It might be hard to believe that Lucy Westlake was once afraid of heights.
At just 18 years old, the Chicago-area mountaineer on Thursday became the youngest American woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest — the world’s tallest and arguably most dangerous mountain at 29,032 feet above sea level.
It’s the latest record set by Westlake, who still plans to make it back home in time for her high school graduation on May 22.
In a sport that naturally produces fear, she hopes people mostly see how her faith in God leads her.
“I really hope that I inspire other people to climb their own mountains,” she said recently on the Sports Spectrum Podcast, shortly before she left for her climb. “I hope that they see me as someone that has a lot of trust in God, a person that will go for it that really wants to push their limits. That’s kind of my mantra that I try to live out — that limits are perceived.
“I hope to inspire this in other people as well. Maybe they can’t do it by themselves, but through God, they can. When they reach the end of what they think is possible, there’s so much more beyond.”
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Mountaineering is a sport that, in general, involves various methods to summit a mountain. It can sometimes involve rock climbing or hiking, but for Westlake it generally involves climbing glaciers that require ropes and a harness, along with shoes with spikes. For mountaineers like Westlake, that also includes climbing with all their gear on them — tents, a sleeping bag, food, and anything else they might need to suffice for several days at a time.
Westlake started mountaineering at 7 years old when she lived in Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents have always had a heart to serve God, she said, leading family mission trips to expose her and her siblings to what service looked like.
It was on one of those mission trips where someone mentioned that the highest mountain in Kentucky, Big Black Mountain, wasn’t far from where they were and that they should check it out, if nothing more than just as a sightseeing opportunity. They climbed to the top of it and from there they were hooked and decided to seek out other high points in nearby states.
At 12 years old, Westlake became the youngest woman to reach the summit of the highest point in each of the lower 48 states. Last year, she made it all 50 after reaching the summit of Mt. Denali in Alaska, the highest point in North America at 20,310 feet above sea level — a far cry from the modest 4,145-foot peak all those years ago in Kentucky.
That was her second attempt at summiting Denali after the initial attempt, when she was just 13 years old, had to be called off prematurely when another climber in a separate group got stranded and eventually lost their life. She was a day away from reaching the summit when her guides were called to help with an emergency rescue for the stranded climber.
The guides were exhausted and a storm was approaching, so the remainder of the climb was canceled. It was disappointing, she said, to know factors outside of her control led to that climb ending abruptly. She’s now able to see God’s hand in it all, and that experience played a big role in shaping who she is as a climber now.
“It was really hard. It was very hard,” she said. “I questioned if I wanted to continue mountain climbing. Really, ultimately, I didn’t understand my purpose. I kept wrestling with this question. I knew God had given me a gift to mountain climb. I knew that, but I didn’t understand why He had given it to me.
“I finally realized after a lot of thinking that I didn’t need to understand. I just needed to trust Him. That’s kind of where my mindset switched and I decided that climbing isn’t really for the summit. The summit feels great, but you can’t just climb for the summit because you’re going to be so disappointed so many times.”
She said that experience has helped her better understand God’s plan for her life.
“It’s very hard to see that in the short run, but you have to just trust Him in all aspects,” she said. “Trust is really faith lived out and I hope to inspire that through my climbing. It’s a work in progress. Every mountain I go up, I want to summit, but you just have to trust that if these circumstances arise, if God sends weather in, if I have to turn around, it’s part of His plan and it will make it for the better.”
It’s also helped her discover her purpose with climbing.
Because of her age, the first time she tried to summit Mt. Denali, she had to show proof of climbing a mountain of 18,000 feet or higher in order to be approved to climb. To do this, she and her father settled on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which she said is one of the more relatively easy mountains to climb at that height.
Westlake had been conversing for years with a pen pal in Uganda who alerted her to a clean water crisis her village was experiencing. Westlake was able to visit her on the Tanzania trip and experience first-hand how some people live. It was here that she developed a heart for advocating for clean water initiatives.
Most of her climbing excursions are now tied to helping fight the world’s water crisis in some way, she said. She’ll attend the University of Southern California in the fall, where she’ll run cross-country while studying public policy and social entrepreneurship. After college, she hopes to be an influencer in the world water and sanitation crisis movement to get policies passed that will be life changing for these communities.
She also hopes to become the youngest woman to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which involves climbing the high points on all seven continents. She’s now completed five.
Westlake said she hopes others are inspired by how she’s allowed God to push her to her limits, both literally on mountains but also in her faith.
“When I found my limits, then that allowed God to really step in and to allow me to push beyond them and let His light shine through me,” Westlake said. “That’s something that I really enjoy. It’s so much more fulfilling than reaching the top — getting to the end of your rope and seeing what God can do through you.”