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Melissa Arnot reaches new summits

One of the world’s top mountaineers sets her sights on mentoring young women in the pursuit of their dreams.

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Photo: Andrew Bydlon
Photo: Andrew Bydlon

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. If mountain climber Melissa Arnot had a motto, this might be it. She trains hard—including an ultramarathon this spring—to prepare her body for climbing the world’s tallest peaks and to strengthen her mind: “I don’t like running. Doing things you don’t like is good for your character,” Arnot shared on Facebook the month before March’s 50K Marin Ultra Challenge—a training race that was also the furthest distance that she has run in her life.

Gems of such advice pour out of 32-year-old Arnot—who now holds 12 years under her harness as a professional mountaineer and guide—and is the reason why she’s the ideal guide for her latest calling: mentoring young women and girls. Over the last two years, she has met and fostered relationships with several budding climbers, ages 13 to 27, with the hope of propelling those ladies further into their careers and skillsets. Such an opportunity was not presented to Arnot.

From day one, Arnot has bootstrapped her entire career path and even lived in her Toyota pickup while working as a guide apprentice for Rainier Mountaineering, in 2004. The Sun Valley native has tallied 107 summits on Rainier. She has reached the top of Everest five times and holds the peak’s first- or second-highest number of summits held by any woman (records vary).

One of her favorite climbs was a self-supported first ascent of Mustang Himal in Nepal’s Mustang Valley, last fall. Previously unclimbed, the 20,600-foot peak was newly permitted, hard-to-reach, and had barely any climbing info. Arnot thrives in uncharted terrain and lawless conditions, and continues to set fresh tracks in the climbing world.

Now, Arnot is in Nepal, taking six weeks to climb, trek and have fun with two of her young mentees. Nothing short of inspiring, we caught up with Arnot about her mentorship, upcoming climbs, favorite reads, The Juniper Fund, and climbers of the past.

Melissa Arnot on her 2012 Everest expedition. Photo courtesy of Melissa Arnot.
Melissa Arnot on her 2012 Everest expedition. Photo courtesy of Melissa Arnot.

What climbing expeditions do you have lined up for 2016?

I look forward to a big year of mentorship. I’ve been working with this 21-year-old young woman for three years—Maddie Miller, who will be a senior at Colorado College—and we will try to climb the 50 highest points in the U.S. in 50 days: the Fifty Peaks Challenge. She’s climbed Mount Rainier, Mount Borah and Cotopaxi. This will be a big deal for her and a huge challenge for both of us.

Melissa Arnot and mentee Photo: Jon Mancuso Photography
Arnot and Maddie Miller on a training mission on Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. Photo: Jon Mancuso Photography

Wow—where will you start the U.S. high points trip?

We fly onto Kahiltna Glacier (in Alaska) on June 14, and the climbing trip officially starts with the summit of Denali. Then we fly to Florida, and drive across the country while summiting each state’s highest point (some are not technically a climb). We’ll figure out the most efficient roads and routes, and a friend will drive and cook for us.

What’s your training routine?

I’m a couple of weeks out from heading back to Nepal for climbing with two young girls, so I am mostly doing uphill walking. For training, I do whatever activities I can to simulate the actual activities I’ll be doing. If I’m mountaineering and big mountain climbing, I walk uphill with weight (up to 50 pounds). To practice climbing, I rock climb inside a gym or outside. I also try to run a long race. I’m running the 50K in the Marin Ultra Challenge, on March 12. (Editors Note: Arnot finished 21st overall in the women’s race category in 6 hours, 12 minutes, 30 seconds—while running the farthest distance she has ever run in her life.)

Tell me about the two mentees you’ll climb with in Nepal?

Elliot Singer, who is an incredibly mature, unique young woman. She is 13 years old, going into high school—a huge transition time—and I’ve been working with her for the last few years. The other, Sydney Paez, is 27 years old and interested in being a ski guide. She climbed Rainier with me two years ago.

Arnot with her mentee, Elliot Singer, left. Photo by Melissa Arnot.
Arnot with her mentee, Elliot Singer, left. Photo by Melissa Arnot.

What do you personally get out of the mentoring?

I know these girls will accomplish more than I have and then they can teach me! They’re working so hard and doing so much that I wish I’d been doing when I was their age. It is inspiring to have an opportunity to teach the next generation of climbing partners, and mentoring is incredibly rewarding because I learn about myself while sharing the things and places that matter the most to me. It is an opportunity to pass on all the experiences I have had.

What is a powerful moment that you’ve had as a mentor?

With Maddie, the most powerful part is that I have seen her really grow up from being a teenager with curiosity to a young woman planning her own goals. We climbed Rainier and Mt. Adams, last August. It totally suited her mentally and physically. Age thirteen is especially hard for young girls, and she is incredibly mature—which I think is difficult, because she doesn’t always fit in with all of her peers. She felt that we were equals and knew the mountains couldn’t care less if she was a woman or teenager. Then, we put our heads together and decided we could trek, camp, climb and explore without a rigid agenda—more of an adventure trip—this year. When the relationship transitions—and she is now inspiring me—that is why I do it.

