Had you told me 12 years ago that my friend Hillary Gerardi ’09 would become one of the best mountain runners in the world, I doubt I would have believed you. For one thing, she is short, not much over five feet. For another, when I met her, she was wearing a red sequin dress and occupied one of the leadership roles on our college frisbee team best described as “party captains.” Once, she learned that a classmate liked to go on two-hour runs, and she found his habit ludicrous. She despised running. Now and then, she did it reluctantly to get exercise, but she rarely went more than two miles.
I don’t remember when I began to think of Hillary as a runner. I suspect it was sometime in 2012, when we had been out of college a few years. Hillary moved to Grenoble, France, with her boyfriend, Brad Carlson ’10, who had been hired as an English teaching assistant in a French public school. She worked as a nanny and a tutor and spent many days backcountry skiing in the mountains cradling the city. That spring, a friend invited her to a 30-kilometer—18-mile—race in the Massif de la Chartreuse, north of Grenoble. In France, and especially in the mountains, trail races are numerous and popular. Hillary accepted, and to her surprise, she won the race. The prize was a 12-pound leg of prosciutto. I remember the photograph she sent me afterward: Hillary standing on a podium, grinning, her petite torso obscured by the hunk of meat.
She intended to stay in France six months, and then months turned into years. Brad, who finished his teaching assistantship, was accepted into a master’s program at the University of Grenoble, in the Laboratory of Alpine Ecology. Hillary was hired to teach English at the American School of Grenoble. Each May, she ran “the ham race,” as she called it, and in 2015, she registered for her longest race yet, the Grand Raid des Pyrénées, 120 kilometers through a range on the southwest border of France. That summer prior to the race, Hillary and Brad visited my boyfriend, Terray Sylvester ’05, and me in California, and the four of us went to Yosemite National Park. One evening, after a full day of rock climbing, Hillary embarked on a 16-mile training run. Brad bowed out and drank a beer by a lake, while Terray tried to keep up with Hillary, though his legs are twice the length of hers. I chased behind them for roughly five miles and then retreated and took a nap on a rock.
Hillary won the Grand Raid des Pyrénées that September. Suddenly, her athletic career seemed meteoric. Through the glossy portal of Instagram, I watched her dominate race after race in a sequence called the Skyrunner World Series. “Skyrunning” was pioneered in the 1990s by an Italian climber, Marino Giacometti. The courses span long distances at high altitudes and require scrambling on precipitous ridges and treading off-piste. The secret to the sport, Hillary discovered, was knowing when not to run. With her experience climbing and skiing, she excelled on technical terrain. She could scramble without fear up rocky columns and glissade down snowy slopes. The Skyrunning Federation took note of her strong performances and began supporting her races, and when she won those, she acquired sponsors. One day, an image appeared on my Instagram feed of Hillary sharing a podium with Killian Jornet, the six-time champion of the Skyrunner series and by most measures the best endurance athlete in the world. In 2018, Black Diamond invited Hillary to join its team of mountain athletes. On the roster were world-class climbers Babsi Zangerl and Alex Honnold.
I began to think of Hillary as my most impressive friend. Really, it was more a feeling than a thought. Each time I saw a new photograph of her winning another race, I felt an inexplicable upwelling of emotion. I bragged about her to acquaintances and relatives. I told the story of the “ham race.” In my stories, I turned Hillary into a legend, and this legend grew to fill the distance between us, until I realized, one day, how long it had been since I had seen her and how little I actually knew about her life. This past September, we spoke by phone. Hillary had finished a string of races around Europe. Her last race of the season was in Limone sul Garda, Italy, in mid-October, and then she would fly to the Black Diamond headquarters in Salt Lake City to meet with her team. After that, she would return to France to emcee a mountain film festival in Grenoble. It was terrible timing to visit her, but we were in our 30s, the thick of our careers; what timing would be better?
I planned to stay five nights with Hillary and Brad in Servoz, a pastoral mountain village near Chamonix where they now live, and then drive with Hillary through the Alps, past Milan, to Limone sul Garda, where I would see her compete in her final race of the season. But the night before I arrived in Servoz, Hillary twisted an ankle while running intervals on the trails above the village. “Not sure what future holds in terms of race next weekend,” she texted. She was feeling “gutted,” she said. “Very much looking forward to good cheer to lift spirits!”
