Hilaree O’Neill climbing the face of Papsura, known as the Peak of Evil, in India. This was her second attempt at climbing Papsura. Despite the climb being one of her most terrifying, she succeeded. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

One of the most accomplished ski mountaineers on the planet with a well-documented knack for suffering, Hilaree O'Neill also likes to ski powder. And last winter—when the West was pummeled by atmospheric rivers of historical significance—she skied a lot of powder.

The winter that O'Neill calls her wildest was a tick-list of descents in Telluride, the Eastern Sierra, India, and Alaska. With her partner, Jim Morrison, she schussed cold smoke turns in Telluride's famously tight couloirs and set off on skin tracks to descents in the Eastern Sierra Nevada that hadn't been in shape for skiing in a decade, including the 14er Mount Williamson. That was just training for what was to come.

Papsura, in India's Punjab Himalaya, known as the Peak of Evil, is the only mountain that O'Neill has returned for a second attempt at summitting. With Jackson-based photographer Chris Figenshau and Morrison last spring, she succeeded—pushing through a 3 a.m. start and a 50-plus-degree face of ice and snow. In the final stretch of the climb, a monsoon settled in with thick fog and flat light. The group waited three hours at the 21,165-foot summit for the storm to pass, only to ski down in disorienting visibility through a legitimate no-fall zone, returning to camp in the dark, by the light of an iPhone. O'Neill says the day she summitted Papsura last spring was the single most intense day of her life, a bold statement coming from a woman who led the tortured, hellish, and starved expedition to Burma's Hkakabo Razi, in 2014, on a quest to find the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.

Then, hardly one month after Papsura, O'Neill and Morrison were en route to Denali, which they would summit twice—once to ski the iconic 5,000-foot Messner Couloir in heavenly powder, and a few days later, to climb the historic Cassin Ridge, a mountaineering route.

O'Neill is 45 years old. She has been a professional ski mountaineer for two decades and her resume is stacked with enough first descents and dozens of expeditions to fill several lifetimes. She is the first woman to climb Everest and its neighbor Lhotse in 24 hours, and she skied off the summit of 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world. Yet, several years after Hkakabo Razi nearly broke her, O'Neill is back in the mountains and leaning in with all that she has to give. And that's not just reaching high elevations. Last month, O'Neill was in Davos, Switzerland, representing Protect Our Winters at the Global Economic Forum and speaking to the world's leaders about a topic she is well versed in: failure.

I saw O'Neill speak last week in Squaw Valley at a speaker series hosted by the local backcountry ski shop, Alpenglow. The story of her winter last year was singular and inspiring. The next morning, after she finished yet another interview for a podcast, she took a moment to meet me for coffee and share a little bit more. Here's the transcript from our interview, which has been shortened and condensed for clarity.

After college, your parents bought you a one-way ticket to Chamonix, France. You didn't come back for five years. What happened to you over there?
To totally date myself, it was because of the Blizzard of Aahhh’s, the ski movie.

My two girlfriends and a couple other friends from college were like, 'Let's go over there for a season.' My parents got me this one-way ticket. So when everyone else left, I just stayed, year-round.

So I ended up in Chamonix in January of '96. It was when Jim Morrison was over there [though they didn't meet until many years later] and Brant Moles and Shane McConkey. All of that was going on.

The first year of the [European World] Extreme Comps was that winter. I competed with like two other girls and won. There were three of us. The playing field was really small to say the least.

Because of winning that, it set me on this trajectory.

I've known forever that being a woman on an expedition has huge value. We see things differently. We have our own perspective. I'm not going to go on an expedition and try to be a guy.

Beyond skiing, what other skills did you learn in Chamonix that served you in expeditions and mountaineering?
I got this bigger sense of what it's like to really be in the mountains, instead of just going skiing for a day.

When you go skiing [in Chamonix], you go skiing with a harness, and ice screws, and an ice axe, and crampons, and a rope, and a big pack. All of that was totally new to me and crazy. I was learning a lot: skiing on glaciers and navigating and reading snow conditions.

I wasn't this amazing skier. But when I started putting the uphill with the skiing—that was something I was really good at. I just had the lungs. I really fell in love with the uphill and the downhill.

