Naperville girl is youngest to climb lower 48's highest peaks
Lucy Westlake of Naperville was 12 years, 8 months and 18 days old when it happened.
Her braided hair was wild with the electricity of a pop-up thunderstorm, and her hiking pole was tingling. She'd just emerged from a cave of sorts, where she had spent the past 20 minutes huddled with her father, Rodney Westlake, on Kings Peak in Utah.
She was at the summit of the mountain when the moment became official: By a margin of more than four years, she became the youngest girl to climb to the highest point in each of the lower 48 eight states.
"It's so fun to be able to see the country like that," Lucy said. "Being the highest thing in the state is cool."
Climbing for Lucy is just one reflection of what her father describes as her unending athleticism.
She competed in state championship races and placed third in a 2015 regional cross-country race when her family lived in Kentucky. During her first year training as a competitive triathlete since her family moved to Naperville in January, she qualified for the USA Triathlon Youth Elite National Championship over the weekend in Ohio. She dreams of making the Olympics in triathlon and wishes mountain climbing were also an Olympic sport.
"She has unlimited endurance," her father says.
Lucy first showed her endurance on a 1,319-foot mountain in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, near her family's cabin where she was born during a snowstorm on Nov. 4, 2003. On a 6-kilometer route to the top, she'd run and climb and explore.
Back home in Kentucky when Lucy was 7, she and her family were in the mountains for a church activity when they realized the state's highest point, Black Mountain, was nearby. They drove a bit out of their way and scaled the 4,144-foot peak that day without hesitation.
Black Mountain was the only peak Lucy scaled in 2011. But in 2012, she tackled 13.
"We just wondered what the other states' high peaks are," she said.
Her family's well-traveled lifestyle helped her accomplish many mountains without even making it a goal, says her father, a 43-year-old investment broker who runs a small money management company.
The Westlakes are the family that doesn't have a TV. They're the world travelers who spent a year living in Mexico, where Rodney's mother is from, when Lucy was 6. The couple have graying hair but the sleek physiques of fit people two decades their junior. The parents have home-schooled Lucy for three years, although she plans to be a seventh-grader at Washington Junior High in the fall.
Their summers at the Michigan cabin and their love of the American West make the family seminomadic, always driving to some national park, some natural destination.
"I've always had a love of the outdoors and wanted to raise my kids with that love," Lucy's mother, Amy Westlake, said.
So the Westlakes, including 10-year-old Jack, would head west, stopping in each state to stretch their legs and cross another peak off the list.
"There's nothing like getting the kids out of the car and hiking to break up a road trip," Lucy's father said.
Eventually, the 48-state goal became significant to Lucy, who wanted to complete it far before age 17 -- the previous record for a girl set in 2011 by Kristen Kelliher of Vermont, according to the Highpointers Club. Then the mountains, which the family began seeking "on purpose," became a challenge.
June 2012 alone brought them to Charles Mound in Illinois, Hawkeye Point in Iowa, Mount Sunflower in Kansas, Mount Elbert in Colorado, Panorama Point in Nebraska, Harney Peak in South Dakota and White Butte in North Dakota.
"Most of the mountains were just long hikes," Lucy's father said. "It's just a chance to hike together."
Lucy and her father always climb, but Jack and their mother sometimes stay closer to sea level.
"My role is …" Amy says, then pauses to best define it.
"The worrier," Lucy chimes in.
"The on-the-ground coordinator," her mother corrects.
"You have to have a support team to make this happen," Amy, 42, says about high-peak adventures. "It's a team effort."
Carry on, climber
Case in point: Carrying equipment. At 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 95 pounds, Lucy totes up to 45 pounds of mountaineering materials, while her father handles 65 or 70 pounds.
"You have to carry a bunch of gear and food to eat, which is hard," she said.
She has her trusty yellow rain jacket, her handy hiking pants that zip into shorts, her favorite coat -- a lime green puffy North Face -- and the ever-important helmet.
"It doesn't help much if you fall," Lucy says about her hiking headgear, "But if a rock falls on you, that helps a lot."
