Movement in the mountains: Lucy Westlake fights gender gap

Movement in the mountains: Lucy Westlake fights gender gap

Mountaineer Lucy Westlake just became the youngest American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, closing a gender gap for women in the mountains.

When the Indian subcontinent crashed into Eurasia, the Himalayas were born.

This took place 60 million years ago, about 55 million years before our ancestors began to roam the earth. In the last five million years, humans have traversed every inch of the globe, cultivating its valleys, diving deep into its oceans, and reaching for its highest peaks.

Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain above sea level, has come to represent something to people everywhere. At 29,032 feet, the ancient Everest towers above us, reminding human beings how young, how vulnerable, how mortal we are. That’s why conquering Everest is synonymous with achieving the impossible. Only the rarest of humans dare to dream that high, climb that far, and risk their life in pursuit of a higher plane.

At 18 years old, Lucy Westlake has done just that, and it is only a fraction of her mondial journey. By climbing mountains, Lucy Westlake is moving mountains for women explorers throughout the world.

On May 12, 2022, Westlake became the youngest American woman in history to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Standing atop the highest point in the world, Westlake thanked the family, friends, and supporters who helped her reach the height of her ambition.

One of those supporters was Grape-Nuts, the nutritious breakfast cereal that has been powering explorers for the past 125 years. To celebrate their 125th anniversary, the company gave grants to nine pioneering women, and Lucy was one of them. Overall, Grape-Nuts donated over $100,000 to see women change the world, but Lucy’s grant added to a fortuitous history between the cereal company and climbers.

When Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first people to scale the summit of Everest in 1953, Grape-Nuts sponsored their climb. Seventy years later, they were able to help Lucy achieve her dream of reaching the top.

But Lucy’s dream is far from over: the teenage explorer is in the midst of an adventure that spans the entire globe. Lucy wants to become the youngest person ever to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam, meaning that Westlake wants to climb the tallest peak on every continent and reach the North and South Pole by age 20. With five continents down and two poles to go, the prospective USC Trojan anticipates what her future holds.

The top of Everest is only the beginning for Westlake, a young woman whose childhood dream to see the United States from its highest points expanded into making world history as its most accomplished young explorer. And in a sport and culture that remains dominated by men across the globe, Lucy hopes that her presence at the top of the world allows young girls everywhere to think differently and climb, without limitation or hesitation.

Westlake spoke with FanSided in an exclusive interview, right from Mount Everest base camp a day after she completed her historic ascent.

Lucy Westlake lives out an American dream

The terrain on Everest is not an inviting environment to climbers.

While people from all over the world now flock to the famous destination, going up and down Everest remains an adventure with certain risk.

In 2019, Reuters released detailed data concerning a spike in deaths that year for climbers on Everest. According to Reuters, “most fatalities on Everest [in 2019] were due to acute mountain sickness (AMS), or exhaustion, one of the main effects of AMS.”

Milder weather during May provides a slim window that climbers seek to take advantage of, and in 2019, it caused a deadly jam that resulted in the deaths of several climbers.

Still, a few hundred climbers reach the summit and return home every year, and Lucy just joined that list in 2022.

In a world that is adapting to adventure tourism, and in a place like Nepal where the Himalayas have been a lucrative draw, taking the hike up Everest can become something to check off of a bucket list for some, the allure of attainability making it dangerous. As exhilarating as mountaineering is, this unique sport comes with environmental risk. Athletes risk tearing tendons during games; divers risk “the bends” if they surface for air too quickly. Hazard is an inextricable part of sport, and climbers have to build endurance over years to prepare their bodies properly to climb.

This photograph taken on May 31, 2021 shows mountaineers climbing the Hillary Step during their ascend of the South face to summit Mount Everest (8,848.86-metre), in Nepal.

Although she’s only 18, Lucy already has 11 years of climbing and endurance running under her belt. Her dream began at the age of 7, according to a GoFundMe page to facilitate her expeditions. That dream grew bigger and bigger, with Lucy racing to break a world record through the daunting Explorer’s Grand Slam.

Westlake has already had the opportunity to scale the highest point in Europe (Mt. Elbrus, Russia), Africa (Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania), South America (Mt. Aconcagua, Argentina) and North America (Mt. Denali, Alaska).

