Climbers Melissa Arnot and Maddie Miller had a grand plan. They were going to climb 50 peaks in Colorado in an effort to raise awareness of women's place in the outdoors. Along the way, they were going to interview passing hikers about gender dynamics and report back with what they learned. Instead, Arnot and Miller abandoned the Colorado 50 peaks climb a week in.
Arnot, an Eddie Bauer guide, has a saying she keeps in mind, she tells me in an exclusive interview for Elite Daily: "Sometimes you get to the summit, and sometimes you get to learn." This, naturally, was one of those learning experiences.
But even before abandoning the 50 peaks climb, 33-year-old Arnot already had plenty of time to learn and learn and learn this lesson. In 2016, she became the first American woman to summit and descend Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen -- a feat only 200 people, male and female, have ever achieved. (I caught up with two of the most recent "no-Os" summiters, Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards, back in June.) It also casually marked Arnot's sixth time summiting Everest. So she's no stranger to climbing, to say the least.
Miller's no slacker, either. Last year, she and Arnot completed the 50 Peaks Challenge, which involved climbing the highest peak in each state. In doing so, Miller broke the speed record on that challenge, getting it done in 41 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes. In 2017, they wanted to hit the trails again to get another 50 peaks under their belts -- this time, summiting only the highest 50 peaks in Colorado.
Instead, they made one wrong turn while biking from one peak to another, which led to a backed-up schedule and the realization that their planned route wouldn't work. After a series of misadventures, Arnot dislocated her shoulder by closing a car door, of all things, and that's when they decided to put a pause on the Colorado 50-peak attempt. Their primary goal, after all was "to come home safe and to come home friends," Arnot says. So they stopped after seven days, 10 peaks and biked 220 miles into their journey.
In spite of the shortened trip, Arnot and Miller still got to make observations about gender in outdoor activities -- and how it affected even them. "I think the way we handled [the misadventures] was different because we were women," Arnot says. "Our ego was so not attached to the outcome of the adventure, but just to pushing ourselves and being challenged every day and not being worried about what it looked like to the people watching."
Before their climb came to a halt, both women made it a point to speak with other climbers they passed on the mountains about the gender makeup of their own respective groups. They'd ask groups of all girls, for instance, if they felt more comfortable being in an all-female group or if it was a conscious decision. Arnot believes it can be "harmful" to have women-only groups, especially since, she says, studies have shown that women in mixed-gender groups can perform better, including when it comes to communication. However, Arnot and Miller found that the women-only groups tended to be women-only by "intention," while the men-only groups happened by "accident." Mixed-gender groups, meanwhile, tended to be made up of couples or groups of friends on a summer break, sometimes even from out of state.
Miller and Arnot were also surprised to find an almost equal number of men and women on almost every peak they climbed. According to Arnot and Miller, this was encouraging, because they hope to see more women out there climbing and hiking. After all, not every woman outdoors has to be there for some major emotional reason or to find herself, a la Wild.
"To take that break, or take that adventure kind of skews on the irresponsible side of things," Arnot says when asked about the origins of the Wild stereotype. Because a climbing woman could be seen as someone stepping out on her care-taking "responsibilities," it plays into the idea that women are only doing outdoors activities because they've endured some type of trauma in their lives. However, Anot says, a trip "doesn't have to be that epic, doesn't have to be this big cathartic thing."
It just has to be you doing something you've always wanted to do.
Over the course of the 15 years Arnot has spent working in the industry, she's seen a shift towards "women seeking adventure for just the sheer joy of adventure," and she believes that the internet may have helped make the whole outdoors more accessible. That accessibility has been a help for women who fear for their safety outdoors, including from other climbers and hikers.
If you have fears about being a woman outdoors, Arnot says she's never encountered problems -- aside from the technical ones -- in her years climbing all around the world, including with small groups and in remote areas. Research backs up that you're much less vulnerable to violent crime in a national park than anywhere else in the U.S. Women have internalized the fear of being alone outdoors, but the statistics don't back that fear up. "Do your research, know where you're going, and be prepared," Arnot says, adding that confidence is a protection for women.
If you're new to climbing, you can take a lesson from Miller and find a mentor who's an expert to help you out and push your limits. But as Arnot says, "you have to start up hiking at the trail, and there's a lot that happens before you get to the summit."
The chaos on the 50 Colorado peaks attempt was both aided by Arnot's intentions (to stay safe and stay friends) and reinforced why she has them. It was a strong reminder that hitting the trails is about the adventure, not the summit.
"Have your primary objective be to have fun and not to succeed in getting to a certain point," Arnot says. Start there, and one day you'll be casually discussing your sixth Everest summit, too.