How Breast Cancer Changed This Climber’s Approach to Scaling the World’s Tallest Mountains

Photo: W+G Creative

Lisa Thompson has seen many summits in her lifetime. In 2016, she scaled Mount Everest, and two years later, she climbed K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth (which is so revered and feared by mountaineers it's earned the moniker “Savage Mountain”).

In the year before her climb up Mount Everest, Thompson also attempted to climb Manaslu, a Himalayan Peak in Nepal. She ended up having to turn back before the top because of avalanche conditions, but the climb was still an impressive feat: Thompson had been diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after she began training for it—and she'd decided to scale the mountain anyway.

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Thompson is clearly tenacious, and during our Zoom conversation, she says, “Like any trait, if you take it too far in one direction, it can be detrimental,” but she also says that it’s what helped see her through some difficult situations.

This quality is prevalent in her memoir Finding Elevation: Fear and Courage on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain, in which she recounts her journey from a self-proclaimed “not very athletic kid” in the farmlands of Illinois to a fully-fledged mountaineer. Though her accolades as a mountaineer tell a tale of success, her story is as much about strength as it is about vulnerability.

Today, you’ll still find Thompson climbing mountains, but she says she is no longer compelled to climb “anything as challenging as K2 anymore.” She is focused on helping others reach their mountaineering objectives through her coaching program, Alpine Athletics, and supporting female mountaineers. Last year, she led an all-female climbing expedition in Nepal. “We hired women porters and women as base camp staff, which is rare in Nepal,” she says. “It is the most incredible climb I’ve ever been on because of the support and the love we gave each other.”

Whether you’re scaling literal or metaphorical mountains, there is wisdom to be gleaned from her experiences. I had the pleasure of speaking to Thompson about mountaineering, her experience with breast cancer, and how those two things informed one another in her journey through her life's own peaks and valleys.

Well+Good: You were on Mount Rainier—your first big mountain—when you made it your mission to scale Mount Everest. What was it that drew you to big mountains?

Lisa Thompson: The short answer to this question is that people just didn’t think I could do it, and that really motivated me to prove them wrong.

When I moved to Seattle, which is where I live today, what got me into mountaineering was that the guys in the office there would regularly go climbing in the Cascades around Seattle. They’d just have these stories about being on a rope team together and navigating crevasses or waiting out a storm together on the side of a mountain somewhere—and that didn’t even sound fun to me. But I was drawn to this sense of camaraderie that they had and how they had each other’s backs in the office and outside of the office. As the only woman on the team, I desperately wanted them to see me as part of their group. I could have done the logical thing, which would’ve been to say, "Hey, can I join you the next time you go out climbing somewhere?" But I was 25 or 26, and I just didn’t have the courage to put myself out there, so I just decided I’d go climb mountains.

I eventually decided that I would climb Mount Rainier, and there was something  about the mental challenge that was needed to wake up at midnight and climb up steep, loose rocks wearing crampons and being cold and afraid and uncertain. I was drawn to just the physical demands that were required of me. And it made me curious about what else I was capable of.

W+G: In 2014, you summited the highest mountains on five continents, and in your book, you wrote that you learned the “ability to adapt to difficult situations.” Did this ability translate when you received your breast cancer diagnosis the following year? 

LT: I’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer that question, trying to decipher which is the chicken and which is the egg—if it’s climbing that gave me the motivation to fight cancer with everything I had, or if it was being diagnosed with cancer that pushed me to climb bigger and more challenging mountains. I think what I’ve settled on is that both of those things—cancer and climbing—are intricately related in my life, and they are so much a part of what makes me who I am.

When I was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of 2015, I had just decided to climb my first Himalayan peak, which was Manaslu in Nepal. Manaslu is the eighth-highest mountain in the world, and it was a big deal to me that year to be skilled enough and ready to climb it. I was getting my training plan together, studying the route, and getting connected with a team to climb with when I was diagnosed. And that diagnosis definitely gave me the motivation to still be able to climb that year.

W+G: What motivated you to keep working towards your goal of climbing Manaslu and then Mount Everest the following year?

LT: I was very deep in the cancer decision tree of like, When do I have a bilateral mastectomy? Do I have reconstruction immediately after? Do I keep my nipples? All of these excruciating decisions that will impact your body forever. I had an appointment with my surgical oncologist, and I was still very afraid and hadn’t really accepted my diagnosis. I remember saying, "Hey, what if we just paused this whole thing, and I’ll climb, and then I’ll come back, and we’ll just pick this right up where we left off." I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I know it included the word "foolhardy."

