Exclusive interview with author "Lisa Thompson"
In 2009 Lisa Thompson stood at the summit of Mt. Rainier in Seattle, WA. It was here she realized that climbing would become a very important part of her life. Since then she has stood on top of dozens of the world’s highest peaks all over the world. In the mountains she has learned resilience and self-reliance, and built her confidence as a climber and as a woman. And she credits her climbs for getting her through one of the hardest times of her life.
Lisa’s strength, and confidence were tested when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. Through treatments and surgeries, she drew upon the things she learned as a climber - to focus on what she could control, to surround herself with a strong team, and to keep moving forward even when things felt bleak. While I was fighting her illness, the mountains took on a more special meaning for her, and she felt herself drawing strength from them.
In her new book, Finding Elevation – Fear, Courage and the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, “Thompson reaches beyond the mountain to tell a story of resilience, heartbreak, and the eventual realization that we are responsible for defining our own boundaries, finding our own happiness, and facing our fears head-on.” Here she shares her inspiring story with Writer’s Life.
How would you describe your new book, Finding Elevation?
It’s a deep and personal exploration into personal motivation and growth. It’s also a story of my path from self-doubt to self-discovery.
What was your impetus for writing the book?
I’ve wanted to write since I was a kid, I used to create my own choose-your-own adventure books. In my 30s, the desire to write reignited when I got serious about climbing and realized that so few climbing books are written from a woman’s perspective (because, especially in the beginning, so few women were in the mountains). In an attempt to find a book-worthy topic, I jumped from one climbing topic to another until I had cancer in 2015 and began a deep and ongoing exploration into my motivations to climb, and how my fight with cancer and my childhood impacted how and why I climb and who I am as a woman.
What was it that attracted you to climbing?
The short answer is that I was excluded from climbing excursions with my co-workers.
I was the only female manager at my level at the company that I worked for, my peers frequently planned climbs in the Cascade mountains near Seattle & overlooked inviting me. That made me mad. So, I decided to climb on my own.
How many mountains have you successfully scaled?
I really don’t know; I’ve climbed most of the major peaks in the Cascade mountains where I live. I’ve also climbed the highest mountain on every continent, including Mt. Everest, as well as several peaks in the Himalaya and K2, which is in Pakistan and is the second tallest mountain in the world.
Do you have one that has been especially memorable?
Summitting Denali in Alaska was memorable for me because it was the first hard mountain that I climbed, and I wasn’t sure that I could do it. The route that I climbed on Denali isn’t technical, but Denali requires hauling almost 100 pounds of gear up most of the mountain – I weighed 112 pounds at the time. It was hard and I am proud of my performance and contributions to the team.
K2 will also be special to me, also because I wasn’t confident that I could do it and because so many people that I respected doubted me. It is also special because so few women have summitted K2 and survived. When I’m climbing, I feel like I have a relationship with the mountain and my goal is to listen to the mountain and be in sync with it. I didn’t feel that way for most of the time I was on K2, I felt that the mountain didn’t want me there & was trying to kill me. So feel very fortunate not only to have summited, but to have survived.
You're a cancer survivor (congratulations!), in your book you write about how you drew from your lessons as a climber when you were going through treatment. Tell us about that.
Thank you ☺
Cancer taught me many things – about myself, about relationships and my priorities. When I was diagnosed, I was just starting to feel like a legit climber, I felt that cancer threatened that. And I was determined not to let cancer dictate my priorities. (hello, stubborn). Today I am grateful for cancer because it changed my priorities and taught me that life is fragile and that it’s up to each of us to define the lives that we live.
I think that cancer impacted climbing (and my life) more than climbing impacted my battle with cancer. Climbing definitely gave me the motivation to fight cancer with all I had.
A year after I was diagnosed with cancer, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. Which created a new chapter in my relationship with cancer. And taught me the very tough lesson of allowing someone I love to define their own path.
Who are some of your personal heroes?
I get excited about any bad-ass woman that is breaking boundaries or accomplishing things that they were told they couldn’t or shouldn’t do.
Right now, I’m obsessed with Erin Jackson. I will also love RBG for being tiny and mighty.
I admire Louise Thaden for pioneering aviation for women. I think that the story of Mileva Maric and her role in science should be better known. I’ve loved Oprah since I was a teenager
I could go on …
What would you tell someone who is struggling in life, who seems to have lost all hope?
So many things!
When I’m really struggling or feeling overwhelmed, I tell myself to just take one step, just do one thing to move forward.
When I’m stuck, I also remind myself that I wouldn’t be in this situation unless I had the ability to move through it. I also know that every challenge is meant to teach me something. And sometimes that lesson isn’t obvious for a long time, but it’s still there. I see challenges as opportunities, sometimes painful opportunities, for growth.
More broadly I live by the motto that no one gets to define my boundaries except for me. When I was younger, I put a lot of value in what other people thought I should or could do and I realize that held me back.
I also believe that we are all soooo much stronger and braver that we believe.
Your book is very inspirational, what is the one thing you would want readers to take away from reading it?
Mostly I want people to know that they are capable of more than they realize, that challenges aren’t meant to prevent their success & that are opportunities for growth.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m still excited about climbing, though I don’t know that I will ever take on another mountain as tough or risky as K2. I feel very grateful for the experiences I’ve had in the mountains and feel like now my job is to give back to the climbing community, especially women. I get to do that through my company Alpine Athletics where I coach climbers of all levels to prepare for their mountain adventures.
On a personal level, I am planning, with friends, an all-women’s climb of an unclimbed peak in Nepal in the fall of 2022. We’re currently building a team of all women, from base-camp team mates to climbers. I feel like there are still way too many male voices in climbing so our goal is to create a very tangible example of what women can do in the mountains.
For more information, visit www.lisaclimbs.com. Alpineathletics.net