Washington state is home to many notable big-mountain climbers past and present. Names such as Whittaker (Jim, Lou and Leif, who now lives in Bellingham) and Wickwire, Ridgeway, Roskelly, Beckey, Molenaar, Schoening — and more recently Steve House, Dave Hahn, Garrett Madison. The list goes on.
You’ll note this rundown of Washington-based high-altitude athletes is predominantly male (no surprise) but there are many female climbers in our state, including this standout: Lisa Thompson.
With thousands of vertical feet under her crampons, Thompson has scaled many of the world’s highest mountains, including the Seven Summits. She conquered Mount Everest in 2016, then became the second American woman to summit K2 in 2018. Thompson’s book, “Finding Elevation: Fear and Courage on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain,” chronicles her first forays into mountaineering at age 37 through her K2 expedition 10 years later.
In the book, Thompson notes her fears, her drive and her strategies for success that she now engages in her work as a coach and trainer. Thompson is as tough as her male counterparts, yet brings a woman’s perspective, which adds something new to the climbing memoir genre.
Before she turned 35, the idea of climbing K2 — or any other mountain — wasn’t even on Thompson’s radar. Having dutifully earned a degree in biomedical engineering and begun her ascent of the corporate ladder, Thompson impulsively decided to tackle Mount Rainier when she heard the guys at her Seattle office crowing about their climbing exploits. Thompson admits she was looking for a way to be included. She wanted affirmation that she was strong and courageous. She was irritated she was “letting men define her boundaries as a woman.” So she set her sights on Mount Rainier and started training.
Throughout her life, Thompson prided herself on her work ethic, putting in the hours to get results. Her approach to conquering Rainier channeled this willingness to work. She memorized climbing routes, practiced tying knots with her eyes closed, and charted out a fitness regime that took her from weekend warrior to mountain-ready. Her first time summiting gave her a quiet confidence — and a burning interest in pushing her limits to see what she might be capable of. More climbs followed, including Denali, Vinson, Kilimanjaro.
Then life happened. A breast cancer diagnosis, followed by a bilateral mastectomy. The end of her 12-year marriage. Thompson hid out in the mountains, setting herself up for high-altitude climbs. She was intent on making sure her fitness, the one thing she could control, was at its peak. She summited Manaslu in central Nepal five months after surgery. From there, it was onward to Everest and then, inevitably, to K2, the “Savage Mountain.”
What makes “FindingElevation” different from other climbing memoirs is Thompson’s experiences and insights as a woman. The indignities of peeing into a funnel inside your sleeping bag in sub-zero temperatures. The freedom of not wearing a bra post-mastectomy. Being constantly underestimated for her slight stature and blond hair. Thompson prefers to undersell her abilities and then blow past people on the slopes. She shares her complicated relationships with her family members, her insecurities and doubts, her regrets about her ex-husband.
She also notes her major takeaways and her hard-earned wisdom. Someone tells her, “Don’t give up until you are transformed,” and at the top of the world’s second-tallest mountain, Thompson realizes she has achieved this goal.
If “FindingElevation” doesn’t slake your appetite for alpine adventure, you can visit wcls.org/kanopy-video/ to stream some amazing mountain climbing documentaries. To get a flavor for Thompson’s experience in the Karakoram range, watch “K2: Siren of the Himalayas.” For an absolutely gripping tale, don’t miss “Meru,” which follows Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk on their second harrowing attempt on the Shark’s Fin route of the Indian Himalayan peak.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of Whatcom County Library System (WCLS).
(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Wednesday, May 17, 2023.)