4 min read

Hilaree Nelson

I saw an Instagram post from Jimmy Chin yesterday about the memorial that Hilaree’s partner had organized for her. For those who don't know her, she was one of the very few people who did something called ski-mountaineering, at the highest level of the sport, if it can be called that. A niche like that, I think, can only be carved by people like her who listen to their inner voice and allow themselves to gravitate toward what they are curious about, and enjoy doing, regardless of the societal norms and trends. Her reputation as an endurance athlete stood as high as the summits she scaled. One of the qualities that was evident by merely listening to her talk, as it does with other folks of similar stature like Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin, is humility. If going out for a hike on a mountain, or taking a dip in the ocean humbles you for a brief period, and evokes regard for nature, then there's something to be said about what it does to your mind when you put yourselves out there for a good portion of your life, especially doing hard things. It etches a sense of insignificance, respect for forces beyond your control, and humility deep into the psyche. I learned about her from one of the Rich Roll podcasts I stumbled onto. Reading her bio made me curious because endurance athletics was dominated by men, at least publicly, if not factually, and so seeing a woman with such accomplishments under her belt drew me to listen to her story. And although that one episode is the extent to which I followed her, I feel like that has left an imprint on me that’s indelible. As the author and coach Steve Magness says in his book "Do Hard Things", there’s something wrong with what we associate with being tough. There’s an undeniable hint of masculinity and machismo in the qualities and attributes that come to mind when we talk about somebody tough. But everything about Hilaree reflected toughness, not in a brute manner, but in a way that somebody tough would weather and navigate whatever life or nature threw at them, gracefully – the stillness in her mannerisms, the passion with which she talked about her explorations and expeditions, and the courage and vigor with which she chased it, carving a path for others, especially women, by inspiring them. It reminds me of Rosa Parks, who, as the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain mentions, was as fierce a leader as King, but at the same time could not have been more different in how she carried herself.

Hundreds of people, if not thousands, gathered to pay tributes on her memorial. It was heartwarming to see so many people, friends and family, come together in remembrance of, and to celebrate a life lived in the service of individualistic pursuits. There's a notion in collectivistic cultures about individualistic ones that if you aren't actively contributing to the community, or aren't sacrificing your needs and desires for the collective good, you don't find true belonging and fulfillment. A belief that your life will somehow be devoid of meaning and depth if you only lived to do what you loved. But the number of lives you can touch and inspire merely by trying to be your best self, by doing what you do best, and by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is staggering. The gathering, from that perspective, looked like a celebration of a life well-lived – one full of passion, drive, hard work, and growth. Such a life feels fulfilling to me, in a literal sense. In the end, the so-called legacy you leave behind is the space you occupy in the minds of the people that live past you, the lives you made better through yours. Whether that's done either by directly and consciously helping people, or uplifting their lives by inspiring them matters less.

The definitions of the tribe are different, in collectivistic and individualistic cultures. It’s primarily your blood relationships in the former, but also the people who are connected by structures like religion, caste, race, color and so on. Not surprisingly, they are all boundaries that are largely static and one you're not in control of – you're either born in it, or you are out of it. In individualistic cultures, your tribe is the people who are connected to you by who you are and what you do. Hence the tribe is fluid in nature, changing for you as you change.

As days fold into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, and as I leave behind my free, single self and immerse deeper into the world of relationships and family life, I find myself yearning to live with such passion and vigor as Hilaree, and so many like her. While I have a good family and one that I think will remember me in positive ways after I’m gone, I hope to also touch the lives of people that are connected to me in a universal sense – by the means of the commonalities of lived experiences, connected by the fact of being humans. I also long to have an impact on the non-human world, to have made the lives of thousands or millions of animals better in some way. It’s an ambitious goal, and a vague one at that. If I told somebody that, they’d ask me for a plan – how I intended to go about doing it. They’d also declare that without a plan I’d not go much far. But I don’t have a plan, not yet. All I have is a burning desire, one that keeps me thinking about the best way to make progress towards it, one that looms over my mind in most idle moments of the waking hours, sometimes even in sleep, like a cloud on a particularly gloomy day, that pushes me to introspect and put my thoughts on paper at weird times like this. I’m writing this at 2.50 AM on a Monday morning, when I’m supposed to be sleeping, or expected to be thinking about the Monday blues of going to work. Desires and hopes, although not sufficient to achieve goals, are the necessary ingredients of finding a way. An intense wish for something, backed by a willingness to put in the effort, along with patience, persistence and a growth mindset can take you places. It has to me, in the past, which gives me some confidence in the process, for the future. Our minds have this amazing capability of taking treasures that brew in the depths of the subconscious and bringing to the surface of consciousness clarity, plans and solutions, to help us get to our finish lines, whatever they are. I hope that someday in the future when I look back at this note it makes me smile, that on that day I look at my life and feel happy about where the inspiration from this day took me.