Mountain Climber Melissa Arnot Inspires TheWrap’s Power Women on Scaling Everest: ‘Life Is Life-Threatening’

The famed mountain climber battled sexism and found inner peace on her way to the peak

Melissa Arnot climbs mountains for a living. It’s risky, she says, but so is life.

“Life is a life-threatening activity. We are going to die,” the 31-year-old Arnot said in an inspirational talk at TheWrap’s first Power Women Breakfast in New York on Tuesday. “What matters is that I feel complete,” she said.

Arnot is the first American woman to climb Mount Everest five times and the only female guide working on the mountain. She had a roomful of powerful women executives breaking into spontaneous applause as she  recounted quitting an advertising job at Procter & Gamble and living out of the back of truck for years, learning the craft of mountaineering.

Arnot doesn’t have a death wish, she assured the crowd. “I do have a lot do do tomorrow, so hope I don’t die,” she joked, gesturing to midtown Manhattan just outside the window of the Time Warner Center. It’s a far cry from the Alaskan glacier she had just left or the peaks of Everest where she practices her profession – which she modestly described as “walking up hill very slowly.”

Her Eureka moment happened suddenly on a trip home to her native Montana. “I went hiking and looked at the peak and saw all the opportunity in the world…I learned how to be a guide and I was successful.”

But Arnot has faced sexism in an arena where nearly all of her colleagues are men, and all of her clients – who she guides up the mountain – are men too.

She said: “My office is the mountain and the mountain doesn’t care that I’m a woman”

“I was twenty when I started guiding and my clients are 55 year-old professional men. I had to convince them that I am not an intern.,” she said.

Eleven years later she’s the queen of Everest. Those same men seek her out time and again, telling her they prefer a female guide whose focus is attention to the joy of the sport – not testosterone-fuels risk taking. “Men have said … women make much more conservative decisions. They don’t want to be faced with challenges from male guides.’”

She manages risks carefully. Her philosophy of climbing could be applied to daily life. “It’s calculated.. I manage things I can manage and accept things i can’t. I look at every situation very objectively and I say, ‘What are the risks? What can I manage, what can I not manage? On the mountain, a lot is out of your control but there is a lot your can interface responsibly with.”

“Ultimately, I just want to take care of people and teach people.”