Friday, January 3, 2014

Melissa Arnot: A cool, calm, cutting-edge climber

Voice of reason at the top of the world

Express Staff Writer

Melissa Arnot, in her element. Photo by Jon Mancuso, reprinted with permission of Melissa Arnot

     She is the Idaho Mountain Express “Athlete of the Year” for 2013.

     Yet Melissa Arnot of Ketchum doesn’t think of herself as an exceptional athlete, not in the traditional sense, not in standards like wins and losses.

     Measure her achievements in mountains, if you prefer.

     This past year, Outside Magazine called Arnot the Queen of Everest, and labeled her one of the most recognizable names in climbing.

     In May, 25 years after the first female summiting of the 29,028-foot Mt. Everest in Nepal, Arnot at the precocious age of 29 became the first non-Sherpa woman to summit Mt. Everest five times. That’s an all-time record in the authoritative annals of the Himalayan Data Base.

     A professional mountain guide with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. since 2004, Arnot made her first Mt. Rainier summit in 2001 at age 18 and has now made 103 summits of the 14,410-foot peak in Washington State.

     She just doesn’t think of herself as a great athlete.

     Arnot said, “I’m very much a challenged learner and in some ways I think this way about my physical ability, too. I’m not naturally gifted at athletics. I would probably duck if you threw a ball at me. I just have to work really hard at what I do.”

     Living in Ketchum for the past five years has been a challenge when winter rolls around at the Sun Valley resort, because she doesn’t ski. “Ski minimally,” she said.

     But growing up in the hills of Colorado and Montana, a daughter of a ski patrolman, she has skied before. She just can’t afford the chance of catching an edge on a cat track and blowing out a knee. Her livelihood depends on her legs.

     From January through March she climbs Baldy three times a week at the crack of dawn, in crampons and boots, wearing a 50-pound weight vest, making the 90-minute up-and-down trip of the Warm Springs side, appreciating Greyhawk’s steeps but really appreciating the difficulty of descent.

     Come late March or early April, she’s off to Mt. Everest for its 65-day climbing season.

     Physically, Arnot is 5-3, 120 pounds and very attractive, but not in the way that demands attention, rather in a way that commands respect. If you walked into a crowded restaurant, you probably wouldn’t notice her. She blends in, instead of standing out. A low profile is her default mechanism.

     Arnot said, “I’m very unassuming. If you meet me on the street, you’d never guess what it is I do. I like that. Because it shows you can’t size people up with your eyes, you can’t tell what’s inside of people and what they’re capable of and what their background is. Everybody has these amazing stories, and young people are going to have these amazing stories.”

     Yet, she turned 30 in December. She’s been a member of the Eddie Bauer First Ascent team for the past four years and has been prominently featured in the company’s catalogs.

     She has hired a business manager in recent years. She has her own company, a Web site and a growing list of private clients for climbing expeditions. Gradually, almost reluctantly, she has come to terms with her marketability.

     “I’m just getting to the stage where I’m comfortable enough with my resume to promote myself,” she said.

This past year, only the misfortune of bad weather prevented her from becoming the first woman to summit Everest twice in the same season. And she has more goals in sight.

     She is mature beyond her years.

     The popular Marie Claire women’s magazine in its March 2014 edition will do a feature with photographs of Arnot and her newest climbing partner Pasang Lhamu Sherpa—one of the only female guides on Everest who is Sherpa and female.

     Arnot and Pasang Lhamu, who works on Rainier in the summer, climbed together this fall and clicked like long, lost sisters, Arnot said. They spent 10 days at Chamonix, France earlier in December on a photo shoot and climbing together.

     One of the reasons Arnot said she agreed to the exposure was to elevate the profile of Pasang Lhamu in a climbing world where Sherpas are culturally all male. Arnot said, “She can actually have a sustainable career as a female climber and this can elevate her profile to more normalcy.”

     If all goes according to plan, Arnot and Pasang Lhamu will become the first all-female team to summit Everest this coming spring. They want to summit twice. They also want to summit from both the South and North sides, something that has only been done by one person, in recorded history.

     Arnot said, “That’s our goal. It’s a big goal.”

     She may have already been through the most traumatic experience of her life, something that prompted her, last summer, to seek out a female partner for next year’s climbing challenges on Everest.

     In April, during her Everest season and on a terrifying day at the 21,300-foot Camp 2, Arnot diffused a life-threatening situation. It was a fight between European climbers and a group of Sherpas outraged over a confrontation earlier in the day on Lhotse Face near the 24,000-foot Camp 3.

