By Kristin Hostetter | Images Courtesy Eddie Bauer/© Kent Harvey
Melissa Arnot (pronounced Are Not), 32, has summited Everest more than any other American female. She’s also climbed Rainier 107 times. And you probably read about her peacekeeper role in the 2013 fight between Ueli Steck and a group of irate Sherpas at Everest Camp 2. No? She broke up the scuffle. Then she started a nonprofit to help Sherpa families before becoming the only American woman to climb Everest without oxygen. But she’s bigger than her heroics. Kristin Hostetter trekked with Arnot to Everest Base Camp and found that it takes more than looks, muscle, and big lungs to reach the rarest of rarified air.
1. She broke child labor laws. When you were playing soccer in Perfectville, Arnot was scrubbing the pee off toilet seats for $5.15 an hour at a Best Western near Whitefish, Montana. To get the job, she lied about her age, because nobody hires a 13-year-old.
Before Whitefish, the Arnots lived in Ignacio, Colorado, where Melissa’s father, Jim, cobbled together a living as a ski patroller and construction worker until he broke his back in a work accident. Arnot wore thrift store clothes her sister Stephanie outgrew. Her parents raided her piggy bank for milk money. A local pastor gave them boxes of canned goods. For a while they lived in a crowded camper on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. Later, Jim worked a government job in the tribe’s housing department. “I was very poor, but not neglected,” says Arnot. “I was clean, clothed, fed.”
In 2000, she graduated high school (at 16), bought a black Nissan truck with 240,000 miles on it, and left for Oregon to nanny, save more money, and hopefully attend college.
Which she did, at the University of Iowa, with a double major in business and health promotion. Afterwards, she landed an entry-level job writing ad copy for Crest Whitestrips in a cubicle at Proctor & Gamble. But who wants to write about tartar all day? She went to Montana, parked her truck in lonely lots, ate Ramen, and discovered climbing. “I have no special gifts athletically, and I’m not competitive,” she says.
2. She had to audition for this life. In 2005, with a freshly inked EMT certificate in hand, Arnot applied, along with about 100 other hopefuls, to guide with Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (now Rainier Mountaineering Expeditions). She made the first cut and was invited to the mountain for in-person tryouts, two days of acting out scenarios, personality assessment, and grueling fitness testing that included a race up 1,200 vertical feet with a 30-pound pack.
The toughest part of tryouts, says RMI co-owner Peter Whittaker, is not the run, but the auditions. “It’s very intimidating,” says Whittaker. “We make them speak in front of all the other applicants and the senior guides about everything from altitude sickness to navigation. Melissa was so confident and articulate, we were like, wow, she checks all the boxes.”
That first season, she climbed Rainier 27 times. There, she met Himalayan climbers and, although Everest wasn’t yet on her radar, started dreaming about climbing internationally.
3. She’s considered “nonsocial while tasking.” While shuffling papers at a medical office in her twenties, Arnot took a personality evaluation that pegged her as “nonsocial while tasking.” It means she’s laser-focused on solving problems and doesn’t bog down in emotions. Today, the character trait keeps her alive in the Himalaya and has made her a valued climbing partner. Phil Lakin, a client of her guiding company Infinity Expeditions, suddenly fell ill—dizzy, weak, nauseous—during an Everest Base Camp trek in 2014. “Before my eyes I saw her switch into paramedic mode,” he says. Arnot phoned his Tulsa doctor, waved in a heli, and got Lakin to the hospital in Kathmandu. Task completed, social Arnot emerged. “The minute I was released, she took me out for pizza and beer,” says Lakin.
4. She’s heavily vested in chickens. In 2011, Arnot attempted an oxygen-free ascent of 27,766-foot Makalu with her climbing partner, David Morton. At the time, both were privately supporting Sherpa families financially. They’d each lost Sherpa partners while climbing and felt compelled to fill the income void. A Sherpa guiding on Everest can make up to $5,000 per season. When he dies, the wife, kids, in-laws, brothers, aunts, and uncles suffer. To date, primarily through grassroots fundraising, Arnot and Morton’s Juniper Fund has raised close to $1 million. About two thirds goes to the 35 Juniper Fund Sherpa families, some of which provides vocational training and grants to widows to start their own businesses. The tally so far? Three restaurants, a hair salon, and a chicken farm.