When I found her the next morning, Hillary was limping miserably, her ankle swollen to the girth of her calf, but her mood had improved. While petite, she commands an energy field many orbits beyond her body. She has luminous skin, and thick eyelashes feathering her baby-animal eyes, and a deep, smoky voice incongruous with her appearance. She is intensely charismatic, connective.
Within minutes of our arrival in Servoz, she led me on a treasure hunt through her neighborhood to locate a key secreted inside a friend’s shed, which opened the friend’s chalet, where we would find another key to a cellar in which the friend had buried a set of crutches. Meanwhile, Hillary was on the phone, chattering in fluent French as she translated the friend’s clues for me into English. When at last we located the crutches, she gasped, pleased. These were not ordinary crutches: They had crampons, a set of four teeth each, which could be extended to grip on ice and snow.
Hillary and Brad live in a small bottom-floor apartment: white walls and terra-cotta tile; a kitchen cluttered with oils, spices, and bottles of wine; a couch strewn with pillows; shelves spilling forth novels, cookbooks, guidebooks, and trophies. Photographs of mountains decorate the walls, as well as a collection of maps, the topography magnified with a glance out the living room window, which serves up a view of the classic ascent of the Grand Couloir on Mont Blanc.
They moved to Servoz from Grenoble three years ago when Brad finished a PhD in alpine ecology, and Hillary a master’s in multilingual communication. Both were hired by the Research Center for Alpine Ecosystems, or CREA Mont-Blanc, a nonprofit in Chamonix dedicated to scientific study and education. Hillary serves as the development director; Brad, a researcher. He collects data and builds models to understand how vegetation in the Alps is shifting in the context of climate change. For both, CREA is part-time work and only half the reason they moved to Servoz. Their proximity to Chamonix, the birthplace of alpinism, has served Hillary’s athletic career as well as Brad’s. In 2016, Brad was accepted into the Ecole Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme, or the ENSA, the oldest and most prestigious mountain guide training program in the world. This past summer, he became the third American to graduate from the program.
It was Saturday, and Hillary had made us lunch—sesame noodles, salad, a wedge of cheese. Afterward, we assembled overnight provisions and drove west to the foot of the Pointe Percée, a limestone bulb rising from a grassy cirque. In the cirque was a hut where we would stay the night and, some 300 meters above the hut, a barren ridge on which Hillary set her sights as soon as we claimed our bunks. She took off on the crutches, Brad trailing a bit skeptically behind. His bearing is distinct from hers—contained, words carefully measured. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” he said at one point, looking genuinely concerned for her ankle, but she insisted it was, and within the hour we had crested the ridge, from which we could see the Mont Blanc Massif glittering in a fresh veneer of snow.
I began to think of Hillary as my most impressive friend. Really, it was more a feeling than a thought. Each time I saw a new photograph of her winning another race, I felt an inexplicable upwelling of emotion.
In August 1786, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard made the first ascent of Mont Blanc after a Genevan geologist, Horace Bénédict de Saussure, failed several times to climb the mountain himself. Saussure had offered a cash reward to any man who could find a route to the summit and guide him there; Balmat, a crystal hunter, and Paccard, a doctor, were thus considered the founders of mountaineering. By 1880, British, Swiss, Italian, and French climbers had scaled all the major peaks in the Alps. Chamonix, tucked into a valley beneath the Massif, became a mecca for alpinists and legends in the sport like Walter Bonatti, Lionel Terray, Reinhold Messner, and Ueli Steck.
It was this legacy and access that drew Brad to France. He finished high school a semester early and came to live with a host family in Annecy. There, he met a friend who took him into the mountains on weekends and told him about the guide school. “He said, ‘If you play your cards right, in 10 years, you could be a guide,’” Brad recalled. When he moved to France in 2011, Brad prepared to apply to the program.
