Written by: Pam Platt, WaterStep Communications Specialist
There was little to suggest that Lucy Westlake was anything but rested, relaxed and content in an Aug. 1 Zoom call from Islamabad, Pakistan. She was briefly staying there before flying home to the U.S. after she turned back in her attempt to reach the summit of K2, the second-tallest mountain in the world.
Abandoning her quest to reach the top and become the youngest woman to reach its summit, was not the outcome for which she had trained and worked. But the death of a fellow climber, bad weather and dangerous conditions – including an avalanche — led the 19-year-old American mountaineer to let go of that goal on July 27,
She would call it the hardest and easiest decision she made.
Hard, because she felt great and knew she could make it to the top.
Easy, because she didn’t want to contribute to worsening conditions and endanger other climbers.
“I knew if I chose to go up while others chose to go down for the safety of their (climbing) community members, I would never be proud of that summit. But if I chose my community over myself, I would always have peace,” she said.
Long before she began her K2 climb, Westlake had demonstrated the trek was about more than individual records for her.
A sophomore at the University of Southern California, majoring in public policy with a concentration on water issues, as she had in other climbs she used the K2 climb to raise awareness about WaterStep. The Louisville, Ky.-based non-profit works to bring sustainable and safe water to people in 70 countries. She has traveled to Uganda and Kenya to share WaterStep equipment and training for people and communities who need safe water.
Though Westlake didn’t get to hold her WaterStep flag at the K2 summit, as she did on Mount Everest, the flag made the trip with her, and so did her commitment to safe water.
“When climbing, you survive with the bare necessities of life. Even making water is a hassle, having to collect snow and then boiling the water and waiting for it to cool to drink it,” she said.
“Through my climbing I really get to see first-hand what not having easy access to clean water is like, and it reminds me just how much WaterStep is needed. When my climb is over, I go back to being water-secure, but many people don’t have this luxury: water-scarcity is their life.”
On her climb, Westlake also gathered 13 snow and ice samples at different levels of the mountain so climate change expert Ulyana Horodyskyj Pena of the University of Colorado in Boulder can study black carbon and ice mass loss in remote locations. Despite all the challenges, including the avalanche Westlake endured, the samples, the first the climate scientist will have from K2, made it back with her.
Make no mistake. Westlake is deeply serious about her mountaineering. But it also is a deeply personal pursuit for her. It’s about all sorts of summits, and success can be measured in different ways.
Certainly, it can be measured in the climbing accomplishments she has achieved before her 20th birthday.
When she turned back, she had reached an altitude of 26,300 feet, just 1,951 feet shy of the summit.
This was a higher altitude than Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, which she summited in 2017. Higher than Elbrus in Russia, which she summited in 2019. Higher than Denali in Alaska, which she summited in 2021. And higher than Aconcagua in Argentina, which she summited in 2022.
The only mountain she has climbed that is taller than the height she reached on K2 is Mount Everest at the China-Nepal border. Westlake scaled Everest in 2022, setting a record as the youngest American woman to reach its 29,032- foot summit. She had hoped to become the youngest woman to scale both Everest and K2, considered a more difficult climb.
Despite a fleeting sadness she said she felt when she returned to K2 base camp, she also spoke of the sunrise she saw on her way down, the beauty of the mountain and the stars on what was supposed to be summit night, the feeling of calm she had even when she saw the white cloud of an avalanche coming toward her and Mingma Chhiring Sherpa, her climbing partner, leaving them in thigh-high snow through which they had to “swim.” And she shared the acceptance and peace she had in sticking with their decision to leave the mountain, for the safety of themselves and others, if anything “sketchy” happened.
Confident in her skills and abilities, she left K2 with her love of all mountains intact, her relationship with them and what they give her as strong as ever.
“I climb because I love the mountains … their beauty, their adventure, the ways they push you beyond anything you ever dreamed possible,” she said.
“This mountain has changed me in so many ways and connected me with some amazing people. I’m so blessed to have K2 as part of my story. She exceeded my wildest expectations.”
It is difficult not to hear echoes of Alan Arnette in Westlake, and she in him, after talking to both of them. Arnette, who lives in Colorado, is the oldest American to have summited K2, and the 7 Summiter is an authoritative blogger on all things mountaineering.
He has paired his climbs with advocacy for education, awareness and research fund-raising for Alzheimer’s, a disease that took his mother. He says climbing is more satisfying and meaningful with a “why” answered in the climber, and he says the suffering each climber experiences on mountains reveals character and can lead to finding the better version of oneself and understanding of one’s faults and strengths.
Westlake said, “The suffering is why you do it: if it wasn’t extremely difficult, it wouldn’t be an accomplishment. It’s not something I try to get through or around, but rather expect and accept throughout the climb.”
Arnette includes Westlake and her attempt on his Aug. 1 blog about this K2 summit season, mentioning her WaterStep work and her honesty in writing about her first experience with K2. In conversation, he speaks both of her young age in what she has so far accomplished, as well as her maturity in knowing when to turn back this time, citing Westlake for using her resources to make a difference in the world.
Westlake is taking a short break between K2 and returning to school and her cross-country and track commitments at USC later this month. She is vacationing with friends and family, “classic summer” activities such as going to the beach and bonfires, listening to music, picking berries, baking and cooking … and it sounds almost as ambitious as earlier in her summer.
When asked, she said she might give it a few years before trying K2 again. She’s interested in getting into rock climbing, and next summer she may do some assistant guiding, she said.
“You define your own success,” she said. “It’s in your mind, not a physical place. In my mind, I made the summit.”
Visit lucywestlake.com, waterstep.org, alanarnette.com