The Everest expedition required more resources than her previous climbs, and while Lucy’s parents have supported their daughter all along, she needed an additional financial push to tackle Everest. That’s when Grape-Nuts stepped in.

“It’s been amazing. I really cannot thank them enough,” Westlake said of the cereal brand.

“I started a GoFundMe because mountaineering is such an expensive sport, and my parents do their best to support me. They do an amazing job, but Everest is a big expedition, so there’s a little bit more help with Everest.

So I started a GoFundMe, and I looked at it one day, and there was like $12,000 more dollars and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened? Who donated a crazy amount?’

And I looked at it, and it was Grape-Nuts. It was just incredible, I was so happy, so, so happy that day. I’ve been wearing their T-shirts, carrying their banners up, because I just can’t thank them enough for all they’ve done for me.”

Westlake prepared for her lifelong dream to summit Everest with another lifelong dream for many Americans: the goal to visit every U.S. state. Of course, Lucy took it a step or two further: her dream was to climb to the highest point in every state, allowing her to see the country in a way few Americans ever experience.

“Yeah, it’s honestly kind of hard to decide the easiest one because there are a few that are super, super easy,” Westlake said when asked about her easiest U.S. climb. “Sometimes the hardest part is finding them. One, I remember looking around this neighborhood, and there was a sign for it. A few of them, I literally just walked up to the little sign.”

In lowland places like Delaware and Washington D.C., the highest natural point is designated by a sign that indicates the height above sea level. For example, Delaware’s highest point is marked with a colorful sign at Ebright Road — it’s 447.85 feet above sea level. In D.C., it’s Fort Reno Park, which is marked at 409 feet above sea level.

Although not every climb was physically challenging, as Lucy said, exploring the nation and finding every high point was a challenge all its own. Lucy welcomed that challenge and traveling across the United States to find the highest point in every state allowed her to see America from a path less traveled.

“That was honestly one of my favorite parts about high-pointing,” Westlake said. “It was just seeing… it would take you to places you’d never go to any other time.

I remember this one mountain in Kansas. It was Mount Sunflower, and it was literally in the middle of nowhere. You just see the U.S. You see the good, the bad, everything. It’s amazing to travel. Just to say that I’ve been to 50 states — that’s something I was really proud of.”

Westlake is also proud to make American history as the youngest woman to ascend Everest. Still, when she reflects on her place in history books, she contemplates the gender gap that exists in mountaineering.

In mountaineering, women perform better — yet see the mountaintop less

What is fascinating about the gender gap in mountain climbing is that it is entirely cultural: evolutionarily speaking, women are superior to men in this sport.

In “Female excellence in rock climbing likely has an evolutionary origin”, Collin Carroll explains how evolutionary forces gave women a physical advantage over men in regards to climbing.

“Female climbers are some of the best in the world irrespective of gender, a trend that is not found in any other major sport… The exceptional ability of female rock climbers relative to male rock climbers is further evidence of the existence of sex-blind musculoskeletal adaptations, which developed over the course of human evolution – as a result of external (non-sexual) selection forces – to facilitate essential movements.”

Carroll explores the performance gap between men and women in climbing, but Westlake has seen the cultural gender gap while on the mountains. Even though women are better climbers, and climbing is an integral part of mountaineering, there are so few of them on the mountains. Stereotypes about women’s frailty, combined with the inability to travel and break domestic traditions for the majority of human history, have kept women off the mountains for a long, long time.

By contrast, Westlake’s ambitions have been endorsed by her family and community — rather than being told to stop, Westlake was told to keep going. She hopes her presence does that for young girls everywhere.

“Yeah, it’s been amazing. I feel so honored to be able to be a part of it,” Westlake says of making history for women in the mountains.

“I loved the mountains and I loved climbing and being a mountaineer, but it’s been really frustrating. It’s really sad to see the big gap in gender. That has been…. That has been intense. And it’s a sport that I love, but that’s one aspect of it that I really want to change badly. So I’m so proud to be able to hopefully get more girls on the mountain. Just to share my story, and just reach out and hopefully inspire the next generation to be more equal in that way.”

