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The First Female Climber to Summit Mt. Everest Without Oxygen Is Going After a New Record

Jon Mancuso

It's been a little over a month since Melissa Arnot, a mountaineer and Eddie Bauer guide, set two seriously badass records in the climbing world. On May 23rd she became the first American female to summit Mt. Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen and survive. (Francys Arsentiev also made the ascent in 1998, but sadly died during the descent.) Arnot also nabbed the record for the American female with the most Everest summits overall, as this climb was her sixth successful trip to the top.

You'd think after all that that the 32-year-old would take a much-deserved break. Nope. Arnot's off and running (er, walking) again, and she's kinda sorta after another world record. Or at least, she's helping family friend (and college senior) Maddie Miller nab one, as the two are tackling the 50 Peaks Challenge.

What's that, you ask? Oh, just climbing the highest mountain in every single state. Accomplishing that puts you in an elite club that only about 270 people belong to as of now, according to the High Pointers Club, and most take their whole lives to get in. But that's not enough. Miller and Arnot are racing the clock this summer, pushing to complete the 50 Peaks Challenge...in 50 days.

Accomplishing this goal in their set timeline would make them the first women to complete the 50-day challenge. Mike Haugen and Zach Price have also done the record-blazing trip, knocking it out in 45.5 days. It even requires them summitting six peaks in one day—Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky—which gives you a small glimpse into just how back-breaking the pace is.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with mountain climbing, things don't always go according to plan. So rather than Arnot and Miller both being the record holders to complete the challenge (which was the original plan), Miller would technically be the one to finish all 50 in the set timeline. After returning from Everest with a cold-related injury on her foot, Arnot was forced to stay behind and recover while Miller kicked off their trip in Alaska, summitting Mt. Denali to officially start the race against the clock (Arnot would still become a High Pointer, though, as she has summitted Denali in the past). Miller did so on June 28, and is currently racing down the mountain and heading to their next peak—Britton Hill in Florida—where she'll meet up with Arnot.

"I'm bummed that I'm not there for her as she does the hardest climb of her life, that kind of sucks," says Arnot. "But at the same time, it's a gift because not only can I better prepare us for the rest of the trip while she's climbing, but she's also being empowered and gaining confidence that she can do this—she doesn't need me. This trip is an opportunity for her to believe in herself as much as I believe in her."

While Arnot gets the team ready for the rest of their 49 climbs, we chatted with her to find out why she's doing this so soon after Everest, what it's like working with Miller, and what the heck motivated her to even go after this challenge in the first place. Listen in.

Shape: You made that Everest summit right when your Eddie Bauer teammates, Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger, were Snapchatting their time on the mountain. Why did you decide to do the exact opposite, and basically not let anyone know you were up there?
Melissa Arnot: Yeah, aside from the people that were there with me, no one knew until the day that I summitted. I was really quiet about it for a couple of reasons. One: I had tried to summit without supplemental oxygen for a number of years and had not been successful for a variety of reasons. I mean, I have been on Everest every year since 2008, whether I was trying to do this without oxygen, guiding someone else up, or unable to climb because of the avalanche in 2014 and the earthquake in 2015. That in and of itself can mess with you mentally. But then I just personally had been in the process of figuring out whether it was something I even wanted to attempt again.

So I asked myself, "If I could do this and no one knew I did it, would I still do it?" It took out the daily accolades that we give ourselves by watching social media and newsfeeds and what people are saying. Part of it is that, yes, I care about what people are saying because I want to send a positive image and message out about Everest. But the other part that I needed to pay attention to was whether or not I was as focused on the big goal as I once was. Once I did that and realized that, yes, it is something I would still want to do even if no one knew I was doing it, being successful became so intertwined with every decision that I made this year. Not sharing what was going on—and to be totally honest, not being able to see anyone else's stories while I was up there—allowed me to be really focused on doing this thing.

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Shape: What do you think made this Everest attempt different from the ones in your past?
MA: It was putting those blinders on. When we were climbing I was just so unbelievably focused. Like I literally couldn't look at anybody, I was in this weird place where I could haze you out and walk past you without seeing you. Because if I looked at you, I would engage with you, and if something was wrong I would be with you and then I'd be done and would lose everything. Also, I'm not strong enough without oxygen to really help anyone for a long time, which I had learned on a previous attempt. So I really relied on Tyler, my partner, to be the person who could alert me if something was going on and we needed to be a resource to others.

