MOUNTAINEER AND CANCER SURVIVOR LISA THOMPSON
Lisa Thompson is a mountaineer, cancer survivor, and sought-after speaker and coach. Lisa worked for twenty-five years as an engineer and in leadership roles at technology companies. In 2008, Lisa began climbing and has summited some of the most challenging mountains in the world, including Mt. Everest and K2. She has completed the Seven Summits, reaching the top of the highest peak of each of the seven continents. Through her company, Alpine Athletics, and other platforms, Lisa shares her message of strength and resilience with corporate and private groups worldwide. She is also the author of “Finding Elevation,” which chronicles Thompson’s path from novice climber to world-class mountaineer.
IN THIS EPISODE
[1:10] On what Lisa is passionate about
[2:12] On Lisa’s childhood and growing up
[7:19] On her inspiration to climb and set goals
[10:29] On Lisa being one of the only women is the climbing
[13:07] On Lisa’s qualities as a woman on a climb, compared to that of a man
[14:39] On Lisa’s planning of what she wanted to do or climb next
[21:37] On her experience physically and mentally while climbing Everest
[28:20] On how long it took to get in tune with the mountain
[28:47] On the Emmy Lisa won for climbing Everest
[30:44] On being the first women to summit K2
[35:42] On reaching the top of the mountain
[43:30] On Lisa dealing with cancer compared to dealing with a climb
[47:56] On Lisa’s Inspiration for her book, “Finding Elevation”
Passionistas: Hi, and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast, where we talk with women who are following their Passionistas to inspire you to do the same. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and today we're talking with Lisa Thompson, a mountaineer, cancer survivor and sought-after speaker and coach. Lisa worked for 25 years as an engineer and in leadership roles at technology companies.
In 2008, she began climbing and has summited most of the most challenging mountains in the world, including Mount Everest and K2. She's completed the seven summits reaching the top of the highest peak of each of the seven continents. Through her company, Alpine Athletics and other platforms. Lisa shares her message of strength and resilience with corporate and private groups worldwide.
She is also the author of “Finding Elevation,” which chronicles Thompson's path from novice climber to world class mountain. So please welcome to the show. Lisa Thompson.
Lisa: Great to be here. Thanks for having me today.
Passionistas: We're really excited to have you here and hear your story. And, uh, we always like to start with the question. What's the one thing you're most passionate about?
Lisa: Right now, I think this has changed over the years. I'm sure that's just the normal progression of a life, but right now I am most passionate about giving back to. Women in the communities that I love communities in Nepal and in Pakistan where I've, you know, really feel at home in the mountains and have spent a lot of time and have great memories there.
And it's important to me to give back to those communities, especially the women. I recently started a nonprofit to support women in Nepal and specifically to support their education. It was shocking to me to learn that something like 58% of women in Nepal over the age of 15 have had. Zero education, none at all, which is just, you know, alarming on many levels.
But in one regard, they're really the center of a Nepalese family and community. And the fact that there's been no formal education for so many of those women just felt like something that was, that I wanted to impact in a positive way.
Passionistas: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Were you always interested in, in, uh, climbing and being outdoors?
Lisa: So I grew up in the great mountaineering state of Illinois, where the highest point I believe is 120 feet. And it's so predominant that it actually has a name. Whereas in most states, if that elevation would not be named, so I didn't grow up. Aspiring to be a Mountaineer. I didn't grow up learning or reading about, you know, sir, Edmond Hillary or other sort of pioneering mountaineers.
And I wasn't even really that athletic, you know, looking back, I grew up in a small farming community, uh, called Lincoln in the very center of Illinois. You know, every kid sort of makes the, the softball team or the volleyball team. I think there were a couple years where I did not even make it. I was so uncoordinated and unathletic a and I didn't grow up really with parents who pushed me to Excel.
You know, I think part of their sort of distance is what motivated me to prove myself and to, you know, you know, back then it was about getting their attention. Lots of time in therapy talking about that. But one of the positives of that I've realized is that it pushed me to really want to Excel and to push myself mentally and physically.
And that translated first, you know, I'm still by my account, but only person in my entire extended family to graduate from college, which is sort of sad, you know, to me, but it pushed me to do things that were unexpected. In my community and with my family. And so, you know, going to college was sort of the first step in that direction.
I studied engineering, you know, not because I was super interested in it, but because I felt like that seems hard and I can probably make a decent salary when I graduate. And so I was fortunate to get a job with Hewlett Packard right out of college as an engineer, then it was, you know, that was the mid-nineties.
I was the only woman at my level. And that taught me a lot. I was certainly not prepared coming from. You know, a very sort of hardworking farming-oriented family. I was not equipped to be thrown into a corporate environment at that age. I was 24. And so there was a lot of sort of flailing and trying to understand dynamics and politics.
