Weather thwarts Naperville climber's Denali record attempt

  • Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville spent 20 days on Denali in Alaska but was unable to reach the summit because of dangerous weather. She was attempting to become the youngest girl to reach the highest point in all 50 states.

    Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville spent 20 days on Denali in Alaska but was unable to reach the summit because of dangerous weather. She was attempting to become the youngest girl to reach the highest point in all 50 states. Courtesy of Rodney Westlake

  • Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville was aiming to be the youngest girl to reach the highest point in all 50 states, but bad weather last weekend atop Denali in Alaska prevented her from reaching that goal.

      Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville was aiming to be the youngest girl to reach the highest point in all 50 states, but bad weather last weekend atop Denali in Alaska prevented her from reaching that goal. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • With a pack on her back and a sled behind her, Lucy Westlake spent 20 days climbing Denali in Alaska, with ropes securing her to the mountain. She couldn't reach the summit because of bad weather.

    With a pack on her back and a sled behind her, Lucy Westlake spent 20 days climbing Denali in Alaska, with ropes securing her to the mountain. She couldn't reach the summit because of bad weather. Courtesy of Rodney Westlake

 
 
Updated 6/21/2017 11:49 AM

What happened to Lucy Westlake and her father eventually happens to every mountaineer: The mountain gets the best of those who wish to conquer it.

In their case, the June weather on Denali in Alaska turned sour. The trail got snowed in. The food ran out. And a climber in another party died on the mountain.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

They considered restocking and soldiering on for a second assault on the summit, but in the end it only made sense to turn back.

"It was disappointing not to get to the summit," Lucy said Tuesday, just 30 hours after returning home. "But I'm super glad I went."

The 13-year-old Naperville girl was trying to become the youngest female climber to reach the highest point in all 50 states -- and Denali was the final obstacle.

But while she didn't make it this time, she's already thinking about trying again before she turns 18.

Lucy has been climbing mountains since she was a toddler at her family's cottage in Michigan, where she was born. She's been climbing to the highest point in each state with her dad, Rodney, since she was 7.

Lucy Westlake, 13, was aiming to be the youngest girl to climb to the top of the highest peak in all 50 states by finishing at Denali in Alaska. But her climb was thwarted last weekend by bad weather, which claimed the life of another climber and forced her guides to try to rescue him.
  Lucy Westlake, 13, was aiming to be the youngest girl to climb to the top of the highest peak in all 50 states by finishing at Denali in Alaska. But her climb was thwarted last weekend by bad weather, which claimed the life of another climber and forced her guides to try to rescue him. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer
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The duo left for Alaska on May 25, aiming to reach the summit of the 20,310-foot mountain by Father's Day weekend. Had they succeeded, they would have been the first father-daughter pair to achieve such a feat.

But the weather threw them curveballs from the start.

By the time Lucy and her dad made it to high camp at 17,200 feet, the last of four major campsites before the summit, they were days behind schedule and had only enough food to wait two days for a chance to reach the peak.

Worse, they were camping in extreme conditions with temperatures at minus-19 degrees and much less oxygen than they're used to breathing.

Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville climbs a segment of Denali in Alaska as part of a team with her father, a few more climbers and three guides.
Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville climbs a segment of Denali in Alaska as part of a team with her father, a few more climbers and three guides. - Courtesy of Rodney Westlake

"You do not want to stay up there for long," Lucy said about the high camp and the summit. "It's basically like a fight for survival up there."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

They slept in down snowpants and layers of jackets topped by parkas, squeezed inside sleeping bags rated to keep them safe to 40 below zero.

"It was type-two fun," Lucy said. "You don't really realize you're having a great time until afterward, and then you're like, 'That was really great.'"

After their first night at high camp, they woke to a breakfast of typical mountain food: "sweet rice," cooked by their guides in boiled glacier water to become a porridge-like mass with powdered coconut milk, raisins and almonds. Lucy could stomach only a few bites.

Clouds encircled the highest reaches of Denali on the first day of opportunity, June 16, meaning it was windy and snowy and too dangerous to climb any higher. Lucy and her father took it as a rest day and went to sleep early, despite the Alaskan summer with always a flicker of light in the sky.

Atop ice and snow, Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville climbs Denali in Alaska, which she was aiming to summit last weekend as her 50th state high point. She couldn't complete the climb because of dangerous weather on the mountain.
Atop ice and snow, Lucy Westlake, 13, of Naperville climbs Denali in Alaska, which she was aiming to summit last weekend as her 50th state high point. She couldn't complete the climb because of dangerous weather on the mountain. - Courtesy of Rodney Westlake

They thought back on all they'd already accomplished, like the beautiful, milelong ridge -- a 2-foot-wide section with 1,000-foot drops and steep slopes on either side -- and a windy section of the trail notorious for its dangerous squalls. They felt hopeful and content.

At 1 a.m., their guides from Alaska Mountaineering School woke them.

"Something's wrong. There's been an accident," the guides said. "We'll be back."

Westlake said he knew right then his daughter's shot at reaching the top at age 13 was gone.

They went back to sleep and waited. Five hours later, the guides returned with a tragic story.

National Park Service rangers had called on the experienced mountaineers to assist with the rescue of a climber from another group who was experiencing altitude-related medical issues, said Maureen Gualtieri, Denali National Park spokeswoman.

The Westlakes had been warned of such troubles. At one point, Lucy said she feared her toes would get frostbite. At another, she and her father split a dose of an anti-altitude sickness medication to avoid extreme headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue.

"People get up there all the time and they get in trouble," Westlake said.

The guides told the Westlakes of the death of 28-year-old Sanjay Pandit of Kathmandu, Nepal. And they took a last look at the weather: another windy, snowy day.

It was time to turn around.

Westlake said he and Lucy started thinking of home.

Arriving at base camp, they had to wait a few hours for a plane to take them back to a major airport. About 24 hours after getting to the base of the glacier that is Denali, Lucy and her father touched down in Chicago.

Lucy Westlake, 13, and her dad, Rodney Westlake, are unpacking their gear after a 20-day attempt to climb Denali in Alaska ended without making it to the summit. Bad weather and a rescue effort that took up time and energy from their guides forced them to turn around before scaling all 20,310 feet.
  Lucy Westlake, 13, and her dad, Rodney Westlake, are unpacking their gear after a 20-day attempt to climb Denali in Alaska ended without making it to the summit. Bad weather and a rescue effort that took up time and energy from their guides forced them to turn around before scaling all 20,310 feet. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Lucy, at 5 feet, 3 inches tall and 108 pounds, said she lost 5 pounds during the climb. Her father dropped 8 pounds from his 155-pound frame.

Gualtieri with Denali National Park said Lucy and her team are far from the only climbers derailed by weather this season, a particularly harsh one for mountaineers. Typically, half the climbers who seek Denali's summit make it there, she said. But this season, out of 1,181 registered climbers, only 237 of them have succeeded.

Lucy plans to focus now on her pursuit of triathlons. She won't scale Denali again next year but hopes to give it another try before she reaches age 18 -- the age at which the youngest female to reach all 50 state high points, Kristen Kelliher of Maine, climbed the Alaskan peak to complete the feat.

"I'm really glad I went, and I want to do it again," Lucy said. "I want to go again."

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