In 2005, at the end of Melissa Arnot Reid’s first month working as a guide for Rainier Mountaineering, the 21-year-old walked into her boss’s office to quit.
That month offered both an introduction to guiding—she was leading clients to Mount Rainier’s 14,410-foot summit—and to the misogyny that’s present for many women working in male-dominated fields.
There was the client who wouldn’t call her by name, instead referring to her as “Hotcakes,” and the climbers who refused to be on her rope team because she was a woman. “I felt phenomenally disrespected,” she says. “I went to my boss”—RMI operations manager Jeff Martin— “and told him, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’ He encouraged me to stick it out, that it would get better. He was right.”
Arnot Reid has worked as a guide ever since, for RMI and other outfitters, and for her own guiding service, which she started in 2010. She takes clients up Rainier, Aconcagua, and Everest, among other peaks. In the past decade, Arnot Reid—who is now 33 and married to fellow RMI guide Tyler Reid—has become one of the best in the world at what she does, which, if you ask her, is walking uphill slowly. She has summited Everest six times, more than any other American woman. Her most recent ascent, last spring, was without the aid of supplemental oxygen—something that only 165 people, seven of them women, have done. She is the first American woman to do so and survive the descent.
It’s a testament to her incredible athletic strength, both mental and physical. “Everest can be an emotional roller coaster and a physical meat grinder,”says frequent Everest summiter and RMI guide Dave Hahn.“It smacks a lot of up-and-coming guides in the face with harsh realities about personal limitations. I don’t remember that shock ever hitting Melissa. She was in her element from the start. And climbing to 29,000 feet without oxygen is ridiculously physically hard.”
The XX Factor Issue
Our special issue highlights the athletes, activists, and icons who have shaped the outside world.Read all the stories→
If you follow Everest headlines, you may have read about Arnot Reid for another reason. In 2013, she broke up the now infamous fight between European alpinists Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and Jon Griffith and a group of Sherpas. The cause of the altercation remains unclear, but the fight escalated to violence at Camp II, where Arnot Reid stepped in—literally. She put her body between the Sherpas and the Europeans and proceeded to facilitate an hourlong negotiation.
It was a successful move because of the respect Sherpas have for women and specifically for Arnot Reid, who has been working to help them over the past few years, after an accident in 2010. Arnot Reid was on an expedition to climb Nepal’s 23,389-foot Baruntse with veteran Sherpa Chhewang Nima when he fell to his death. A cornice collapsed while he was fixing ropes high on the mountain. Her intimate knowledge of what happens to families after Sherpas—usually the household’s sole breadwinners—die at work compelled Arnot Reid, along with climber and guide David Morton, to start the Juniper Fund in 2012. Today the nonprofit provides financial assistance and vocational training to 37 families, including Chhewang Nima’s.
Arnot Reid grew up poor on the outskirts of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation near Durango, Colorado, where her father and mother, who worked as a ski patroller and an administrative assistant, respectively, emphasized outdoor activities. They weren’t ones to force the college-to-cubicle route. Grit, however, was nonnegotiable. At 13, Arnot Reid was cleaning hotel bathrooms for money. By 16, she had finished high school and moved out of her parents’ house. “I was fully responsible for my own survival,” she says. “I had no safety net. It’s not that my family wouldn’t—they couldn’t.” She’s been supporting herself ever since.
In 2002, after graduating from the University of Iowa at 18, she moved to Montana’s Flathead Valley and summited a peak for the first time, near Glacier National Park. “That’s when I really saw the mountains and decided to pursue climbing,” she says. Later that summer, she came across a rescue mission for an injured climber while descending a technical peak in Glacier and ended up helping. “It made me acutely aware of how little I knew in terms of rescue and first aid, and how when something goes wrong it can go really wrong,” she says. The climber died. Afterward, Arnot Reid decided to pursue a career in medicine and guiding. She moved into her truck and got certified as a Wilderness First Responder and an EMT in Montana. A couple of years later, she landed the job with RMI.
She put her body between the Sherpas and the Europeans and proceeded to facilitate an hourlong negotiation.