Sometimes the helmet gets equipped with a headlamp, like in 2014, when Lucy and her dad woke at 3 a.m. to begin scaling the highest of all the high points in the lower 48 states, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney in California. Some of the peaks she completed most recently -- Gannett in Wyoming, Granite in Montana, Borah in Idaho and Kings in Utah -- required the biggest stashes of stuff including rope, ice axes and metal cleats that clip onto hiking boots to help them grip icy ground. On Kings, especially, Lucy and her father spent three days making the climb, giving their bodies time to acclimate gradually to the 13,527-foot altitude as a guide helped them to the summit.
To achieve so many peaks at such an early age is an amazing feat, Highpointers Club member and Highpointers Foundation Lead Director Dave Covill said.
"That's extremely impressive when you consider that the previous record-holder was 17 and the third place was 18," he said.
With 48 peaks accomplished, Lucy now is turning her sights to the 50th. She's not skipping 49, as she already climbed Mauna Kea in Hawaii this February. But No. 50, in Alaska, will require by far the most training.
At 20,308 feet, Mount Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) takes 16 to 24 days to climb. Wisely, Covill says, the Westlake duo wants to do it with a guide. But Lucy's father said the guides he's spoken with don't usually take climbers until they're at least 18.
Even knowing Lucy's highpointing background, Rodney's heard hesitance to take her to the top until she reaches 16.
Covill said he's telling the family Denali will be a "quantum leap" in difficulty compared with her previous ascents. Sometimes kids' bodies don't take well to high altitudes and even a fit 12-year-old like Lucy easily could tire or falter. It takes a tough mentality to scale Denali, and sometimes multiple attempts; Covill didn't make it until his third try. Naperville climber Jim Nasti, 51, had a heart attack and died on the mountain in 2010 as he tried to reach the summit.
Risk aside, a guided trip for two would cost roughly $14,000. The total cost could rise to $16,000 with food, specialized gear and airfare to Alaska. In short, Covill says, 48 is great, but Denali is its own beast.
"Can she handle it?" he's advising her family to ask, while also inviting them to train with him in Colorado.
During her next trips to Michigan, Lucy plans to find out. And she knows just where to do it.
It's a familiar place, despite all the mountain memories she's made atop lookout points across America.
On this small-scale mountain and its well-worn 6K path, a record-setting 12-year-old girl will be strapped into a large pack and pulling a sled.
Ninety-five-pound Lucy will be carting 85 pounds, dreaming of the day she'll top her tallest mountain and move on to higher dreams.
She's sure it will be "a really big accomplishment."
The lower 48, plus oneLucy Westlake of Naperville climbed to the highest point in each of the lower 48 states -- plus Hawaii -- by age 12. Here's where the journey has taken her.
2011Black Mountain, Kentucky
2012Charles Mound, Illinois
Hawkeye Point, Iowa
Mount Sunflower, Kansas
Mount Elbert, Colorado
Panorama Point, Nebraska
Harney Peak, South Dakota
White Butte, North Dakota
Mount Arvon, Michigan
Brasstown Bald, Georgia
Clingmans Dome, Tennessee
Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina
Mount Rogers, Virginia
Mount Mitchell, North Carolina
2013Campbell Hill, Ohio
Hoosier Hill, Indiana
Backbone Mountain, Maryland
Spruce Knob, West Virginia
Mount Marcy, New York
Mount Mansfield, Vermont
Mount Greylock, Massachusetts
Mount Frissell, Connecticut
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Mount Katahdin, Maine
Jerimoth Hill, Rhode Island
High Point, New Jersey
Ebright Azimuth, Delaware
Mount Davis, Pennsylvania
2014Woodall Mountain, Mississippi
Chetah Mountain, Alabama
Britton Hill, Florida
Driskill Mountain, Louisiana
Guadalupe Peak, Texas
Magazine Mountain, Arkansas
Tatum Sauk Mountain, Missouri
Black Mesa, Oklahoma
Wheeler Peak, New Mexico
Humphreys Peak, Arizona
Boundary Peak, Nevada
Mount Whitney, California
Eagle Mountain, Minnesota
2015Timms Hill, Wisconsin
Mount Rainier, Washington
Mount Hood, Oregon
2016Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Gannett Peak, Wyoming
Granite Peak, Montana
Borah Peak, Idaho
Kings Peak, Utah
Source: Westlake family