[From October 24-30, 2016, Meg O’Neill shared some stories and photos with the #AlpinistCommunityProject about her path to alpinism. O’Neill died tragically on April 2, 2023, while ice climbing with two friends on Raven Falls in northeastern Utah when an ice pillar collapsed. On April 4 the Duchesne County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that a 34-year-old male was climbing when the ice fell, and that O’Neill, 40, pushed the 21-year-old female belayer out of harm’s way, saving a life at the cost of her own. The 21-year-old was then able to escape and call for help. The male climber was air-lifted off the mountain with serious injuries, according to the sheriff’s press release. O’Neill was Assistant Director of Embark Outdoors, where she passionately carried out the nonprofit’s mission of “empowering refugee young women through outdoor education and sports.” @embark.outdoors posted on Instagram: “Most of our girls have known Meg for half their life. She’d been a mentor to them since 7th grade. She was the heart and soul of this program, as you all well know.” In memory of O’Neill’s vibrant personality, we are revisiting the stories she shared with us in 2016. This story was updated to correct O’Neill’s age. A story by Climbing.com with more details about the accident can be found here.–Ed.]
[I am] an outdoor educator-turned-science teacher, who spends ten months of the year lighting the classroom carpet on fire with middle school English language learners. [I] grew up as an urbanite bookworm in the San Francisco Bay Area of California and would have called you daft if you’d suggested [I] would climb mountains someday. [I] began rock climbing in 2003, hid in Yosemite from 2006 to 2012, and became obsessed with #becominganalpinist in 2014.
I wanna be an alpinist so fricking bad
Climb all things I never had
I wanna be on the cover of Alpinist magazine
Smiling in a helmet and sunscreen
Oh every time I close my eyes
I see the summit in headlamp light, yeah
A different bivy every night, oh I
I insist that I’m gonna persist
Until I’m an alpinist
I didn’t grow up in the mountains. I had never even gone camping until I was in my twenties. As a result of my city girl upbringing and punchy personality, I’m not sure I will ever quite fit the mold of an alpinist. Tamara Yerkes and I summited Crestone Needle (14,197′) in Colorado via the Ellingwood Arete (III 5.7) in July 2013, and we shocked some hikers on the summit–women in tutus leading up an ice-covered 5.7 pitch in the clouds must have been quite a sight.
I bought my first ice axe for a week in Canada’s Bugaboo Range in July 2009. For some reason, that shiny new piece of metal held more allure than any other piece of gear I owned. I felt compelled to name it. The first few names I tried didn’t seem right, but after an unplanned open bivy in a lightning storm, it gained a name that stuck: the Bumble Bee. That piece of metal buzzed and buzzed. In this photo, Dan Perron begins the rappels down the Kain Route after climbing the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire, (IV 5.8 1,500′). At this point, we had already hid from the storm for a couple hours, and we ultimately ended up pinned down by it overnight. The Bumble Bee is still the only mountaineering ice axe I’ve ever owned. Fortunately, she and I have never had another night out like that one.
The best stories in my life usually start with “and so I bought a plane ticket.” I realized in 2015 that my climbing had become somewhat stagnant; trips to Indian Creek, Utah, however glorious, had caused me to lose sight of my alpinist goals. And so, I bought a plane ticket. On our first day in Chamonix, France, Lindsey Pearson and I set our sights on the south face of the Aiguille du Midi (3842m). We got off the lift, looked down onto the Vallee Blanche, and realized that we were grossly underprepared for the weather and conditions. We went back to town with our tails between our legs and bought oversized gloves (pictured) at a hilarious store called Technique Extreme. With our new warmer gear, we headed into the Envers des Aiguilles and climbed this route, Amazonia, a 12-pitch 6b on the Premiere Pointe des Nantillons. I guess being grossly underprepared for conditions is part of #becominganalpinist.
One of the best parts of climbing in the French Alps is the access; ski lifts, gondolas, and trains make it possible to bypass thousands of feet of hiking. One of the worst things about climbing in the French Alps is the constant fear that you will miss the last ski lift, gondola or train back down to town at 6 p.m. Many alpinists’ stories end with an uncomfortable forced bivy in the lift station bathroom. Mine did not. My Chamonix stories end with me sprinting down a glacier in my mountaineering boots, still racked with gear, hugging the rope, trying to catch the last tram back to enjoy wine and cheese in the valley. This photo was taken July 2015 on the summit of the Tour Verte (2760m), in the Envers des Aiguilles area, after climbing the route Le Pont des Soupirs, or “the bridge of sighs” (6b+ TD+). The route is named for a very precariously wedged block that you have to walk across. Les Drus (3754m) are in the background. This trip to the Envers ended with a desperate race down the Mer de Glace to catch a train. The photo was snapped by Pat Browlie, an Australian with whom I had the great fortune to sprint down multiple descents in pursuit of transit.
Chamonix held a certain je ne sais quoi for me. Maybe it was the same impulse that drove me to buy the plane ticket, or the Alps themselves, but something made me braver than I am at home. I’ve always struggled with my “lead head,” especially when venturing into the unknown in new places. The Cosmiques Arete (II 4a AD 305m) was the first true “mixed” alpine line of my life. I barely slept the night before I climbed it. But when my partner Samuel Lien handed me the rack to lead an icy 5.5 pitch in my crampons, I grabbed the gear and took a deep breath. It was the easiest and shortest climb during my month in the Alps, but in many ways it was the most significant on my way to #becominganalpinist.
My biggest hurdle to becoming an alpinist was my strong aversion to suffering. This had also hindered my extremely abbreviated career as a big wall climber. I don’t always want to wake up 1 a.m., or carry a heavy pack, or slog uphill in snow. But every time I suck it up and go for it, I end up being grateful. With an impending heat wave threatening conditions in the Alps, I came back from a day of rock climbing and caught the last lift up to the Aiguille du Midi. From there, I headed up the 3 Monts Traversee: up Mont Blanc du Tacul (4248m), Mont Maudit (4465m), and finally, Mont Blanc (4810m). We made a short bivy and carried our kit to the summit, intending to descend another route. On the summit, we met other climbers and learned of deteriorating conditions on the descent route, and so we carried our bivy kit back the way we came. In this photo, the sun rises over the Grand Jorasses (4208m).
Not every day can be spent in Chamonix or along Canada’s Icefields Parkway. Ten months a year I work in Salt Lake City, Utah, as a teacher, and I have to find the time to practice my craft locally so I can keep on “becoming an alpinist” even when life gets in the way. In this photo Muy Lim comes up Eleventh Hour (III 5.8) on the Sundial at home in the Wasatch Range. We were delayed by over an hour on our approach to the climb by a very aggressive bull moose, and he was waiting for us on the trail on the way back to the car. We didn’t set any car-to-car speed records this day, but we felt very accomplished in that we summited the climb and did not get gored by a moose.