One of your first accomplishments as a ski mountaineer was the first female descent of the Bubble Fun Couloir on Buck Mountain in the Tetons. After that, how did you figure it out to make ski mountaineering a career?
That basically came in the form of The North Face, essentially. It took me a few years to put all of the pieces to the puzzle together, and [in 1999] they came on board and said, 'We need a female ski mountaineer.'

Within a month I was in India on my first expedition. And it was crazy. Like totally blew my mind, and then I was hooked. And then I started traveling from Chamonix all over the world, going on three, five expeditions a year.

Hilaree O’Neill started combining mountaineering and skiing in the late ’90s in Chamonix. She is now one of the world’s best and most accomplished ski mountaineers. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

Between that first trip to India and Papsura last year, I imagine you have encountered many scary moments in the mountains. How have you learned to handle fear and what role does fear play in ski mountaineering?
I think everybody has fear in this extreme sport. It's just using it. And understanding it—like a tool, like your crampons. When I get afraid, I get calmer and I can hear things better and see my environment better. But then there's times when I've lost my shit, too, and gone into panic, and that doesn't help anybody. But you learn from it.

That ski on Papsura was the scariest thing I think I've ever done. Just descending, visibility was crazy. It was so steep and you were looking straight down. You couldn't have slipped or you would never have been able to stop yourself. Even in the Messner, there was so much snow if you fell you would have done a roll and stopped. But this was just like, if your ski popped off, if anything went wrong, you were gone.

It's not often that you put yourself in that kind of exposure for 10 hours at a time. A 15-hour day with that much exposure is exhausting. You don't eat, you don't drink on top of that, and you're at altitude. I think all three of us were right on the edge of this fear paradigm. It worked out.

I think that spoke highly to the three of us being able to help each other and understand where each person was and when we could ask for something and when we needed to give something and work really well together. Literally, if any one of us had done something outside of what the others could handle, the whole thing would have fallen apart.

Papsura is so aesthetic you said it drew you back for a second attempt. What attracted you to that mountain?
The shape of it is just beautiful. There is nothing contrived about the line. When you look at it, you're like, 'That's the ski line.' It is so direct, so committing. I like the fact that it's in India and you have to go through all this culture and craziness of India to get to it. And then, there's something about that rock ridge on the right that we were looking at. It's just stunning. Every side of that mountain is just this crazy pitch and just perfect. It was just beautiful.

It took me a while to figure out what it was called. There are two peaks. One was Papsura and the other was called Daramsura. They're the Peaks of Good and Evil. They're supposed to change in elevation depending on how much good and evil are in the world. Papsura is higher, so there's more evil.

It's also how Jim felt about Denali. To him, he'd never been there. It was his dream line. The Cassin was this perfect combination of big mountain and altitude and challenge and endurance. It was the same way I felt about Papsura. So it was pretty cool to put the two of them together.

In large part because of its aesthetic and inspiring descent, Hilaree O’Neill was drawn back to Papsura (looker’s right) in India for a second attempt at summiting, which she succeeded at. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

What's it like to have a partner that keeps up with you, pushes you, and that you can do these things with?
I mean, I've never had it before. It was really weird at first. I've never been on an expedition with a significant other.

I feel like, as my life was falling apart from 2010 to 2015, I wasn't getting anywhere in the mountains and I wasn't going for the right reasons. And then eventually, I separated with my husband and started going into the mountains with a partner. It changed a lot of things and started pushing me and it felt like I was there for the right reasons.

Is that why you say last winter was your wildest?
I think, because it came off such a hard time in my life, I wasn't doing things for the right reasons. And I wasn't confident. A lot of my motivation was to get out of my own head, and I can do that by scaring myself and being in intense situations. I just hadn't done anything that I was really proud of or psyched on for a few years. So I was like, fuck it, be selfish and do these things that I've really wanted to do. I have a partner. Everything lined up. And I was at a time in my life where I really needed stuff to line up, so I was pretty psyched about it.