Plus, I read Ronda Rousey's book, My Fight/Your Fight, while I was at advanced base camp. One of the things that stood out to me was her mom. There was this part of the book when she talked about a time when she was a kid and at a Judo competion. She was sitting on the floor waiting to compete, and she was talking to one of the other kids. Her mom sees and was like, "Did you come here to win or did you come here to socialize? Because if you want to socialize you can go to the cafeteria." And I feel like that helped clarify things for me. Did I come here to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen or did I come here to sit around in people's tents and have tea and chit chat? I joked with Tyler the whole time, saying, "I need you to be Ronda's mom sometimes on this trip." And he was. We didn't really hang out with anybody ever. I realized it's okay to say I need to focus to do this right, to give myself that permission. (Here are Safety Tips Even Experienced Hikers Forget.)

Shape: So why the 50 Peaks Challenge, and why so soon after Everest?
MA: My hope is that people will at least just hear about our challenge, and think about getting outside themselves. When I asked Maddie about what she really wanted to get out of this trip, she said she wants to engage with as many people as we can to show them how accessible things are no matter where you live. We want to have a conversation with people and get them out there, even if it's not out climbing a high point. Just letting them know that it doesn't have to be hard and intimidating. Hiking is just about taking a walk.

As for the timing, I think it's just circumstance. To tell you the truth, I put so much work and energy and hundreds and hundreds of days into accomplishing this goal of mine, and right now the thing I'd love to do most is just to enjoy the sucecss. Just to sit and have a beer outside on a patio at a restaurant in Seattle, eat some sushi, and just cheers with some friends to celebrate this huge thing in my life. But this was the right time for Maddie to be able to do this, and I want to be able to do this with her. And I'm so, so excited. I can't even tell you how amazing it's going to be.

Shape: That puts the shoe on the other foot for you, then, because Maddie will be relying on you. What's it been like switching roles so quickly, becoming the mentor and guide to Maddie?
MA: On one hand, I know the gratification that comes with pursuing a goal that is all about you and being successful at it. I couldn't have been successful without the many people who helped me along the way. I mean, I just got this amazing seven-year gift of having a giant team of people who helped me summit Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen. That's amazing. So to be able to immediately flip that and help Maddie...it's just this really cool balance. When I was on Everest with Tyler, I felt bad numerous times on the summit push because I didn't feel like I was pulling my weight. But when you flip it to me helping Maddie, it feels so gratifying to be able to help someone else.

Shape: Obviously you had to miss out on the first peak, which wasn't what you originally planned. What's it been like, dealing with a major change like that right off the bat?
MA: It's definitely tough, but Maddie has really stepped up. When I came back from Nepal, I told her right away what was going on in case it was a possibility. We talked through it all, and that mentally helped us prepare. Once we realized Denali wasn't going to work for me, she immediately stepped up and said, "Okay, now I'm going to be representing this team, this is going to be my job." She really just changed her mindset pretty immediately. Aside from the general emotion that comes with saying goodbye, because I went with them to the start of Denali and saw them off, she was really positive and ready for this all to start. And for me, it ended up being a blessing so I could tie up any loose ends that needed to be taken care of for the rest of the trip.

Shape: What's your training routine been like with her? How have both of you prepared for this?
MA: Well, we've been preparing for four years. It's a super-long process; definitely not something that just started a little while ago. Plus, this trip was postponed once—we were originally going to do it last year, but a bunch of things came up that kind of forced us to postpone. So it's been a long time coming. But as far as training Maddie, she's a college student and I travel a lot, so most of the time we're not together in person. So I use the Microsoft Band, because I can log into Maddie's account and see what she actually did. I can look at things like how her heart rate fluctuated through a workout and notice things. I can say, "Hey, your recovery time is continuously decreasing, so your heart rate is staying high longer and you could be overtraining—you need to rest."

Shape: You need to climb six peaks in one day—that's a lot. So what do you do when you're mentally struggling to get something done? Is there anything you've used in the past that you've taught Maddie to help you get through it?
MA: I've encouraged Maddie to find the thing that she doesn't like to do, and do it anyway. For me, that's running. I really hate it; it has very little external reward for me. But I do it anyway because that's the mental training. There'd be no change in my life if I just stopped doing it—nobody would be mad or upset if I didn't run. But I get it done because down the road I'm going to mentally struggle on a mountain, and that's somewhere I love being and something I love doing. I'm going to be able to recall that time I pushed through something that I didn't even like. So then of course I can achieve the goals that I really want to achieve. (Hate Running? Here Are 25 Ways to Learn to Love It.)

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Shape: Other than getting another record under your belt, what are you hoping to get out of this new challenge?
MA: I'm super curious how many people we can engage with at each of the local high points. Just to remind people that you don't have to go to Everest to climb. I would call it accessibility of adventure—adventure doesn't need to be epic. It can be an hour-long walk around a state park. This challenge shows people that you can do that, no matter what state you're in. Location is irrelevant, you can always just get outside and move your body. (We suggest one of these 10 Picturesque National Parks Worth Hiking.)

*Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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