And I was often the youngest person in the room, the only female in the room. And. Upon reflection. Um, there were definitely some missteps, some things that I just, frankly didn't understand, cuz I was ill-equipped to be in that kind of environment. But one very positive thing that came of that was that through that job, I eventually moved to Seattle, which is where I live today.
And here. You know, mountaineering, we're fortunate to be surrounded by the Cascade mountains and the Olympic mountain range. So climbing and mountaineering and just being in the mountains is really part of the culture in Seattle. When I moved here, uh, for that job still with, you know, it wasn't any longer with Hewlett Packard, but it was a derivation of that company.
All the men at my level would go climbing on the weekend. And so I had no idea, right? I no, like I'd maybe been camping with my family, but I didn't like know anything about mountaineering. I didn't know what a crampon was. I had no idea the equipment, the gear, the, the, you know, the sort of aesthetic of climbing, nothing.
But these men, you know, would go out on the weekends and they would come back to the office on Monday and they had all. You know, incredible stories. And again, it wasn't that I aspired to be in the mountains, but I aspired to be a part of their group. And I wanted them so badly to see me, the only woman on their team as capable and strong.
And I wasn't getting that in the office environment. So this seemed like a way to do that. And instead of doing the totally logical thing, which would've been to say. Like oh, climbing. That sounds really cool. Can I come with you or can you tell me more about it? I just got frustrated. I got mad and eventually just decided I was gonna go climb my own damn mountains.
And I had no, I again had no idea what that meant, but I started really just hiking around my house in the cascades. And then eventually in 2008, I attempted Mount Rainier, which is the highest mountain in Washington. And after that I was, I was just hooked spite no spite I was hooked at that.
Passionistas: Do they know what you've accomplished since then?
Lisa: I've lost track of them. I could probably, you know, through a network, get back to them, but I don't, I don't know. Probably not and they probably don't even, you know, these weren't bad guys at all. It just, I think didn't occur to them to ask me to join. And so they probably would have no reason to wonder like, Hey, I wonder if that girl ever climbed any mountains.
Passionistas: You started to do this as, you know, a recreational activity, but then at some point that obviously shifted and you started to set these goals for yourself. So what inspired you to climb Mount Rainier and then to take it further from there?
Lisa: Yeah, there was something about, so I didn't summit Rainier. My first attempt, the weather sort of turned bad on our second day and retreated. And, and I was relieved in that moment. I was happy cuz I just, I. Again, no idea what I was doing. Although I was with, you know, I was with a guide company and I was safe and all that, but I really just mentally wasn't prepared to be on a mountain and to just feel sort of the vastness of that challenge.
And so I went back the next year before I got back to the parking lot in 2008, I was sure I was coming back. I tend to look at climbs like projects. And so even after that first year, I was like, okay, these are, you know, my backpack needs to be lighter. I need to have, you know, not red boots and have my own boots and just little things like that, that I started to like to learn and to, to tweak and adjust what I knew and my gear and my knowledge of the mountain.
So I went back in 2009 and summited, and there was a moment, you know, where I sort of it's dark out and you're, you know, you can't really. Appreciate where you're at on the mountain and the sort of vastness of everything around you and the risk of falling. And because all you can see in the dark is just this little tiny circle of light from your headlamp.
And so there was a moment where I remember looking what would've been east and seeing the sun just slowly start to split the horizon from the earth and. Just seeing like colors that were so magnificent and awe inspiring and thinking. This is an incredible experience and such a, a daunting place to be that taught me so much, so much humility to be learned in the mountains.
When I got to the summit, I just had this incredible sense of accomplishment that I hadn't found anywhere else. I hadn't really gotten it from my parents as a kid. I hadn't gotten it at work. I, you know, graduated from college, any accomplishment I had had in my life until that point hadn't made me feel that way.
And I loved that. I still love that climbing is. Obviously a very physical pursuit, but there is an enormous mental challenge that comes with climbing, you know, in any discipline of climbing. And I really loved that combination and I loved the idea of setting. Lofty goal and working hard and accomplishing it.
And so I was completely hooked at that point. In two, I was 2009 and ready to just, I did, again, didn't know a lot about what to climb next, but I was sure that I was gonna keep doing it.
Passionistas: You know, you were kind of inspired to do it by this being in this male dominated world. When you got to climbing, were there a lot of other women who were in doing what you were doing?
Lisa” No. In fact, I, in the beginning was gonna name my book, the only girl, and it has changed. This is, you know, the late 2000s. It is getting better. You know, there's more diversity that the only, and first all black team summited Everest last month, which is incredible to see. And I was fortunate to play a small role in coaching them.
