it printed by reaching out to a custom printing company like Imprint. I had no idea that you could custom print your own designs onto clothing so I was amazed. Custom clothing is great for any clubs or sports teams too. Anyway, I finished college with a BA in Biology but, more importantly, a whole new vision and skill for moving in the mountains. From there, I climbed Mt. Rainier which was my first time on a glacier and then moved a few months later to Chamonix, France. The learning curve in the Alpes was incredibly steep but I somehow survived those initial years. During my 5 years in France, I skied and climbed as much as I could until I could no longer discern between skiing and mountaineering- they became one thing for me. By the time I left Chamonix, I was on the North Face athlete team and traveling around the globe on various expeditions. It was a dream come true.
How did you come about your decision to have kids? Was it something you always wanted? Or struggled with?
I think I always wanted to have kids. It was never a question for me until I was married and 30 years old and my husband was ready for children and I wasn’t. Initially, I had a miscarriage and shortly after that, my husband was in a really bad avalanche that left him with a seriously broken neck. After a few surgeries and five fused vertebrae in his neck we spent nearly 4 years trying to get pregnant again to no avail. By the time it finally happened for us, I was pretty ready to have a kid. I don’t just see my job as an adventure but, rather, every aspect of my life. After struggling to get pregnant I realized that kids would probably be the biggest adventure of my life and I was pretty ready to start that chapter.
How were your pregnancies? Were you able to stay active? And your postpartum recoveries?
My pregnancies were pretty smooth. I was able to ski with both boys all the way through the 3rd term. With my first son, I was on an ski trip in Alaska for The North Face at 6 months pregnant. Postpartum was a bit of a different story. I had to have an emergency C-section with my first boy and that was hard to recover from. A few months later I was diagnosed with Postpartum Hyper-thyroid disease which left me pretty emaciated.
Can you tell me a little about getting back into your sports and expeditions? How did you manage/coordinate going on long trips?
Wow. If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself over the last 10 years of pregnancies and raising boys and trying to continue as a pro athlete, it’s that I rarely take the easy road. I put a lot of pressure on myself and sometimes that results in overzealous expectations. At any rate, I went on my first expedition when my oldest son was 10 months old. It was an 8 week trip in Pakistan to climb and ski an 8000meter peak. In hindsight, I think it was a bit too quick to be leaving home but I felt I really needed to do it in order to stay on top of my world as an athlete. I had to train a lot to get back in shape so quickly pilates was huge for getting my core firing again, especially after a C-section. Mostly I was outside, though. I would package up Quinn and go for runs pushing the stroller and big hikes with him on my back. Once I had two boys, the training was more or less but just twice the workout.
Coordinating for those long trips is almost harder now than it was in the beginning. My boys are 6 and 8 today and their lives are very socially active with tons of scheduling that is challenging to coordinate from home, let alone the side of a mountain. When the boys were little, things were more straight-forward. I am fortunate to have a lot of help from both my parents and my in-laws, aw well as friends locally in Telluride. My husband, Brian, has to take on the lion’s share of work however. That has been very hard on him at times but we somehow manage.
What is a “typical” day for you in Telluride? Training, being a mom, etc.
Being a mom is a very social endeavor, especially once kids start school. There is lots of chatting and mingling at drop-off every morning. I try to get a run or bike ride in before I sit down at my desk. It’s much more difficult to go climbing these days as it’s time consuming and requires co-ordinting with other people. I spend a fair amount of time in my office trying to coordinate my job and family as I travel a lot for work. There’s always some element of laundry in my daily life. Kids get picked up after school and transported to some after school activity like art class or soccer, gymnastics or a play date. There’s always lots of kid-swapping as I live in a very active town and all the moms are trying to get out and do some sort of activity during the day.
You just got back from a trip to Makalu where your boys trekked to base camp with you, can you tell me a little about that? How did you decide to take them? How was it having them there?
I’ve always dreamed about traveling with my kids. Telluride is a very small and utopic town- an amazing place to raise kids but very sheltered from the rest of the world. Traveling, to me, is an incredible bonding experience, it often tests your patience and fortitude, and always expands your view of humanity and the environment. With that said, bringing the boys to Makalu basecamp was totally insane. At the time, I thought it was the worst idea I’ve ever had. Mostly because the trek is incredibly rugged and it was monsoon season so it poured rain the entire time. Frontally, the boys had no expectations and they are much better at living in the moment than their parents. They did an amazing job and I think it will be an experience that they will never forget.
How has your life changed having your boys? Are they excited to join you on other trips? Do you have an endless list of objectives? Or are you selective?
Having kids has to change your life- in some ways I think that’s the whole point. I do have to be very selective about trips I go on these days because my time home is really valuable and precious. Kids change and grow so unbelievably fast. However, I love what I do and it’s a huge part of my identity and my kids see that and appreciate it and I think that’s a valuable thing. My older son now spins the globe around at his school and he shows me all the places he wants to go and has awesome reasons for his choices-his latest and greatest is to go to Australia because he wants to see kangaroos and he has a crush on a girl in his class who happens to be from Sydney.
Any advice for parents out there that want to maintain the traveling/adventure/mountain lifestyle with kids?
My best advice is to start adventures and traveling with your kids when they are very young. It’s really hard and often overwhelming but it pays off tremendously as they get older.