Everest climber, guide and mountaineer Melissa Arnot Reid is the first American woman to ever reach the summit of Mount Everest without oxygen — something only seven women worldwide have done.
Arnot Reid, who has climbed to the summit of Everest six times, joined Nerdette to talk about the mindset of a high-altitude climber, what happens when you have snot frozen to your face, and how to train your body to reach Everest’s peak. (Spoiler: it puts your morning yoga routine to shame.)
Plus, Arnot Reid revealed her secret obsession with true crime stories, so we brought in former FBI profiler and supervisory special agent Jim Clemente — who hosts no fewer than three true crime podcasts — to talk about what it takes to crack unsolved cases.
Tricia Bobeda: You were 13 and asked to go camping on your own, and your dad said yes. How did that happen?
Melissa Arnot Reid: I was really curious as a child, and I love to push boundaries. When I was a teenager, I became so fascinated with whether I could survive by myself without the help of anybody else.
We had moved to Montana from Colorado, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness is right outside of Glacier National Park. It’s really a scary place, actually. There are quite a lot of grizzly bears, and it's so remote.
I asked my dad if I could go camping alone there. At first he said no, of course, but then he said, “If you gain the skills to prove that you can keep yourself alive, I’ll let you go.” So I spent time reading books and trying to learn everything I could about survival. Then he let me go, and I launched out. It was a three day adventure that felt like three years of my life.
I didn’t even go on a trail. We tied a piece of flagging tape to a tree where he dropped me off and said, “Be back here in three days.” And I just started walking into the woods. It was the beginning of a really adventurous life that has been driven by wanting to be really independent as well.
Bobeda: When did you start climbing?
Arnot Reid: I started climbing when I was 19. A friend took me out climbing one day. It wasn’t something I had thought much about. But I knew right away it was something I loved.
I had always been really athletic, but never competitive. And for me, climbing was exactly that. It was something where you could push yourself physically, you could be in nature, and you could be really independent. But, you weren’t in a race with somebody. It wasn’t a competitive vibe. And it was something I could see doing for a really long time.
Bobeda: What does a day of training look like?
Arnot Reid: Training is a huge part of what I do because I’m actually — athletically speaking — pretty average. I have to train really hard to be prepared to have these long days on the mountain.
It usually involves getting up really early. I like to do a lot of uphill hiking with a weight pack. I have a 50 pound weight vest that I put inside my pack, and I’ll hike about 3,000 feet up and down with that weight as well.
That’s just the first phase of my day. I’ll go to the gym and do a variety of different sprinting workouts and interval training.I’ll do some basic lifting to keep my body strong and in balance.
Then I usually train for a really long road run or trail run, like a marathon or longer, that I do right before I launch on an expedition. That is physical training for endurance, but it’s also mental training because I dislike running. If I can do something I dislike, for a long time, it’s not rewarding at all but it’s something that makes me mentally a lot stronger. When I’m in the mountains and things are hard, I remember, “If I could run a marathon, and I hate running this much, I could probably keep walking uphill in this beautiful place.”
Bobeda: I’m hoping you can put into words something that so few of us have ever experienced: What is it like to be at the peak of Everest?
Arnot Reid: In one word, it’s humbling. The highest point on Earth is a really special area. It has a life to it, it feels alive. It feels like a personality. It’s hard to actually think what the words are, because it’s such a deep emotion. It’s something that we don’t have a word for because it’s that exceptional.
I’ve seen some of the most incredible things. You climb above monsoonal thunderstorms that are moving in in the middle of the night, and then there are massive lightning storms going on below you. I’ve seen a satellite fly over my head that was 20 thousand feet above me, and the size of the moon. You can’t even imagine that that would ever happen.
Bobeda: It feels like to be above a lightning storm is a superpower of some kind.
Arnot Reid: I’d like to think it’s a superpower. But it’s also incredibly ... not that pleasant. For all of the magicalness, you also have snot frozen to your face, and your breath that you’re exhaling is freezing, and it’s freezing your zipper shut, and you haven’t eaten anything for 12 hours. It’s not glamorous by any means, but I think that’s part of what makes it so magical. You’re reduced into just surviving with nature. And that gift that nature is sort of letting you survive it becomes really in the forefront of your mind.
Bobeda: You’ve also climbed Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. Why would you do that?
Arnot Reid: When you summit Everest with supplemental oxygen, a few things happen: you stay a lot warmer, you’re a lot more cerebrally aware of what’s going on around you, and the experience is just different. When we have oxygen, we’re happier, we’re not as agitated. To take away the assistance that oxygen gives you, and to actually survive without any aid at the highest point on Earth, feels like the most respectful thing you can do to that place and to nature. To say, “Nature, this is what you are, and I’m here in front of you as you are.”
That being said, it is so hard. It’s absolutely depleting to be without the use of supplemental oxygen. Everything takes so much longer. Even though the air is thinner, actually, it almost feels like it is thicker. It feels like you have to trudge through the air.
Bobeda: You climbed Everest once, and then you kept going back. Why?
Arnot Reid: I don’t think I have some sort of gluttonous mentally that I’m going to go back forever. I love being a guide on Everest, I love sharing the knowledge I’ve gained in that place with clients and helping keep them safe.
I was also pursuing this goal to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen, and I’ve achieved it now. I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I will never try to climb Everest without oxygen again. It was so hard, and I’m so grateful that I was able to do it. But I don’t have anything left in the conversation with the mountain in that way. My personal goals on Everest are very complete.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.