In June, Melissa Arnot and Maddie Miller began a journey two years in the making. Miller summited Denali, and the clock began to tick for their time crunching goal to summit all 50 highpoints in the U.S. within 50 days. Nothing was consistent or went exactly according to plan. It was in simplifying the complexities that the duo found their stride and broke the world record by 34 hours on August 7. The willingness to embrace change while keeping their focus on the long-term objective was the key. That and a smelly van named Tiffany.
I caught up with the 32-year-old trip leader, Arnot, to hear more about the adventure.
PO: This project seems like a combination of athleticism, problem-solving, and logistical coordination, mixed in with mental and physical exhaustion, and a dash of luck and chance.
MA: It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life, certainly not physically, but logistically. It was 24-hours-a-day planning and you just don’t have time to change your mind. You have to make really, really fast decisions and stick to them. There are not many things in life like that—where you have to be all in but willing to totally change the plan at any moment.
PO: Did it beat you up physically?
MA: The final six days of the trip, Maddie and I walked over 100 miles, and most of that was at high altitude. That was physically exhausting at the very end of the project. But then there was also a lot of mentally exhausting things. I mean, we almost didn’t make it into Mount Rainier National Park in time to get our permits. That would have been horrifically embarrassing.
PO: What happened there?
MA: Well, after we climbed Mt. Hood we decided to have lunch. We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, last push. The last couple peaks are such a known entity for us,’ and then we did some math and figured we were not going to make it in time to get our permits because we had lunch! It was the first time we relaxed on the entire trip, and it felt really stupid.
(Watch all six episodes from their trip on Eddie Bauer's YouTube Channel.)
Arnot (left) and Miller on the summit of Mt. Wheeler in New Mexico. Jon Mancuso photo.
PO: It would have been hard to explain not making it due to peanut butter and jelly sammies.
MA: Yeah, totally. It was nerve-wracking, for sure.
PO: So in all of the 41 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes of this project, besides that one lunch break, did you have any real rest?
MA: Not really. The only time we had something even close to a rest day was when our car broke down. We were in Rawlins, Wyoming, and were totally stuck; there are no rental cars there. That was incredibly stressful. While we were ‘resting,’ we were madly trying to solve the problem of getting to Nebraska. We had to get there to keep our timeline. That was the only true rest time. We stayed at a Holiday Inn, and it felt really luxurious.
PO: So, resting physically while completely freaking out mentally?
MA: Yeah, exactly right. I was the leader of this whole thing and had a lot of professional responsibility to help fund this trip and fulfill our obligations to our supporters, sponsors, and audience. I’m not independently wealthy and couldn’t just throw money at these decisions. I got no sleep on this trip because my brain was always active. But everyone carried the weight of the stress—this was Maddie’s goal, and we were pushing hard to achieve it.
PO: Let’s talk about Tiffany, the Sprinter van. What is her current state in terms of the stank-o-meter?
MA: Well, Jon’s closet (Jon Mancuso, the trip photographer, and videographer) in that Sprinter needs to be disinfected and cleaned in a way that no one else’s space does. I don’t know why just by the virtue of being a man I think; his stuff smelled worse than all of ours combined. But we were very diligent. We strategically stuffed dryer sheets all over that van. We judiciously used Febreze and Clorox wipes. But right now, the van is in a total state of chaos. We packed for Hawaii in like five minutes and jumped out of the van. It looks like a bomb went off in there. I’m kind of dreading going back to it.
PO: Are you going to keep the van?
MA: No, I need to sell it as soon as I clean it. I need to do some research on where Sprinter vans sell for the highest value. I feel like it’s going to be Boulder, Colorado. The thing is, I would totally keep it if I could.
PO: You need to recoup a lot of the cost of this project, right?
Some summits are harder than others... here's the crew on 'top' of Mt. Wheeler in Kansas. Jon Mancuso photo.
MA: The illusion is that this was a fully sponsored expedition, and it was so easy because we had sponsors paying us to do this. Ya know who the primary sponsor of this expedition was? Melissa Arnot. I personally invested almost $70,000 into this, which involved taking out a loan. Hopefully, we can sell the Sprinter, and it will be no big deal. Our sponsors were totally amazing, and we definitely could not have done it without them, but it was not posh by any means. We had a $7 per person daily food budget.
PO: Why do this then? 70k is a daunting financial burden.
MA: On one level, I never thought it was going to be like this and was under the illusion that we could totally get it all paid for. I made a commitment to Maddie, and that was the most important thing. It was more important to me to show her that my word is good. I don’t have a trust fund, every dollar I have I earned myself—but money is paper. Experiences are not paper. Experiences we keep. And watching Maddie grow over this summer was so worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
PO: What was the hardest part of the project?
Arnot and Miller getting in a quick bivy on the way to Granite Peak in Montana. Jon Mancuso photo.
MA: I only slept between two to four hours max per night for the entire summer. So that elevated every little thing into a big thing because I was so sleep deprived.
PO: Was there anything easy?
MA: Every time we were in the mountains was the easiest part, hands down. You’re away from all the logistics, away from all the stress of where you’re going next. I mean, put on crampons and send me to a glacier, that’s my most comfortable atmosphere. I want to be there.
PO: Was anything really surprising?
I have never been so present-minded in my life. You have to only pay attention to what is right in front of you because it’s too confusing to do anything else. You can’t reminisce about yesterday because you’ll confuse logistics of yesterday with what you’re doing right now. And you can’t worry about 2-days from now because, no doubt about it, it’s going to change. It’s not like we are so enlightened and present-minded. It’s a forced thing. It’s all consuming while it’s happening.
PO: Besides the completion of the goal, what was most rewarding?
MA: Seeing Maddie grow. I am very proud of Maddie. She did it, and she stuck with it. It was really hard. She’s got this incredible poise and confidence, and she grew into a very strong, confident voice, which will carry her so far in her life. I’m happy to be a part of that.
From The Column: Women in the Mountains
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