Interview- Melissa Arnot

Melissa Arnot is a
professional mountain guide, working internationally since 2004 for Rainier
Mountaineering Inc. She has climbed Mt. Rainier 93 times in 12 years, and has
been a lead guide for the company since 2006. She has also stood on the summit
of Mt. Everest 4 times, more than any other woman, and will return to the
mountain again this spring for a fifth summit attempt. She lives in Sun Valley,
Idaho.

David Morton Photo

-How long have you been climbing? How did you get into it?

I began climbing in 2002. A friend took me out on a ‘hike’
and I realized that although I grew up surrounded by the mountains, I had
always seen them as scenery. I think I really ‘saw’ them for the first time.
And I realized that what I was seeing was an endless opportunity to explore,
push myself and learn.

-What is your
favorite thing about mountaineering?

A I think my favorite part about mountaineering is the
endless ability to both push yourself and learn. As a mountaineer I can spend
my time gaining the skills to challenge myself in the highest mountains of the
world. They are there and it is up to me to be prepared. You couldn’t do that
if you were a soccer player, you couldn’t go play the pinnacle teams. In
climbing there is so much down time, even sometimes while walking on a glacier.
In so many ways I think it keeps me sane to exist in that silence, think about
things that matter, while at the same time staying focused on all that is going
on around me. In some ways, it makes me feel like I am more alive, and
certainly more at home. As for my least favorite part, I am not really sure I
have one. It varies day to day, but in my mind all the negative parts are
transient. For example, maybe it is cold and I am tired. Or maybe I am feeling
exposed to danger. Those things go away and you are left with all the rewards
of the sport.

-How has the climbing scene on Everest changed since your
first summit?

Everest has changed a fair bit in the last 5 years. Just
environmentally speaking, the glaciers are always changing, the route is always
evolving into something new. My first summit in 2008 was undoubtedly the
busiest, which surprises people. Since that summit I have been able to be a
little more strategic about when to summit in relation to the other people
attempting. For me, I have become a part of the community there, both the
western and the Sherpa community. Women haven’t done a ton of guiding on
Everest historically, so to be there for 5 straight seasons, it is hard for
people to ignore that I am part of the community now. That is the biggest way I
have seen it change. It is very commercial, and there are both good and bad
aspects to that. But overall I think it is shaping up into what it will be in
this era. We are always changing as humans, and how we interface with the world
around us changes equally as much.

-What has been your
most memorable climbing experience? Where is your favorite place to climb?

That’s difficult to say. Most of my favorite climbing
experiences have involved guiding and helping others reach their goals and
dreams. That is always the most impressionable part of climbing for me. I love
climbing on Mount Rainier, I have spent the last 9 years working there, and I
hope to keep returning. That place offers so much beauty, so much learning. I
cannot get enough of it.

-Best things about being a guide?

I enjoy getting the opportunity to teach people,
specifically adults. You have a chance to make something that seems so big,
scary and inaccessible much easier to work with. It’s constantly gratifying.
It’s challenging also. You are managing so many things in your head, assessing
risk, judging conditions, predicting behavior. I like and dislike that. I think
the worst thing is when people expect a guide to get them to the summit at all
costs. A guide really is there to facilitate your safety, experience and when
possible reach the summit with you. It is hard to manage people who don’t care
about the experience but only the summit.

 

Cory Richards Photo

-What it is like to climb Rainier 90+ times?

Rainier is one of the best alpine playgrounds in the US. It
offers a big endurance climb, objective hazards and so much beauty. I feel like
every time I climb I learn something new. Many clients and guides use Rainier
as a starting place to learn about glaciers and mountaineering before
continuing on to bigger mountains.

 

-How has your climbing life and career progressed?

My career has progressed very fast but very naturally. I
started out just climbing with friends, and then began guiding on Rainier.
After a few years I was lucky enough to start working internationally, in South
America. That exposed me to bigger mountains, higher altitudes and different
types of guiding. It kept going from there, taking me to Everest in 2008. I
have continued to work in the Himalaya multiple times each year since then. I’m
still learning, but I have learned so much through that journey.