In 2007, RMI client Jeff Dossett saw Arnot Reid respond to a rescue on Rainier and was impressed by her skills. He asked her to guide him on Everest. She was 23, much younger than most of the male guides on the mountain, and had never climbed in the Himalayas. “It’s a double-edged sword being a woman in any hyper-male-dominated industry,”she says.“You’re an outlier, and outliers are interesting, so you get opportunities that maybe your equally skilled male counterparts wouldn’t. I’ve been the beneficiary of that. The other side of it is this knowledge that perhaps you’ve been given an opportunity because you’re the diversity quota, the lone woman, and you have to work twice as hard to establish that you deserve the spot.”
That’s exactly what she did. “I didn’t want to be the best girl guide. I wanted to be the best guide,” she says.
Arnot Reid became sponsored in 2008, something more common among expedition-style climbers. She is currently an Eddie Bauer athlete. There aren’t many other female guides at Arnot Reid’s level on Everest; the only one she sees regularly on the mountain is Kiwi guide Lydia Bradey.
Arnot Reid says that one of the biggest challenges she has faced in her career has nothing to do with climbing. As she gained more experience, her confidence grew and respect from other climbers followed. But some of the behavior in the mountaineering community has remained difficult at times.
“I have dealt with such a widespread and continuous presence of sexual harassment that ranges from comments to really inappropriate touching and attempts to pursue further physical contact that I didn’t want,” she says. “I didn’t see that happening to my male counterparts, and I wanted the same freedom. I have been thinking a lot about how much I’ve put up with and how my silence has helped keep that negative culture going.”
In 2008, during her first season on Everest, she and Morton were working with the outfitter Alpine Ascents to guide Dossett, who was climbing the mountain for a second time to bring awareness to Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis. Dossett had brought Arnot Reid along for her expertise and to help her pursue a career in the Himalayas. “I hired Melissa on my Everest expedition team purely out of respect for her guiding and EMT skills, her work ethic, and her extraordinary potential as an elite mountain guide and climber,” Dossett says. “She ultimately proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she deserved that opportunity regardless of her gender.”
But there were whispers around Base Camp that Dossett wanted Arnot Reid there for other reasons. “That felt horrible,” she says. “I never had anything but a professional relationship with him, and I hated that people thought otherwise.”
There’s an Ani DiFranco song that goes, But the same rule always applies / Smile pretty and watch your back. That became Arnot Reid’s mantra in those situations—keep a soft presence, but be quietly discontent. Ultimately, what she learned was that you can’t make people respect you, and the pursuit of that end isn’t worth the energy. “I’ve been in situations where I know the person doesn’t like me, but I’m the gatekeeper of their safety and I want them to feel safe,”she says.“That’s my biggest concern, more than if they like me.”
“I didn’t want to be the best girl guide. I wanted to be the best guide,” she says.
Now she’s working to create a place for the next generation of female climbers. This spring, she’s heading to Nepal’s Annapurna region with her client Elliot Singer, a 15-year-old American girl who Arnot Reid wants to teach how to be a strong climbing partner. She’s also mentoring 22-year-old Sun Valley, Idaho, native Maddie Miller, an aspiring mountain guide. Arnot Reid thinks it’s important to show young people that you can have a successful career in the outdoors on a nontraditional path.“It’s not just being a dirtbag mountain guide,” she says.
Last spring, Miller set the new speed record for climbing the 50 highest points in all 50 states, a mission that took 41 mostly sleepless days, 19,000 miles of driving, and a lot of Subway sandwiches. Arnot Reid was with her for all of the ascents except Denali, which she had to skip because of a foot injury sustained on Everest.“I’m trying to teach these girls that the hard work is what you’re proud of,” she says. “It’s not all records and summits.”
Arnot Reid and her husband now live in Winthrop, Washington, a tiny gateway town to North Cascades National Park. With her personal Everest dreams finally realized, she’s putting the focus back on helping clients tackle theirs. She’s also stepping up her role at the Juniper Fund. In January, she had just returned from Nepal, where the fund’s vocational-training program has produced five businesses, including a chicken farm and two successful Kathmandu restaurants run by Nepali widows.
Looking back on it all, there’s another reason why Arnot Reid didn’t quit during that first season. “I knew that if I walked away, no one was going to change,” she says. “And maybe they wouldn’t change if I stayed, but maybe I could make it a little bit harder for them to treat women that way in the future.”