According to Lucy’s GoFundMe page, aptly titled “Climbing Everest to Close the Gender Gap”, Westlake opened up about why climbing Everest represents more than standing atop its snowy peak. The journey is something that has historically been reserved for men, a common theme in the history of exploring and mountaineering. Lucy has been fighting to change that for over a decade by being present on the mountain, a testament to her mental and physical fortitude.

“For the past eleven years, I’ve been fighting to prove my worth in the mountains,” Westlake wrote. “Mountaineering is a sport dominated by men twice my age and size who can shoulder 75 pounds of gear with ease. And I’m ready to fight to change that. To show this generation of young girls that we belong in the mountains.”

“I think the main reason is just that women don’t see a lot of other women, and that’s why I like to share my story,” Westlake said. “I think…I mean, you do have to carry a really heavy pack at times, and it’s a very physical sport. I think that aspect of it, maybe it’s women thinking that they’re not strong enough to carry it for so long. Or just not being as confident.

Large men can carry more than I can, but you just have to put your mind to it. I mean, if you truly want it badly enough, you will be able to lift that pack. And sometimes it seems impossible. You just gotta take one moment at a time.

I carried all my own gear up Everest. My sherpa… he carried his gear, and I carried my gear. It’s really empowering for me to just see that I can do that. I can carry my gear the same as these larger men can. So yeah, I think that’s probably the main reason, just the concept around it.”

In Nepal, the Sherpa people are seen as gurus on the mountains, and understandably so: the Himalayan region is where they call home. The term “sherpa” refers to the individuals in this community who lead foreign trekkers up the mountains. When it comes to genetic adaptability, the Sherpa people are unparalleled when it comes to surviving at high altitudes. A genome comparison at UC Berkeley revealed that within 3,000 years, the Sherpa “​​rapidly evolved a unique ability to thrive at high altitudes and low oxygen levels.”

Still, women in the Sherpa community, known as Sherpani, have been historically less present in such expeditions — but there were and continue to be people like Lucy who are fighting for more representation.

In 1993, Pasang Llamu Sherpa became the first Nepali woman to climb Mount Everest. On her descent, she and her partner faced a sudden storm. Both died as they sheltered in their tent.

Christophe Noel of Adventure Journal recounts how Pasang became an icon for a generation of Nepali women who are now climbing the world’s tallest mountains, in Nepal and elsewhere. Maya Sherpa, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa, and Pasang Llamu Sherpa Akita are three Nepali mountaineers who are breaking records and barriers for Sherpani, affirming their adeptness on the mountain. After years of being told that girls were not meant to become mountain guides, Dawa Yangzum Sherpa became the first woman in Nepal to earn a prestigious international qualification in 2018.

And Pasang, the Sherpani who gave her life to make history, has been honored posthumously in her home country. As Noel notes, “the King of Nepal posthumously awarded her the first-ever Nepalese Star”, and a statue in Kathmandu bears her likeness.

Throughout her global adventures, Westlake has noticed that the numbers of mountaineering women have been climbing — and she was surprised to see the number of women taking on Everest alongside her.

“It’s been amazing,” Westlake said of seeing more women in mountaineering. “Movements like that are what give me a lot of confidence and hope that the stereotype is going to change in the future. Because there’s definitely been… Even on Everest, I was surprised at the amount of women I saw. I was really happy. And walking past so many women going up made me really happy. That was something that was really cool to see, and it’s something I’ve really never seen on any other mountain. I feel like Everest is honestly the mountain I’ve seen probably the most women on, which is a little bit surprising to me, I was not expecting that. But yeah, it makes sense that movements like this are happening, because they should be. They really should.”

Westlake isn’t sure of the exact reason why there are more women present on Everest than other mountains, but she notes that the main reason could be visibility: the same reason Westlake was motivated to represent young American women.

“I don’t know,” Westlake said of the trend. “Maybe because it’s just such a publicized mountain, but I was really surprised. On Denali, on Aconcagua, I really didn’t see that many women on those mountains. Kilimanjaro, a few, but no, Everest is definitely the most. I’m not sure, but maybe times are changing. Maybe you’re right. I really hope so.”