5. Everest without O2 was a long time coming. “I’m fascinated by how far I can push myself physically and mentally. I needed to prove to myself that I could do it,” says Arnot. She began plotting and made her first attempt in 2009. She failed. So she designed a masochistic training regimen that was as much about getting mentally strong—depriving herself of food and water during epic, all-day workouts—as it was about increasing muscle and stamina. Her program involved three days per week of running (up to 20 miles per day) and three of hiking—laps on Bald Mountain equaling 6,000 vertical feet, while hauling a 50-pound pack and fueling on gummy bears and water. Once on Everest this year, her self-imposed sufferfest paid off. When she topped out, without a mask, she cried (and she doesn’t cry). The return trip was brutal. She had to spend an unplanned night at high camp (27,000-plus feet) without her sleeping bag. Her toes nearly froze and she ran out of food. But at Base Camp the question mark was gone.
6. Love is a stove, but you better not light it. Just prior to Nepal’s 2015 earthquake, Arnot’s three-year marriage ended. “I was completely unanchored and emotionally depleted,” she recalls. Then she reconnected with an old guiding buddy, Tyler Reid.
The new couple lived and trained together in a tiny cabin in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. In April 2016, they headed to Tibet for Arnot’s second oxygen-free attempt. Arnot wanted to climb the mountain as unsupported as possible. She and Reid relied on fixed ropes from the Chinese government, but they hired no Sherpas. They worked their down-covered asses off—carrying their own loads, stocking high camps, assembling and disassembling camps, and feeding themselves. They never bickered. And then Arnot performed an act of true love, something she’d never done before. She let Reid touch her MSR Reactor stove. She handed it, along with cooking duties, over during their final summit push. Maybe she found a partner who can know all of her.
7. She has Sherpa cred. Throughout the Khumbu Valley, when Arnot enters a teahouse, any teahouse, she’s greeted with smiles, hugs, and the chants of “Didi” (Nepali for sister) or just “Lady Climber.” Children mob her; she gives out crayons, tickles, and snaps selfies with them.
“When she talks to her Sherpa friends, she adopts the local head-waggle,” says Lakin. “I’ve never seen any Westerner do that. I don’t think she’s conscious of it, but it’s just one way that she instinctively connects with people.”
“Meli is very special,” says Sherpa Jangbu Sherpa of the Panorama Lodge in Namche. “Many people would just give money and forget [the lost climbing Sherpas], but she did not do that.”
8. She loves/hates the media. In spring 2015, she agreed to let Glamour magazine document her sixth summit attempt and the “Today Show” to follow her via regular sat phone interviews on the mountain. It wasn’t a circus, but she was on Everest while Manhattan producers were deluging her with WhatsApp messages. The pressure showed on her girl-next-door face. The next year, with nothing but Reid’s camera and her iPhone to capture the moment, she became the first American woman to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen.
9. She’s mentoring the next Melissa Arnot in the fine art of grit. On June 27, Arnot and 21-year-old Maddie Miller began an attempt to summit the 50 U.S. high points in 50 days, a feat no other woman has accomplished. A driver is currently zipping them from state to state to state in a lime green van, while a cameraman documents the journey and Arnot manages the social media campaign (#50peaks). She’s inviting followers to meet them along the way to share local beta. It’s a far cry from Everest.
At press time, they’d climbed 26 high points in 16 days and were still going strong. 50 Peaks exists to prove that adventure awaits everywhere. That, and to show Miller that if you want something bad enough, it’s all you.
Editor’s note: Melissa Arnot and Maddie Miller completed the 50 Peaks challenge on August 7, breaking the record for the fastest time to summit each state’s high point in 41 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes. Read more about it here.
From our High Summer 2016 issue.