     Basically, Arnot with her determination to avoid more violence was all that stood between Sherpas who wanted retribution, and the prospect of either life or death for one of the world’s top climbers, Ueli Steck of Switzerland.

     Steck later publicly acknowledged that Arnot’s actions likely saved his life.

     During the 45-minute incident, Arnot bravely drew a line in the snow that was not crossed. She refused to budge.

     Monday, in Ketchum, she recalled, “I want to point out the fact that….boys were fighting. Boys will be boys, whether they’re at 22,000 feet on the side of Everest, whether they’re professional elite climbers, whether they’re Buddhist, Sherpa, boys are boys, and you put a group of them together and you have conflict and it just explodes, mob mentality prevails.”

     The incident has been widely discussed and debated in the mountaineering community.

     In the June 3 edition of The New Yorker magazine, Nick Paumgarten wrote a comprehensive account entitled “The Manic Mountain.”

     Arnot said, “There is no more story to tell. But I don’t think the repercussions are finished by any means. The people most intimately involved wish it would go away. People were embarrassed—and they should have been.”

     How was it that Melissa Arnot became the one rational voice on Mt. Everest on April 27, 2013? Where did her sense of responsibility come from?

     Where did she develop the sense of calmness and cool in the face of something so incendiary?

     She said, “I’m not extraordinarily strong or athletically talented, but my biggest asset and what has led to my success at high altitude, for sure, is a very, very high tolerance for discomfort. I don’t measure discomfort on the same scale that most normal people do.”

     Arnot laughed and added, “Maybe it just goes back to being 12 years old and being uncomfortable in a forced situation.”


How you get to the top of the world

     The circumstances of her upbringing forced Arnot to take control of her life and make her own decisions at an early age.

     She entered high school at the age of 12, as a freshman at Whitefish High School in Montana. She went to college at 16. She first climbed Rainier at 18. She started working as a guide at 21. Her survival tactic was lying about her age.

     “When I started guiding I said I was 24 every year until I turned 24. I didn’t want people to know how young I was. If they did, I felt they would discredit me and my experience,” she said.

     She added, “Because of my family’s austere circumstances, I was required to be responsible at a very young age.

     “I realized early that the decision to either fail or succeed was going to be up to me. I never had a safety net. There was no back-up plan. I was my back-up plan. It also led to the knowledge that having nothing doesn’t equal failure.”

     Arnot describes her parents, Jim and Debbie Arnot, as “New Age Hippies.” They were flatlanders who migrated to Durango, Colo. and Purgatory Ski Area where Jim was a ski patrolman.

     She said, “My dad grew up in Iowa. His whole passion was being in the mountains.”

     Her sister Stephanie is a year older. Her parents got married when Melissa was two. She said, “We were super poor. Paying the bills was enormously challenging for them. My dad also had a construction business. When I was five he joked about his dream of having a construction business called ‘Arnot and Daughters.’ He was going to teach us about building.

     “Then he broke his back on a job site when I was in kindergarten, and it changed his life.

     “Having a safety net for their kids was not a priority for my parents. They felt it was more important for their kids to have an appreciation of nature. I think he was proud when I moved into the back of my truck and began my seasonal living.”

     The family moved to Whitefish when Melissa was 12. Because of her educational credits in Colorado, she was allowed to skip two grades upon entering the Whitefish school system, so she went from the seventh grade right into high school.

     She said, “I joke that I turned 12 and 20 on the same day. Not many 12-year-olds can become a freshman in high school and survive that experience, let alone become a freshman in college a few years later.”

     Arnot said she has always had an incredible drive to work, whatever the job was.

     By the time she graduated from Whitefish High at 16, she already had a three-year backlog of working in health clubs in the area. She moved to Portland Ore. and spent a year studying at Portland State.

     Many adolescents rebel by dropping out of college.

     Arnot rebelled by going to college—and rebelled further by leaving the West and enrolling at the University of Iowa. There, in just three years, she earned degrees in business and health promotion.

     Her life in climbing started with a trip to the dentist.

     She said she was perfectly happy living a simple life in Iowa City, yet she traveled to Whitefish to visit her family and go to the family dentist there. She was 19.

     “When I got there it was like seeing the mountains for the first time. It was winter, just turning into spring,” she said. “It occurred to me that I wanted to come back and spend some time in the mountains. I wanted to get to know them.”

     “I remember this so clearly. I had $2,000, which to me was an enormous amount of money after I had paid all of my bills. I thought, I’d never had a vacation, never had a summer. I figured if I slept on friends’ couches I could probably make it, like, five weeks. One friend in Whitefish had been doing a lot of climbing, so we went on climbs into Glacier Park and other areas in northwest Montana,” said Arnot.

