First American Woman Completes Full Everest Summit Without Oxygen

On May 23, mountaineer Melissa Arnot, seen here on Everest in 2010, summited Mount Everest for the sixth time, and became the first American woman to complete an ascent of the peak without supplemental oxygen; Photograph by David Morton
On May 23, mountaineer Melissa Arnot, seen here in 2010, summited Mount Everest for the sixth time, and became the first American woman to complete an ascent of the peak without supplemental oxygen; Photograph by David Morton

They say that reaching the summit is only half the climb. And if that’s the case, it’s possible that Melissa Arnot just became the first American woman to climb Mount Everest without using supplemental oxygen.

Arnot reached the summit of the 29,029-foot (8,848-meter) mountain on May 23, achieving a dream that, for her, has been years in the making.

“This has been an emotional journey, to say the least,” said Arnot, according to a press release issued by one of her sponsors. “Climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen has been a goal of mine for a long time.”

Whether Arnot is the first, or second, American woman to successfully climb Everest without oxygen, however, is a debatable point. In 1998, a Hawaiian-born woman named Francys Arsentiev, 40, successfully climbed Everest without oxygen alongside her husband Sergei Arsentiev; however, on the descent, both climbers died in separate events.

To some in the climbing world, Francys is the first American woman to climb Everest without oxygen. To others, the fact that she didn’t make it down alive negates her achievement.

This debate—about whether or not one must survive the descent for their achievement to “count”—has a precedent in Everest’s storied history. For a number of years, climbers speculated on whether or not, in 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had actually reached the summit of Everest before their ultimate disappearance from high on the Himalayan giant. And if indeed they did summit, shouldn’t they be credited with the mountain’s first ascent—not Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who are, of course, officially considered to be the first men to succeed in standing atop Everest?

When asked about this issue sometime in the mid 1980s, Hillary reportedly stated, “If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I’m rather inclined to think, personally, that maybe it’s quite important, the getting down. And the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

Thankfully, as Arnot is currently safe and sound back in a lower camp, she is the first American woman to climb Everest without oxygen and survive the descent—which, statistically, is when most Everest climbers die.

Climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen is more difficult than climbing with canisters of “Os,” as they’re called. Using supplemental Os effectively makes climbers feel as if they’re 3,000 feet lower than they actually are, which is why many climbers consider using supplemental oxygen to be cheating. However, without oxygen, Everest becomes much more dangerous. More than a third of all deaths on Everest can be linked to people trying to climb without oxygen.

Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first people to climb Everest without oxygen in 1978, a year in which doctors all but unanimously believed that it would be physically impossible for a human body to function at Everest’s upper altitudes. Messner and Habeler, however, proved everyone wrong, and some climbing purists have even gone so far as to argue that, in a sense, theirs is the first true ascent of the mountain. Either way, choosing to abandon the crutch of  supplemental oxygen never really caught on with the Everest crowd. Today, Everest has been climbed by more than 4,000 people, but  fewer than 200 have done it without oxygen. This week, America’s best high-altitude female climber added her name to that elite list.

Lydia Bradley, of New Zealand, became the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen in 1988. Since then, six other women have achieved this feat, including Carla Perez, of Ecuador, who summited sans Os this week. Arnot, considered America’s best high-altitude female climber, has added her name to that elite list, which makes her the seventh woman ever to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen.

While this may be Arnot’s first oxygen-less ascent of Everest, it is actually her sixth time successfully climbing the mountain, which is a record for American women. In fact, only one other woman has stood on Everest’s summit more than Arnot, and that is Lakhpa Sherpa, a 42-year-old Nepalese woman who reportedly works at a 7-Eleven in Connecticut. Sherpa, who summited last week, has now climbed Everest seven times.

In the press release, Arnot continued, “When you succeed at reaching your goal, it makes you reflect on the hard days, the work, and lessons I’ve learned along the way. I’m incredibly fortunate to have this experience.”


