Lisa Thompson of Alpine Ascents International: How to Live with Joie De Vivre, Even When It Feels Like The Whole World Is Pulling You Down
Equanimity — Sometimes situations just suck. There was a four-month period of my life where three beloved pets died. And, I had to accept, amid so much grief and pain, the situation that I was in. I had to accept it and recognize that it wouldn’t be forever. I would grow, I would heal, there would be more joy and happiness in my life, things would balance out, I would get through it.
As a part of my series about how to live with Joie De Vivre, I I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Thompson.
Lisa Thompson is the second American woman to summit K2, the second highest and considered the deadliest mountain in the world.
Lisa has also summitted the highest mountain on all seven continents and is currently coordinating an all-women’s expedition to an unclimbed peak in Nepal in 2022, which will be led by Sherpani in support of Nepalese women.
She is a breast cancer survivor and in 2018 founded Alpine Athletics where she coaches aspiring climbers to reach their mountain goals. Before this she worked in various leadership roles for healthcare companies, most often her teams were focused on operational support or delivering technical or customer support
Her forthcoming book, Finding Elevation, chronicles her path from novice climber to the summit of K2.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I didn’t grow up in the mountains, or even being athletic. I spent most of the first two decades of my life in a small farming town in rural Illinois. We learned to square dance in grade school and had cow chip throwing contests at the county fair in the summer. My parents came from hard-working families with decades of laborers, farmers and factory workers. They didn’t encourage my sister or me to think outside of the square boundaries of our county; it just wasn’t in their nature. I was probably 8 or 10 when I decided that I could go to college, which sounds like a simple decision today but no one in my family had ever graduated from college. I knew even at a young age that I would leave that tiny farm town, that I would always hold it and its values close to me, but that I was meant to explore, which is what led me to the mountains.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My first career was in engineering and I pursued it because I was relatively smart and thought that I could earn a decent salary as an engineer. As a 24-year-old who grew up in rural America, I was not prepared for the corporate environment of a large company. It was a very male-dominated culture and I didn’t appreciate office politics or the role of women, especially young women, in the corporate workplace at that time. I worked hard and was promoted over time and still remember being called kiddo during meetings, or asked, as the only woman at the table, if I could take meeting notes. For a long time, I played a long — I didn’t have any female role models to learn from — and I am grateful that through hard work and some lucky breaks by career grew to the executive level but I truly never felt at ease in that environment.
My corporate career — and office politics — lead me to mountaineering so for that I am grateful. After summiting the highest mountain on every continent and the world’s most deadly mountain, K2, in Pakistan, I started my own company which is when my second and most rewarding career started. Today, I get to speak about mountaineering and to help mountaineers of all levels prepare physically and mentally for climbs all other the world. It is incredibly rewarding for me to work with athletes who are overwhelmed or uncertain about how to best prepare for a climb, and to help them build not only their strength and endurance but also their confidence. I recently coached a woman who was new to mountaineering when we began working together. She was a successful surgeon and crazy strong but lacked confidence in the mountains. She summitted her first big mountain in 2019 and is currently climbing Everest. It’s a very special — almost indescribable — kind of rewarding to play a role in her growth.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
That’s so true! I didn’t grow up with a lot of encouragement, that’s just how my family was. There were definitely teachers; though, who saw potential in me during my adolescence and devoted extra time to helping me succeed. As an adult, every time I travel to Nepal I am humbled by the generosity and presence of its people. Before my first Himalayan climb I was trekking in s small village at the base of the mountain. A monk was living in a stone hut there. I could hear him chanting from the outside and he graciously welcomed my team and me to join him. Inside the one-room, flat-roofed building he sat cross-legged by a fire and chanted a blessing for us. I listened, mesmerized by his words and the simplicity of his quarters; just a few books, food, and a bedroll on the stone floor. As I left, I thanked him and he took my hands, and very intently said something in Nepalese that I couldn’t understand. Later, I learned that he told me that the home for your pure heart is in the mountains. The whole interaction with the monk was moving to me and helped confirm that my purpose and greatest joy comes from the mountains.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Looking back on my corporate career, there were times when I stayed too long in a role where I wasn’t valued. I could feel it: I could see it transpire in meetings when I wasn’t given credit for my work or my ideas were overlooked. Early on in my career, like I said, I hadn’t developed my voice yet, and I didn’t have the tools to stand up for myself. The only thing that I knew how to do was work harder. So, I kept striving, working longer hours, taking on tougher projects. And, in the end all that I gained was a loss of self. In one job I became obsessed with being promoted to Director. And, while that eventually happened, the soul-sucking effort to get there made the promotion lackluster. I finally listened to my heart and I left less than a year later.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Being the second American woman to summit K2 left me indelibly grateful. And, though I am still climbing big mountains, I don’t have a desire to climb something that dangerous again. What is more important to me now is to help other women realize their goals. I get to do that every day by coaching. My current project, along with some climbing friends, I am organizing an all-women’s climb of an unclimbed peak in Nepal to benefit Nepali women. As a group we will chose one Nepali woman and raise funds to allow her to realize her dreams. Often women want additional education or help opening a shop. Our goal is to demonstrate through climbing that anything is possible for women.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
My answer to this question has evolved over time. I used to think that being a leader meant being stern and rigid. Again, I was mimicking the men around me. It took decades and lots of money spent on leadership books and seminars before I realized that I lead the best when I am myself.
