Mountaineer Lisa Thompson to discuss her memoir ‘Finding Elevation’ at Explore on Tuesday
Special to The Aspen Times
In order to summit mountains like Everest and K2, particularly as a woman, you have to be pretty gnarly. But what happens when your drive overpowers your connection with your body, your spirit and your marriage?
That’s just one of the questions Lisa Thompson explores in her book: “Finding Elevation: Fear and Courage on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain.”
The heartfelt memoir delves into more than what it takes to become a world-class mountaineer: It spans the emotional depths of Thompson’s Midwestern upbringing as a child of a heavy drinker and of divorced parents, her struggle to earn an engineering degree and be a female manager in corporate America — and her battle with breast cancer.
The story speaks to just about anyone, whether he or she is an athlete, because it addresses the human spirit.
“It’s all about finding out who you are,” Thompson said, adding that, for her, the discovery occurred in the mountains. “I learned about myself and what I’m capable of, but it doesn’t have to be mountaineering. It can be gardening, cooking or being a parent.”
The message that comes through revolves around discovering that we’re capable of so much more than we believe.
“Taking risks in life is far more difficult for me than taking risks on the mountain, but taking all those risks and assessing what you’ve learned on the other side of them is what it’s all about,” she said.
The memoir chronicles Thompson’s path from an inexperienced flatlander to the second American woman to summit K2, considered by many to be the world’s deadliest mountain. Throughout the narrative, she weaves in touching, and painful, stories about her childhood and her cancer journey.
In early adulthood, her theme involved reaching too high, “which would lead to overwhelm, and my only remedy for the impending embarrassment of failure would be hard work,” she wrote in her book.
When she realized she’d never “join the boys’ club” at the office through working hard (“because what separated us wasn’t workplace accomplishments; it was this female body and this female mind”), she decided to stop letting men define her boundaries.
“So I decided to climb my own damn mountains,” she wrote.
By age 37, she had climbed Mt. Rainier, the highest mountain in Washington state. It forced her to release control “to a mountain that would always be bigger and fiercer than me,” she wrote. “With control out of the way that morning, I felt its counterbalance: freedom.”
Within five years, she had summitted the highest mountains on five continents.
Then cancer caused her to undergo a bilateral mastectomy.
Though the diagnosis and treatment didn’t stop her from summiting treacherous mountains, it did cause her to slow down and realize how she had lost connection with her body, spirit and husband.
So she did the most logical thing in her mind: She quit her high-paying job, got a divorce and borrowed $70,000 to climb Mount Everest — “three things,” she admitted in her book, “that probably shouldn’t happen simultaneously.”
Her motive for such a risk?
“Cancer taught me that to reach for less than I am capable of is to deny life,” she wrote.
Her “tumultuous process” of growth has taken her from a stoic broken home where she learned to look externally for validation to feeling that she is enough.
“It doesn’t matter how other people perceive me,” she said. “When I’m true to myself, I am on the path.”
Of course, to get there, she said she had to “slow things down and start to listen and think about what I’m feeling in a certain situation. My default can be to push through, but I’m so much stronger when I take the time to listen to myself.”
This deep listening has caused her to turn around and say, “I’m good,” rather than persisting to summit Mount Rainier in one day. Last summer, she decided to go home even though she was close, on schedule and had the right team, because the wind was nearly blowing her off her feet, she said.
“Finding Elevation” ends with her letting go of the need to be perfect and prove “everything all the time” and realizing she’s enough, just as she is.
Whether she summits another mountain at the end of the book is up for readers to discover, but let’s just say that last year she organized an all-women’s climbing expedition in Nepal and is giving back to Nepal’s mountain communities by helping local women through education and skill development.
What: Author Lisa Thompson discusses her memoir “Finding Elevation: Fear and Courage on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain.”
Where: Explore Booksellers
When: Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.