     Once, while climbing a peak in Glacier, Arnot and a friend happened upon an accident—a male climber who had suffered head trauma after being struck by rock fall. The victim was in the process of being evacuated by Park Service employees. A makeshift stretcher was being used.

     Arnot and her friend volunteered to carry the stretcher. The victim ended up dying.

     She said, “It was a crazy experience for me because of a couple of things. I realized this was real, climbing is dangerous, you can get hurt, you can die and you’re accountable for yourself.

     “And then, that night I had a dream. I was flying a helicopter, I was the pilot, and there was a patient in the helicopter and a medical person. I was directing the medical person about what to do, but in like a very advanced way.

     “Like I was giving them very advanced pharmacology directions, telling them what medicine to give, how to do it, and I knew everything about medicine in my dream. And I woke up and I was like, I think I’m going to go into medicine. I think I’m going to get trained to work on that ambulance.”

     She signed up for a semester-long wilderness first responder course at the University of Montana. She rented a studio apartment and took a minimum wage job at a women’s fitness facility. She became an emergency medical technician and started working on the ambulance.

     She said, “It all happened at the same time. I found I was naturally able to stay calm and deal in very stressful situations. I had the ability to separate emotion from doing the work. I met people with similar interests. I met other climbers. It changed my life.”

     “If you pull together all my experience on Everest, what allows me to function at a very high level logically in very stressful situations is that I have the ability, if you go unresponsive in this chair right now, you’re no longer a person I know that I am interested in saving, you are a physiological specimen, so you are scientific, I can see you as science, I can separate emotion from it.

     “I can do that in all situations in my life, and I think that comes from being 12, and being required to figure out how I was going to like, survive, and I was able to say, either I can have a tantrum about this and like panic because it’s stressful or I can just pull out the facts, deal with everything fact-based, react to the facts and move forward.

     “That’s sort of like how I’ve lived my life. I can see the big picture. It’s being able to not get tunnel vision. I’ve had a whole gamut of stressful situations.”

     Arnot thought for a second when asked if there was anything that might upset her, and couldn’t think of anything.

     She said, “I don’t know. Probably my biggest flaw is I’m way too cold, or I guess you could see it as cold. I see it as calm and like logical, but I’m not like an emotional person. Like when someone has an emotional moment and it’s like a very understandable thing that they’re upset about and they’re crying, like it makes me feel really uncomfortable, like I think—can you just not cry! Because when something leaks I feel I should stop it, and you’re leaking. I’m not a warm, fuzzy, comforting person. But it totally works for me. Like what upsets me? I don’t know. I don’t have any big anxieties.”


Being a responsible climber

     Like other Everest climbers, Arnot can’t buy a life insurance policy because of her line of work. She has tried Lloyds of London. No way.

     “I don’t consider what I do to be insanely life threatening. I can measure the risks I face and everything else about it is methodical,” she said.

     Yet in 2012, a sense of responsibility to Everest mountain workers prompted Arnot and mountain guide Dave Morton to set up an advocacy non-profit called Juniper Fund to provide life insurance and to cover rescue expenses of mountain workers.

     What she calls her deep and long-standing commitment to the Sherpas—Nepalese workers who fix the ropes for the climbers flocking to Everest each spring—originated from an incident Oct. 24, 2010. That was the day Arnot’s climbing partner Chewang Nima died in an accident on the 23,389-foot Baruntse peak near Everest in eastern Nepal.

     She said, “Afterward I felt a responsibility to his wife and two sons to provide funds for their college, which I’ve done. There was another accident in 2012 where a Sherpa fell off a ladder and into a crevasse and died. I helped pull his body out. The fund came from a sense of accountability that Dave and I shared. We both felt we had an obligation to support the staff that supports us.”

     In the past 10 years, virtually the length of Arnot’s tenure in Nepal, Mt. Everest has become a tourist attraction, the foundation of Nepal’s lucrative adventure travel industry. The growth in commercial guiding is mainly responsible.

     Last year was the 50th anniversary of the first American summiting of Mt. Everest. It took place during what is called the expeditionary period on Everest. The years since 1990, less than 25, are called the commercial period.

     “Everest is a community still evolving, just as Nepal is still evolving, and our country is still evolving,” said Arnot. “It’s a very young society that just barely has rules. Every year for two-and-a-half months, I go to work with the same 100 people, in the same cubicle and we have rules. There’s a mayor and there’s a code of ethics—it’s unspoken and unwritten.”

     And her role? Arnot smiled and lightly boasted, “I’d like to think I’m the mayoress.