So it's changing the dynamics, the face of, of people who enjoy the mountains is changing. But then I was. I don't always is maybe a strong word, but 95% of the time, I was the only woman on the team. And, you know, I was used to being in male dominated arenas, so that wasn't unusual for me, but I think it, you know, being an intense environment like climbing, just sort of heightened all of the challenges that come with that and made them much more potent.
And it took me a long time to realize. Or to think about how I showed up in those roles. There was always the, like people doubted and people would say, oh, it's cute. I think you're gonna climb Mount Everest. That's a whole other conversation, but what I tended to think about myself and how I showed up in those situations.
And at first I would just be one of the guys, I mean, so much so that they would undress in front of me and not even like, consider that there was a woman standing next to them. On Everest was the first time that I, that just didn't feel authentic to me anymore. It didn't feel right to laugh at crew. That were often, you know, demeaning to women.
It didn't feel right to overlook little comments that just didn't sit well with me anymore. And so that was the first time. And there's a moment. And I talk about it in my book where I, you know, all men and I sort of separated myself from them for a minute because it just, I needed to feel like a woman and I needed to feel like myself in that environment.
And, you know, at the time it. We're sort of arguing back and forth about my opinion about something versus theirs. But I realize now that it was me sort of stepping into my own strength and my own sort of persona as a woman and saying like this isn't okay anymore. And I'm not gonna just, you know, sit here and let it happen without saying anything.
It's still challenging. It's getting better. But yeah, there were a lot of moments there just being, the only woman was a challenge for me.
Passionistas: Do you think there are certain qualities that you, as a woman bring to a climb that's different than the male energy of a, of a climb?
Lisa: And again, generalizing. Right. But I, I'm fortunate now that I get to coach mountaineers and I coach men and women.
Um, and I, you know, I can see those nuances, even as I'm coaching them, women are much more interested in like the mental side. Of taking on a challenge, like a big mountain and making sure that they're very well rounded in their preparations. They wanna make sure that they're understanding the route. You know, they know where the challenges will be and that mentally they have the tools to get through them.
And men generally, again, not always the case, but often just like they wanna like train and work hard and do all the runs and all the hikes and all the preparation climbs. And don't often sort of step back and say, There's a whole other side of this. There's a whole other, you know, facet to climbing big mountains.
And, you know, my experience is that when you look at everything holistically is when you're the most prepared and when you're the most successful. And I think even on the mountains, you know, it's tough, there's difficult situations. And I find that women often add just a little bit more compassion to those situations.
A little bit more empathy. and sometimes that's what you need to get through something that's difficult. So there's my experience. Yeah. There's a big difference between what men and women bring to those situations.
Passionistas: So you, you have the successful Mount Rainier climb in 2009. What happens next? And how do you kind of plan where you go next?
Lisa: Yeah, so I didn't do a lot of planning. I just knew, I knew I wanted to keep climbing more challenging things and there's, you know, back in the eighties, I believe it was a couple of mountaineers society. It would be really cool to climb to the highest peak of every single continent. And so I thought, okay, I'll just start doing that.
You know, I don't know what to do. I picked the easiest, one of those, which was in Russia, a Mount called Elbrus and was successful there. So I thought, okay, well, Keep sort of on that track and climbing in the cascades as well, sort of, you know, like thinking, okay, I wanna be more independent and learn different skills, like building anchors and self-arrest and rope management.
And so I, I would take excursions on the weekends locally to do those things. And then about once a year I would climb something big somewhere else in the world. And I was on that track and I had sort of decided. Mount Everest was kind of the next logical thing for me to climb just in terms of skill and difficulty.
And at the time I felt like, oh, Everest is so commercial and there must be more interesting mountains in the Himalaya to climb. And so I had decided, and this really is a big moment. I think, in any mountaineers' career I had decided I was ready to climb in the Himalaya. So, you know, the Himalaya is this huge mountain range that bisects Asia and.
It's special for a lot of reasons, but one is that. Most of the highest mountains in the world are there. And when we say high, in terms of mountaineering, we're talking about any mountain that's higher than 26,000 feet or 8,000 meters. And there's only 14 of those in the world. And so I, in 2015 thought, okay, I think I'm ready.
Like I'm ready to try an easy one and just see how it goes. So. I picked that mountain, which is called Montes SL. And I was just beginning to prepare for it when I was diagnosed with cancer, you know, we, we've already established that. I'm a very stubborn person and I was a little cocky, you know, I was 42 years old.
