I’m chasing Melissa Arnot, a female Everest guide up and down the 24 flights of stairs in the Grand America, the most posh—and palatial—hotel in Salt Lake City. We’re in town for the bi-annual Outdoor Retailer (OR) convention, the largest gathering of the outdoor industry and, outside, there’s an ice storm and the temperature is in the single digits. That’s always a little confining for the like-minded active bodies that attend this trade show, forcing us to get our workouts in where we can. In this case, it’s a set of nondescript concrete stairs with a metal railing tucked into a corner of the hotel with no windows and access through the first floor and roof only.
Arnot, a 5’3”, petite, 29-year-old female, is shockingly pretty with honey brown hair and huge dark brown eyes. I’m also 29 and she could easily sub in as one of my best girlfriends, with whom I road cycle, hike, and backpack—she’s unassuming when you first meet her, which I find fascinating. When I met her the night before our stair climb, we were at a dinner hosted by Eddie Bauer celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent up Everest. Everyone from journalists to Eddie Bauer employees to 84-year-old Everest-climber Jim Whittaker (from the aforementioned inaugural American team) was there, so when she told me she was with Eddie Bauer, I’d assumed she was on the public relations team. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Our sneakered feet slap the concrete steps as I chase her and try to mimic the routine she says she follows every time she’s at OR—skip steps on every other floor, sidestep facing right, sidestep facing left, and so on. She’s in training for a summer marathon and, it goes without saying, another season of climbing.
It’s kind of surprising to learn that the male, non-Sherpa record holder for summits up Everest, climbing guide Dave Hahn, has 14 summits under his belt when Arnot—the female record holder—only has four. The gap between their records begs the question: why so low, ladies? She tells me that we’re also celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first female ascent of Everest this year. Arnot says she doesn’t have an answer as to why more women aren’t climbing Everest, but that because the mountain is still in its commercial infancy—it’s only been guided for 20 years—its main pursuers are middle-age, wealthy men who want to be led by big, experienced, male guides.
Working as a woman on Everest has been a double-edged sword. Ironically, Arnot’s gender gave her the opportunity to guide there. Because she is a woman, she was able to guide on the mountain at a much younger age than any man would be able to. At 24, her inaugural season, she was a solid six to 10 years younger than all of her co-workers. Men don’t get that opportunity at that age because of the competition for the job. That said, she’s had clients refuse to let her guide them, which she chalks up to a lack of trust in her ability to guide as safely as her male counterparts. She even had a client who refused to call her anything but “hot cakes”—an experience that fuels her goal to prove that she can work as hard as any guy can.
After our grueling stair run (er, crawl), we sat down to fresh fruit and hardboiled eggs to talk about her experiences as the single female guide on Everest, her favorite gear, and what’s next for her.
What is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated scene?
When I travel and tell people I am a guide, they assume I drive a tour bus. They can’t imagine I climb mountains. But in truth, I’m not an incredible athlete with an outrageous V02 max. I’m average. I like it that they size me up and realize, well, if she can do it, maybe I can do it. And maybe they can’t, but I like that it makes them challenge themselves. I prove myself by working as hard as I can every single day and I never take the easy route—that does women a huge disservice.
What is your go-to outdoor gear?
I carry a certain kit with me no matter where I am in the world so that I am always ready to go for a hike if the opportunity comes up. The main item is my First Ascent BC 200 rain shell—it’s super lightweight, small, and the most breathable I’ve ever had. It allows me to go through a lot of climate zones. Second on my list are light gloves—like Eddie Bauer’s Polartec Power Stretch gloves, which aren’t bulky but are really warm. They’re great for winter running. I always bring a light hat and my Smith sunglasses. Smith isn’t one of my sponsors but I love them because they don’t make me look like a guide or a climber when I’m in town; I can look like a woman with at least a little sense of style.