The highest point on Earth is a merciless place, as famous for the lives it destroys as for those it enriches. To reach it once in a lifetime is a rare feat. What Melissa Arnot attempted last May was on a different level.
If the notoriously treacherous weather at 29,000 feet cooperated, Arnot, a 29-year-old professional mountaineer and guide from Ketchum, Idaho, hoped to summit Mount Everest not once but twice in a single climbing season. The first time would be in preparation for the second.
Arnot touched down in the cramped Kathmandu, Nepal, airport in late March with four Everest summits and a decidedly low profile to her name. But she did not intend to repeat the same climb she had done before, at least not twice. The goal was to climb once with supplemental oxygen tanks, as most people do, and then retreat to Everest's carnival-esque base camp and rest for the true challenge: summiting with only the oxygen that exists in the atmosphere -- the thinnest air on earth, also known as the "death zone," where a human being's blood-oxygen level can drop to one-fourth that of someone at sea level.
Everest has been summited more than 6,000 times since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the first ascent in 1953. However, only about 60 climbers, accounting for less than 1 percent of all summits, have conquered Everest without supplemental oxygen -- a group that includes no American women. Summiting in such a purist's style is a particularly risky yet coveted challenge for elite mountaineers, including women like Arnot. New Zealand's Lydia Bradey became the first female to do it, in 1988, and the pursuit has killed at least one U.S. aspirant -- Hawaii-born Francys Arsentiev reached the top in 1998 but died on the descent, as did her husband, who fell while trying to rescue her. Mountaineering experts don't consider an attempt successful without a safe descent.
Arnot, a small-town girl who once lived in her pickup truck, views life through a realist's lens, largely because of the tragedy she has seen firsthand in the mountains.
"The honest truth is that very few people care what I am doing," she said. "I'm not curing cancer or feeding hungry children. I'm pursuing these goals on a minute-to-minute basis by pushing myself into territory that isn't static, territory that is always unknown -- even when I've been there before.
"All I'm really doing is trying to teach myself how to live. If you're doing this for someone else, for recognition, for ego -- all of that is transient. I'm guilty of it. But at least I know that. You don't stick with something like this, suffer like this, unless you're learning. At least in my life you don't."
Arnot's first attempt at the summit this year, on May 16, aided by oxygen tanks alongside her male Nepali climbing partner, a 13-time Everest summiter named Tshering Dorje Sherpa, was doomed by inopportune conditions. They aborted their climb in the face of high winds after Arnot fell into a crevasse high on the mountain, and then retreated to base camp to rest for a second attempt.
Five days later, on May 21, in the chill of darkness and with renewed hope, they set out again. Arnot, climbing without oxygen this time, felt strong up to 27,900 feet -- within striking distance of the 29,035-foot summit. There, she and Tshering encountered an unresponsive Sherpa and remained to assist him for an hour. By then, she was too cold to safely continue sans oxygen, so she summited at 6:56 a.m. with an oxygen mask on her face.
It marked the fifth Everest summit for Arnot, a remarkable achievement for someone who has not yet turned 30. Records vary, but she is either the most accomplished female Everest climber ever, or the most accomplished non-Sherpa woman. (A Nepali named Lakpa Sherpa is said to have from four to six Everest summits; she did not reply to an email seeking verification.)
Nevertheless, in the wake of Arnot's summit, virtually no media coverage followed. Arnot was not surprised.
"My summit day was incredibly boring in terms of news," she said in a June interview. "It was a beautiful day. Nothing happened."
Ironically -- or not, considering that mainstream mountaineering interest spikes in times of death or disaster -- three weeks before Arnot reached the top, her face had been plastered in newspapers and on television screens around the world, from New Zealand to London and throughout America. Not because she was trying to do something no American woman had done, but because she played a crucial role in saving the lives of three professional climbers during a controversial attack at 22,000 feet.
The incident brought unprecedented renown to a woman who has consciously avoided the spotlight for much of her career.
In many ways, Arnot's act had nothing to do with mountaineering. In others, it spared the sport a greater toll than any natural disaster could have inflicted. The details were so damning that Arnot still has not discussed what happened.
On the afternoon of April 27, Arnot and a number of other climbers and guides were resting at Camp 2, a popular midmountain staging point in the up-and-down acclimatization ritual that leads to the top of the world. Shortly after 1 p.m., radios started buzzing.
A trio of professional alpinists from Europe -- including Italy's Simone Moro and Switzerland's Ueli Steck, who are among the best in the world -- had been climbing high on the Lhotse Face, the precipitous wall of ice that separates Everest's lower flanks from its upper crux.
As Moro and Steck climbed alongside their British teammate and expedition photographer, Jon Griffith, a team of Nepali Sherpa guides was fixing ropes toward the summit -- a delicate practice that involves anchoring the ropes to the ground so climbers can clip in with safety devices on their way up and down the mountain and prevent potentially fatal falls. The fixed ropes are there primarily for the hundreds of commercially guided climbers who tackle Everest each spring at a cost of up to $75,000 apiece.