I thought and, and an athlete, like I ate organic vegetables. I wore my seatbelt. I floss my teeth. Like I, all those things that you are, you are taught to believe will keep you healthy. I thought I was doing it turns out I had a tremendous amount of stress in my job, which is, you know, like looking back and sort of analyzing how my body could get reacted that way to an external thing. It probably was a lot of stress at work, but nonetheless, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of 2015. I was determined. Not to let cancer dictate my priorities so much so that I sat with my surgeon and said like, is there any way we could just postpone this whole cancer thing?
Like, can we just like, how much could those tumors really grow in eight months? Like I just go do this climb and I'll come back and then you can do whatever you want with my body. When I get back and she very compassionately said that that would be a full hearty decision. I always remember that she used that word.
And so I was very fortunate that I was able to get rid of the tumors in my, uh, breast with a bilateral mastectomy from which I did at the beginning in April of 2015. And I was, I mean, determination. Isn't a big enough word for how focused I was on getting my body ready to still travel to Nepal and attempt Montes SL.
That autumn. And so I went, um, I was not, I was not a hundred percent. I had all, you know, all my doctors, all my care, healthcare providers knew what I was up to. They all thought I was a little bit crazy, but I had their support to be there. And. You know, their cell phone numbers, if anything went weird. And luckily it didn't, I didn't summit Manaslu in 2015, there was an avalanche above our camp.
And, you know, the team felt that it just wasn't safe to continue. So we all turned around and I, I firmly believe that mountains and, you know, nature teaches us things. And so. When I got home, I, you know, I just sort of did some reflection about that climb. And I think sometimes you learn the most when you're not successful when you don't summit.
But I realized that, you know, life is so fragile and that it's up to us. Each of us to define the lives that we will live. And so I became determined then to sort of reprioritize my life. My pause, my corporate career actually got a divorce and I decided to climb Mount Everest at that point. And, uh, went back to Nepal in 2016 to do that.
Passionistas: So talk about that. Talk about preparing for that and you know, and the mental preparation, especially.
Lisa: I learned a lot on Monte SL again, you know, success doesn't always mean you, you gain the most from a situation. And so I learned what my body was capable of. I knew that if I was healthy and trained, that I could be even stronger.
And so I, I started working with a sports psychologist to really dig into the mental aspects. I was still a little bit unsure about what my body could do, you know, I, I, and I had. Probably four more surgeries before I went to Everest for reconstruction. So I depended a lot on a sports psychologist to just help me understand why Everest was important to me, what my body was capable of.
To give me some really important tools that I use still today when things get difficult in the mountains to have something to focus on and to sort of rationalize what's going on around me and break it down into manageable chunks. So that was hugely helpful. I worked with a, a climbing coach as well to get me ready.
You know, it was a very tumultuous time in my life as I was preparing to climb the most difficult mountain that I had climbed to that point. I was in the middle of getting a divorce. I wasn't sure I wanted to keep working. My dog died. Like all these, just so many things happened and looking back. It felt like just a really big reset, like the universe sort of saying, like, you know, that was your life then before cancer, and this is your chance to find your life after cancer.
You know, that really is a big gift. I always think that cancer, I am grateful today in the moment I was not, but today I'm grateful for cancer because it showed me so many things about priorities and what life is about and how I want to spend it. I know that there's a book worth of conversation to be had, if not more about actually climbing Mount Everest, but kind of in general, what was the experience like?
Passionistas: What was the biggest challenge that you faced in, in the midst of that experience?
Lisa: Yeah, so climbing a big mountain, like Everest, I'll just provide a quick sort of background as to how it even. You know, it's, those mountains are so big, right? Your, your body could not possibly function. Even if you're breathing supplemental oxygen.
It's not as easy as just walking to base camp and then starting to climb. There's a whole process of a climatization. Where you start at one camp climb to the next highest camp and then return to that first camp. And then you repeat that process gradually moving up the mountain, and that allows your body to change physiologically, to build more red blood cells so that you can survive at those higher elevations.
And so for me on Everest as I was going through that process, I really felt in sync with the mountain in contrast to K2, which I'm sure we'll talk about in a little bit, but I really felt like things just went smoothly. I felt like the mountain and I were working together and that we sort of [00:23:00] shared a level of respect.
That, you know, ultimately ultimately allowed me to be successful, but that doesn't mean there weren't difficult moments. I recall climbing from camp three to camp four and it had been very, very windy. So, you know, hadn't slept at all the night before was lying in a very cramped tent. That was my side of the tent was actually can levered over the side of the mountain because it, you know, it was so steep.
And, you know, a lot of emotional, like, is it too windy? You know, are we gonna have a chance to summit? We need to descend. And then it's a very quick decision by our team to like, we look, it looks like we have a window. We're gonna go up. I had sort of envisioned like having this moment to like get ready.
