The Death of Hilaree Nelson

Photo: Outside Online

Hilaree was a month older that I am. Maybe that’s the reason her death hit me so hard. What else could it be? I didn’t actually know her…

Hilaree Nelson was a monster. She was the premier ski mountaineer of either gender. 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Captain of The North Face team. Multiple first descents on the biggest mountains in the world. Mother. Partner. Friend. Role Model.

I came to follow her online through posts from athletes like Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. These guys are the biggest names in their field, and they all looked up to Hilaree. Maybe I should too. It didn’t take long to see what all the fuss was about. Her Instagram page looks like a travel guide, peppered with the faces of people from far off places. Charming, funny, provocative, inspiring. All things you imagined Hilaree to be in person. It wasn’t glamour school, where the pictures were carefully crafted, the hair just right, the makeup perfect for the “oh, hey…I just woke up” montage IG influencers are notorious for. Hilaree was attractive, but never seemed to shy away from the photos of her sweaty, dirty, exhausted.

Real.

(Photo: Outside Online)

I don’t follow celebrities on social media. The closest I get are athletes like Conrad or Jimmy, Tony Hawk, Alex Honnold, or Bethany Hamilton. Melissa Arnot may be a name you’ve never heard of, but like Bethany and Hilaree, has transcended her sport to be among the best regardless of gender. I’ve followed Melissa on social media for a long time. Early in her career I saw how she welcomed the responsibility of role model. I’m often forwarding posts of hers, and Bethany’s and of Hilaree’s to my two daughters. These aren’t badass female athletes….They’re badass athletes. Full stop. And they’re women, with careers, husbands, and families. And as much as I push role models for my children, quite honestly these women are role models for me.

This relationship between me and those I follow online is called a parasocial relationship. Psychologists first developed the concept of parasocial relationships in the 1950s, though the practice is likely as old as is celebrity itself. We often pull inspiration from those with an elevated social standing, like actors, athletes, even politicians, and become emotionally invested in them. It is not uncommon for fans of television and movies and other entertainment properties to create unique social circles that further strengthen those bonds. Social media has likely increased the intensity of parasocial bonds, as celebrities often interact with their fans directly, creating a stronger sense of relationship for the fans.

The first celebrity death that I recognized as impactful in my life was the musician Stevie Ray Vaughn. I had just started to explore his music when he was killed in a helicopter crash. Selfishly, I was disappointed I would never get an opportunity to see him play in concert. I wouldn’t say the experience was grief, but it was the first time I remember feeling some sense of loss over a celebrity death.

I cried when Robin Williams took his own life. Not immediately, but several days later I was home alone and watching television when something came on to celebrate his life and I just lost it. From a young age I had watched Mork & Mindy. I was obsessed with his 1986 comedy special An Evening at the Met. Obsessed. Being a hyper child, Robin was the guiding path for me. I consumed everything he did. My brother and I watched every single Comic Relief special we could find. I saw nearly all of his movies, spent countless hours on YouTube watching his interviews on Johnny Carson or David Letterman, laughing at all of the craziness I’d seen over and over and over. It never got old for me.

And then he was gone.

Alone to contemplate what he meant in my life, since I was a child, I was struck with immeasurable grief. I didn’t even follow Robin on social media, I just knew his work. He brought great joy and silliness to my life. The rational me knows that material will never go away, I’ll always have it. And as I said, it never gets old. But he was gone.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Robin, and thinking about why there was this void when he left. Part of it was that my dad had passed unexpectedly a year prior. Losing him has made me more of an emotional person, mostly in private. Often things I’ll see or hear on television will spark a memory that will include my dad somehow, and I get choked up. I lost my dad for crying out loud, I should get choked up. But Robin Williams?

The studies on parasocial relationships indicate that sometimes our bonds with celebrities are so strong they influence our behaviors in daily life. In other words, these celebrities are role models for us. We associate ourselves with the traits of the celebrity we admire most, and mirror those behaviors. I’m a raving lunatic sometimes, and will do just about anything to make people laugh when I have an audience. I don’t even care if it makes me look ridiculous, as long as you’re laughing. Thank you, Robin Williams.

But that is Robin. We’re both males, with a ton of energy, with some gift to make people laugh (albeit wildly different ends of the talent spectrum). I have nothing in common with Hilaree Nelson. I also didn’t follow her all that long, compared to my years long obsession with Robin, dating back to some very formative years.

