Lucy Westlake has conquered the highest mountains on five continents, and she isn’t done yet.
By Eric Ruble
When Lucy Westlake reached the top of the world, she was in disbelief.
“It was so surreal,” she said. “I was telling myself, ‘You did it. You did it. You did it.’”
The incoming USC Price freshman arrived at Mount Everest’s peak at 5:36 a.m. on May 12, 2022, earning the distinction as the youngest American woman to summit the highest mountain on Earth.
Westlake, 18, has summited the tallest mountains on five of the seven continents, and plans to complete that list. But for now, she is enjoying summer in her hometown of Naperville, Illinois, and looking forward to beginning classes at USC in August.
Lucy Westlake’s hardest climb
Westlake says Everest wasn’t her most difficult climb. That title goes to Denali – the highest peak in North America – when she was 13.
“That’s the hardest – physically – a mountain has ever been for me,” she said.
During her first attempt at the Alaskan monster, she and her father had to turn around because of a rescue mission at the summit.
The experience nearly made her quit mountaineering altogether.
“After that mountain, I definitely had a crisis of purpose because I felt I worked so hard for nothing,” Westlake said.
But she learned the old expression is true: Life is about the journey, not the destination. She climbed Denali again when she was 17. That time, she successfully reached the top. In doing so, she became the youngest female to reach the high points of all 50 states.
“It’s not all about the summit. It’s really about the journey going up there, pushing yourself and doing the best you can,” she said.
USC Price student is a trailblazer for other young women
Westlake’s entire trek up and down Everest took 28 days. She said two portions stood out as particularly dangerous: the Khumbu Icefall and Hillary Step. The former is a notoriously hazardous area climbers encounter shortly after leaving base camp. Its unstable features require mountaineers to climb up faces of ice and across ladders straddling massive crevasses. Sometimes, one must jump across gaps in the ice.
“I like the technical side of everything, but it was also really hard,” Westlake said.
The Hillary Step is found on the opposite side of the climb, near the summit. Westlake explained that this portion was treacherous because it was rocky, which made it tough for her crampons (spiked metal devices attached to a climber’s boot) to gain traction.
“That was definitely dicey,” she recalled.
Westlake credited her sherpa, Mingma Chhiring Sherpa, for guiding her. It was his 16th summit. He played a crucial role in the achievement, especially because Westlake didn’t have her usual climbing partner with her. Rodney Westlake – Lucy’s dad – made the seven-day trek from Lukla, Nepal to base camp, but then went back to the U.S. Westlake says her father did not join her the rest of the way because of the climb’s cost and how much time he would have to take off work.
It was the first major climb the two had not done together.
“It was a lot harder than I expected to not have that tie to home,” Westlake said.
She noted she is often one of the only females on a mountain, and hopes her achievement inspires other young women to get outdoors.
“I want it to change. I think the main way to do that is to just have examples of other women doing these things,” she said.
A new adventure at USC
The bachelor of science in public policy at the Price School was a natural choice for Westlake. During her travels around the world, she has witnessed countless people enduring poor living conditions, particularly when it comes to water.
“I’ve seen some places with absolutely no access to clean water. I really believe that that should be a right,” she said.
She partnered with WaterStep, a nonprofit organization dedicated to designing and manufacturing innovative technology to make water safe to drink. When Westlake was 13, she helped install a WaterStep chlorine generator in a Ugandan village, providing up to 2,000 people with potable water.
“Witnessing first-hand how access to safe drinking water changes an entire community is where my dedication to helping solve the world’s water crisis was born,” Westlake said.
Her academic interests are just part of what drew Westlake to USC. She will also be on the track and field team, which won its third national title last year.
In addition to climbing the highest peak on each continent, Westlake plans to reach the north and south poles. She will be the youngest person to complete the challenge – also known as the Explorer’s Grand Slam – if she does so before she turns 20.
She is working on fundraising for the trips, as the Antarctic excursion alone will cost an estimated $70,000. But she is also eagerly awaiting the start of her time at USC. Westlake said she is especially looking forward to building new friendships on campus.
“I can’t wait for that aspect of college. I love meeting new people,” she said.
Westlake’s arrival at USC Price is just the latest step in a journey that has been filled with obstacles – many of them literal. But she overcame them with her resolve, and is now better prepared than ever for the path ahead.