And that was none of that. It was very rushed and harried and chaotic. And I, I walk out of the tent and I clip into the fixed rope with my, with my harness. and it was so incredibly windy that it kept blowing me over. And I remember these moments of just hearing the wind coming towards me from my left side, and then just lying face down on the ice to let it pass me by before I could continue.
And that luckily subsided after, I don't know, a couple of hours or something. And, and then. I got to what I knew was gonna be the easiest part of that day, which is sort of a flat section that curves to the left towards a rock feature called the yellow band. And the yellow band is about 25 degrees. So it's not super steep. It's limestone.
It would actually be fun to climb it at sea level, but as I'm walking towards it, I realize that I'm moving so slow and I'm actually. Like I get distracted by someone's glove, rolling down the ice. And my friend came up from behind me is like, what, you know, what do you what's going on? And I was like, I don't know.
I just, I just wanna like lay down and I had run out of oxygen. So my brain and my, my muscles were not getting the oxygen that they needed to continue. I had a couple, I had a decision to make, I had a few choices in that moment. I could have turned around and gone back to camp three and said, you know, my climbs over or looked for more oxygen.
I could have sat there in the snow and asked someone, probably a Sherpa to bring me more oxygen where I could have kept going. And. Those first two options just didn't feel right to me. And so I continued climbing. I will never forget. So climbing this relatively, you know, at sea level, easy section of rock and telling myself to just focus on the climber ahead of me and to never let him outta my sight, like just, he's not gonna get outta my site no matter what it takes.
And I don't know how long it took me. I, you know, everything got really fuzzy at that moment. And I was still safe. I still had people around me and people knew that I didn't have oxygen, but I, that made that situation made me realize that we are so much stronger mentally than we believe or that, that we give ourselves credit for, because my body was literally like, it didn't have the gas that needed to continue.
And it was just, I think my mind is pushing me, just willing myself forward to get through that situation. And the best feeling in the world. Like I hope nobody has to experience that, but I can't tell you how sweet it is to not have oxygen and have oxygen. Like, as soon as I got a fresh bottle, it was like, the world was right again.
So a challenging moment. But like I said, I think mountains teach us things and you know, it taught me that I sort of have this untapped tool in my, you know, mental capacity that I really. You know, even now I feel like there's so much more potential to hone that skill of being mentally strong.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and you’re listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast in our interview with Lisa Thompson. To learn more about her adventures and get a copy of her book, “Finding Elevation,” visit Lisaclimbs.com.
We'd like to take a moment to share a special announce. We'll be hosting the third annual Power of Passionistas Summit, this September 21st through September 23rd, 2022. The three-day virtual event is focused on authentic conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. This unique gathering of intersectional storytellers and panelists harnesses the power of our rich community of passionate thought leaders and activists to pose solutions to the problems plaguing women today.
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Now here's more of our interview with Lisa.
That process of getting in tune with the mountain and going back and forth to the different camps. How long does that take?
Lisa: It takes about a month, maybe six weeks. It just depends on whether and how fast people are moving People climbing in sort of the standard style climbing, big mountains and 8,000 meter peaks. Usually it takes about six weeks to, to two months to, to do that. So it's a long time.
Passionistas: In 2017, you actually won an Emmy for something related to the Everest climb.
Lisa: Right? So we, so this is totally serendipitous. So the expedition leader is named Garrett Madison He had endeavored to capture our climb in virtual reality, you know, technology has changed a lot since 2016. And so the way we did it was to strap all these GoPros sort of in a sphere and then carry that on a wand up the mountain and thereby, you know, create this 360 degree view. Of our climb. And then later some very smart people stitched that together and actually made it a virtual reality film, which is called capturing Everest.
And, you know, I didn't know that was gonna happen when I signed up for that climb. There were, you know, a lot of. Sort of deals made and, and it just happened to be purchased by sports illustrated, um, and turned into this really cool documentary that later won an Emmy, not for my acting prowess, surprisingly, but for just the technology.
It was the first time that anyone had captured virtual reality footage in that kind of an environment. You can find it on the sports illustrated website and on their app. And it's really, it's really fun if even if you don't have a headset, you can watch it in 360-degree video with your phone. And I will tell you, it will make you dizzy.
Like even me having been there, it is very, very real to watch people, you know, climbing or walking across the ladder or climbing a steep part of, of the, the mountain. So I feel. You know, never in my life, if you've said like you could win an Emmy, I would like never thought that. So it was a really, really cool experience and cool to be able to just share that in a very tangible way, with cool technology, to people who, you know, may never endeavor to climb. But now get to have a little bit of a taste of what it's like.
Passionistas: So that same year in 2017, you, um, became the first all American women to summit K2. So how did that differ from climbing Mount Everest and what unique challenges did you face on that?