     “Everest is a circus, absolutely a circus, and I’m not a spectator. I’m a member of the circus.”

     “Because of my medical experience and my knowledge of the mountain and my advocacy for the Sherpa, by and large the Sherpa people have come to know and respect me. I’ve become a looked-to person for emergencies.

     “If Pasang Lhamu go over and double-summit this spring with no on-mountain staff, and quietly just show up and do this, it sends a really nice message culturally—like here’s a Sherpa and a Western woman, two girls from humble beginnings if you will, who have a dream and want to be the first women to do this.”

     “Everest is something I love and feel responsibility for. I think it’s special that the highest point on Earth is climbable and accessible to anyone with the motivation to get there.”

     Her training this winter includes working with a personal coach, Josh Gautreau, the University of Virginia women’s rowing coach who is also a guide on Rainier. “I make up my own program and he adds things that will make it more efficient. It’s been interesting and informative,” she said.

     A three-month training period from January through March includes the early morning Baldy climbs, along with three-times-a-week sprinting treadmill workouts at Zenergy. She lifts weights to provide balance for muscle groups. She does yoga twice weekly with Danielle Carruth.

     Arnot does marathon run training three days a week—one day running 30 minutes, one day going for a medium-length 60 minutes, then doing a long weekend run.

     She likes marathon training for its mental discipline, and because it’s something she can do with husband Jon Duval. She plans to run the Catalina Marathon in California for the second straight year March 15 and leave March 18 for Nepal.

     Once in Nepal, she’ll spend two-and-a-half weeks on a lower-elevation trekking trip with a client and then go to Mt. Everest. The normal Everest climbing season covers 65 days, 20 of which are spent climbing. Arnot and her partner will climb 40 days, according to their double-summiting plan.

     “Your body has to be super-efficient to do that,” she said.

     She added, “I think my parents are super proud of me. They worry, of course, just like Jon worries. I remember a time back when I was being rebellious that they worried if I was going to survive, let alone have any bit of success.

     “I remember a Christmas letter they wrote when I was in college in which they described me as ‘continuing to flounder while she figures out what she wants to do.’

     “I think my floundering has turned into a very successful career. I hold a position that no other woman before me has held. With it comes a responsibility, and I take that responsibility very seriously.”


That day on Everest

     For some time, Arnot didn’t comment publicly about the April 27 incident on Mt. Everest involving a group of Sherpa mountain workers and three European climbers—36-year-old Ueli Steck of Switzerland, 45-year-old Simone Moro of Italy and Jonathan Griffith, an English climber and photographer from Chamonix, France.

     One of the main points of contention to the Sherpa was a slur they claimed was directed at them by Moro earlier in the day, before hostilities broke out later at Camp 2.

     Arnot tried to clarify some of the basic facts of the incident that she witnessed and participated in during a recent interview with the Idaho Mountain Express.

     She said, “If you imagine an Italian, a typical Italian, then imagine a very typical Swiss, and then you imagine whatever you can imagine when I say a Sherpa and you imagine their mannerisms and their ways of communicating, and then you take them all and you make them speak to each other in a language none of which is their native tongue, and they’re speaking in English to each other in a very stressful situation…you can imagine how fast things can get out of control.

     “And that’s ultimately the tipping point for me is that, is communication, just a problem with communication, cross-cultural, cross-language, just things getting out of control way faster than they normally would, and then reactions—and again mob mentality prevails. And Buddhist people aren’t impervious to mob mentality. They’re susceptible to all the same personality flaws every other person is.

     “People seem to want me to say, I think, Americans particularly, want to hear from me, oh, these arrogant Europeans. And I take issue with that, partly because (1) they’re my friends, and (2) those two guys are the most accomplished mountaineers that we know of in our culture today and Ueli Steck is the single most accomplished athlete, climber, athlete of any discipline I’ve ever met in my life, I’ve never met someone more capable than him and I’ve never met somebody more humble than him, but he’s also very, very Swiss and he speaks very Swiss, like efficiently, like no extra words needed, and Simone is Italian and he uses a lot of extra words and there’s some issue with that.

     “Ultimately, regardless of what you want to think about them being arrogant—Sherpas picked up rocks, and threw rocks, and threw ice tools, and threatened people’s lives. That’s unacceptable, no matter what your cultural background is, you can’t do that, you can’t react to discomfort or a disagreement with violence. I just think that’s unacceptable in any environment, especially where everybody’s life is already at risk by these objective hazards we deal with.

