Building a Legacy
Melissa Arnot-Reid is one of the most respected mountain guides in the world. Her next feat? Becoming a mom and mentoring the next generation.
On a sunny day this past June, Melissa Arnot-Reid ski-toured up to Camp Muir, Mount Rainier’s iconic 10,188-foot-high camp. For Arnot-Reid, 34, it was pretty pedestrian—she’s ascended the route well over 100 times as a mountain guide while leading clients to the summit. But this time she was carrying especially precious cargo: her seven-week-old daughter, Kaia. It was Father’s Day, and she was taking Kaia to see her dad, Tyler Reid, who skied her back down the rolling Muir snowfields. She loved it.
Kaia has been on the planet for fewer than 70 days, but she’s traveled every weekend of her life since she was three weeks old. She’s already been to Canada, and this fall she’ll go to Nepal and Japan. None of this is surprising, though, if you know who her parents are.
Her dad, Tyler, is a mountain guide just like her mom. And her mom, Melissa, is one of America’s best-known professional climbers. She started working as a guide for Seattle’s Rainier Mountaineering Inc. in 2004, at age 21, and now runs her own guiding business. She’s summited Everest six times—more than any other American woman—including once without bottled oxygen in 2016, a feat that fewer than 200 people have pulled off. She was the eighth woman to do it. She also works with the Juniper Fund, a nonprofit she started with fellow guide David Morton that provides vocational training and financial assistance to Nepalese families of mountain workers.
Perhaps counterintuitively, her life in the mountains has uniquely prepared her for motherhood’s alpine starts, and she’s well equipped to deal with high-stress situations. “I have basically made my career being a professional caretaker and risk manager, and that’s a lot of what parenting is,” she says. “So much of what I do in guiding and climbing is a series of making situations work when you’re tired, and taking care of people. So it feels pretty normal, in a way.”
Arnot-Reid grew up near Durango, Colorado. Her family didn’t have much money, but they put a premium on the outdoors and emphasized internal happiness. Following one’s passion was far more important than adhering to societal norms, like going after college degrees and nine-to-fives. Even so, Arnot-Reid graduated from the University of Iowa when she was just 18. But she missed the West and soon moved into her truck to pursue climbing and work as an EMT in Montana.
She and Reid plan to instill the same ethic in their daughter. Instead of starting a college fund for Kaia, they’ve started a travel fund. “Nature teaches us so much more than humans can teach each other. Traveling teaches you flexibility and resilience,” she says. “If traditional education is what she wants, we’ll support her in that, but that’s not my goal for her.” There are scholarships available for college, says Arnot-Reid, but it’s not likely that someone will fund your personal travel.
“When you become a mother, you become part of a group that you didn’t know you weren’t a part of,” she says. The love and support she’s received from other moms is similar to the community she’s created through her own mentorship program. Arnot-Reid currently has a handful of female mentees, ranging in age from 16 to 36, to whom she teaches not only technical skills, like crevasse rescue and rope systems, but also how to navigate the often testosterone-filled world of mountaineering. “I let them into my life, into my house, and give them full disclosure on how everything works. I’m pulling back the curtain,” she says. And in return, they’re teaching her. “In creating a safe space to be vulnerable, they’ve also taught me to be vulnerable.”
Arnot-Reid’s goal with the program is twofold: to get more female mountain guides in the system, so they can mentor even more women, but also to help transform longer-held—and deeper-seated—gender stereotypes in the mountains. Early in her career, Arnot-Reid had male clients refuse to be on the rope team she was leading, because she was a woman. She knows there’s a lot of work to be done before people don’t just picture a man when they think of a mountain guide. “I’m lucky enough to have a daughter, and she will grow up thinking of a mountain guide as both her mom and her dad,” she says. “That’s something we won’t have to teach her.”
Melissa Arnot-Reid’s inspirational story is the fourth to be featured in our partnership series with Jeep. Our first story featured pro surfer turned humanitarian Jon Rose, our second featured adventure photographer Chris Burkard, and our third featured biker Ayesha McGowan. Check them all out for stories about exceptional adventurers and their journeys to redefine freedom.