Melissa Arnot and Maddie Miller set a new world record for the 50 Peaks Challenge

Most high school seniors receive a little cash upon graduation – the really privileged ones get watches or cars. Maddie Miller was given Mount Rainier.

The climb of Washington’s highest peak with professional climber and Eddie Bauer guide Melissa Arnot was a gift from her father and the beginning of a partnership between the two women. They had met a few years earlier, and then trained together for the expedition. Each subsequent summer, they embarked on new adventures.

As they climbed Borah Peak, Idaho’s highest point (12,662’), inspiration to climb all 50 high points struck. On August 7, Arnot and Miller, now a senior at Colorado College, became the first female – and third ever – team to conquer all 50 U.S. high points in 50 days. The duo completed the 50 Peaks Challenge in just 41 days, 16 hours and 10 minutes, shattering the previous world record by more than 24 hours.

Arnot and Miller actually consulted past record holders Mike and Matt Moniz and Mike Haugen as they devised a strategy to amicably outdo them.

“It was cool that everyone was so supportive and shared that information [with us],” Arnot says. In turn, she and Miller say that they’d happily pass their knowledge on to others pursuing the 50 in 50.

While the Monizes often traveled by air, Arnot and Miller were determined to drive almost the entire way – and they refused to backtrack. They pored over atlases to plan a route, which was in flux throughout the entire trip.

“We were constantly doing this creative mapping to see which was the most efficient driving route through five different states in a day,” Arnot laughs. “[Logistically], it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”

They traveled more than 19,500 miles across the U.S. and ascended more than 84,000 feet in elevation.

Frostbite from Arnot’s most recent Everest expedition (of six) prevented her from joining Miller’s ascent of 20,310-foot Denali, the first and most challenging of the 50 peaks. Though the pair worked in tandem to accomplish the Denali climb and summited the 49 following peaks together, Miller technically holds the world record alone.

“I can wholeheartedly say that this goal would not have happened without Melissa,” Miller says. “Having her as a teammate, a motivator and a teacher was what helped me through the hardest of days. She made this goal not only feasible, but really fun.”

“I was really bummed out that I couldn’t climb Denali with Maddie for so many reasons,” Arnot says. “But in some ways, it ended up being something that I was more invested in than many of my [other] personal projects. To see her learn and develop as a very strong young woman – and help her find a voice – was, hands down, the most rewarding part of the trip.”

A photo posted by Eddie Bauer (@eddiebauer) on

After becoming the first American woman to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen this May, the essential role that partnerships play in accomplishing our goals was at the forefront of Arnot’s mind.

“When I look back at my accomplishments in climbing, none of them were done singularly by me; I’ve required the help of others for everything I’ve done,” she continues. “It was this really great gift to be able to give that to somebody else, and to see – very tangibly – it change her life.”

Arnot and Miller trained for four years before completing the 50 Peaks Challenge. While Arnot is accustomed to high-altitude, technical climbs, Miller wasn’t, so they traveled to places like Ecuador and Colombia to practice for Denali.

“She pretty much adopted my Everest training program for herself for Denali, which was awesome,” Arnot says of Miller. “I told her, ‘You don’t have to be this strong to climb Denali. But you do have to be this strong to climb Denali and then 49 other peaks right after it.'”

When chasing the 50 in 50, it’s traditional to start the clock on top of Denali because reaching that summit, the highest in North America, takes two weeks. With bad weather, getting off Denali could still add a week to your time.

Fortunately, things went smoothly for Miller and Arnot. The first 25 peaks seemed to fly by in an arduous blur.

“What’s crazy is that I don’t think we could have ever anticipated how exhausting it was [with no sleep and non-stop travel],” Arnot admits. “In the Eastern states, they’re really not long hikes, but if it’s a two-mile hike, a four-mile hike, and an eight-mile hike, and we do those all in one day, plus drive for 15 hours?

“It ended up being exhausting in a way that you just wouldn’t expect. And then the Western states were crazy. In the last six days of the trip, we hiked over 100 miles – and slept so little.”

A photo posted by Melissa Arnot (@melissaarnot) on

Matt Moniz said that after a while, long days of travel and hiking became second nature, but trimming more than 24 hours of travel time and swapping planes for cars made Arnot and Miller’s experience a little different.

“The only moments that it felt easy were simultaneously terrifying because it felt like, ‘If it’s getting easy, we must be missing something,'” Arnot laughs.

As if a trip like this wouldn’t be tense enough, the team’s car broke down in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing they could do but wait for assistance. The unexpected hotel stay, fraught with nervous energy, was the single rest they were afforded for the entire 41 days.

The highest peaks in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are all reached via long, challenging routes, and Arnot and Miller planned to complete them in rapid succession.

Faced with forest fires and dense smoke in Wyoming, however, they had to change tack. When they circled back to Gannett Peak in Wyoming (13,809′) they’d just climbed Mount Whitney in California (14,505′) and Nevada’s Boundary Peak (13,147’).

A photo posted by Melissa Arnot (@melissaarnot) on

“Gannett is the longest of all of the 50 high points – 40 miles round-trip is the shortest route you can go,” Arnot says. “We decided to do that in a single push, so we basically took daypacks with warm clothes.”

Without shelter, they could barely nap because they were deep in bear country. It took 27 hours. Arnot says that it was the hardest part of the trip.

Through tears of frustration, literal sleepwalking and circumstances beyond their control, Arnot and Miller marched toward their goal.

“When I took my last step to the summit of Mauna Kea, I think my heart actually skipped a beat,” Miller says. “I felt like I couldn’t breath. Putting that much heart, soul and physical effort into something made reaching the last summit the greatest feeling on earth. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I could be a world record holder!”

Arnot says that although summiting Denali and many of the other high points requires serious mountaineering expertise, anyone could do it.

She doesn’t recommend that we do it within such tight time constraints, though.

“It was way too hard,” she laughs, “but what cool parameters for a lifelong goal. The whole point of this [mission] was to show people that you don’t have to go climb Everest to have an adventure. No matter where you live, there are really cool adventures right in your state, and we had amazing times at every high point.”

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