'Mountains are my passion': Naperville native aims to be youngest U.S. woman to top Everest
It's not easy packing for Mount Everest.
But somewhere along the journey between empty and filled backpacks, Lucy Westlake made sure to include two critical items: cap and gown.
When the rest of her senior classmates at Naperville North High School are participating in their graduation ceremony on May 22, it's possible that Westlake will be 29,029 feet in the air at the world's highest point somewhere near the border separating Nepal from Tibet.
Should the 18-year-old reach the summit of Mount Everest, Westlake will become the youngest female American to accomplish the feat. Right now, she's a day or two away from base camp, which will be the springboard for her long trek up the mountain.
From there it will be just Westlake and a sherpa, bound for history.
"I was sad about missing prom and graduation and the end of senior year, but it's so worth it," Westlake said during a brief break in her hike to base camp. "The mountains are my passion. I love it up here. I know there will be other opportunities I'll have to miss, but I'm happy to make some sacrifices."
Eighteen-year-old Naperville native Lucy Westlake is attempting to become the youngest American female to climb Mount Everest.
- Courtesy of Lucy Westlake
Westlake's quest to climb Mount Everest is amazing on its own, but it's part of a much bigger plan.
She caught the climbing bug from her father, Rodney, who used the activity as a way for their family to see the country. In 2011 they scaled Black Mountain, the highest point in Kentucky, and eventually reached the highest point in all 50 states.
"You get addicted at a certain point," she said. "It kind of sneaks up on you. You do one and then you want to do another one and another one."
The list of 50 states became complete last summer when Lucy and Rodney scaled Denali in Alaska, a 20,310-foot summit and a critical part of the next goal.
Westlake is attempting to become the youngest person to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, a challenge to reach the North and South poles and climb the highest mountains in each of the seven continents, also known as the Seven Summits.
She's ascended Denali, Europe's Mount Elbrus, Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro and, earlier this year, Aconcagua in South America. If she tops Mount Everest, the remaining sites will be Mount Vinson in Antarctica, Carstensz Pyramid north of Australia and both poles.
Westlake hoped to complete the Explorers Grand Slam by the time she entered college in the fall -- she'll be running cross country and track and field on scholarship at the University of Southern California -- but expenses and COVID-19 restrictions created roadblocks.
The current youngest adventurer to accomplish the Explorers Grand Slam is a Japanese woman who was 20 when she completed it in 2017.
"It's pretty money-dependent at this point," Westlake said. "Going to the North and South pole is really expensive. I didn't get enough sponsorship money this time, and the climbing season has already passed. So I'll have to wait until next year."
Westlake, who graduated high school a semester early to take advantage of the spring climbing season, has spent only about two weeks in Naperville since Christmas. In addition to the trip to Aconcagua in Argentina, she stayed several weeks in Kenya and Uganda to train in higher elevations and work on water safety projects that are her true passion.
After a week in Naperville, on April 14 Westlake flew to Kathmandu in Nepal. With a team of 10, including her father, Westlake began the hike to base camp at Mount Everest.
Base camp, however, is where the separation occurs. For the first time since 2011 in Kentucky, her father won't be climbing with her.
"That will be strange," she said. "It's only natural for a father to be nervous about his daughter climbing Mount Everest, but I think he's OK with it."
A father has reason to be nervous. While the death rate for Mount Everest climbers steadily has decreased thanks to improved safety measures, there are many dangers.
Beyond the threat of avalanches and earthquakes, even weeks of acclimatization to the thin air might not be enough to prevent altitude sickness that could lead to nausea, dizziness and more serious health risks.
Oxygen deprivation at the high altitude causes motor and mental functions to diminish, which makes oxygen tanks a necessity even for experienced climbers. Then there's the extreme cold.
Climbing Mount Everest also is expensive, and Westlake is quick to praise her team for supporting her. She has sponsorships to help pay for her excursions, and also a GoFundMe campaign. Any money raised beyond her expenses will be donated to safe water projects.
A recent study by researchers from the University of Washington and the University of California-Davis revealed that from 2010 to 2019, about 60% of more than 3,600 climbers overcame all the obstacles to reach the summit.
As she makes final preparations to scale Mount Everest, Westlake is confident she can do it. The timing is uncertain, although she estimates reaching the summit by mid- to late May.
"It depends on weather, how my body's feeling, a lot of different factors," she said. "It's a very wide range of time."
One step at a time
Becoming the youngest person to complete the Explorers Grand Slam in the next two years remains a goal, but her dedication to USC comes first.
"I'll work with my coach and see what's possible to do, but once I go to USC, running will be at the forefront," she said.
Also at the forefront is maintaining her ties to Naperville, which isn't easy when you're sleeping in a tent in Asia thousands of feet up in the air. But she's trying.
During the hike to Mount Everest base camp, she stopped at Namche Bazaar to shop for a prom dress. The dress, the cap and the gown -- and her Instagram account -- are the best ways to stay connected.
"I'm excited to get pictures with all that stuff just to experience home a little bit," she said.
Westlake isn't sure what's next after she completes Everest and the Explorers Grand Slam.
She has a bunch of future adventures swimming in her mind, but, like any smart mountain climber, Westlake takes it one step at a time.
"It's so hard to say what's next because I've been so focused on this goal," she said. "But I'm sure I'll think of something."