Looking at life from 30,000 feet up

Physically speaking, Lucy has gotten to see the world from a viewpoint few humans ever bear witness. She has seen the world from 30,000 feet in the air and everything in between, seeing our planet stretch out endlessly beyond the mountains. Metaphysically speaking, Lucy has pushed her human form to the limit, standing on top of the world in what can be described as one of the greatest feats possible for any human being.

It’s a lot to take in.

“Oh my gosh, honestly, every time, it’s hard to believe,” Westlake said on her perspective from the top. “You’ve been walking up and up and up for so many days, and then suddenly, there’s just no more ‘up’ to go.

And you’re just at the top of this mountain, looking out on the most beautiful scene. The mountains… that’s one of the main reasons I climb is because there’s really no place more beautiful on Earth. They’re amazing.

So I was just like… I couldn’t believe Everest, especially that I was at the top, I was like, ‘Wow, did I really just do that?’

And honestly, my most emotional time on Everest wasn’t even at the summit. At the summit, I kind of expected that I was gonna cry, but I didn’t cry this time. I actually cried an hour before. I thought we had three hours left, and I asked my sherpa, I was like, ‘How long to the summit?’ And he was like, ‘An hour.’

And at that moment, I knew. I was like, ‘Oh, I got this. I’m gonna make it to the summit.’

So, at that moment, I just teared up. And I tried not to cry too much because my goggles would ice up if I cried. I was trying to hold it in. But that moment… it was pretty amazing.

I usually don’t get too emotional in the mountains, but this mountain…Everest was different. I got really emotional with my dad, and my trekking partners left, and then yeah, I don’t know. This one got me.”

Lucy has thought a great deal about what this means for her and the people she hopes to inspire, but becoming a part of American history is difficult to fully fathom. She regrets not bringing an American flag with her, as explorers have historically done as they reach new heights.

“Yeah, I honestly was so unprepared — I didn’t even bring an American flag to the top,” Westlake said. “I realized afterwards because I’ve never done anything like this. I didn’t even think about bringing an American flag to the top because I forget… I didn’t know I was gonna represent my country in that way. But then when I realized that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really a big deal. This is history.’

And when that hit me, that was an amazing feeling. I really never thought that I would do something like that. So I was just so happy — I still am. I still am so happy. The feeling… It doesn’t go away.”

Considering what Lucy has already accomplished in life, it’s jarring to think that she missed her high school senior prom and graduation ceremony to climb Mount Everest — such is the life of an American teen with the lofty goal of leaving her mark on history. Exceptional determination aside, Lucy remains a grounded Naperville, Illinois native who looks forward to attending the University of Southern California in the fall. Of course, Lucy’s dreams of exploring the world are very much on the books during her collegiate career.

“What I’m trying to do, and what Everest was actually a part of, is I want to be the youngest person, male or female, to complete The Explorer’s Grand Slam, which is going to the top of every continent, climbing the tallest mountain on every continent, and then also going to the North and South poles. So far, now that I’ve done Everest, I’ve done five of the highest mountains on each continent,” Westlake said.

“So I have three expeditions left: one is to Antarctica going to Mount Vinson and then also to the South Pole, one trip to the North Pole, and then the final one is Carstensz Pyramid.

Then, I’m gonna start running cross country at USC in the fall. So that’s kind of my next big adventure, but I really hope I’ll be able to raise enough funding and have the time in between college to be able to complete this goal before I’m 20. So that’s kind of what’s next in mountaineering for me.”

Athletically speaking, there is one other lofty goal Lucy could add to her expansive list. During the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, the IOC added Sport Climbing to their list of Olympic sports. In the Women’s Combined event, no American woman won a medal. Perhaps Lucy could be the first in Paris 2024 or Los Angeles 2028.

“Wow, I actually had no idea they just added competitive climbing — that’s amazing!” Westlake said. “I will definitely have to check that out. But I’m going one step at a time. Running-wise, the next is college. And then in college, we’ll see if I have fast enough times to go professional. And if so, yeah, maybe it’s the Olympics. We’ll see.”

On Earth and within her own life, Lucy has been to the top of the world, doing something so few women in history have had the privilege of experiencing. While some of her future plans remain open-ended, one thing is certain: Lucy Westlake will continue to leave an impression on the world around her.

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