The preparation alone was rigorous. Before even qualifying for exams and courses, the ENSA required applicants to complete 40 routes—15 ski tours, including a four-day hut trip on glaciated terrain; 10 classic alpine ridges; five ascents of snowy couloirs (steep mountainside gorges) and ice gullies; and a series of multipitch rock climbs, each graded a minimum of 5.10, at an altitude of 2,500 meters or more. Hillary accompanied Brad for most of these objectives. They climbed Le Pouce, 13 pitches up the crystalline Aiguilles Rouges, and Vecchi Lupi on the south face of the Corno Stella. They climbed the South Pillar of Barre Noire and the North Pillar of Pointe d’Amont, and traversed a toothy mass called the Meije—all in Écrins, south of Grenoble. Brad had more skill and experience as a climber than Hillary, so he led, but she moved confidently, and together they became more efficient, completing routes they set out to do in less time than the guidebooks said they needed. One year, they climbed Küffner Ridge on the shoulder of Mont Blanc. It took them from early morning until midday, and when at last they had gained the ridge, Hillary spotted the summit in the distance and suggested they climb that too. Brad agreed reluctantly. “I was destroyed,” he recalled. “That’s where Hillary’s exceptional physical endurance became apparent. Hillary was still totally fresh.”
Not all their adventures together were so successful. In the winter of 2012, they skied with friends in the southern Alps, near the city of Briançon, where it snowed heavily for days. When at last the storm passed, they ventured out to an untracked slope. Their friends descended first, the snowpack appearing stable, but when Hillary dropped in, a wind slab broke and yanked her downslope. A glacial erratic interrupted her descent, the avalanche pressing her against the boulder. Hillary was buried face-down, the snow hardened “like cement,” she would recall. Brad had not lost sight of her, and within minutes he dug her out.
Later that season, they met friends, again, in Chamonix, where they took a gondola to the Aiguille du Midi, a spire on the north flank of Mont Blanc, from which they descended a snowfield on skis and then boot-packed to the top of a pass. Brad rappelled partway down a couloir on the other side and stamped out a snow platform, where they could observe each other as they skied one-by-one to the bottom. From the platform, Hillary made two perfect turns and ejected from her bindings.
“It was horrifying,” Brad said. “She picked up speed and was riding up the side of the couloir and back down, then bounding 50 feet at a time.”
Hillary does not remember much of her fall: “I remember seeing gray, white, gray, white, and I remember thinking, should I put out my arms and legs to stop, or should I tuck into a ball? But there was a centrifugal force, and I didn’t have much control. I was getting air. I slotted into a crevasse head-up.”
Moments passed before Hillary realized she could move. Blood had soaked the front of her jacket. The crevasse was six feet overhead, and it occurred to her that Brad likely thought she was dead. She made a snowball and tossed it in the air.
Her only injuries were a gash in her lip—the source of the blood—and bruises all over her body. Still, Brad told me, “It was a loss-of-innocence moment. Before that, we were in the mindset of always pushing harder, finding more challenging objectives, and it worked every time. But we couldn’t just up the ante and expect it to go well every time. The consequences of that incident could have been so terrible and unforgiving.”
Hillary skied again that spring but would not return to slopes so steep. Mostly, the fall had not been her fault—the bindings from which she ejected were new to her, and she hadn’t realized they possessed a locking function for steeper terrain—but she had lost some trust in her own judgment.
“I was like, ‘I need to rethink my approach to being in the mountains and not be a cowboy,’” she told me. She believed she had conflated the ease with which she could access the Alps—via an extensive network of gondolas and trains—with a sense of safety. “When you’re in the backcountry, but you’re five minutes from the lift, you’re like, What could go wrong?” She told herself, “You need to respect the mountains more.”
Hillary registered to run a relay with Brad that spring, and it was in the midst of her training that a friend invited her to the ham race. “I needed some objectives in which I could push myself and not be scared—push myself in a way other than taking a big risk,” she said. Running appealed to her more than it had ever before. She found it satiated her desire to be in the mountains while endowing her with more autonomy. She realized how dependent she had been on Brad for both his guidance in the mountains and his command of French. She had hardly spoken the language when she came to the country. Now, she spoke French well enough to make her own friends, to reinhabit her personality. “Our relationship became a lot healthier,” she said. She still loved climbing with Brad, but when she became a runner, “I wasn’t in France just for Brad anymore. There were things I wanted to do independent of him.”
In April 2015, Hillary posted a photograph of Brad on a snowy ridge, holding out a ring. The caption read, “Oui!!”