Leadership is also a critical component to success in the mountains. At 24,000 feet on K2 my team and I were stuck at the mercy of logistics and deteriorating weather. Though when we began climbing the weather looked stable for three days, nothing is guaranteed in the mountains and high winds built and feet of snow fell unexpectedly. A decision was made to descend. On big mountains like K2 summit attempts are dependent on stable weather windows; periods of multiple days where both winds and snowfall are minimal. Betting on a solid weather window has gotten easier thanks to better forecasts but mountains are still fickle, especially K2. The decision to descend did not sit well with me, I felt like I was being robbed of the summit. Somehow, in our oxygen-deprived state, my climbing partner and I managed to use a satellite communication device to get another forecast which called for improving weather. My team and I had a decision to make in that moment. This is where leadership comes in. This was perhaps the highest staked negotiation of my life. We now had a decision to make: which forecast to trust? If the wrong decision was made, we could die. Pushing hard against the decision to descend was — new information — yes, and also emotions. Each of us had trained for at least a year and along the way sacrificed dinners with friends, family commitments, work commitments, time with our children, and sleep in order to hone our minds and bodies to be strong enough to endure the tests of K2 and earn the right to stand there at 24,000 feet. For some of the team members, it was their third attempt to summit 28,251 foot K2. None of us wanted it taken away from us.
Fueling the decision also was the fact that we were all sleep and oxygen deprived. As the conversation developed, opinions were shared, points were raised, data was presented, emotions were elevated, names were called, accusations were made. It was not a pretty moment at 24,000 feet. Finally, from the edge of the semi-circle, one teammate stepped forward and said in an Irish accent “If we descend we’ll never come back, it’s over. This is K2, we’re lucky for this weather window. Don’t count on another. If there’s a shot in hell, that we can wait out the weather, then I say we take it.”
That was enough to break the stalemate. And, That’s the thing about leadership, it can come from anywhere. It is an action, not a title or a job. And when it is paired with wisdom and experience, it is intoxicating.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?
Authority feels like a strong word, there are days when I struggle to find joy. But, looking back over my life so far, I believe that I have made decisions and charted my course based on where I feel most authentically myself. And, those moments where I can feel that I am acting from a place of authenticity give me joy.
Joy has, at times, been elusive for me. It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity or the intensity of a moment and not take the time to breathe and be present. I recently spent a week in silent meditation and one of the days was spent meditating on joy — a whole day! Nothing but joy! It was soooo difficult for me at first. I was sitting cross-legged on a thin cushion, my legs and ankles were screaming from their contorted shapes. And, I was supposed to meditate about joy! I am telling you that at first I didn’t think I could do it. Eventually I let go of the story in my head about it being difficult, and I started cataloging the accomplishments in my life, the times when I didn’t think that I could do something or was doubted and did it anyway. I thought about accomplishments in my career, buying my first house, climbing my first mountain, coaching my first client, the first time I walked on stage to speak about overcoming obstacles. Suddenly there was so much joy around me that I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I just started crying from the enormity of it.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?
