Naperville teen ascends toward 50th peak -- and climbing record
A 5-foot-3-inch, 108-pound Naperville teen will be lugging roughly 80 pounds of climbing and camping gear up the side of an Alaskan mountain for the next three weeks as she seeks to become the youngest girl to ascend the highest peak in all 50 states.
Lucy Westlake, 13, already holds the record for being the youngest girl to scale the highest point in each of the lower 48 states, finishing Kings Peak in Utah last year at age 12 years, 8 months and 18 days to earn the recognition.
Now, she and her father, plus three other climbers and three guides, are ready to start what's expected to be a 17- to 21-day trek up the 20,310-foot expanse of Mount Denali. If she completes it, she'll beat the previous youngest girl to reach all 50 states' high points by more than four years.
"Breaking the record has been my goal for a long time," Lucy said before she flew out Thursday with her parents, Rodney and Amy Westlake, to Anchorage, Alaska. "That's really the reason why we're doing all this."
"All this" will begin in earnest Saturday, when Lucy and her father meet the other climbers on their team and their guides from Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna for a gear check. The group includes Zak Klein and Hannah Quimby, who are ambassadors for a California-based nonprofit called Outdoors Empowered Network.
"It's no small endeavor, this climb," said Kyle MacDonald, executive director of the Outdoors Empowered Network, which has donated equipment and is hosting a fundraiser to help Lucy scale Denali. "It requires very specialized gear. It's among those places on earth with the harshest weather."
Denali-climbers need ice axes, snowshoes, 800-fill down overcoats and snowpants, sleeping bags rated to keep them from freezing at 40 degrees below zero and layers of sweat-wicking and warmth-preserving clothing -- not to mention hats, gloves, socks, water bottles and sunscreen. They also need to check in with the National Park Service, since the peak, formerly known as Mount McKinley, is within Denali National Park & Preserve.
The climbers' plan is to fly out Sunday from Talkeetna on a glacier plane to the base of Denali to begin the climb. That's when Lucy's mom will wave goodbye and head home to post updates to the Facebook page Denali for Lucy. A GPS device and a satellite phone will allow the team to transmit text, and potentially photos and video, down from the mountain.
After gaining elevation then backtracking a bit each day, the team will set up camp, even building a partial igloo to further shelter from the wind.
"They're going to be taking their time and acclimatizing," MacDonald said. "Their bodies will go through a lot."
Mountainside igloo-building will be a new skill for Lucy -- one she'll depend on her guides to demonstrate, since she certainly can't practice it anywhere near Naperville. But that doesn't faze her.
"It's not, like, a big deal," she said. "They'll show us."
Lucy is a confident climber, her father says, after getting an early start as a child on a 1,319-foot mountain near the Westlake's cabin in Michigan and hiking to peaks in many states on family road trips with her parents and younger brother, Jack.
Yet she isn't completely filled with teenage invincibility. She admits she's nervous about a couple of elements of her potentially record-breaking climb: the weight of the gear and the time on the mountain.
"I think I can do it, though," she says.
Her previous longest climb was seven days. It took that long to top the 19,341-foot-tall Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania early this year, on a quest designed to prove she could handle the altitude of Denali, with its summit 3.8 miles above sea level. Westlake says completing Kilimanjaro helped convince Alaska Mountaineering School his daughter was ready for the 49th state's highest point, despite the usual requirement that all climbers be at least 18.
While scaling Kilimanjaro, Lucy said she avoided the worst of altitude sickness and didn't need any medication.
"You don't want to eat and you have headaches," Lucy said. "But that's usual."
There are bags of snack-sized candy bars inside the massive packs Lucy and her companions are carting up the mountain, but still, they expect to lose weight during the trip.
If all goes according to plan, the climbers will be at their high camp at 17,000 feet around June 12, MacDonald said. That's when their guides will turn into meteorologists, awaiting conducive weather conditions for the final 3,310 feet to the top.
"I'm really excited," Lucy said before beginning her step-by-step journey toward the next record she hopes to claim. "I really want it to be this year."
Climb with LucyFollow along with Lucy Westlake's quest to become the youngest girl to scale the highest peak in all 50 states by climbing to the top of Mount Denali in Alaska sometime in June.
Text alerts: Text "Denali17" to 52182 and enter your name to receive text updates from the climb. Texting this number also gives access to an online auction that runs through June 11, with 50 percent of proceeds to offset the cost of Lucy's climb and 50 percent to benefit the Outdoors Empowered Network, a California-based nonprofit organization that funds programs to connect kids to the outdoors in several cities, including Chicago.
Outdoors Empowered Network: http://www.outdoorsempowered.org/denali-for-lucy/ The network aims to raise $50,000; half will go to offset the cost of Lucy's climb and half will support Outdoors Empowered Network programs.