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Image: Amber Fouts

Some of us sneak off to eat fast food in secret or catch a Star Wars screening during a workday. Melissa Arnot slipped off to climb Mount Everest in May 2016 without a word to family or sponsors—or without oxygen on a hike to the cruising altitude of a 737.

Arnot’s sixth Everest summit also made her the first American woman to survive the climb without supplemental oxygen, a feat she wanted privacy to achieve; only her husband tagged along as support. Yet the Winthrop-based climber dubs herself “very average athletically” and reasons that it’s her high tolerance for discomfort—she cites a childhood of persistent poverty—that made her one of the most famous mountaineers in the country. 

Ever since the 33-year-old started in 2004 as a Mount Rainier guide, a gig she still loves, the five-foot-three Arnot has endured “little girl” jokes and disrespect, a major reason she now personally mentors three young women climbers. Her gender has been a double-edged sword, bestowing unique opportunities even as she fielded sexist accusations she was sleeping with every client.

Why climb Everest? Men may get away with George Mallory’s pat “because it’s there” answer, but Arnot faces implications that she’s in it for attention. “This is my life, my passion,” she says. “It’s the joy of just living a free life and being in the mountains.” 

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