     “I don’t want to characterize a Sherpa as aggressive, primal tribesmen, or anything like that. Because they’re not. By and large, they are incredibly humble, they’re incredibly subservient to Westerners, hugely. Culturally, that’s what they’ve learned to do over all of their years working in the mountaineering industry, they’re learned how to be subservient... And that’s benefited many, many people at many expeditions, myself included. But, if you walk away with anything from this, it is people are people. So, take away all the labels you put on these people, take away all their accomplishments. I mean, the Sherpa who were most aggressive toward these guys were the most accomplished Sherpa there….the most skilled, the youngest, strongest, within their culture they were the Ueli Steck and Simone of their culture…..”

     “I saw them actually coming….I kind of was involved the whole day. I listened to the whole thing unfolding on the radio because my other friend, who is Sherpa was managing the radio for the Sherpa fixing team, he kept telling me in English what was being said. I just knew from early in the day it was going to be really bad.

     “I was sharing a camp with Ueli and Simone at Camp 2.

     “As soon as Ueli and Simone and Jonathan came down, they called on the radio and said, we’re back at Camp 2, we can come and talk about this now. And they were going to come into the camp where all the Sherpas had sort of congregated, and I was like, absolutely not, zero chance that was going to happen….I could just sense the tension was really high and really unreasonably high and I knew that there weren’t words to make that go away.

     “At that point, my brain couldn’t comprehend what was going to happen, even when I watched all the Sherpa coming up. Instantaneously it turned so violent. I didn’t perceive how much I was putting myself in danger. I’ve seen video from the fight now, so I can see where I was—in the dead middle of it.

     “Ueli was on the ground, he’s bleeding from the mouth, and he’s getting kicked, and crampons are getting thrown at him and I grabbed him and sort of pushed him into a tent behind me and stood in between him and the most aggressive Sherpa, and they wouldn’t get near me, they would stay five feet away from me, they wouldn’t touch me and it was the most amazing thing, and as soon as I realized that….I decided, I’m here, I’m not leaving.

     “Ueli now has serious post-traumatic stress disorder. And I don’t say that lightly, I just saw him when I was in Switzerland. He’s taking anti-depressants, he’s in counseling, he was trapped in a tent, thinking he was going to be killed, for 45 minutes. That’s a really long time, an insanely long time, to be in that situation and feel so completely powerless, especially for someone who is used to being in so in control of his fate.

     “My friend, who’s a Sherpa, we were holding hands, basically saying, don’t cross this. And I was begging them, like please no violence, like, words, yes, what do you want, and that was my whole mediation, what do you want? What will make this better for you? Like, tell me what you want and I will make that happen. And they said we want Simone to come and get on his knees in front of us and say he’s sorry, and I said, OK, he is sorry, he is sorry, and he’s going to come and do that. He was hiding kind of out on the glacier, and I sent someone who I trusted to go and get him, and tell him that I said he had to come back, because I knew he wouldn’t listen unless he knew I said it. And they brought him back and kind of like snuck him in the tent with Ueli. And the thing is, I think partly because I’m a woman, they wouldn’t touch me, but much more importantly, they are so accountable to me. I know their names, and I know who they work for, and they’re not an anonymous group of Sherpas to me. I know exactly who they are. I made each of them say it—no violence—before I brought Simone out. I told Simone, 30 times, me telling Simone to shut-up, stop talking, stop talking, stop talking. I made him promise me that he was going to come out and get on his knees and say I’m sorry. I said, I don’t care what they say to you, I don’t care if they ask you questions, the only words that come out of your mouth is, I’m sorry. That’s it. You can’t explain yourself, no more words. He said yes. He was terrified, too. It was a very highly charged. He has the kind of personality that is very different than Ueli, and I think his exterior show of how it impacted him was way different, but, he was scared.

     “He got on his knees, and he just said, I’m really sorry, and one Sherpa came forward and smacked him across the face, and another one kicked him and I grabbed him and pushed him back into the tent and I told them, nothing, you can’t say anything to me anymore, because you just lied to my face, you just lied, now you have to say you’re sorry. You can’t lie to my face and be violent. And they said, they need to leave. Their expedition is finished. I said fine, their expedition is finished, now go. They started slowly filtering away. John and Simone went into the tent to get their personal stuff packed up. Another Sherpa and I went through camp and basically tried to distract the Sherpa so they wouldn’t try to pursue those guys as they left. They sort of went a really circuitous route and left camp.”

     Were you a nervous wreck?

     She said, “Not at all during the time. It was very logical. Okay, deal, you have to deal. There’s no breaking down point of this where I can have an emotion about it. It was like, my mind was blown. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was like seeing something so crazy that you couldn’t have a feeling about it because it wasn’t within your perception of possible events.”

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