As a mentor and guide, are there any challenges or fears to climb with someone younger or less experienced?

All of my clients are less experienced. There is a great equality in that I have 55-year-old men who have no experience, or a young girl that has spent time in the mountains. It’s important to not be intimidated by ideas that are limiting, because they’re generally not limiting at all. One of the greatest challenges is the notion that when you imagine doing a climb (or a pinnacle experience) it may be tangible, but the summit is so far from the starting point. If you incrementally get exposure and go step-by-step the summit won’t be as intimidating.

Do you think it’s critical for a climber to have a mentor, man or woman?

Mentorship is the fastest way to learn. It’s exponentially easier to avoid making mistakes by learning from someone else. This is a weird, hypercompetitive time: everyone has social media and a website and can put out what they are doing—I think that can be detrimental to having an authentic experience. To withdraw from telling people what you’re doing and go with someone who is experienced is such a gift. And these girls—at ages 27, 21 and 13—all have a huge hole for a female that can tell them secrets and “let them in on it all” without being competitive and comparative. It’s a huge relief to learn things and not be in a competitive environment, when so much of what we are surrounded by is competition.

In a male dominated industry, is it critical or hindering for women to learn from other women?

That’s such an interesting question and problem, because one issue of relying on female connectedness in the outdoor industry is that there are not many women, so if that’s your reliance, it’s self-limiting. Of course I want women to be involved, but I don’t want anything to be just women. That’s as exclusive as the prevailing culture. Mountain climbing has no gender advantage and no proof that men or women are better suited. The more we can mingle together the better. A related question I often get, “What is it like to be a woman in a male dominated industry?” whichis weird in my mind, because climbing is what I do and what I know the most. It’s not intimidating or scary for me. It’s normal. I’m not afraid of being a minority—I think that’s good for us sometimes.

Who has been a mentor for you in your career?

Honestly, I haven’t had a mentor. I haven’t known someone else who has had the same path as I have. I’ve tried to figure it out myself by taking piecemeal of what certain people have done.

Has your lack of a mentor driven your passion to become one?

Not really. I am not setting out to be a mentor. It is just what is naturally happening, so I am enjoying it as it comes.

What female adventurers do you admire?

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner—the first woman to climb all 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen—is one of my favorite humans. She is unbelievably humble, filled with joy and accomplished. I admire her for her humility more than for her physical feats, and she’s never taken it to her heart that she’s a woman and any less capable to do those things. Also, in a funny circle, I have an enormous admiration for Elliot, Maddie, and Sydney: those girls are pushing themselves and saying early in their lives, ‘this is what I love, this is passion, and I want to learn more about it.’ It’s unbelievably admirable.

Melissa Arnot, right, climbs Mount Elbert in Colorado with mentee Maddie Miller. The two plan to climb the 50 highest peaks in the country in 50…
Melissa Arnot, right, climbs Mount Elbert in Colorado with Maddie Miller. The two plan to climb to the 50 highest points in the country in 50 days. Photo by Jon Mancuso.

If you could have dinner with any woman in history who would it be?

Beryl Markham: the first female bush pilot in Africa, in the 1940’s. She was a pioneer in aviation, born in Britain and an incredible writer. Hemmingway said that she was one of the best writers of his time.

What challenges have you faced as a female mountaineer guide in a male dominated space?

Last month in Canada one of my clients said, “why would I hire you to guide me on Everest when I could hire a strong man.” It was so insulting, because strength will not actually give you an advantage of success in the mountains. Also, as a one-on-one guide the most notable challenge is when there’s an assumption that there’s a greater relationship than a professional one with male clients—people assume that you’re sleeping together. I pride myself on not crossing those boundaries.

What changes would you like to see in the mountaineering industry?

Greater user-responsibility in mountain areas: be prepared and have knowledge of the place you are traveling in. The more ethical that everyone can operate as a human—whether you’re unguided, a client or a guide—will greatly improve the experience for everyone.

How has the Juniper Fund been in light of the earthquakes last year?

t’s been crazy. We anticipated that we would support four or five [more] families per year but added another 17 families this year. We have 34 total and are committed for five years to provide $15,000 dollars for each family. I spent a massive part of the year fundraising. We are at the point where we are starting vocational training for widows to support themselves, and providing school scholarships to support kids that have lost their fathers. We’re still incredibly small. We have seven volunteer board members total, plus one employee, David Morton, Executive Director and Co-founder. He is doing research on the ground about how to be the most effective.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I’m not the type of person that sets goals in the future to work towards—that’s too confining. My attitude is very reactionary.

To learn more visit Melissa Arnot’s website. She co-founded The Juniper Fund, a non-profit that provides assistance to families in underserved communities that have been adversely impacted by work in the mountain-based adventure industry.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.