Lisa Thompson’s first taste of mountaineering was on Mt. Rainier in 2006. Then breast cancer took a hard shot at derailing her 8,000-meter dreams.
Lisa Thompson’s friends and family from the Midwest, where she spent most of her life, have a hard time understanding what drives her toward the mountains. However, for her, like many of us, the attraction is simple: Mountaineering is a chance to explore beautiful places and deeply embed herself in physical and mental challenges.
In 2004, Lisa moved to Seattle with no intention of endeavoring in a decade-long Cascades’ mentorship—one that would eventually lead her to the Himalaya. She wasn’t a climber yet. Nevertheless, she couldn’t help being captivated by the local peaks. “You see Mt. Rainier occasionally—because the weather is so iffy—but when you do it’s stunning,” she says, evoking the image of a potent dream.
Lisa didn’t reach the summit of Rainier on her first attempt in 2006, but the unique setting and experience alone had her hooked. She remembers thinking, “I kind of want to do more of this!” Thus, one peak led to the next. The summit of Rainier succumbed to her efforts in 2009. That climb spring-boarded her to climb internationally. She took on Mt. Elbrus, Denali, Aconcagua, Mt. Kilimanjaro, and Mt. Vinson.
In 2015, Lisa decided to climb in Nepal. The 8,163-meter Manaslu was her objective. To kick-start her eight-month training period, she began reading Training for the New Alpinism, after which she connected with Steve and Scott directly. “I initially thought that I could do it on my own based on the details in the book but in the end wanted more guidance from the experts.” They initially put forth a four-month program to help Lisa build her aerobic base.
Diagnosed with cancer
Just two months into training for Manaslu though, Lisa received terrible news: breast cancer. Her biggest worry was of falling behind in her training, or worse, that her coaches might say, “Oh, you shouldn’t climb.” However, having a coach proved serendipitous: Scott’s wife had the same kind of cancer and encouraged Lisa to push forward. She says with relief, “Scott turned out to be a great partner for me, someone I really trusted, who knew what I was going through with the surgeries and recovery.”
A bilateral mastectomy and multiple surgeries did little to slow Lisa down. Just one month out from her first major surgery, she completed training climbs on Mt. Shasta, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Adams.
Enjoyable, tailored Training
Training can often be laborious and hard to get excited about; however, Lisa says, “Scott tailored my training toward activities I would actually enjoy doing six days a week.” She focused a lot of her efforts on climbing real peaks in the Cascades—for example, doing weighted pack carries on Mt. Rainier, her favorite local peak.
In October 2015, Lisa spent over 30 days acclimatizing and on Manaslu itself. Dangerous conditions, however, made the sought after summit unattainable. She retreated down the mountain and back to the U.S.
The circumstances of life and climbing can be hard to control. In just a six-month time span Lisa had experienced back-to-back setbacks from major illness and a failed 8,000-meter expedition. It would be hard for most people to rebound and stay inspired under those circumstances. But as a self-described “competitive person” adversity only fueled her. Once home in the U.S. she was undeterred, immediately ready to make return plans to the Himalaya that spring. With a strong desire to experience new mountains and new challenges, she chose Everest.
Lisa pushed onward through the winter with the same focused but fun training regimen, her coaches keeping in close contact to develop training that would fit her progress. Fewer surgeries to combat her cancer left her feeling stronger and more recovered. “Fitness is the one thing you can control,” she says. “Seeing my aerobic threshold increase over the course of a few months or a few weeks was inspiring.”
The nearly two years training with Uphill Athlete has convinced her that coaching and attaining her goals go hand in hand. While training on her own in the past, Lisa says, “I thought I had to just totally kick my ass every time I trained or I wasn’t making progress.” Now, she remarks, “I would always work with a coach because they know how I respond to training”—mind you, that’s a big factor with training load required for 8,000m peaks—“Coaching becomes a part of what you do.”
At one point, nearing her departure date, Lisa surprised her coaches by completing a grueling sword-from-stone style workout, a mental test they didn’t expect her to finish. She remembers Scott in awe, “Holy crap. I can’t believe you did that!” It gave her major confidence that she was primed for the adventure to come.
“On Everest,” Lisa says, “You spend six to nine days trekking into basecamp when you arrive. That’s when the test starts.” For that, she says, she never felt anxious or worried, rather ready; she knew she could do it.
Lisa on the summit of Everest on a clear day
After reaching Everest basecamp on April 12, Lisa set out from the final high camp for the summit at 10 p.m. on May 18, reaching it the next morning, May 19, around 8 a.m. Returning to her high camp, Lisa says the accomplishment hadn’t set in yet.
She recounts, “I didn’t feel like I could celebrate until I got through the icefall again.” She’s referring to the notoriously dangerous lower Khumbu Icefall that has killed many climbers, guides, and Sherpa in recent years.
Over the coming days, Lisa pieced her way back down the mountain through the lower camps and eventually passed through the icefall. Finally, at base camp again she recalled feeling with joy and relief, “Now, now… I feel like I’ve actually accomplished this.”
Lisa’s dreams for new summits in new places have hardly waned post-Everest. She hopes in the near future to leave the crowds behind and climb in Pakistan’s Karakoram—for her it quickly brings to mind K2.
Ready to climb that mountain?
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