Hilaree O’Neill fights her way up the mountain on screen and in person at the Victoria

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: O’Neill is the first woman to scale two 8,000-meter peaks in 24 hours

The credits roll and the scene opens: two tents are pitched on a mountain peak and the wind whips around them. As the camera does a 360-degree turn, all you see is snow and jagged edges, no other signs of civilization. The view is breathtaking. The immensity is overwhelming. The isolation is chilling.

Am I describing the latest adventure thriller? No, this scene is from a real-life expedition to the top of Hkakabo Razi, an obscure mountain peak in Myanmar (formerly Burma), captured through film. National Geographic and The North Face sponsored both the documentary and project.

The Victoria Theatre, in partnership with Five Rivers MetroParks and as a special presentation of National Geographic Live, will screen the documentary “Down to Nothing” on Jan. 30 and give attendees a chance to meet the leader of the expedition, Hilaree O’Neill.

The North Face athlete and Telluride mountaineer has been skiing since she was 3-years-old and ski mountaineering professionally for almost two decades. O’Neill has scaled and completed ski descents in peaks located in countries such as Argentina, India, Nepal, Bolivia, Mongolia, and Switzerland.

She is hailed as the first woman to climb two 8,000-meter peaks (Everest and Lhotse) in a 24-hour period. Comparatively, Hkakabo Razi is only about 5,700 meters, or 19,000 feet high–but it was unscaled and unrouted, and O’Neill and her team discovered they were unprepared.

“I’ve been on a lot of bigger, higher mountains,” O’Neill says. “But I underestimated how cold and extreme a 19,000-high foot mountain could be. It caught me off guard.”

The wind alone was bone chilling. Hkakakbo Razi separates a Tibetan plateau from a Myanmar jungle, and the combination of air temperatures creates a continual wind tunnel and cold front. Freezing winds blow up to 70 mph on a regular basis.

“Of all the things Mother Nature can throw at me, wind just makes me insane,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill wasn’t alone in this statement. Her team included The North Face videographer Renan Ozturk and climber Emily Harrington, National Geographic author Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, and basecamp manager Taylor Rees. All of these explorers have scaled mountains before and have a resume of experience behind them. Yet they all were caught off-guard by the physical conditions of the peak and the surrounding area.

Part of the surprise came from the uncharted element of the expedition. In this digital, adventurous age, mountains that are much higher and with a significant degree of difficulty have already been scaled, the information passed around in the small world of climbers. A plethora of knowledge can be found even outside of the mountaineer community through an Internet search.

But when O’Neill and her travel mates first undertook the Hkakabo Razi trip, that information didn’t exist. There were no pictures on the internet, and there was little written about the conditions of the mountain or the trip to get there. The peak was a legend, supposed to be the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, and it was “calling out” to O’Neill.

“The way my career started was in expedition, exploration of the unknown,” O’Neill says. “This was getting back to how I originally started.”

She had been submitting the idea for the expedition to The North Face for 10 years–and finally got approval in 2014.

“It was purely for an adventure. I like putting myself out of my element and out of my comfort zone,” O’Neill says. “I was ready to get my ass kicked and get humbled.”

Or so she thought. Hkakabo Razi leveled the team in ways they did not expect. Aside from the crippling wind, there was a lack of supplies and food. Some supplies the team just wasn’t aware they were going to need, such as a style of climbing boot that was extremely bulky but would have been worth the extra weight.

Some supplies vanished in unexpected ways: the amount of food they brought should have been enough to last the trip. But in the 15-day trek it took just to get to base camp, a lot of that food was used for barter and bribery in the Myanmar villages and military outposts. The team had to deal with a political climate of tribal fighting and military corruption.

Even finding people to help carry their equipment was a challenge. Unlike Nepal and Pakistan, there was no group of natives scrambling to be porters in Myanmar. O’Neill said their paper money had little value to the Myanmar villagers they encountered, because that economy is still mainly run on a trading system.

In the National Geographic article written about the expedition, Kelley McMillan put it this way: “Just getting to the foot of the remote mountain was a feat requiring more than two years of careful planning, delicate negotiations with Myanmar officials, and a 135-mile mud-sucking slog through a dense jungle filled with tigers, poisonous snakes, and bands of ethnic rebels fighting the Myanmar government.”

At this point, the team is not only freezing–they are starving. O’Neill dropped 10 pounds in the first month of that trip. On top of that, this was a group with several strong personalities and a huge human dynamic. And at one point, the group had to split up because the trek became a full alpine climb–six people was too many to complete such a feat due to the technicality and speed involved.

“It was a really intense environment,” O’Neill says. “It was mentally one of the most trying, difficult trips I’ve taken.”

And yet, O’Neill wants to go back, prepared, with the appropriate supplies and her two sons in tow. The adventure and the beauty still call out to her:

“Up there, it’s really simple. Life is very complicated and convoluted. But [on the mountain] you’re just focused on one step, one thing at a time.”

Hilaree O’Neill appears Monday, Jan. 30 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. The event starts at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $27 and can be purchased through or by calling 937.228.3630. For more information, please visit Watch the full documentary at

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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