For her fearless and enduring spirit of adventure and deep passion for ensuring the well-being of others as they, too, discover the outdoors, the Lakeside/St. Nicholas Alumni Association is proud to honor Dr. Emily Johnston ’81 with the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award.
In life, they say, it’s the lucky few who get to combine passion and profession. Dr. Emily Johnston ’81 is one of those few.
She was 13 when she talked her way onto an excursion to Glacier Peak, crampons, ice axe and all – then slipped into a crevasse and had to be rescued by her panicked team. From Denali to Mount Vinson, Johnston has guided wide-eyed adventure seekers onto some of Earth’s highest peaks and down some of its gnarliest rivers. She has made the trek up Mount Rainier 125 times, and in 2015 calmly led a tense group of Mount Everest climbers to safety after the deadly earthquake in Nepal.
Yet, the girl who never liked running but joined the Lakeside cross-country team anyway, earning the nickname “Namun, Woman Warrior,” is always reaching for new horizons. Her passions are fed as much by a personal drive as by the desire to help new and sometimes intimidated climbers discover the beauty of the outdoors.
In fact, it was Johnston’s concern for the well-being of those who explore and frolic in nature that turned a long-simmering interest in medicine into a career. A skier with a heart condition had died after Johnston rescued her. The soul-crushing loss brought a sober realization: In the rugged West where so many people engage in all manner of risky activity, there was a serious shortage of physicians.
So, having studied biology and Eastern religion at Middlebury College, Johnston, at 39, enrolled in medical school at the University of Washington. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.
Today, she helps mend the broken as an emergency medicine doctor in Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and South Dakota, and provides medical direction for guide services and outdoor programs across the globe. Johnston is also a clinical instructor for UW School of Medicine and teaches military mountain medicine to medics and doctors in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
Johnston said her medical training makes her more prepared to lead people into remote places, whether high in the mountains or on rushing water, and make life-altering assessments for treating and evacuating them when something goes wrong.
“We live on a complex and dynamic planet, and in one short life I know I’ll never get to see as much of it as I’d like,” she said.
For someone whose adventures are so influenced by weather, Johnston loves that we still can’t control it. Every excursion, she said, feels like the first time. “It’s never the same river or mountain from day to day. And there’s always a different lesson for me to learn.”
Read more about Johnston in the fall 2015 Lakeside magazine on issuu.