Hillary had assumed she would always live in Vermont, where she and Brad are from. She was raised near St. Johnsbury, in the Northeast Kingdom, in a house her parents built. Len Gerardi was a fisheries biologist; Lauren, Hillary’s mother, an accountant. Hillary was a “precocious” child, Lauren says, whose magnetism was evident early on. Whenever Lauren dropped Hillary off at daycare, children swarmed her. In elementary school, she joined a gymnastics team, which Lauren says “infused her with an awareness of the demands she could put on her body.” In high school, Hillary played field hockey and lacrosse and became captain of both teams.
She has an older brother, Julian, who officiated her wedding and noted during the ceremony that while Brad “wants everyone to have a good time,” Hillary “wants to win.”
She is refreshingly unapologetic about her competitiveness. “I feel like there’s this belief that it’s somehow more noble to compete for yourself, to push yourself only for yourself,” she told me. “I think it’s bullshit. You don’t do a race if you don’t want to be competitive with other people. You could just go do challenges on your own. I think what I like about competition is that it allows me to push myself harder. I’m fascinated by where that line is, between what I can and can’t do, and I can push that line more when I’m competing.”
It might be more accurate to say that Hillary also wants everyone to have a good time, and she wants to win. She has become known on the skyrunning circuit for smiling through even the most grueling moments. When I asked Ina Høiland, a coordinator of the Tromsø Skyrace in Norway, what made Hillary such a good runner, she replied without pause, “She’s always so happy. If you see her, she gives you a hug. She has this energy about her that no one else has.” If runners pass Hillary in a race, she instinctively cheers them on. Once, during the French National Mountain Running Championships, when a woman pulled ahead, and Hillary yelled, “Allez, allez!” a spectator chided her, “Save your breath.” “I do think a lot of people have a harder time allowing those two things”—competition and fun—“to coexist,” Hillary told me.
Still, she found some races more motivating than others. In 2016, she raced for the first time in Limone sul Garda, Italy. Popular with spectators, the event begins with a sprint through cobbled passageways and then ascends thousands of meters amid limestone crags. Hillary placed eighth among women, and it was after this race that she registered for the 2017 Skyrunner World Series, with the goal of achieving a ranking. By the end of that season, she ranked fourth.
In January 2018, Hillary began working with a coach, Antonio Gallego. He designed for her a training plan that focused three weeks at a time on themes like aerobic endurance, vertical gain, and power. Together, they set goals for her season. The Skyrunner series had a subcategory called SkyExtra, which involved longer and more technical courses. The more scrambling, the better, in Hillary’s mind, and so she set her sights on three races—the Tromsø Skyrace in Norway, the Trofeo Kima in Italy, and the Glencoe Skyline in Scotland.
Her first win of the season came at the Monte Rosa Skymarathon in Switzerland, which she ran with a British racer named Holly Page. Then, in late June, she won another team endeavor, with Middlebury alumna Katie Schide ’14, on the Pierra Menta Eté, a three-day stage race. (Schide has lately dominated ultramarathons across Europe.)
In early August, Hillary arrived in Tromsø. The landscape—steep, rocky, veiled in mist—reminded her of the White Mountains in New Hampshire where she had spent college summers as a crew member in the Appalachian Mountain Huts. The course, designed by Killian Jornet and his wife, Emelie Forsberg, spans 57 kilometers and gains, altogether, 4,700 meters. Hillary suspected her competition was Ragna Debats, a Dutch runner leading the series, who was weaker on technical terrain but, on sections that required real running, would be hard to beat. Not long after the race began, Debats pulled ahead. The course rose into clouds, the trail interrupted by granite blocks on which Debats began to slip, and as they descended off-trail, Hillary passed Debats, who caught her again three kilometers later.
Hillary checked her watch and measured Debats’s pace, and the next time she caught her competitor, she stayed ahead. The trail flattened in a forest, and here Hillary used a tactic her coach had taught her: Where Debats could not see her, she ran as fast as she could, and when she emerged from the forest, she slowed to an easier pace. The point, Hillary understood, was to “trick Debats into thinking she couldn’t catch me.” The rest of the course was “quite runnable,” she would recall, “and I just ran scared.” Hillary had lost sight of Debats but suspected she was not far behind. Once, Hillary thought she was alone in the woods and was startled to hear a person call out, “You’re doing great!” She looked up and saw it was Jornet, filming her. “All I could think was, ‘I can’t get caught while he’s watching me,’” she said.