Lisa: Yeah. So it was 2017. I, I endeavored to go to K2 for the first time. My team actually fell apart. And so I didn't climb that mountain that year. I went back in 2018 and in 2017, the first American woman did summit. And I felt like, you know, I, I, this is still an important climb for me. It's something. I think being the first is very cool. I think not being the only is even cooler.
And so it was important to me to just sort of continue showing what women could do in the mountains. So K2 is the second highest mountain in the world. It's about 800 feet shorter than Mount Everest. K2 is in Pakistan. It's on the border between China and Pakistan. Most people, like if I'm at a dinner party and you know, someone finds out that I've climbed Everest, they get super excited and they wanna know what that's like, and I'll say, yeah, but I climbed this other mountain called K2, which is actually like really, really hard.
And they're like, yeah. But tell me about Everest. Did you see any dead people? So most people don't even know. You know, not even heard of K2, it's in a much more remote part of the world. For example, you know, the, the walk to Everest space camp is, you know, in a lovely valley, there are tea houses. There are commercial helicopters.
There is an emergency room at Everest space camp. There is none of that. In the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan, you are farther from any kind of definitive medical care that you'll probably ever be in your life. And that, you know, would involve a Pakistani army helicopter ride to a small hospital in a remote village.
So it's, it's much more remote. The weather on K2 is also much more fickle. So it's, you know, known for just monster storms that sort of whip out of nowhere, dump a lot of snow. Cause avalanches. K2 is also steep from like the second you leave base camp. It is just unrelentingly steep and it is also known for a lot of rock fall.
So you can imagine that my family was super excited to hear about me. Deciding to climb this mountain, I had just, you know, beat cancer. My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was climbing Mount Everest and, and died about a month after I got home. And so I sort of promised him that K2 would be the last, really dangerous mountain that I climbed.
I was very determined to give it a go in 2018. And, and I was so fortunate that. Everything aligned, you know, the, I had a great team, the weather was decent and we were able to make it work. And, and, you know, and I mentioned earlier that I felt very in sync with Mount Everest and on K2. I felt every day like that mountain was trying to kill me, you know, in the form of rock falls in the form of other climbers dying.
I just never really felt like I was in sync with that mountain. And there was a moment where again, climbing steep rock much steeper than the rock I describe on Everest. It's a section of the route called the Black Pyramid and it's at 25,000. And so in this moment I'm wearing a down suit. I'm actually breathing bottled oxygen because the climbing is so difficult and I'm attached to a rope.
And that section of the mountain is sort of really like chunky, just unstable rock and there's snow and ice. And I wanted to quit. Like I wanted to just turn around. I fantasized about like reversing my direction on the rope and I thought I could be. Back at base camp in a couple of days, and I could get a helicopter to Islamabad and I could take a proper shower and like eat, you know, I'd really just let, like all the things my sports psychologist told me not to do.
I just really let that real like play out. I wanted to turn around and I remember, you know, from somewhere there was a voice in my head that said, is this all you were capable of? And I realized that it was not all that I was capable of, that I was, you know, I was frustrated and I was tired and I was mad at myself, but I was capable of more.
And so I kept just. Putting one hand above the other one foot above the other. And I knew that would be the hardest point in the mountain. And once I got past that, you know, the, the rocks were relented and it was more snow, which is my comfort zone, but there were many, many moments where I wanted to quit.
So then what did that moment feel like when you finally reached the. So I remember climbing. So a couple days after that scene that I described with the Black Pyramid and we attempted the summit and, you know, the night before the summit, you're sort of, you're laying, I was laying in a tent with two other men in the middle position wearing my down suit boots.
Like you don't really sleep. You just sort of lay there for a few hours, like waiting and breathing bottle oxygen. I had this sort of like checklist in my mind of like making sure that I had food in the right places, on my, down, in my down suit that I had like turned on my GPS device, like going through all those sort of pre-flight checklist things.
And then we, we left for the summit and it's dark out and I knew the climbing initially would not be. The steepest part. I knew it would be a little bit chill for a bit, and then it was gonna get steeper. And I had, you know, that sort of pre-flight checklist. I had put new batteries in my headlamp. And as I'm climbing, I realize that the batteries are about are dying.
They're dimmer than everyone else is. And I say, I'm fine. I have a, I have a spare set. It's close to my body. So they're not frozen. I stop, you know, with thick gloves, like fumble around, finally get the batteries in there. Good. Keep climbing, catch up with my team. And it happens again. And I don't have a spare and I can't expect anybody else to give me their spare.
They're sort of, you know, they're sort of ethic and climbing that. You need to be self-sufficient up there. You can't rely on anybody else. And so I remember screaming at the guy in front of me, Rob Smith, a fantastic guy from Ireland, and he gave me his spare batteries. You know, it's very delicate exchange, right?