The Europeans -- who had come to Nepal to attempt a new linkup of Everest and neighboring Lhotse, the world's fourth-highest peak, without supplemental oxygen -- were acclimatizing in advance of a summit attempt later in the season. According to statements the trio released later, at approximately 23,600 feet -- still a vertical mile below the summit -- they carefully crossed the fixed ropes toward their tent at Camp 3, where they intended to spend the night. This upset the Sherpas, who said they made it clear leading up to their rope-fixing efforts that they did not want to be disturbed. (One of the rope fixers, Tashi Sherpa, 30, later told Outside Magazine that the Europeans sent a chunk of ice tumbling down onto another Sherpa, bruising his face. The Europeans deny this.) A shouting match ensued.
Whether the argument was at least partially sparked by underlying tensions between Western alpinists and Sherpas is debatable. Sherpas, renowned for their high-altitude climbing strength, are relegated to support roles in Himalayan alpinism. Western climbers rely on them for gear transport and guiding services during most big climbs, especially since commercial expeditions boomed in the 1990s. Although Sherpas possess equal or even superior mountaineering skills -- and face precipitous danger that has resulted in many of their deaths -- they make far less money than Western guides or professional climbers (albeit much more than their average countrymen).
The vast majority of Himalayan expeditions involve lesser climbers being led up Sherpa-supported routes that might be unattainable to them on their own. Supplemental oxygen, too, plays a role in allowing more people to attempt big peaks; thanks to enhanced flow rates nowadays, using an oxygen mask can essentially make 28,000 feet feel like 18,000. Moro, Steck and Griffith represented a dying breed of traditionalist Everest climbers by ascending unguided and without oxygen -- and attempting a new route, to boot.
As their argument with the Sherpas escalated and tempers flared on both sides, Moro, a four-time Everest summiter and the only climber to have summited three 8,000-meter peaks in winter, called the lead Sherpa a vulgar and insulting term in Nepali, according to Griffith's statement to the Guardian. Two hours later, after both groups had retreated to Camp 2 (the Euros figured they should find the Sherpas and discuss what happened), the situation turned from ugly to horrifying.
According to the Europeans, the angry Sherpas had rallied a group nearing 100 strong and approached the trio as a mob. The Sherpas' faces were covered by scarves.
Arnot, who is friends with Moro as well as with numerous Sherpas, ran ahead to warn the European climbers.
"They're coming, get out of here," she told them, according to Griffith's account in the Guardian.
In an interview with Outside, Steck claimed he was punched in the face and hit in the head with a rock before he could utter a word. Griffith and Moro took off in the opposite direction.
Bleeding from his mouth, Steck feared he would be beaten to death. But in a crucial moment of intervention, Arnot stepped in front of the mob to protect the Swiss climber. Steck scrambled into a mess tent for shelter. Arnot, at 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds, joined hands with a Sherpa she'd worked with before and anchored herself between the mob and Steck, refusing to budge. The Sherpas threw large rocks at the tent but did not cross them.
"I felt like it was much less likely that they would hit me actually or hit me with a rock, just being a woman," Arnot later told ABC News.
Moro and Griffith eventually returned to the scene and, as Moro took a subservient position on his knees and apologized for cursing on the Lhotse Face, according to the Europeans, the Sherpas kicked him in the face and beat him with rocks and fists. One Sherpa attempted to stab Moro with a knife, but the blade caught his hip belt instead. Arnot again stepped in to curb the violence, as did a small number of other bystanders.
Finally, the Sherpas issued a chilling ultimatum.
"They said that if we weren't gone in an hour, they were going to kill all three of us," Steck told Outside Magazine.
But Tashi Sherpa told Outside, "I have read in blogs that they claimed one hundred Sherpas attacked them, that they were trying to kill them, and they had to flee for their lives. That's false. If Sherpas had really wanted to kill them, would they be alive now?"
Still, Steck said the warning was real, and he, Moro and Griffith immediately descended to Base Camp, unroped through dangerously broken snow and ice, looking over their shoulders the entire time.
Later, after those involved with the fight, including Arnot, had signed a peace agreement at Base Camp, Steck credited his survival to Arnot's intervention.
"Otherwise, they would've killed me for sure," he told Outside.
Moro, in an interview with the Italian climbing website Planet Mountain, said: "We owe our lives mainly to four people. The first and most important is American climber Melissa Arnot."
Arnot issued a brief statement on her website three days after the fight, acknowledging that "something shifted the balance" but offering little else.
"I cannot recount the events of this past week on Everest, nor do I want to," she wrote. "I understand that people want to hear the story and know the details, but honestly, the details are sad and they are in the past."
When commenters prodded her for full disclosure, she replied, "My focus at that moment was to prevent further violence; my focus now is on climbing."
Due to Arnot's reluctance to discuss what happened, her acts received scant attention beyond the initial maelstrom. Yet the fact that she was there at all was a twist of irony, considering the daunting journey that led her to that moment.
Raised in a pair of mountain towns -- Durango, Colo., where she attended school on a Native American reservation, and Whitefish, Mont. -- Arnot graduated high school at age 15 and the University of Iowa at 19. She didn't start climbing until she moved to Missoula, Mont., after college.
