Thompson, Lisa. Finding Elevation. Girl Friday, 2023. 244 pp. ISBN 9781954854673. $25.95
As of of February 2021, 377 people have completed a summit of K2, while 91 have died trying. Clearly, author Lisa Thompson lived to the tell the tale, but the question of “did she summit?” will pull you through this fascinating book.
Mountaineering is so foreign to me that books on the topic read almost like fantasy novels–the icy, alien, high altitude terrain, the endurance of climbing for twenty hours straight, the sheer psychological willpower over the elements. And yet… I have been fascinated by Mount Everest since Into Thin Air was published, and there is no better armchair travel for me than reading about climbing 8,000 meter tall rocks. Thompson, hailing from the plains of Illinois, has peakbagged not only the tallest mountain in the world–Mt. Everest–but also the slightly lower, more deadly K2 in Pakistan. This succinct and well-written memoir follows her journey from a challenging family life with an alcoholic father to a crumbling marriage to an alcoholic husband; from a career competing with boys in tech to the freedom of climbing mountains alongside hiking bros who aren’t much better; from backpacking trips in the late 1990s along the River Hoh to Mt. Rainer to K2.
While Mallory famously said he wanted to climb Everest “because it’s there,” it takes Thompson many years, a lot of money, and a lot of steps to get to her WHY, but she does get there, and what a ride she takes the reader on. If anything, she is so honest and matter-of-fact about the deadly realities of hiking in icy, below-zero, low oxygen conditions that it is almost downplayed. She isn’t in it for fame or the adrenaline rush and(though it would have been nice to be the first, not second, American woman to summit K2. Those not familiar with hiking terminology may have to do some googling, but most things are defined in context fairly well, without a hiking jargon tone.
In addition to the climbing narrative, Thompson drops in personal details, also in an almost detached, just the facts manner. OH–and she’s a breast cancer survivor. Basically had surgery and kept training, and then got reconstructive surgery right before hiking Everest. She doesn’t seem to need our empathy, and thus earns it, but also? She is a badass, and this memoir from a woman lifts up other women, brings feminism and misogyny into the hiking elite conversation, and does it with class. Never feeling like she belonged, was valued or was good enough was hellish to go through, but it built a woman with massive accomplishments and thanks her detractors for the motivation provided by hearing “no” or “you can’t.”
The design is clever – each chapter is headed with an elevation, and a line graph of the two major mountains in her life. It is a visual progress and puts the journey into context. Some breathtaking landscape photos at the end, and one satisfying selfie from the summit of K2 are appended. Even though I knew how this was going to end, I could not put it down once I started it.
I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #FindingElevation from #NetGalley.