"I needed this one thing that made me feel like I had some semblance of control."

What I couldn’t tell her without crying was that I needed climbing to feel normal in the midst of this cancer diagnosis and treatment. I needed this one thing that made me feel like I had some semblance of control over my life and the situation I found myself in. I’m fortunate that I was still able to go to Manaslu that year. I came home very clear about the fact that life is so fragile and that it’s up to us to define our lives. And that’s really when I focused persistently on climbing Everest.

W+G: Later, in 2018, leading up to—and during the process—of scaling K2, you kept asking yourself the question why you were doing it. After successfully summiting, did the answer to this question become clear to you?

LT: Yeah, it totally did. When I was climbing, I felt like K2 and I weren’t friends—and that’s a big deal to me because I want the mountain and me to feel like we’re working together. Nearly everyday on K2, I thought about quitting.

It wasn’t until I went back the next year to help other women achieve their goals by going to K2 base camp, that I had this full-circle moment of saying thank you—not just for what that mountain gave me, which I think was perspective and the realization that I am enough, but also for what the mountain took away from me, [which was] relinquishing that need to be perfect or be everything or have the answer. I think I did get what I came for from K2, but it took me at least a year to really let it soak in.

W+G: You wrote in your book that the process of preparing for K2 not only involved being “strong,” but also “vulnerable.” Is this a balance you’ve achieved, or would you say that it requires constant effort to keep in a state of equilibrium? 

LT: When I was diagnosed with cancer, I struggled with the idea of being weak or vulnerable yet strong enough to climb a big mountain—and for many months, I could not resolve those two things. Something I’ve tried to embody in my day-to-day life is to accept that vulnerability is okay. It’s okay to say, "I don’t know," or "I’m uncomfortable." That exposure and vulnerability is where our strength lies because that’s when we’re being a hundred percent true about who we are.

The pendulum is still swinging for me. Sometimes, I’m in a situation where I’m not comfortable, and I feel myself armoring up and trying to protect myself. In that armoring up comes this covering up of who you are—and it’s a giant shame for all of us to hide the true essence of who we are and what makes us all unique, beautiful, and wonderful.

W+G: You were offered well-meaning advice before scaling K2: “Don’t give up until you are transformed.” What transformations would you say occurred since climbing the mountain? 

LT: I love those random moments. I was in Islamabad, standing outside of the hotel as our bags were being loaded, on our way to the airport, and the businessman standing next to me asked me what I was doing. I say, and he responds, "Don’t give up until you’re transformed." I was like, "What? Who are you?"

I’m sure to him, it seemed like a very benign comment, but it resonated with me. It wasn’t until we were driving back from the mountain when I realized that that’s actually what it’s all about. That is why I do this.

"I think that's why many people push themselves—because there's this opportunity to change in some way through pursuing anything arduous."

I think that’s why many people push themselves—because there’s this opportunity to change in some way through pursuing anything arduous. There’s this opportunity to get closer to who you really are. For me, that transformation was learning to be strong and vulnerable, that perfection is a farce, and that just being authentic to who you are is the greatest gift that we could give to the world and the people around us—and to do that, you have to be strong and vulnerable. You have to realize that life isn’t about eliminating fear. It’s about moving forward with it because that is where the transformation happens.

W+G: What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned from scaling mountains? 

LT: I feel like mountains have been my greatest teachers, and that only became true when I slowed down enough to pay attention and to start to think about what I was learning by climbing and why I was climbing. The first Himalayan peak I attempted right after being diagnosed with cancer, I realized that only I get to define the life I will lead. Nobody else should take responsibility for that. I don’t think I’d gotten that before being diagnosed with cancer and reexamining my life priorities.

Shortly before I went to K2, my climbing coach, who I had worked with for many years, ended our relationship. He felt that I was egotistically climbing above my ability—which was devastating for me because this was a coach I had trusted for years. And I felt like I had screwed up this relationship, so there was some shame. But I finally realized that I had this tiny feeling in my heart that I could do it, and nobody around me could feel that except for me. I think I had let other people define what I was capable of, thereby holding me back sometimes.

W+G: If there was one piece of advice you would offer women scaling their own mountains, whether literally or metaphorically speaking, what would it be? 

LT: To [not] let other people tell you what you’re capable of and to listen to that tiny voice inside of you, which knows where you should take your life, what you should focus on, and knows what you’re capable of. That’s something that I have to remind myself of. If I find myself shrinking in a situation, not saying what I think or feel or know, or letting other people define how I should focus my time, energies, or efforts, I have to remind myself that this is my life. I get to define what I’m capable of.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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