Not only are they taking on challenges that very few have attempted before, but they're blasting records like it's NBD. Let Melissa Arnot and Maddie Miller inspire you to get out in the mountains this fall.
If there was one word you could use to describe Melissa Arnot, it would be badass. You could also say "top female mountain climber," "inspirational athlete," and "competitive AF." Basically, she embodies everything you probably admire most about female athletes.
One of the most commendable traits Arnot possesses, though, is her drive to keep pushing the limits. After becoming the first American female to successfully summit and descend Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen earlier this year, the Eddie Bauer guide immediately set off on a new mission: to check off all of the 50 high peaks of the United States in under 50 days. (Inspired yet? Here are 10 National Parks You Must Visit Before You Die.)
But Arnot wasn't going to take on the 50 Peaks Challenge alone. Maddie Miller, a 21-year-old college senior and Eddie Bauer guide-in-training, would be right alongside her. A Sun Valley, Idaho native, Miller and her family have been close friends with Arnot for many years but she wasn't always an outdoorsy mountain girl. In fact, when Arnot visited Miller's former high school earlier this spring to talk to the outdoor leadership program, many were shocked to hear that Miller would be her 50 Peaks partner. But then again, Arnot wasn't always a climber either. The 32-year-old fell in love with the sport when she was 19, after climbing the Great Northern Mountain just outside Glacier National Park in Montana.
"It totally changed my life," she says about that 8,705-foot climb. "Being in the mountains, it was the first time I really felt like this is what I want to do. It was where I felt at home for the first time."
Miller says she had a similar eye-opening moment when she climbed Mount Rainier with her dad and Arnot as a high school graduation present. "My dad had always taken me on little trips just him and I, and I was really interested in just being in the outdoors, but it never crossed my mind as something that could provide such a clear path in my life or something that could maybe even potentially be a career," says Miller. "But once we did Rainier it snapped my focus in such a weird way. I had no idea that was something that was really in my heart."
Arnot even remembers the moment she saw the lightbulb go on for Miller. "She was definitely more academic and shy and less extroverted, which is tough because you have to be able to entertain people to be a mountain guide—it's not just the safety aspect, it's providing constant leadership and a good time," says Arnot. "But Maddie had this moment when it was really hard and she got herself through it, and that's one of the most gratifying things that can happen in the mountains. It was really cool to watch it happen for her because then I could see it—I could see her ambition, her drive, and her passion. I knew that climb was only the beginning for her." (Psst: Check out these 16 Hiking Gear Essentials For Your Next Adventure.)
She was right—that was the climb that sparked the idea for the 50 Peaks Challenge when the two decided they would race across the country all summer in a souped-up van and climb peaks as quickly as they could. But as with any adventure, plans rarely go as, well, planned. Right before they began, the duo decided that Miller would head to Denali to kick off their journey alone while Arnot stayed behind to recover from a cold injury she sustained on her foot while on Everest. The upheaval was nerve-wracking, says Miller—and it took Arnot out of the running to break the standing 50 Peaks record—but Arnot says it was never about a world record for her.
"I didn't have a mentor, somebody who showed me what was possible," she says. "I just had to forge my own path and find out the hard way what works and what doesn't. Maddie is very introspective and quiet, but I knew that maybe being around me was having a positive impact on her life. I felt very protective of helping show her what was possible. That's what this trip was about for me—showing Maddie what she really was capable of."
And you could say it worked. "I didn't know the potential that women had...because I didn't really know any powerful women up until I met Melissa," says Miller. "She opened my eyes to this whole new possibility that I had, that I could be strong and have a voice. I don't have to sit by the sidelines and let other people take the reigns."
But, it's not easy being in close quarters with someone all day every day—especially when 15 of those hours were usually spent in a car rather than on a trail—and at the beginning of the trip, Arnot and Miller say they felt tension. "We had this fantasy image of what this trip was going to be like and it just crashed," says Arnot. "There was no calm moment. Maddie went from being on Denali, which was expedition climbing and a very zen-like mode, to total chaos."
Miller says when she met back up with Arnot she felt very overwhelmed. "I had just gotten off this awesome experience in Denali and was trying to wrap my brain around what my next reality was going to be and I just couldn't do it."
That rift lasted for three days and left Arnot nervous about whether they would continue.
"There were times, honestly, I wondered if I made a mistake in judgment," she says. "I was like, 'Did I overestimate what she's capable of? Is it going to break her down and is she not going to be able to do this?' That scared me."
Sleep can do wondrous things, though, and for Miller, it allowed time for a change in perspective. "When I woke up I was just like, 'You're here. Make the most of it. Who cares if you can't do it, just make the most of what's going on right now,'" she says. (PS: These High-Tech Hiking and Camping Tools Are Cool AF.)
From then on, the two blasted through their projected timeline and found themselves at the final peak—Mauna Kea in Hawaii—with nearly 10 days to spare. Miller and Arnot climbed in sunny, cool weather to the top of the 13,796-foot peak surrounded by clouds. With family and friends encircling them, the pair hugged, cried, and joked about their various attempts at perfecting a handstand at each mountain—or at least making it look good for Insta. (These celebs know a thing or two about hitting the trails and making it look good while doing it.) Miller then celebrated their ascent the same way she had every other peak: Singing an empowering rendition of the National Anthem. Finally, Arnot and Miller took a quiet moment to really soak in what had just happened: Miller set a new world record, climbing the 50 peaks in 41 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes—officially two days faster than the previous record holder.
"This whole thing was really hard, but that was the cool part—we took the hard road," says Miller. "We did everything to the fullest and didn't shortcut anything."
Now, aside from guiding, Arnot is on a mission to mentor the next generation of female climbers. "My dream is to create a system where young females can see strong people who are working in the environment that they maybe want to work in and have impactful, one-on-one experiences with those women," she says. "And I want them to see that we're just normal people. I'm not anybody super-elite, I mess up all the time, but that's why this works—I'm just so similar to them so they can see themselves in my shoes."
As for Miller, well, she's focused on finishing college. After that, who knows—she may very well be leading guided hikes like Arnot or coming up with the next world record to break.