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Illinois teen describes title as youngest American woman to climb Everest as ‘surreal’

NAPERVILLE, Ill. — Mount Everest might be 29,032 feet above sea level compared to Lucy Westlake’s hometown of Naperville at 702 feet. But according to the new youngest American woman to climb the mountain, Naperville has one thing in common with the world’s highest peak: traffic.

When Westlake reached the top of Everest at 5:36 a.m. last Thursday at age 18 years, 6 months and 8 days, she broke a 15-year record previously held by Samantha Larson, of Long Beach, Calif., who was 18 years, 7 months and 9 days old.

Speaking to the Naperville Sun from Nepal, Westlake, who graduated from Naperville North High School a semester early so she could attempt the record, described standing on a precipice at the top of the world as “surreal.”

“I was just kind of repeating myself, like I did it. I did. I did it. … I was so happy. ... My parents are going to be so proud,” she said “It was amazing. There is no feeling like it.”

But the one thing she wasn’t counting on was traffic. “It was so strange being with so many people on the mountain,” she said.

While climbers started leaving camp between about 7 p.m. on summit day, Westlake and her Sherpa guide, Mingma Chhiring, waited because they knew they would move faster and they didn’t want to reach the summit while it was still dark.

“We hiked for about 30 minutes before we got stopped in this line of people. It was pretty frustrating actually,” she said of the one-lane path where climbers were attached. “One of the main things was being patient that day because the line would move a little bit, and then you would just sit there for a while, and then the line would move.”

At points the difficulty was trying not to fall asleep, Westlake said.

To get ahead, her Sherpa would hook her safety to his and climb up the side in the deep snow, which was long and exhausting because the path was not tamped down, she said. “We would both get out of breath super fast,” Westlake said.

Their work paid off, and Westlake and her Sherpa were among the first group to reach the summit of the 100 people she estimated were climbing that day.

After a 20-minute view from the top of the world, Westlake started back down to camp.

Traffic was almost worse on the way down, she said, as people still were climbing up on the same one rope. “It was definitely tough and scary because you were stuck in precarious places,” she said.

After the South Summit, there was no longer a line and they could fly down to camp, she said.

Her iPhone 12 Pro captured scenes along the way, though she said it was tricky keeping the device alive because it’s so cold. “I just put it in a pocket near my body,” she said.

Sometimes when stopped in traffic, she’d grab her phone to get a photo or video. “But I didn’t take too many because your hands get really cold when you take them out of the gloves,” Westlake said.

Oxygen was necessary for Westlake above 23,500 feet day and night.

“I actually didn’t like the oxygen mask, just because I found it claustrophobic. The air was really hot, and it was a little noisy,” she said.

When she asked her Sherpa if she could forgo the mask for sleeping, Westlake was told she “absolutely” had to wear it.

“If you have it off for too long, it will freeze and then it won’t work. That was my main concern,” Westlake said. “At the summit I actually felt really good. But I didn’t want my mask to freeze. That would have been really bad.”

The call of nature was one thing Westlake said she never experienced during the eight and a half-hour climb up and three hours hike down, probably because she was so dehydrated, she said.

Westlake said she ate nothing and drank water five times, and the one big stop she made was to change out oxygen and get a sip of water.

Besides, finding a location for a pit stop was precarious, Westlake said. “There’s literally one good place to stop that entire summit day, and other than that you are on ridges — places that are pretty dangerous to stop. That’s definitely tricky,” she said. “I think my body just knew this was not the time to go.”

This was the first trek Westlake embarked upon without her father, Rodney, who journeyed with her to the tops of Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2017, Aconcagua in South America in 2018 and Elbrus in Europe in 2019.

When they reached Denali in 2021, the pair entered the record books as the youngest father-daughter team to climb all 50 U.S. state high points.

Westlake said she didn’t expect to miss her father as much as she did. “That was actually one of the hardest parts,” she said. “I didn’t have that connection to home.”

The Naperville teen is beyond thankful for the support she’s received from family and friends, having raised $24,280 through a crowdfunding campaign.

She also earned a $12,500 grant from Grape-Nuts cereal and sponsorships from Naperville businesses like Office Solutions and Interiors and iHealth.

The money covered the $36,000 cost from Xtreme Climbers Treks and Expedition, which Westlake said is an amazing price. Outfitters advertise online prices between $30,000 to $160,000, depending on how far up the mountain a person wants to climb and how much support, transportation, food and gear is required.

Westlake said her family — parents and grandparents — sacrificed a lot to help make her dreams possible. “I can’t thank them enough because we don’t have unlimited money. We can’t pay for this whole Everest trip,” Westlake said.

What Westlake wants people to know is that anyone can climb Everest, even a 104-pound female.

When people see her, Westlake said they assume she’s weak and will slow others down. “Yes. I’m small, I’m a girl and I’m young,” she said.

But she more than proved her mettle starting her expedition April 18 and reaching the summit 25 days later, a trip that typically lasts 45 to 60 days to allow climbers to get acclimated.

To prepare for Nepal, Westlake spent February pursuing her desire to bring safe water to the people of Kenya and Uganda through the WaterStep project. She also visited the Transcend Running Academy, where she trained with some of the country’s top distance athletes and future Olympians.

“I came into the climb well acclimated as I had spent the past five weeks training with some of the best distance runners in the world in the highlands of Kenya at 7,000 feet,” she said.

The next record within grasp is the Explorers Grand Slam: climbing the peaks on all seven continents and skiing to the North and South poles. All that’s left are Oceana’s Carstensz Pyramid, Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, both poles ... and time.

Westlake starts college in August at the University of Southern California, where she will be running cross country and track. She’ll need to consult with her coach at USC before making any decisions.

“I have two years, by the time I’m 20, to break the record as the youngest person who did the Explorers Grand Slam, so I’m hoping that I’ll be able to fit those in somewhere,” she said.

At USC, where she’s receiving academic and needs-based scholarships, Westlake plans to major in public policy and minor in social entrepreneurship.

Until then, she is quite the celebrity, making appearances on national network shows like “Today” and “Good Morning America."

Yet Westlake remains grounded in her roots.

“Coming back to Naperville, I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like,” she said. “I don’t think much will change. Honestly, I think it’ll be pretty normal, other than I’ll probably have a lot of people asking me how it was.”

———

Suzanne Baker is a reporter for the Naperville Sun.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This story was originally published May 19, 2022 5:30 AM.

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