"I literally woke up one day and decided that I was going to be a mountain guide and travel the world and climb," she said.
In 2005, when she was 21, Arnot left Missoula and drove to the foot of Mount Rainier in Washington to try out for an apprentice guide position with Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI), one of the world's elite climbing outfitters. Never mind that mountain guiding is dominated by men, with as many as 10 male guides for every female. The petite blond fitness instructor was determined to earn a job.
After RMI hired her (tryouts typically include a physical test and interview), Arnot terminated her lease in Montana, stuffed everything she owned into the back of her 1993 Toyota pickup truck and began living in it. From Rainier, she moved on to bigger mountains such as 19,347-foot Cotopaxi in Ecuador and 22,841-foot Aconcagua in Argentina.
In 2008, working as an assistant guide, Arnot summited Everest at age 24. It confirmed her ability to perform in the world's thinnest air, but among the exclusive boys' club that is high-altitude guiding, she was still a rookie. Wary male clients refused to clip onto her rope and referred to her as "sweet cheeks." Even now, Arnot said, "The other guides that I work with can be surprisingly patronizing. I don't think it's intentional. I just think their natural response to a small, young woman is that I can't be one of their peers."
RMI co-owner Peter Whittaker, who gave Arnot her first guiding gig in 2005, notes that Arnot has never asked for respect.
"I've spent a lot of time in tents and up high on expeditions with Melissa, and she works her ass off," Whittaker said. "You can't replace that with anything."
Even after she established herself as a climber and guide -- whose clients, it should be noted, are 90 percent men -- Arnot avoided media coverage because she feared being portrayed as climbing's version of Anna Kournikova. Now, more confident in her accomplishments as well as her voice, she embraces a visible role on and off the mountain. She helped comedian Josh Wolf scale a rock wall on "Chelsea Lately" on Oct. 16 and graced the cover of last year's Eddie Bauer holiday catalog, which featured clothing she helped design as a sponsored athlete for the brand.
"She's much more comfortable in her own skin," said David Morton, Arnot's mentor and a veteran Himalayan guide. "She's very good at taking charge of a stressful situation and managing it well."
That trait was put to a grisly test in 2010 when Arnot's friend and climbing partner, 19-time Everest summiter Chhewang Nima Sherpa, fell to his death in an ice avalanche while they were climbing 23,389-foot Baruntse in Nepal. Arnot hasn't shed the pain of standing in a potato field outside Chhewang's house in Thamo, a village down valley from Everest, and explaining to his wife that he was gone. He also left two sons.
She considered quitting climbing for good.
"I suddenly felt that all the risk was just unnecessary," she said.
Ultimately, she concluded: This is who I am.
Inspired in part by Chhewang's memory, she and Morton are establishing a life insurance trust for Sherpa guides, which will provide for their families if they die or are gravely injured in the line of duty. Arnot is supporting Chhewang's family until the 501(c)3 is operational; Morton is doing the same for the child of a Nepali guide who died on Everest in 2006.
With commercial expeditions accounting for most of the 500 to 600 Everest summiters each year (only 30 to 40 of whom are women), the problem is likely to continue. Four of the nine climbers who died on Everest last spring were Sherpas.
Arnot returned to the U.S. from Nepal in June, allowing a short break before her summer guiding season began on Mount Rainier. Last month she landed back in Nepal for a personal expedition to the Everest region.
In a June interview from Idaho, she still was unwilling to detail the May fight on Everest or her role in it. After reaching the summit, she was greeted at Base Camp by mountaineering's unofficial king, the famously gruff Italian Reinhold Messner, who was the first to summit Everest without bottled oxygen, in 1978. Messner told Arnot he admired her commitment to climbing's honesty creed and later joined her for dinner in Kathmandu.
The irony of a woman saving three men's lives in an environment in which the odds are stacked against females is not lost on Arnot. But she rejects any hero talk.
"In that moment I think I was just a person standing in the way of what was happening," she said. "But to be clear, I don't agree that the root of the problem is from underlying unspoken rules between Sherpas and Westerners. That's from the media, and also some people who were there have that opinion or impression, but that's not my impression or opinion of what led up to [the fight]. Everything that's happened afterward, everything that's been said afterward is just making things more complicated."
Arnot, like many who work on Everest, finds herself in "an incredibly sensitive position, in that I'd like to keep my job over there, and I think any talking that I do about what happened potentially puts me in conflict with the Western guides who are my coworkers year-round on all the mountains, or puts me in conflict with the Sherpas, who I very much depend on and enjoy working with. I'm trying to protect myself and leave it as it is."
With that, she turned a corner. Everest represents only a fraction of Arnot's life, after all. Between working to establish her nonprofit, guiding domestically and internationally, moonlighting as a paramedic in Montana, and providing medical support in remote locales from Greenland to Antarctica, Arnot spends nine months each year away from her home in Idaho -- where she and her husband, the director of a community development nonprofit, own a house at the base of the Smoky Mountains.
She also began training to fly rescue helicopters in Nepal last spring. Simone Moro is teaching her.
"I'm young," Arnot said. "Climbing won't be the only thing I do in my life."