If you can imagine we're in these thick gloves, we're on the side of a mountain, it's dark. And I just remember him like pushing that battery into the palm of my glove. And I remember thinking if you dropped this, that's it. The reason it was, I mean, obviously it was important to see, but we were about to cross, what's called the bottleneck traverse on K2, which is, you know, it's actually flat, but it's about, it's less than one boot width.
And so you're walking and there's like two miles of air beneath you. And so you cannot make a mistake there. You obviously cannot have compromised vision there. And so literally without Rob's help, I would not have. I wouldn't have made it. And that moment, you know, several hours later, I got to the summit and I remember it was it's light out now and I'm climbing by myself and it's, it's very, um, unconsolidated snow.
So I'm sort of take one step and, you know, I'm, I'm putting my boot print in other people's path. So there's a little sort of steps there and sometimes they would just break and you would just slide down and, you know, it's just incredibly frustrating and you exert a lot of energy. But I looked up and I saw where the snow met the horizon.
I saw bright colors and I thought, that's it. Like those are other peoples standing there at the summit. And more than anything, I wanted to cry in that moment. But I was like, do not cry. Like you you're not there yet. And just to sort of bring things full circle I had, after my father died, I had, you know, carried his ashes to like every mountain.
Sprinkle them on the top. And it was a very, you know, just peaceful sort of full circle moment to spread the last of his ashes on the summative K2, which is, you know, he never in his life could have imagined traveling to Pakistan. So it was fun to just sort of, not only to have him with me, but to be able to share that with him as well was really special.
Passionistas: What is the coming down like physically and emotionally?
Lisa: So, I'm glad you asked that question, Amy, because most people and I was very, very conscious of writing about this in my book because the summit is halfway like it is literally halfway and more mountaineering accidents occur on the dissent. Then then climbing up and that's because you're tired.
Many people push beyond what they're capable of. You're you know, just logistically you're facing away from the mountain. Oftentimes gravity is not working in your favor. And so the dissent to me is very. Harrowing like it's I very consciously at the top of, at any big mountain do not celebrate because it is, you're not done.
There is still a lot more work to do. And on K2 in particular, you know, we talked a little bit about like that moment on Everest, where I felt like I was sort of stepping into my own strength and on K2, I'm [00:41:00] descending, very steep ice face and. There are ropes there. And one rope is meant for climbers coming up.
There are still some climbers ascending, and the other rope is meant for climbers who are descending. Another climber had, uh, started to ascend the rope that I was about to use to go down. And I scream at him. You know, he's very, he's far down the slope. He can't hear me. He's just sort of laying there. And I sort of looked, my friend Garrett was next to me and he recommended that I descend. Using not the most secure technique, a, a technique arm wrapping where you wrap the rope around your arm and you, um, you're connected to that rope with a safety carabiner. It's locked, but you lean forward and just walk face first down the mountain. And I had done it many times, but, but I, it just didn't feel right.
To do it then. And I didn't even, I don't even know where this voice came from, but I just told him no, like I'm not, that's not how I'm gonna do that this today. And so I, you know, set up my repel device, which takes longer, is much safer, but you know, takes longer repel down to this man who's laying face first and the ice, not, he wasn't response, he was alive.
I could, you know, he was alive. He did survive by the way, just before I get too far in the story. But he wasn't responsive to my, you know, yelling at him, trying to get him to move. And so I had to execute this very, very delicate sequence of moving my gear, you know, establishing a safe anchor, moving my gear around him on what I know, because I, you know, study this mountain intimately is.
The place on that mountain where most people have died and thankfully it went well and he survived and, you know, I was able to continue, but that was a moment that, to me, that just underscores that [00:43:00] the dissent is so in some ways more important than the ascent in terms of difficulty. And that, that moment looking back, or I said to my friend, Garrett, like, that's not how I'm gonna do this today.
I really felt like was pivotal in terms of me, sort of, this is a man that I've climbed with for years. I've always trusted him. He knows my capability. And so for me to just, you know, take a different tact, I think was, you know, just more of me, like stepping into my own voice and strength in the mountains, which is a good feeling.
Passionistas: Can you compare for us the fear that you faced being diagnosed with cancer versus the fear you faced on a mountain like that?
Lisa: Knowing how dangerous it is and if those are different and if you have the same or different tools to deal with both. Yeah, that's an awesome question. They feel to me like somatically, they feel very different.
I feel like different kinds of fear. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt completely unprepared to deal with that scenario. It was not anything that I ever thought I would have to encounter or deal with in my life. And I felt out of control. I felt like, you know, my body was, had turned against me initially.