She had never run so hard as in those final kilometers to the finish. The trail gave way to a road over a bridge, where Hillary spotted her father, jumping excitedly, and then entered a wharf. This finish would seem to her the perfect metaphor for how big and small our lives can feel at the same time.
“You’ve been running for eight hours as hard as you can, and people are in restaurants looking at you, not knowing what you’re doing, not cheering.” When she crossed the finish line, breaking the women’s course record, her mother, who had never seen her race before, was there waiting, leaping, yelling.
Later that August, Hillary won the Trofeo Kima, and in September at the Glencoe Skyline, she sprinted to another winning finish, beating the renowned British ultrarunner Jasmin Paris by four seconds. At both races, she shared the podium with Jornet.
Originally, she had planned to end her season there. She had done better than she ever imagined, winning the SkyExtra category. But when she learned she was second behind Debats in the overall ranking, she reconsidered.
“All these people told me, ‘If you do Limone, and you beat Ragna, you could win the series.’” That October was sweltering in Limone; Hillary dropped out midrace. “I was so sad,” she told me. “I called my coach crying, and he was like, ‘Wait a minute. Every race you said you wanted to do at the beginning of the season, you won.’ I thought, This season has been such a success, but other people put these expectations on me, and it ended up feeling like a disappointment. It’s interesting how the expectations of other people impact your perception of self.”
Hillary checked her watch and measured Debats’s pace, and the next time she caught her competitor, she stayed ahead.
On Tuesday morning, four days until the race in Limone, Hillary’s brother Julian texted, “How’s your cankle?” It was not looking good, one more disappointment in a string of them this season. First, Hillary had twisted her left ankle; then, she developed bursitis in a heel. At a race in Italy, cramps spread through her body. Then: hip bursitis. The day she sprained her right ankle, she had been focused on her hip.
In spite of these injuries, she was ranked sixth overall in the Skyrunner series, but if she did not race in Limone, she could lose her ranking. All this made Hillary more subdued than usual. She had not called her coach since Friday, because she knew that when he answered the phone, she would cry.
That night, we lightened the mood by watching YouTube clips of a 1988 Glen Plake movie, The Blizzard of AAHHH’s. Plake, an extreme skier from Lake Tahoe, narrated the film in a voice caught between surfer and John Wayne. In one frame, he sported a pink Mohawk and flame-print pants as he sipped coffee on a street in Chamonix; in another, he bombed down steep couloirs and hucked himself over crevasses.
There is a certain pressure that comes with living in the Chamonix valley, knowing, as Hillary put it to me, “that at any moment of any day, someone is getting after it.” Some say life here is usant—it uses you up. Perhaps nothing so well captures the culture as a passage from Jon Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams, in which he tells a local about a spire he climbed, and the local remarks how difficult it must have been to launch a paraglider from the summit. Krakauer corrects him; he had simply climbed “with a partner and a rope,” not flown off of it. “You did not solo and you did not fly?” the local asks. “Did you not find the experience a little—how you say in English—banal?”
This quality of the culture is unlikely to fade—thrill seekers will always find new methods to push their physical and psychological boundaries—but in other ways the valley is changing. On spring days, the streets of Chamonix are now as thronged with runners in spandex as with alpinists draped in coils of rope. Climate change may have something to do with this, as adventurers adjust their objectives to warmer environments. It’s a shift Hillary and Brad think about daily in their work at CREA and as athletes. “What will define the coming years of alpinism here is adaptation, reinventing the sport around these drastic changes to the landscape,” Brad told me. “Finding new routes. Finding new windows of opportunity to do those routes.” According to climate models, glaciers in the Alps will be gone by the end of the century. “How do we motivate ourselves and clients to practice alpinism in a nonglaciated environment?”
The next morning, I accompanied Hillary to an appointment in Chamonix with her physiotherapist, Neil Maclean-Martin, who would determine if she could race in Limone. He met us in the bright lobby of his practice and then led us down a flight of stairs into a low-ceilinged exam room. Hillary had met Neil through a local climber who recommended him.
When I asked Neil if he worked solely with athletes, he replied, “Try to find someone in Chamonix who’s not.”
