What’s it like to be in an avalanche on K2? Well, it’s gorgeous. Awe-inspiring, even.
At least to hear Lucy Westlake tell it.
“And then I was like, ‘Wait.’
“Is that, like, an avalanche?
“Oh my gosh, that’s going to come hit us.”
With her sunshiny disposition and 5-foot-3 (and a half) stature, Westlake, 19, might look like your kids’ favorite babysitter. But who she is is an adventurer with serious bona fides. A mountaineer with a big heart and a hard-won platform, with lots of grit and little fear – who would definitely also make a really reliable babysitter, if she had time for something so mundane.
This past summer, she went up K2 with a couple of other climbers because the remaining peaks of her nearly complete Explorers Grand Slam – the North Pole and Carstensz Pyramid – are closed because of the war between Russia and Ukraine and strife on the ground in Papua New Guinea.
Westlake, you see, needed “something” to do this summer – something in addition to exploring Mount Baker in Washington, a speaking engagement in Texas, a wedding in Canada and her latest visit to Uganda and Kenya to both train with local runners and facilitate water sanitation projects there.
That something: K2, at 8,611 meters, or 28,251 feet above sea level, the second-highest mountain on Earth.
Second only to Mount Everest, but much more difficult technically to ascend than that mountain – which Westlake summited in May 2022, making her the youngest American woman to reach the top of the top.
— USC Track & Field / XC (@USC_Track_Field) May 12, 2022
Everest, like every major climb, offered its lessons. Her 40 days in less-than-ideal weather on K2, including a harrowing experience as she approached the summit on July 27, delivered some especially profound ones.
Westlake is fortunate to be alive, of course.
She and her two fellow climbers – Mingma Chhiring Sherpa, “the absolute greatest sherpa in the world,” who also accompanied her on Everest, and Oswaldo Freire, a porter with decades of experience who joined them on K2 mid-climb on something of a whim – were buried only to their knees in powder by an avalanche that was, thankfully, devoid of ice chunks and falling rock.
It came down on them as she and her group were approaching the incident that would make international headlines: They’d been able to see a string of headlights stalled above them on an especially dangerous stretch of the climbing trail known as the bottleneck.
That scene, they’d learn later, was where Pakistani high-altitude porter Muhammad Hassan lay in distress. Drone footage reportedly captured what appeared to be some 70 mountaineers stepping over Hassan on their way to the summit, mostly without stopping to help the father of two, who would die on K2.
The world took notice. Coverage ranged from mountaineering blogs to the New York Times, and much of it was critical of the climbers’ actions on that difficult, dangerous stretch: “If I, or any other Westerner, had been lying there, everything would have been done to save them,” Wilhelm Steindl, an Austrian climber who shot the video, told Sky News.
Westlake said her group wasn’t aware of exactly what was happening above. Another climber descending told them, incorrectly, that the headlight traffic was because a climber had fallen into a crevasse. So her group was forging forward, she said, hoping to share Freire’s extra rope to aid in a rescue effort.
And then, at 26,300 feet, the avalanche hit.
“We thought about not even going at all because the conditions were pretty dangerous,” she said via Zoom last week from her family’s place in tiny Eagle Harbor, Michigan, where she’s taking a temporary break from school and cross-country as she geared up for a whole new kind of challenge, the details of which she couldn’t divulge.
“But we decided that we’d give it a try and if there was any indication that things were dangerous then we would go back down. And once that hit, we all kind of knew, ‘Well that’s our indication.’”
AT HOME ON HIGH
The last time one of Westlake’s big climbs was called off before the summit, she was 13, and she and her father were headed up Denali, in Alaska, the highest mountain peak in North America at 20,310 feet.
They were one day from the summit and what would have been the culmination of a quest to climb all 50. U.S. high points that they began when she was 7.
But after 20 days of hiking, an accident elsewhere on Denali pulled their guides away on a rescue mission that effectively shut the window on the Westlakes’ opportunity to reach the peak. It was frustrating to get only so close, but Lucy said she understood: “Someone was dying and needed help and you prioritize that.”
She and her dad returned to complete the Denali climb together in 2021, but after having had to turn back the first time, she pressed pause on climbing for a few years, pondering whether to keep going.
To put so much energy and time and money into these climbs knowing forces outside of her control will always determine whether she’ll be able to see them through, was it even worth it?
When she started badly to miss the mountains, she had her answer: Yes, absolutely. So worth it.
“Just the adventure of it,” she told me last year when I invited myself over for a chat at USC so I could ask her why in the world she wanted to be climbing to the top of the world all the time.
“The unknowns. I was always a very adventurous – still am – a very adventurous girl. And as an 8-year-old, I was like, ‘This is so cool, I can just like frolic in the mountains. That’s exactly what I want to be doing.’ And I love nature. I love it so much.
“And I just want to be free. Because I have so many responsibilities here and just in life in general, there’s just so much weight on you. And then when you go into the mountains, you just forget about everything. That’s my place of freedom. Where I can just not worry about anything. Just be who I am and enjoy where I am.”
She’s come to understand that making it down safely is “the ultimate goal,” and to see summiting as the “cherry on top.” To believe that the climb, that proverbial and literal journey, is the real reward.
And that’s worth the fundraising efforts required for these pricey expeditions, which have been made possible largely by grants and scholarships, and by sponsorships that cover her gear. “We’re not independently wealthy,” Rodney Westlake said. “I’m not going to mortgage anything so she can climb a mountain.”
But there’s also what she hopes her climbs signal to other people who aren’t wealthy, especially if they’re young women: Keep pushing, whatever their uphill climb might be – but especially if it’s literally an uphill climb.
She’s never seen anyone like her on a mountain, she said, which is why other climbers often regard Lucy with some confusion, Rodney said. “When they see a small, slight, 100-pound girl, they make assumptions,” he said. “She has to prove herself.”
And she has, he said. She carries all her own gear and keeps up with the men around her, a stronger climber now than her dad and many men in their midst. And she’s always been eager to volunteer for laborious chores like digging out clean snow, or tedious ones, like sitting and watching it melt into water.
Off the mountain, she’s determined to be helpful too. She raised the money to start a scholarship for 14- to 19-year-olds under the All Summit Scholarship Foundation, which is aimed at getting more girls and women in the mountains.
Congratulations to the 2022 Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award Honorees:
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) July 21, 2022
“I want the mountains to be a place for everyone,” said Westlake, who was USC’s top finisher at all three cross-country meets in which she competed last year, and who has been featured on “NBC Nightly News” and “Good Morning America” and honored with the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award at the 2022 ESPYS.
“Because the mountains, they’re there, you know? What’s to stop you from climbing it?”
FOR THE BETTER
Mountaineering has its detractors. People who are critical of how crowded the mountains have become, and how inexperienced climbers could be contributing to pollution as well as avoidable deaths. They’ll leave comments on her social media accounts letting her know.
Westlake says pressure to keep the mountains clean is a good thing. And after K2, she’s determined to do her part to keep them as safe as possible, too.
She returned to the United States and enrolled in a wilderness first-responder class: “I want to be able to be that person that’s like, ‘I want to help this man,’ and I kind of saw for the first time that maybe no one else will,” she said. “Maybe I’ll have to be that person.”
I think it’s probably pretty safe to say, the mountains will be better for having this young woman frolicking up on them.
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