This month, 18-year-old Lucy Westlake became the youngest American woman to summit Mt Everest – and that’s not even her first world record.
An experienced mountaineer, long-distance runner, triathlete, and recently graduated high-school senior from Naperville, Illinois, Westlake summited the world’s tallest peak on May 12, breaking a record held by Samantha Larson since 2007.
“It was the perfect experience,” the young climber tells Lonely Planet via Zoom. “The sun had risen like an hour before we got to the summit and the clouds were low… You could see these huge mountain peaks, like just sticking up everywhere. Oh my gosh, it was amazing. I was breathtaken…. The mountains are always beautiful, but the Himalayas are just especially, especially beautiful.”
Summit day: How it happened
That moment was the culmination of a 9.5-hour journey alongside Mingma Chhiring Sherpa of Xtreme Climbers, begun at Camp 3 the night before and timed to reach the top just after sunrise. “We knew we were one of the faster groups on the mountain, [and] we didn't want to summit in the dark, so we waited ‘til 9pm,” Westlake says. “But then so many people went up before that when we got up out of the tent, there was literally a line of lights up the mountain. I didn't really think of it as a problem…but then we hiked for like an hour and we were stuck. We were dead stopped in this line.”
(It’s entirely possible that queue included another group of record-setters – members of the first all-Black expedition, Full Circle Everest, also summited that day.)
With Westlake dozing off on her feet as they waited for traffic to move, Mingma Chhiring Sherpa suggested an alternate approach. “Everest is kind of like a one-way street, because there's literally one fixed rope up the mountain, and you're supposed to always be clipped in [with] your rope and your safety,” she says. "But with that line, me and my Sherpa, we're like, ‘We got to pass a few people.’”
They unhooked themselves from the main rope, clipped their safeties together, and stepped off the well-packed trail to make their way up. “On the side it was just deep, deep snow,” Westlake recalls. “We would take a few steps and be like, panting, and have to wait a little bit, so it was still slow moving [and] really hard.”
Still, the trek wasn’t without its highlights. “The hour when the sun was rising, like an hour before the summit – that was actually my favorite part of the day,” she says. “We would look over the edge and just see the sunrise.”
By the time they reached the top, the path had cleared. “We were one of maybe 15 to 20 people to summit, but we could just walk right up,” she says. “And there [were] actually some people I knew, so I had some friends at the top, which is awesome.”
Creating a record-setting resume
No newcomer to the climbing scene, Westlake tackled her first mountain at age 6 – Mexico’s sixth-highest peak, La Malinche in Puebla – and her first US state highpoint at age 7. Five years later, she had scaled the tallest peaks in each of the Lower 48, setting her first world record, and by 2021, she had checked Mauna Kea and Denali off the list as well, becoming the youngest female ever to climb all 50 US state highpoints.
It wasn’t a goal she set out with initially. “At first it was just, you know, like an adventure here and there, and just like a fun way to get out of the car,” she says. But then she hit Washington’s Mt Rainier, and at age 11, her whole perspective shifted. The three-day trip was her first time climbing a glacier – learning how to use an ice ax and crampons – and the experience whetted her appetite for more. “After that, I was like, ‘Oh wow, I think I want to do all of them. I think I can do all of them,’” she says. “That was my first real taste of mountaineering. And that's when I decided I really love it.”
Though she was eager to summit Everest, Westlake didn't know if she'd be able to make the trip happen without additional funding. But in April, she received a surprising donation: a $12,500 grant from Grape-Nuts, deposited into her GoFundMe. The brand – which sponsored the first expedition to Antarctica and kept Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay going during their historic summit in the 1950s (the climbers brought the cereal along for the trip) – chose nine women "pursuing amazing adventures" to support in honor of its 125th anniversary.
“We wanted to honor the Grape-Nuts history of fueling adventure, while elevating and recognizing the amazing women who are reaching new heights – sometimes quite literally – in the world of exploration," senior brand manager Laura Campbell tells Lonely Planet in a statement. "When looking for women who push beyond the limits of possible, the team came across Lucy Westlake’s GoFundMe and instantly knew we wanted to support her Everest climb. Lucy’s optimism is contagious! She’s truly inspirational, and we love that she shows women and young girls everywhere that they can achieve anything – even reaching the top of Everest – with hard work, determination, and the support of others.”
What's next for Lucy Westlake?
Of course, the incoming University of Southern California freshman has no intention of stopping with Everest – though she did manage to take a breather for prom and graduation. “I am trying to be the youngest person to do the Explorers Grand Slam,” she says, referencing the adventurous challenge that involves climbing the Seven Summits – the highest mountain on each continent – and reaching the North and South Poles.
“Now that I've done Everest, I've done actually five of the seven, so I have two more and then the North and South Poles,” she says. “I'm trying to get sponsorships, fundraise, to be able to do Mt Vinson and then the South Pole this upcoming winter. I will be in college and I will be running, so it's a little tricky – I definitely have to coordinate with my coach to see if that's possible. But that's what I'm looking to do. That's my next goal.”
Then she’ll only have two stops to go – though she’s not in a huge rush. “Next summer, I'm hoping to do Carstensz Pyramid,” she says. “But the youngest person is 20 and I'm 18, so I have a little time.”