Naperville teen summits Denali, sets record as youngest female to climb 50 state high points
For 17 days, Lucy Westlake and her father, Rodney, climbed until there was nothing but sky above them.
The 17-year-old mountaineer had gotten so used to keeping her eye on the path ahead, to always anticipating her next move and carefully calculating each step, that she half expected to look up and see more icy terrain.
But on June 20, as she and her dad stood atop Denali in Alaska, Lucy realized every obstacle, every possible stumbling block to summiting all 50 state high points, had vanished somewhere in the 20,310 feet below.
The Naperville teen had achieved her longtime dream -- and broken a world record in the process.
"It was very surreal," said Lucy, who became the youngest female to reach the highest point of each U.S. state. "There's no feeling like reaching the top and looking down around you. That's why I do it."
It's been four years since the father-daughter duo's first attempt at ascending Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.
They had completed the lower 48 states in 2016, making then-12-year-old Lucy the youngest girl to accomplish such a feat. And with Mauna Kea, Hawaii, already under their belt, Alaska's high point was last on their list. They came close, but extreme weather conditions and other circumstances prevented them from reaching the top in 2017.
That disappointment made last month's summit all the more rewarding.
"Four years of anticipating going back to Denali just built up the emotion behind it," Lucy said. "It was the most amazing feeling."
On June 20, 17-year-old Lucy Westlake of Naperville stood at the top of the Denali mountain in Alaska with her father, Rodney, fulfilling their dream to climb all 50 state's high points.
- Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
The Westlake family was on a church mission trip in 2011 when they ascended their first high point: the 4,144-foot-tall Black Mountain in Lynch, Kentucky.
They had no intention of one day making it to all 50. But seeking out the tallest spots in each state soon became a fun tradition of sorts, Rodney Westlake said, a unique way to see parts of the country they would never have visited otherwise.
"Curiosity kind of took over at that point," he said.
Though they weren't expert mountaineers at the time, the Westlakes were accustomed to an adventurous lifestyle, Rodney said. When Lucy was about 6, they spent a year climbing mountains and living in Mexico, where some of his relatives are from. They've traveled to different countries and frequently road-trip across the U.S. Many of the high points became convenient stops along their route.
In 2012, Lucy and her dad reached the top of 13 states, occasionally accompanied by her mom, Amy, and younger brother, Jack. The following year, they checked 14 more off their list, then another 13.
They saved the most challenging mountains for last, recognizing the time and preparation required to make the ascent. After she and her dad summited Washington's Mount Rainier in 2015 -- Lucy's first guided, multiday expedition -- she thought, "I could do all 50."
It's a risky and strenuous sport, not for the faint of heart or those with a fear of heights. Lucy was forced to conquer that fear in 2016 while maneuvering a treacherous ridge near the top of the Gannett Peak in Wyoming.
But she's used to pushing herself mentally and physically, to see how far she can go and how fast she can get there. A senior at Naperville North High School, she runs on the cross-country and track teams, and she's also a competitive triathlete.
"It's something I love to do is test myself," Lucy said. "That drives me -- that desire and just the beauty of the places I get to see."
Lucy Westlake, 17, lower right, teamed up with her father and experienced mountaineers from Colorado to climb Denali in Alaska last month.
- Courtesy of Westlake family
Compared to the other state high points, Lucy said, climbing Denali was a "whole different league."
It was a test of strength, of skill, of mental toughness, and it required months of planning and even some sacrifice. To make the trip, Lucy had to finish her junior year a week early and give up her chance to compete with her track team in the postseason.
Hiking gear, clothing, 22 days worth of food and other necessities were spread throughout their home the week before they left. Unlike their first attempt in 2017, 47-year-old Rodney and his daughter opted against using a guide, instead joining a group of experienced mountaineers from Colorado.
A lot was different about their second expedition, which began June 4. The temperatures were warmer. The food was better. Lucy, though still small in stature, was significantly stronger.
But while the first trip was a physical challenge, she said, "this time was more of an emotional and mental battle."
Around 14,000 feet, their hiking group came to a halt as they waited on a clear forecast to ensure a safe summit. "We just weren't getting that," Lucy said.
She and her dad knew they would run out of time if they didn't keep moving. So they split from their fellow climbers and made the trek on their own, despite the uncertain conditions.
That decision fell on Lucy, the more experienced of the two in tying knots, securing ropes and handling key pieces of equipment.
"I knew I couldn't rely on Dad for some of those things, which are very important, so I just had to ask myself, 'Do I really think I can be responsible for both of us?'" she said. "I definitely made the right decision and definitely grew as a mountaineer because of that experience of leading. But that was hard."
After reaching the highest campsite at 17,200 feet -- where their journey had ended four years earlier -- they attempted to summit on June 18. But the weather was "absolutely awful," Rodney said, and a hiker ahead of them suffered an injury, prompting most climbers to turn around and begin their descent.
The Westlakes were two of nine people who stayed at high camp, waiting for another window. After two days of prayer and contemplation, they found their opportunity and completed the climb June 20, making them only the second -- and the youngest -- father-daughter team to summit all 50 state high points, according to the Highpointers Club.
"Best Father's Day ever," Rodney said.
Naperville teen Lucy Westlake admires the view of the Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.
- Courtesy of Westlake family
That a world record was within reach weighed on Lucy's mind throughout the expedition.
The previous record was set in 2012 by Kristen Kelliher, who was 18 years, 1 month and 15 days old, Highpointers Club officials said. Lucy was about six months younger.
"It's been a goal of mine for a long time, so I really wanted to do it, but I also didn't want to do it at the risk of our safety," she said.
There's a fine line between measured and careless risks, Rodney said, and his daughter knew better than to cross it. The strategy, patience and skill she showed in their final ascent made it all the more rewarding.
With one major achievement under her belt, Lucy has big plans for her future: graduate from high school a semester early, study public policy in college and become influential in combating the global water crisis -- a passion of hers since she witnessed a clean water shortage while visiting a lifelong pen pal in Uganda.
But first, the adventurer wants to complete the "Explorers Grand Slam," a challenge in which she would reach the North and South poles and climb the Seven Summits.
Lucy has already ascended three: Denali, Europe's Mount Elbrus and Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro. In an ideal world, she would secure enough funding to complete the remaining four before college. Those include Aconcagua in South America, which she attempted before but was unable to summit, as well as Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, and Mount Everest in Asia, the Earth's highest peak.
So what keeps her motivated?
"A love of nature. A passion to see the world, to travel. I love seeing not only new places, but new people and different cultures," Lucy said. "I just feel like God has given me this gift, and it's my job to use it."