In fact, I’d followed other mountain athletes that I probably had more in common with, who were killed in their sport, who I had followed for longer. David Lama, Dean Potter, Marc-Andre Leclerc, and countless others whose names I recognized but didn’t follow online. Surfers, too. Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck’s death on Everest in 2017 bummed me out, and was probably the closest I’d been to grieving in large part because friends of his like Melissa Arnot grieved online. It was difficult to not share in her grief. I didn’t feel a void, and I didn’t cry. I was just sad for her, and others.

Hilaree was technically lost for a two days before her body was found. She and her partner (in life and on the mountain) Jim Morrison were making a ski descent of the 8,000 meter Manaslu when they got separated, and then someone from their team believed they saw her fall into a crevasse. I got a news alert when it was first reported, and scrambled to the internet for any additional news I could get. I was glued to my phone for two days. They would find her, I thought. She’d be cold, hurt, and pissed off, but they’d find her.

Hilaree is a fucking beast.

It took two days because of bad weather. Maybe if they’d found her that day. Maybe if they’d found her the next day. Maybe. The reports flooded in, and soon my IG feed was a stream of tributes. Conrad, Jimmy, Renan, Melissa, Cody Townsend. The North Face, Patagonia, Outside Magazine, Mammut…

I still can’t believe it. I know it’s real, I just don’t want it to be real. Not because of her children, her partner, because she’s a woman. Those are all good reasons. People die every day, for reasons less soul fulfilling than exploring grand mountains. She and I are the same age. I don’t begrudge her for having a more adventurous life than mine, I have a great life. I loved that she was passionate about her sport, was the best in it, and was able to make it a career.

And please, don’t talk to me about women with children shouldn’t have risky careers.

Yes, they should.

Her kids will grow up to understand her mother was a pioneer, a world class athlete who worked hard and was the best there ever was. Or they won’t. But who the hell are we to judge that for her or her kids? She should just sit on the couch and be safe her whole life because she has kids? What if she gets hit by a bus walking down the street? Her kids will have still lost their mother, but they may be disappointed to discover years later their mom didn’t follow her dreams because someone convinced her she shouldn’t have a dangerous job if she has kids. What kind of role model is that? She wasn’t snorting cocaine and playing Russian Roulette. She made a career out of her passion.

I’m still trying to process my own grief. I don’t fully understand it. I’ve thought about it from a clinical perspective, and don’t recognize I had a strong parasocial bond with her. I didn’t know her so well that I mirrored her behaviors. Of the females I’ve mentioned, my daughters probably know her the least. It wasn’t like I was obsessed or consumed. I hate to think I sense a void only because she’s a woman. Because of all of the professional athletes I’ve followed she is the only woman to have died. On the surface, it doesn’t feel that superficial. But in the absence of true understanding, what else is there? Maybe it is as simple as being the same age. And what being 49 means, antecedent of what many might feel is a worrying milestone. What I have done with my life. Do I still belong, and if so, where?

For now, I’ll have faith I don’t want it to be real because there is a part of me that believes the world was a better place with Hilaree in it.

LEARN MORE ABOUT HILAREE NELSON:

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5 thoughts on “The Death of Hilaree Nelson”

  1. Hi Greg. I’ve never heard of parasocial relationships but it all makes sense. Certainly this is not anything new but with social media the number of “celebraties” is amplified along with the information, photos, videos, etc. that are available to us. I think we not only identify but put them on a pedestal we can’t reach so that when they fall it bursts our bubble we are not only faced with their invincibility but our own.

    1. Thanks for your comments! Social media has certainly amplified the phenomenon of parasocial relationships, and I would argue we strengthen those relationships in our own lives as long as the celebrity holds value for us. We place them on pedestals because we want them there for our own purposes, whether objectification or other moral reasoning. When the celebrity behavior no longer aligns with our identity or that which we have created we tend to find satisfaction in leveling the playing field, so to speak. Some psychologists suggest we enjoy celebrity falls from grace because it returns balance in relation to our own lives that may be perceived as less privileged. For some, like our relationships with celebrities who die young or die unexpectedly, our feelings of grief remain strong because they still held value and maybe hadn’t gotten to a point where we disapproved of their behaviors or beliefs.

  2. This post made me cry. EXACTLY. You can be crossing a street and a drunk can hit you. Live your life and remember that any day can be your last so do what you love. Wish I had things less trite to say, but your post was really moving. Thank you.

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