He took a seat on a stool and instructed Hillary to stand barefoot. “You heal well,” he said, and she bounced a little in excitement. “How’s it going on your tiptoes?”
“I was trying this yesterday,” she said, lifting one heel and then the other.
“Now little hops.”
“Super rigid,” Neil observed. “Not to worry.”
Hillary sat with her legs extended as Neil massaged the tendons in her calf, pulled on her heel, bent her toes. At last, he taped her ankle, and she stood up again. “That’s looking nice,” he said. “A bit more range.”
“So, in your opinion, do you think I can go around the course?”
“This is what I think,” Neil replied. “You’re going to do a good tape job, and you’re going to be very conscious of what’s going on. Tactically, don’t try to lead them out, but leave yourself the option of being competitive.”
It was sunny when we arrived in Limone, but on the morning of the race, clouds descended, spitting a light rain. Boats rocked on a steel-colored lake, as puffed-up swans skulked along the edge.
The first racer to appear at the start was Sheila Avilés, a lithe Catalonian in a black-and-white windbreaker, who had the prance and aesthetic of a zebra. Avilés was favored to win the series. I watched her jog back and forth as a sound system blared Ed Sheeran and Khalid’s “Beautiful People” and racers crowded the start line. Amid the neon spandex, the sculpted bodies, the cowbells, the British pop, the emcee leaping rapidly between languages, I had landed in a Euro fantasia.
Hillary was nowhere to be found. The evening before, I had visited her in her hotel room, which she shared with Holly Page, the racer with whom she won the Monte Rosa Skymarathon. They had met in Limone two years earlier, when a series organizer asked Hillary if she minded a roommate. Now, whenever they attended the same race, the organizers made sure to room them together.
I had asked if either had a prerace routine. “When I first started, I had my go-to meal I’d make beforehand,” Hillary said. “But you really don’t want to get attached to one thing, because what if you can’t find it in the place you’re traveling to?”
“I used to wear lucky knickers,” said Holly. “Then one day I forgot them, and I won the race, and I was like, ‘Oh, the lucky knickers are not lucky.’”
“I mean, I feel like the goal is to not have lucky knickers, not have lucky anything,” Hillary said.
Now, 10 minutes before the start of the race, I spotted her. “My ankle’s sore,” she told me and disappeared into the scrum of racers.
There was a countdown, and then they were sprinting along the waterfront, banking left through a corridor into the old city, past gelaterias and pizzerias and shops selling limoncello, under arches spilling bougainvillea blossoms, until the route cut west through oak-strewn crags that rose above the lake.
As soon as they were out of sight, I took off running, too, up a rugged shortcut that would deliver me to a midpoint on the racecourse. The city shrank below, and all I could see were terra-cotta roofs and fluorescent swimming pools, lawn chairs reclining empty at their sides, and then the roofs and pools disappeared as well, the trail swallowed up by clouds.
When I reached the midstation an hour later, I found men and women huddled beneath an awning. I heard a clamor of voices, a cowbell, and the first racer, a Japanese man, emerged around a bend. There was a rush of men, and then Avilés in her zebra jacket, trailing a Romanian named Denisa Dragomir. Only eight minutes later, after five other women had passed, Hillary appeared.
It was then that I noticed the same emotion rising inside of me that I felt whenever I saw Hillary win a race from the distance of another continent. What was it, this gutty mix of joy and love and pride that made me want to leap and shout encouragement? There was something at once confirming and miraculous to me in what Hillary was doing—something about watching an old friend, another woman my age, push her body to the limit of what it could do and be so undeniably good at it.
Later, Hillary would tell me how exhausted she had felt—how, for the first hours of the race, she had focused her mind on the exact placement of her feet so she would not worsen her injury. After I saw her, I took off running again, descending the thousand meters to the finish, where I waited for her to reappear.
The first woman to arrive was Dragomir, followed two minutes later by Avilés. Then came the other five, among them the Dutch racer, Ragna Debats. If Hillary had not lost her place, she would be next, but minutes passed, and no racer came. The rain fell harder.
I had begun to wonder if she had dropped out when I sensed movement in the crowd. I craned my neck but could not see past the mass of spectators. Then the emcee called out: “Always smiling, the beautiful—”
And I knew that it was Hillary.