  1. tsering lhamo
    May 24, 2016, 7:15 pm

    With all due respect, Arnot would have been much more respected had she not stolen the show of Lhakpa Sherpa for four years when she gallantly advertised herself as “Highest female record holder for Everest” on her website! Lhakpa reached six times to the top ten years before Arnot and she was never recognized. Ofcourse she didn’t go for the media hype either which Arnot is all about! She may sell herself showing off to crowd how hard working she is helping the “poor Sherpas” through her so called charity work but she is not loved by us. I hope some day she has the wisdom to apologize in public for her karma. Thank you national Geographic for finally mentioning anything about Lhakpa Sherpa in this years coverage. Tashi delek!

    • Mary Anne Potts
      May 24, 2016, 7:28 pm

      Hi Tsering Lhamo, we are working on a story on Lhakpa Sherpa. Thank you for reading!

  2. Sereti
    May 25, 2016, 1:00 am

    Fair comments are good for humanity.Speaking from a neutral perspective and as a hiker who is drawing Learning from those who have made it,I say all those who have ascended Everest and descended Sunday know that it is mot am easy feat.If Arnot shows off on this,it is very fine and we celebrate her and if Sherpa was quite about it,it is fine too.Let us not be judgemental on a negative sense.

  3. Ngodup Tenzin
    May 25, 2016, 5:23 am

    conrgats but it is very sad by nga there was no headline for Lhakpa Sherpa who has summited Chomolungma six times and made first time world record when this woman was only a young girl? or when she beat her own record by seven time three days before to this one??? something NO OTHER WOMEN in the WORLD has done. Because she is not american? Gerlinde and many other respectable women climbed without oxygen they also do a lot for Nepal like Edurne Pasaban without blowing their own trumpets and uncle Sam’s media making them into sth they r not. thank u.

  4. […] sad news from Mount Everest in the last week, but this is inspiring: Melissa Arnot just because the first American woman to reach the summit without the use of supplemental […]

  5. Wind Horse adventures
    Kathmandu, Nepal
    May 25, 2016, 9:57 am

    Absolute honor to read the Post. We from Wind Horse adventures would like to send your respect.

  6. Lisa Crowley
    Boston, MA
    May 25, 2016, 10:25 am

    This is a badly written article. Did Arnot die? I had to go elsewhere to figure that out. I’m not a climbing nut so the story isn’t about did she make it. It’s about did she make it and back? The whole argument is idiotic. All of the people who made it up and back–hopefully–should get as much credit and adulation as they get. It’s an amazing feat–with or without Oxygen and with or without making it back. By the way, Arnot didn’t die.

  7. tsering
    May 25, 2016, 12:31 pm

    Dear Sereti,
    I think u missed my point. If you are a hiker coming into our sacred land and climbing our mountains you need to b respectful of our people, culture and all we hold sacred. We Wundt be going to Kenya and stealing ur own people’s glory and media is as responsible in this rat race as the climbers. U probably don’t know the history that’s why u sound so naive. If pointing out the truth makes it negative then u shud know that our ancestors place has been made negative by record-bagging westerners like Arnot. Everest needs huge healing through some ritual.

  8. 4892
    May 25, 2016, 11:11 pm

    “This week, America’s best high-altitude female climber…”
    “Arnot, considered America’s best high-altitude female climber…”

    Considered by who? Arnot hasn’t climbed any other high peaks and has always had Sherpa assistance on fixed-ropes – one of whom died doing it for her on Baruntse. For many, that is not climbing. She has not climbed any technical routes at altitude and only a low walk-up hill in Mustang. Like many of the so-called American ‘guides’ she has never climbed a big Himalayan peak without Sherpa assistance.

    Kitty Calhoun (FFA Dhaulagiri, FFA Makalu) and Sharon Wood (Can) (first NA woman up Everest) are still very much alive and climbing.

  9. […] Originally Posted by Claire ex-ax Never underestimate a woman. Since we are on women, the 1st american women summited last week without oxygene as wellFirst American Woman Completes Full Everest Summit Without Oxygen – Beyond the Edge […]

  10. CTaylor
    June 20, 2016, 9:11 pm

    Arnot is far from being considered one of the best high-altitude climbers. Maybe instead of featuring a self-promoting American you could write an article about the Sherpa who died fixing ropes for her on Baruntse. He was a father and a husband. She is not a real mountaineer, just a girl with access to a lot of money.