I, you know, before I had a team of people to support me, I felt alone. And without like a path or a, you know, a guide to get me through this situation. And luckily that changed and I found incredible healthcare. It felt much scarier to be diagnosed with cancer in the mountains. I feel like, you know, I have, I understand what I can control and I have the skills to get myself through it.
And I think fear for sure in the mountains. I, I believe that a little bit of fear is a good thing because I think that it keeps you focused. It keeps me alert to what's going on around me. If the weather's changing, if the route is changing, if. You know, someone climbing above me that doesn't look super safe, that little bit of fear sharpens my awareness too much fear.
I think in the mountains and in fighting cancer can be stifling. And I think it can actually, you know, sort of stop you from progressing. But that's a, a really important question because they, for me are very different flavors of fear.
Passionistas: So what's the next big challenge for you?
Lisa: Yeah. So we talked about it a little bit in the beginning. I don't endeavor. I don't have any desire to climb anything more challenging than K2 in my life, but I do wanna keep climbing and it's become more important to me to give back to the communities, particularly in Nepal and in Pakistan, where I have just learned so much about myself and gotten so much from them personally.
So I wanna, I wanna start to give back to those communities and in particular to the women who, who live in those communities. So along with some female mountaineering friends of mine, we were setting up a philanthropic climb for this fall to a mountain called Cholatse which is in, uh, Nepal. It's about 6,800 meters.
It will not be the hardest mountain we've ever climbed. But the point is that we just wanna show that anything is possible when women support one another in the mountains. And so to us, that means. That our team will be fully comprised of women. I don't know if that's ever happened before. I think there've been some all women's climbs that maybe had support from men, but, and not that we don't like men, but like we just wanna show that women can do everything in the mountains that a man can do.
And so we're building that team. We're super lucky to have a great, uh, Nepalese uh, climbing leader. Pasang Lama. She's helping us create a team of all women to, to cook, to carry loads, to plan, to do everything. And we just think it's an incredible sort of opportunity to raise some money for at least one, depending on how, how fundraising goes maybe more, but we want to.
We're soliciting input for Nepalese women who have some educational related goal in their life. So if they wanna learn a trade, if they wanna open a tea house, um, if they weren't wanna learn about economics, like we want to be able, we wanna be the catalyst that helps that woman learn those skills so that she can better not just her life.
But I think, you know, that sort of has this trickle-down effect and has the potential to positively impact generations. So. I'm, you know, just beyond excited to be a part of this team and we'll see where it goes. We'd love to do it, you know, multiple years, but we're all, you know, just we're dedicated and excited to, to climb with a purpose now.
Passionistas: So what inspired you to write your book "Finding Elevation"?
Lisa: I had always wanted to write, which I studied engineering in college, you know? I felt like I was very far away from that as, as an adult, but as a kid, I had a desire to write. And in my twenties, I tried out different topics. You know, none of them just sort of seemed to fit.
And then when I was diagnosed with cancer, I really relied on journaling to, to get me through that and to be this, you know, sort of outlet for everything that I was feeling. And. Probably two years of journaling, I sort of realized that there were a lot of things that I had encountered that seemed to translate to other people.
You know, that if I could share what I had learned, the hard way with another woman that maybe, you know, she would have an easier path than I did. And so it became really important for me to share. Um, and, and, you know, at the time I thought this will just be about cancer. And then as I continued to climb and I continued to learn more about myself and what I'm capable of and how to overcome obstacles, how to find your voice.
Most of that through K2, it, it just really turned into a much bigger project than just journaling. . What was the thing you learned about yourself from writing the book that maybe surprised you the. I think I learned a lot about my childhood when I was writing. Um, I, and I, you know, I spent a year studying memoir at the university of Washington, and I remember like my, there was nothing about my childhood in, in an early draft.
And my instructor was like, you can't leave that out. Like that's a part of, and I was like, yeah, but it wasn't, you know, it wasn't super, like, it's kind of painful for me. I really don't wanna put it in here. Um, and of course it, you know, needs to be a more balanced story, et cetera, etcetera. And so by me sort of digging through that, I realized, you know, this sort of these traits that I have today and where they came from.
And there was a lot of therapy in there as well. And it made me realize that, you know, something that. Because I said, my parents, you know, were not very reliable. They weren't always around. And, and that made me a very independent person. Um, there's certainly some downsides to that, but I think there's, I think there's always a silver lining.
There's always some positive. Outcome, even of bad situations. And we often just have to look a little bit harder, like, you know, dig a little bit deeper to find them. But those I think are, you know, the real nuggets and like where, where we really learn why we are the way we are.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to our interview with Lisa Thompson, to learn more about her adventures and get a copy of her book, finding elevation, visit LisaClimbs.com.
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