Melissa Arnot holds the world record for women in Everest summits. She has climbed the world’s highest peak six times and is the first American woman to successfully summit and descend without the use of supplemental oxygen. Arnot is an athlete of the highest caliber, driven by her intense love for the mountains, and her need to compete only with herself. We had the chance to speak with Arnot about her road to Everest, obstacles met along the way, and the Juniper Fund — a fund co-founded with her climbing partner to help families in need in Nepal.
How long have you been climbing? Is it something you’ve done since you were a kid?
No. Most people think I must have started when I was two or something, but no, I didn’t start getting into the outdoors until I was 19, and I was out for college and came back to Montana where I’m from. A friend of mine took me out, and we didn’t do anything crazy; we just hiked up the summit of this peak, and that just really opened a world of possibilities. I’ve always been athletic, but not competitive, so I struggled to find my outlet. Climbing and hiking and just being in the mountains is exactly that. It’s not competitive, but it is athletic, and it requires focus and skill.
How do you go from that point, to the time when you started going out on these excursions that were much more challenging?
I jumped in full force right away. I knew it was something I wanted to do, but I also didn’t have the economic means to be able to climb all over the world and travel. I knew if I wanted to do it, I was going to have to get a job doing it. I started spending as much time as I could learning about climbing and working on my own abilities and my own level of climbing. That was in 2002. In 2004, I stared working as a guide on Mount Rainier, and the guide service there has a really cool mentorship program set up. They really teach the way of guiding on glaciers while working with more senior guides, and you kind of advance from there. Because I was really dedicated to it, and I really loved it, and I knew I wanted to make it a lifelong career, I was able to advance really quickly. I spent full time year-round climbing.
When did you decide you wanted to take on Everest?
It was really interesting. I didn’t ever really have a specific drive to climb Everest. It wasn’t really on my radar, and I didn’t think it was a possibility for me. In 2007, I was guiding a client on Mount Rainier, and he asked me if I would climb Everest with him, and I said no because I didn’t feel like I had enough experience. And he was like, “Why did you say no? What would it take to get you to do this?” I told him I’d have to be mentored; I’d have to be working with another guide, and in that way I’d be kind of worthless because he’d have to pay two guides for one guide’s job. He said it wasn’t worthless that he really believed in me, and he wanted me to go. He wore me down over time, so I ended up going in 2008 for my first time. I think my commitment to keep going back to Everest and challenging myself happened in 2009 when I was doing the Eddie Bauer Returns to Everest Expedition. I got to be part of this professional climbing team with people who were really like my heroes. Ed Viesters was the first American to climb all the mountain peaks without supplemental oxygen, and he was my climbing partner. I really got to learn more about the history of the place and really just fell more in love with it.
A lot of people want to know why I keep going back to Everest, and it’s hard to explain without understanding what I’ve been doing there. The biggest thing I’ve been doing is trying to pursue this goal of climbing without oxygen. Within that goal, I’ve been guiding there, as well.
It’s one thing to take on Everest, and then a completely different thing to say you’re going to do it without supplemental oxygen. What drove you to do that, and what’s the training process like?
I feel like I never said, “I’m going to climb Everest without oxygen.” I always said, “I wonder if I can.” For me, it was just a pursuit of curiosity, and not coming to the conclusion of, “Oh, I did it,” but coming to the conclusion whether or not I could. This year particularly, I was really settled on leaving the season with an answer, whatever that answer was, and probably not trying again. So, curiosity was my main motivation.
The training is really intense. I’ve been training for this, really, the last 10 years of my life. I spend all winter – I start training at the end of November, and I work out five or six days a week for five hours a day. I try to do this deprivation training, where I deprive myself of food and water while I’m training so my body gets used to finding fuel from other sources, rather than relying on what I’m putting in because on those really long days up high when you’re in those extreme environments, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to put food and fuel in. You’re trying to teach your body to adapt to that a little bit.
Were you met with any resistance when you said you were going to take this on?