 

-Your funniest story from a big climb? Worst?

The humor of climbers is a little strange, so things I find
funny might be surprising. It has always been disaster averted that seems funny
after the fact. My friend Cory Richards threw our only pot 2000 feet down a
rock face after dinner and before our summit climb. We had no water and no pot
to melt snow. We were above 20,000 feet so I think all you can do is laugh in
those moments and pull it together. We figured it out.

My worst moment is certainly not funny. In 2010 I was
climbing with a Sherpa who was my friend and climbing partner. He was killed as
ice collapsed and his body was swept away in an avalanche. It changed my
climbing career and my life. He left two sons and a wife, as well as a huge
community that loved him. After things like that you constantly question if
this is worth it. We were alone together and I didn’t know what to do
immediately following the accident. Since then, I have learned so much. Me and
my climbing partner David Morton started a non-profit this year called the
Juniper Fund. Our goal is to provide supplementary financial support for
mountain workers in the event of death, as well as education for western climbers
on how to act responsibly as we hire staff in these mountain areas.

-What are some of your future climbing goals?

I keep my goals very short term. If I start dreaming too
much I lose focus on what I’m doing now. I’m heading to Everest in just a few
weeks. I will be working on the Juniper Fund as well as making a summit attempt
on Everest. I am hoping to just continue to learn more about this place and
myself this season.

-Who have been some of your mentors?

All of my climbing mentors have been the people I have
learned from and worked with. David Morton, Peter Whittaker, Ed Viesturs. These
guys have taught me so much. I have always been inspired by adventurous women,
so Beryl Markham is a huge mentor of mine. She pioneered bush piloting in
Africa as a lone woman. I cannot imagine what her character must have been
like.

-You’ve climbed Everest 4 times, what sort of commitment does it take to even climb the
mountain once?

Climbing Everest is a huge commitment. It takes 3 months,
much of that time is spent at base camp resting. So you have to have patience.
And you have to let your expectations go and be willing to work with the
mountain. You will climb the mountain on the mountains terms, not yours. Giving
in to that is integral to being successful in my opinion.

-Mountaineering seems
to be a male dominated world, has this ever adversely affected you? Positively
affected?

Mountaineering is historically a male dominated sport. It
still is. It is changing a little, but it needs more ladies! I only know what
it is like to be a woman in the sport so it is hard to know how it has affected
me. I have been given opportunities because a woman was needed on the team, but
I have also been excluded from them because people think I am not as strong or
skilled as my male peers. I try not to over-think it or get cynical. I try to
be the best guide and climber I can, since that is the part I can control.

-What is your ‘secret
weapon’ ?

My secret weapons are really actually very simple-food and
water. But more specifically, I use AVEX water bottles. They are the most
reliable way to rehydrate in any environment. When I’m hydrated, I’m happy. And
for food, I am obsessed with Good Cacao chocolate. They infuse the naturally
good dark chocolate with super food blends to give me what I need at altitude.
And I mean really, who doesn’t want to eat chocolate? So you have my
endorsement on that!

-When not climbing or
training, what are some of your favorite indulgences?

Spending time with my friends and family is my biggest
indulgence! I am gone 6-9 months a year so I really value that time. I love to
ride my bike into town with my husband and have a beer outside in the sun…it
doesn’t get any better than that in my opinion!

-Why Sun Valley?

Sun Valley is such a great place to live. The community is
so active and health focused. It is a great location for me to train. I hike up
the ski area early in the morning for my vertical training and then I go to
Zenergy Health Club and Spa. That isn’t just my gym, but where I get
acupuncture to keep me balanced and also my social center. In such an active
community you see all your friends either in the mountains or at the gym. I am
lucky to live in a place that is so beautiful but also so welcoming to someone
who lives a life like me. And summers in Sun Valley cannot be beaten!

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