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Woman sets record by skiing down world's 4th-highest mountain

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Hilaree Nelson

Hilaree Nelson is seen on Lhotse, Earth's fourth-highest mountain.

Anything could happen. Knowing that is the strange thrill of clicking into skis atop the planet's fourth-highest mountain.

But Hilaree Nelson is not one to spend 17 hours climbing, breaking trail through hip-high snowfields while hungry, freezing and struggling to breathe above 27,000 feet only to cut the mission short.

No, the summit of Lhotse was not the goal.

Ever since the Coloradan tagged Everest and then this sister peak within 24 hours in 2012, laying eyes on the couloir and deciding it was "the most beautiful, high-altitude Himalayan line," the idea was to ski down. And Nelson is not one to give up on an idea.

"When she gets her mind wrapped around doing something like this, she's extremely willing to suffer and put her head down," says Jim Morrison, her Tahoe City, Calif.-based boyfriend and similarly determined alpinist who was with her on the mountain that day, Sept. 30.

Morrison also was alongside her last year for humankind's first ski descent of 21,165-foot Papsura, the Peak of Evil, which haunted Nelson since her failed 2013 climb. In case the sporting world needed any reminder that motherhood (two young boys) and age (46) were not slowing Nelson down, that 3,000-foot run was it.

Now, atop Lhotse, it was time for a 7,000-foot shot, another do-or-die moment in which Nelson could not think about her boys, Quinn and Grayden, back home in Telluride, Colo.

All of her mental storage, whatever was left of it, had to be channeled on the terrain: the narrow couloir's fast-shifting rock, ice and powder. As ever, she had to consider avalanche danger, but that could not distract her from whatever mental and physical strength she could muster for the plunge into the treacherous unknown.

Out of the couloir, the face of the mountain opened, wide enough to link six, seven turns. The sun shone.

Nelson couldn't stop laughing.

"It started settling in," she says. "We might actually just be able to do this whole thing."

Add another record to an illustrious career.

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Descending Lhotse

Hilaree Nelson descends Lhotse.

Nelson needs another pair of hands to count her first descents by skis and the number of countries in which she's made her legend known. Being first? Sure, that means something to the woman hailed by Outside Magazine as one of the most adventurous among us.

"I like being first not because I can tote that around afterward," she says. "For me, to do something the first time means there wasn't any path laid out or plan on how to do something. You get to come up with that on your own, make your own way and figure it out. That's what intrigues me about being first. There's no road map."

At one time, though, she feared her life did come with a blueprint, a doomed destiny.

Growing up in Washington state, she lived on a boat with her parents for weeks, unusual excursions all part of a family mystery that became clearer to her over the years.

"I grew up in a household that had a lot of depression issues," she says. "And it affected me really deeply, and it scared me I was going to be that way."

She got hooked on the gym, basketball in particular, the game and the strain of her body a guard against creeping darkness.

The slopes, the backcountry of the Cascades, became an ultimate defense. "I chose the outdoors as my medicine," she says.

Following her family history, she would have gone to college in Washington, graduated and stayed close. But by her senior year, she got to thinking that sticking around would have been to submit. She needed something different. She looked to Colorado Springs.

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Lhotse

Hilaree Nelson and boyfriend Jim Morrison on Lhotse, the world's fourth-highest mountain.

From the Colorado College campus, she'd run most every day to the Garden of the Gods, where on the red rocks she cultivated her climbing skills. She skied relentlessly, Pikes Peak a favorite challenge in the spring. By graduation in 1996, she craved a greater challenge.

She moved to France's Chamonix Valley, taking turns with some of the most daring high-altitude seekers alive. She strung together expeditions through fearsome ranges in Russia, India and South America. She rose fast through the ranks, winning the Women's Extreme Skiing Championships. The North Face made her a star of its team, as she remains today.

Yet, Nelson felt she needed something different again.

"I was pretty ready to leave Chamonix because I felt I was on this trajectory to die in the mountains," she says. "One sort of side effect of this long history of France and the Alps was the people I was hanging out with, who were very flippant about death, unemotional about it. I was taking on that persona."

She had other plans. She wanted to be a mother.

In 2000, amid her soaring career, she met the man she would marry and later divorce, having Quinn and Grayden and starting this dual life of sorts.

"It's almost comical," she says back in Telluride, the Himalayas swapped for household chores.

But it's also caused her guilt, risking her life in these alpine pursuits. Her partner has seen her harbor this but also hope.

"Hopefully," Morrison says, "it'll help teach the kids to be exceptional instead of ordinary."

Hopefully, Nelson thinks. And she thinks about how her mother was when she left home, the nest empty and a purpose suddenly uncertain.

"My mom was a full-time mom, and when I was the last kid to leave, she didn't know who she was. She spent quite a few years being really lost," Nelson says. "I just feel strongly about keeping my identity while being a mom. It's very possible to do."

So Quinn and Grayden will see her off for whatever adventure calls next. Nelson has ideas, of course. She has scores to settle with some peaks in Asia, and she'd love to try something in Antarctica.

But for now, she's making breakfast for the boys, preparing lunches and planning dinners, seeing them off to school before some cleaning and daydreaming in the afternoon. Anything could happen, she knows, and she is in her happy place.

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