One of the reasons this year that I decided to keep my goals really quiet, and I lied to a lot of people and said I wasn’t going back to Everest, and I wasn’t going to try this because I felt like the collective negative energy that is presented to you when you’re trying to do something so big and challenging and statistically not likely, people just give really negative attention toward what you’re doing, and I think you can absorb some of those vibes, so I didn’t want anyone’s opinions on whether or not I could do it to play into what I was doing because I think that gets to be dangerous. Over the years, I’ve definitely been greeted with lots of confused looks about why I would want to do this, and I really don’t think anyone believed that I could do it, even some of my closest climbing partners. I didn’t know if it was possible either. Could I do it with the minimal level of assistance? I wanted to just do it with my climbing partner and do it safely and honestly.
I know you’re the first American woman to go up and come back down, so was any of that negativity geared toward the fact that you were a woman taking this on?
As a female in this industry, I think there are definitely times where I encounter people assuming that I can’t do something, or they’re curious about why I’m doing it, or how I’m doing it. I was talking to a woman, and she was like, “If I was climbing Everest, I would want the biggest, strongest guy that I could find to guide me. No offense, but I would never let you guide me on Everest because you’re small.” That just shows her ignorance for the sport because being big offers zero advantages, and so does being male. I’ve proved that this year. I’m equally capable to the max level of how we can climb mountains. I think there’s an assumption when you’re a real minority in a group and you’re receiving attention, that you’re receiving attention because you’re a minority. There’s always been an underlying view toward me, like, “Oh, Melissa is one of the only girls here, so obviously, that’s why she’s getting attention.” I don’t want attention because I’m a girl. I want attention because I’m doing something that I think is really outstanding.
During parts of your expedition that were really intense and challenging, do you remember any of your mental processes. What did you tell yourself to get through it?
It’s such a lame and simple thing, but I just repeat to myself, “You’ve got this.” It really grounds me back to this place of the endless hours of training that I’ve done, all of the years, all of the sacrifices that I’ve made in my personal life and career and financial sacrifices. One moment of discomfort is okay. I went through that mental reel, and I had moments, definitely, when I though, “I can’t do this. This is hard. This is scary. I’m not moving fast enough.” I just had to force myself to remain present because what else can you do? When you’re in the middle of it, you’re either going to be successful, or not be successful. Being safe was what was most important to me.
The other thing that I always go to on my worst, worst, worst, days of training is to really appreciate those moments because it’s going to be important later. When I’m training, and something is really hard, finishing that training session is so non-gratifying. Like, “Great, you ran 16 miles in the rain. Who cares?” You’re suffering to get through that, just like you’re suffering to get through Everest without oxygen, and there’s a real reward at the end of that, so if I can suffer through 16 miles in the rain, I can suffer through this thing that has a very tangible, personal reward at the end – and not external reward, not the “You did this first,” but you pursued something long-term, and you achieved it.
Do a lot of these experiences play a role in your career as a guide and how you get clients through their moments where they might be struggling?
I really work with my clients to keep them focused on the moments that we’re in, and not what’s happening next. I try to paint the next 24 hours or next hour for you, not the next week. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Anytime I talk to people about climbing Everest, they say they can’t even imagine, but you know sitting in this temperature controlled room, I can’t either. You just have to take that first step and get out there, and it makes it little bit less overwhelming.
I also want to touch on the Juniper Fund.
I’m a co-founder of the Juniper Fund with my climbing partner. We founded it in 2012 to provide support for families of high altitude workers who were killed while working in Nepal. Since the local community supports the climbing there so much, there’s a great risk to their lives, and just the number of days they spend in these dangerous mountains, and when accidents happen we want to be able to provide support for their families. For me personally, that was born out of an accident I had in 2010. One of climbing partners was killed, and I saw that nothing could take away the grief that his family was going through, but not having to pay for things like rice and food really made a big difference. I wanted to be able to provide that. We never imagined how big the fund would get because we didn’t imagine the two really devastating years – 2014 and 2015. 2014, 16 workers were killed in an avalanche, and then the earthquake in Nepal in 2015. Right now, as of today, we support 37 families, and we do that by giving them the Cost of Living grant, which is $3000 a year for five years, and we also give them vocational training and small business grants to start their own businesses when our support ends.
People can donate to the Juniper Fund?
Yes, absolutely, and donations definitely help, especially for our business grants. Business grants we just launched last year, and they’ve been really successful. We have three restaurants, and one chicken farm, and a beauty salon that will open at the end this month, and those are all owned by our Juniper Fund families. That’s what we’re doing with our business funds right now.
Donations for the Juniper Fund can be made here: thejuniperfund.org