I think that we — myself included — are caught up in always wanting more. I have spent a lot of time on that hamster wheel. When I summited my first big mountain, Mt. Rainier, before I even returned to the parking lot, I was already thinking about what I wanted to climb next, I was already thinking of the next mountain that would help me improve my skills and experience. I spent a lot of time this way, setting a goal before I finished, or even celebrated accomplishing the current one. I can still very easily fall into that trap. But I have learned that those external measures of success, whether it’s a mountain summit or a promotion or Instagram likes, will never be enough, they can’t be because to truly resonate and be meaningful, that acceptance has to come from within.
What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?
I think it is that joy can only come from the inside, and that we can only touch it when we let go of looking externally for validation. This makes me think about the monk living in the stone hut In Nepal. As westerners we’d say that he had very little, no internet, no closet full of clothes or a fancy car. He had just what he needed to survive, and to be happy. That day with the monk touched me on many levels and one of the things that I earned is that we each need to build — within ourselves — a refuge of peace and joy. It can’t some from anyone or anything else.
In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?
Well, for me, whenever it hits me that things are really going well right now and I feel genuinely happy, I want to cling to that happiness. I want to grasp it as tightly as I can. Even though that’s my gut reaction, I know that grasping too tightly will only stifle that happiness. When I had breast cancer, there were times when I struggled to find anything to be happy about. So, when something went well, like a negative test result, I wanted to cling to that as proof that I would be ok. Cancer taught me that life is fragile and fleeting and that it is up to each of us to create a life that creates joy.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- Confidence — We all have it, sometimes it’s buried and often it’s situational but I have found that by staying true to the (sometimes tiny) spark of confidence inside of me, I can accomplish incredible, often unexpected things.
- Perspective — I can very easily get caught up into thinking that things can only happen a certain way, or that my values and beliefs represent the best path. I’ve found that by easing my grip on the way things should be, I often gain a broadened perspective. And, in that there is growth.
- Presence — The first time I stopped to really tune into my thoughts I realized how much of what’s going on in my head is related to events that already happened or situations that hadn’t occurred yet. There are so many stories constantly running through my mind, I start most days with a meditation which helps me stay present and I’m working on building more moments of presence in my day.
- Humility — The people and leaders that I admire most operate from a place of humility. The focus less on what they have accomplished (which is often impressive!) and more on the collaboration and teamwork involved in those accomplishments. I’ve found that maintaining humility also allows me to more gracefully navigate mistakes and connect with people. We’re all human, we’re all connected. And being humble, regardless of your position or accomplishments, allows us to stay connected.
- Equanimity — Sometimes situations just suck. There was a four-month period of my life where three beloved pets died. And, I had to accept, amid so much grief and pain, the situation that I was in. I had to accept it and recognize that it wouldn’t be forever. I would grow, I would heal, there would be more joy and happiness in my life, things would balance out, I would get through it.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?
I think that the biggest thing we can do for each other is to be compassionate. To recognize another’s pain and be there — really be there — for them, without an agenda or judgement. I think that it’s those moments when a friends’ rawness is exposed and we can look them in the eyes and say I’m here for you as another human who has also experienced pain, that true connections are made.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Gosh, there are so many! What is dear to me now is that I really believe that the future is in educating young women and girls to teach them that they have to be vulnerable to be strong, that only they get to define what they are capable of. And, I think that as women who have walked the path, we have an obligation to share what we’ve learned in order to elevate the next generation. For me, the mountains and wild places have been the greatest teachers so I love the idea of enabling this kind of strength and vulnerability and confidence through the outdoors.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 😊
I’m going to say two people: Oprah and the Dali Lama. I feel like Oprah got me through the turbulence of high school and introduced me to the idea of self-care. So, to sit down with her and first thank her for the influence she’s had on my life but then to have a conversation woman-to-woman about overcoming obstacles, growth and the future of women in this world would be incredible. The second — and this isn’t in order — is the Dali Lama. Every time I’m in the presence of someone who is grounded and present, it motivates me to do better.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find me at lisaclimbs on IG and lisaclimbs.com
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Lisa Thompson of Alpine Ascents International: How to Live with Joie De Vivre, Even When It Feels… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.