You have been the only woman on many expeditions. What are some things you would say to women who are wanting to pursue ski mountaineering?
I've known forever that being a woman on an expedition has huge value. We see things differently. We have our own perspective. I'm not going to go on an expedition and try to be a guy. I'm going to try and climb as hard as everyone else and physically be as tough. But mentally and emotionally, I'm not. And I'm not going to try to be. I'm going to have my own opinions. It took a long time to get to that place.

I've gotten so many opportunities because I'm a woman. When I first started, there just weren't that many women doing it, and so there was always the title of the female, like The North Face needed a female ski mountaineer. You get the tagline of 'The First Female to Combine Lhotze and Everest.' I think those taglines are falling away, because we want it to and because we don't need it anymore. There are enough of us and there's enough momentum that we're really competitive, regardless of gender.

I was given this body. I am so grateful for it. I'm really grateful for having this opportunity because of how I was born or who I was born to be or whatever. And I'm going to fuckin' push it, to see how far it goes.

Women, especially when we're in a competitive environment against each other, we are the most critical against ourselves. Sometimes we're just, like, not nice to each other and not suppportive of each other because we're so critical of ourselves. We really want to do well, and sometimes there isn't space for more than one woman. But that is changing. We have to learn to be more supportive, and to be our own community.

Coming back from a hard time, speaking at the World Economic Forum about failure, what does it mean to you to be resilient?
I think there are two kinds of resilience. There's short-term resilience, which is a single day push or a single day of 'I got this.' I can keep going and make it to the top or finish this ski.

And then there is life resilience, which is longterm. It doesn't always work, but I try to take the short-term resilience that I get from being an athlete, and almost like it's scientific, I like to step outside of myself and say, 'OK. You got to push through the physical side and then the mental is going to kick in and you're going to keep going.'

All of this hardship is balanced by amazing things, and if you give it enough time, that's all going to equal out, but you have to have resilience to keep pushing on.

I certainly don't get the impression that you're backing off, at all.
Yeah, and I'm very adamant about that part. At first, it's keep pushing after having kids. Now, it's keep pushing into my 40s. Sometimes I don't know where it comes from. Sometimes I wish it would go away. But I love the mountains today like I loved them 20 years ago. That hasn't changed.

I was given this body. I am so grateful for it. I'm really grateful for having this opportunity because of how I was born or who I was born to be or whatever. And I'm going to fuckin' push it, to see how far it goes.

Skiing, mountaineering, the combination, is a unique sport that way. You get more endurance and more mental resiliency as you get older.

Last month, O’Neill traveled to Davos, Switzerland, to speak at the Global Economic Forum about climate change and experiencing failure in the mountains. PHOTO: Chris Figenshau

You brought your kids to Nepal recently. Is it important to show your kids this part of you and what it means when you leave to go to these places?
Nepal was gnarly actually. They were 6 and 8 when we did that. I mean it was like jungle bashing and leeches and pouring down rain and sleeping in the mud. They freaking loved it. I was terrified and panicked.

The 6-year-old had two porters to help us, so he got carried half the time. The 8-year-old walked the whole way. It was like 50 miles. We walked to 17,000 feet. It was intense.

More importantly than them seeing what I do, it was really cool to see them get to these villages and go and play, and play hard and physically and laugh with all these kids that they couldn't speak a single word to, and kids that were from a wholly different cultural and economic background. And kids, it's amazing that way, to see that, how they communicate, but they figure it out.

Being a representative of Protect Our Winters, what are your thoughts on using your influence as an athlete for environmental activism and climate change action?
It's something I'm still learning. My initial reaction to it is stay out of it, stay away from it. That's me. But then I have to backup. That's what I need to do to continue my personal path of learning and pushing. That was the ultimate uncomfortable place for me. I like pushing myself into that.

You know, my kids are going to be strapped with this shitshow. And I have had this amazing life because of snow and because of Mother Nature and winter, and my kids aren't going to have that. It's going to be different that fast.

Do you think of yourself as an activist?
No, I don't. I think of myself as sort of a selfish mountain person. So I've been always looking for this way to give back some of the things that I've learned from all my time spent focusing on mountains and climbing. Through speaking, I've been able to do that. It actually influences the 12-year-old girl from Omaha, Nebraska. It's cool and it makes me happy. So I'm slowly getting into that role, coming around to it. When you get older, you just want to have more of an impact.