On May 23 Melissa Arnot became the first American woman to successfully summit the world’s tallest mountain without supplemental oxygen. It was one of the last major prizes on the 29,035-foot peak, and Arnot — who has five previous Everest summits with oxygen — had been working toward the goal for nearly a decade. On one of her first attempts, in 2010, she broke a small bone in her leg while trekking to Base Camp. In 2013, Arnot was high on the mountain, climbing "without Os,” when she and her climbing partner, Tshering Dorje Sherpa, abandoned their attempt after providing aid to an unresponsive Sherpa.
“I think 2010 stands out the most to me in terms of disappointment,” she says. “In 2013 I was really close without oxygen, but we stopped to help somebody and that means a lot to me. But in 2010, I started using oxygen at the South Col, at 8,000 meters, because I wasn’t climbing fast enough. That was totally devastating.”
Arnot was on the mountain the last two season as well, but the peak was essentially shut down after tragedy struck both times — first in 2014 with an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpa, then the 2015 earthquake that decimated Nepal. This time around Arnot headed to Tibet to attempt the Northeast Ridge route, rather than the standard side South Col climb, with her boyfriend and climber partner Tyler Reid. During the lead-up to the climb, Arnot eschewed media attention in favor of focusing on the expedition, leaving many people wondering what her plans were. Additionally, while at Base Camp, she was essentially radio silent, an unusual tact for a sponsored athlete. (Fellow Eddie Bauer athlete Cory Richards, who also summitted this year without oxygen, was Snapchatting his entire climb.) But the focus paid off when she reached the summit at noon.
“To have had that disappointment and that taste in your mouth, and then to be able to succeed…” she says, “It feels amazing. I mean, honestly, it’s still reverberating through me. I’m still like, 'Oh my god, we are down. We are safe. We did it.' ”
With all of the tragedy and disappointment, what was it like at the summit?
You can’t believe it is actually happening but, also, you’re terrified. You are on the summit. You are as high as you can be without oxygen. You’re in the absolute, most dangerous spot possible, and you still have to get all the way down. So, I was very emotional at the summit, but I was also completely terrified, knowing we had to get down safely.
So at what point did it hit you?
I mean, honestly, I am still not sure I’m totally feeling it. Even at Base Camp I was worried, because on the North Side there is an advanced base camp that is really high. It’s about 21,000 feet, and from there down to Base Camp, you have to hike through this glacier. I just kept thinking, "I have to continue holding it together, because if I get sick tonight at advanced base camp, and I need to take oxygen, then this whole thing is irrelevant. This whole thing is done." Then you get down to base camp and you drive for two days to Lhasa, and I just kept thinking the whole time, “Am I safe? Is it good now?” It has been this real process of getting out.
Why the secrecy this year?
I just decided that I wanted to do it as low-key as possible. Normally I have to fundraise, and I am working with media and sponsors. I really wanted to just focus on the objective. So I went to Nepal in the middle of March and I was guiding. I was actually guiding a 13-year-old girl for five weeks, and I sort of used her to help me acclimatize. We climbed three 20,000-foot peaks, and then she went home. I flew to Tibet. I did a bunch of cagey answering to people who asked if I was going to Everest. It had kind of had leaked out amongst the climbing community that I was going to climb, but it still felt really good to show up on the north side and sort of be like, “Surprise! I’m here.” At that I shut down all my social media. So it was a little bit of a ninja expedition.
This year, was there ever a point where at which you thought it might not happen?
There were numerous times that I was afraid we were going to turn around, because my body was getting too cold. Not frostbite, but just physically feeling very cold. Then your awareness becomes much less sharp. I wouldn’t want to do it without a partner who had oxygen. I think that that was, for me, something that felt really important. He was my safety and my backup in case I started having issues, because you can flip really easily into having problems without noticing what is happening.
What was the summit push like?
For us it was a very continuous climb. We climbed from a camp at 7,600 meters to that high camp at 8,300 meters. So that was a huge, long day. We probably climbed for nine hours that day, just really slowly, and we planned it strategically to roll into camp at 6 o’clock at night. We rested and then, right at 10, started climbing again. It was actually a very busy day. We were stuck behind slower people, and I couldn’t pass them. I couldn’t physically go fast enough to pass them, but I needed to go faster than they were going. So we had some huge challenges. But we left at 10 at night and we summited at 12 noon the next day. Our plan was to actually get very low that night, but we couldn’t make it back that low because of the people descending. Again we ended up stuck just sitting for almost three hours on the descent, and that was really scary. It was really, really hard for me, because I just knew time was working against me. I kept thinking, "I have to get down low or I will need oxygen. I can’t sleep this high and be okay." We ended up sitting awake at the 8,300-meter camp in a tent. We just ducked in and waited for first light, then continued descending. It ended up being a 50-hour event for us of just continuous movement.
I probably lost 15 pounds. It was really crazy, and it wasn’t until the summit push that I lost all that weight. I mean I probably lost 5 pounds throughout the season, which is kind of a lot for my frame, but during the summit push I feel like all of my muscles just went away. Everything that needed oxygen just collapsed in on itself. When we got back to the U.S., I felt so weak that I couldn’t even really stand up for long periods of time, which sounds ridiculous. I would have too lean against a wall or something.
Why was this record so important to you?
My whole thing about doing this was that I am incredible average athletically. I don’t have any special advantage. I haven’t ever been super elite at anything, and my question about trying to do this was, "If I can do this, that really means that the average person can do this." Not that I think they should, but that was my curiosity. You don’t have to be exceptional to be able to do this. You have to have exceptional perseverance, and you really have to have a lot of luck. For me, it took seven years for that all to line up, and it finally did. I just feel really proud that I was able to accomplish it.
Will you go back to Everest?
I think my personal goals with Everest have been filled. I am of course interested in guiding there, because it’s great when guides who have experience go back. That’s what makes the mountain better. But I am probably not climbing it personally again. I feel really good about that. I feel like I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. It feels nice to close the book.