Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide Melissa Arnot is currently working her way up Mt. Everest to attempt a fifth successful summit. Last year, on May 26, 2012, she earned the record as the first Western woman to summit the world’s tallest peak four times. This year’s climb has been even more complex and challenging. But her path to that achievement was a long one that started on Washington’s Mt. Rainier and included many lessons and realizations along the way—especially in a world and a profession still dominated by testosterone. Before she left for the Himalaya, the Live Your Adventure blog sat down with the seasoned high-altitude climber to find out what it was like for her, as a woman, to break into the guiding ranks and to ask what advice she would give women stepping into high-altitude climbing. -LYA editor
Images by David Morton and Kent Harvey
What was the most difficult aspect for you of breaking into the mountaineering world as a woman?
That’s an interesting question. I never saw being a woman as something that was going to create a boundary for me within that world. I never felt like I was discriminated against. I never felt like I was given any sort of bigger challenge than my peers who were men.
I just realized I wanted to be seen as an equal. When I started it was 99 percent male guides, but I just didn’t acknowledge that. My biggest goal would be to not be given concessions because of being a woman. I didn’t want to have any advantage. And in terms of the amount of work that I was expected to do, I showed up every day planning to do exactly the same amount of work as my coworkers.
Did that attitude change the preconceptions about a female guide?
I think that the general rule in life is to just disregard those social parameters we put on situations—that this is going to be harder because it’s male-dominated or you’re the minority. You have challenge, but you have opportunity as well.
And it balances out. Being one of the only women doing it, I’m afforded opportunity that some of my peers with the exact same skill set and experience aren’t given because a female guide interests people. So I’ll take it. I’ll take that little bit of discrimination, that little bit of judgment, for the opportunities, because I’ve been given amazing opportunities.
Did you ever feel like you needed to prove something or prove more than the men you were coming up with?
I was really young when I started guiding, and I think everyone who’s in their early 20s thinks they need to prove something. If you asked me then, that former self, I would be like no, I have nothing to prove. I’m very self-assured and I know what I can do, but that’s a total lie—I was hell-bent on proving myself.
I worked really, really hard to continue to be an asset and not be just a pretty face attached to something that people found interesting. So I think it manifested that way for me that given the experience, it’s not that I’m trying to prove that I’m as tough or as strong or anything—I just want to prove that I’m here for the right reasons.
Do you think that intensity and hard work played a large role in being able to earn the summit record on Everest last year?
My first year on Everest I had this serious question when I went there, which was, “Why has Dave Hahn summited nine times at that point and there was no single female who had summited multiple times by that year?” None.
I was curious but I didn’t have that answer, so it has been my motivation, my curiosity about life, I guess. It’s like I put that into the bank—“Why is there any difference between a female guide and a male guide?”
There are a ton of stereotypes and preconceived notions about what a young, small guide can do. But I don’t think those are real; those are just ideas. I don’t know why there aren’t more women doing it: that’s my curiosity, trying to solve a question that I don’t know the answer to yet.
When you take women on a guided climb, are they more intimidated than they should be?
All clients have an intimidation that knowledge can correct. But I think a lot of women don’t even take that first step to go on a guided climb because they think it’s going to be all men and all testosterone and ego. The truth is that mountaineering is incredibly equalizing. Being a big, strong, tall dude gives you zero advantage compared to a small, petite woman. It’s not like a sprinting race; it’s being able to be uncomfortable and to persevere through that.
And everyone is equally equipped with those skills, if you can access them. I think one of the biggest tragedies of guiding is to see how many women just don’t even try. They just say, “It’s all dudes.” Well, if you don’t get out there, it’s going to be all dudes forever. One woman and ten guys–you just changed the ratio hugely.
What advice would you give women who are looking to get into the world of high-altitude climbing?
I think one of the most valuable things I have learned from high-altitude mountaineering is figuring out what your boundaries truly are. High-altitude mountaineering is an experiment in that constantly. Every day you learn so much about yourself and what you’re capable of.
But my advice is you don’t have to practice suffering. You just need to be okay with suffering and know that it’s transient and it’s going to go away and the end result of what you’re gaining is these life experiences which never can be taken away from you. And knowing your own physiology when it’s being maxed out is a very unique perspective.
There is a huge area between where you start to feel uncomfortable and where you start to be in danger, and getting to know that about yourself is one of the greatest gifts of climbing at high altitude.
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