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Melissa Arnot and Ben Jones make the first ascent of Mustang Himal in Nepal; Photograph by Jon Mancuso

Behind the Shot: Melissa Arnot on Climbing Nepal’s Newly Opened Peaks

“I have actually never tried to climb an unclimbed mountain, so this was totally new for me,” says mountaineer Melissa Arnot, seen here with Ben Jones about 100 feet below the summit of 20,600-foot Mustang Himal. They made the first ascent of the recently opened peak in Nepal’s remote Mustang region, one of about 300 unclimbed peaks ranging from 19,000 to 25,900 feet that were opened to tourism in the fall of 2014.

“It was amazing to explore the unknown and to have to rely on the basics of map reading and route reading to find our way,” says Arnot, who has summited Everest five times and co-founded the Juniper Fund, which provides financial support to the families of mountain workers in need. “It really boiled climbing back down to the simplicity that first attracted me.”

Here Melissa tells us about climbing newly opened peaks in Nepal, how the Juniper Fund is helping the families of those lost in the Everest avalanche, and how to get fit to climb your own peak.

Adventure: Why did these peaks just open up for climbers? Why were they closed?

Melissa Arnot: In the fall of 2014, Nepal decided to open about 300 unclimbed peaks that ranged from 5,800 to 7,900 meters. This was an attempt to increase tourism on smaller peaks. Many of the “peaks” were just bumps on a ridge, but a handful were stand alone peaks.

A: What’s the allure of an unclimbed peak? Is there a heightened sense of exploration?

MA: I have actually never tried to climb an unclimbed mountain so this was totally new for me. It was amazing to explore the unknown and to have to rely on the basics of map reading and route reading to find our way. It really boiled climbing back down to the simplicity that first attracted me.

A: Originally you were going to check out a few peaks in the region. What happened in the end?

MA: Our plan at the start was to find three to four peaks that were close to one another and get permits for all of them, hoping to climb one. It worked out for us since we spent most of the trip just finding the peaks. Then we made an attempt on Mansail, arriving to 20,130 feet on a huge granite ridge before realizing it was going to be too much for us. When we looked at the third peak, Mansail South, we knew there was a middle section of very technical rock that would stymie us. It is climbable I believe, we just weren’t prepared for so much rock climbing!

A: How do you pick your route on an unclimbed mountain? How did it go?

MA: The route finding is a combination of map studying and looking around for obvious lines of weakness. It is so gratifying to pick a route and have it work beautifully!

A: What was climbing Mustang Himal, (20,600 feet), like compared to say, Everest, which you have summited five times?

MA: We accessed the peak through a long, loose glacier moraine before getting onto the Nhubine Himal glacier. There was some new snow and that glacier is pretty flat so we spent a ton of time train breaking. After a few hours and about a thousand feet of elevation we arrived at the North Face of Mustang Himal. It is a beautiful and clean 40-55 degree face that sweeps down. The snow conditions were perfect, and we accessed the west ridge to walk directly up to the rocky summit. It is different from Everest in many ways, but equally as beautiful.

A: How do you get to Mustang? It it pretty remote?

MA: It is crazy remote there. We accelerated our journey in after leaving Pokhara by taking jeeps and horses, as well as walking. You are just near the border of China in a place nearly no one goes so, yes I would say remote describes it!

A: Have you spent much time in the Mustang region? Does it have a lot of potential for mountaineering? Is there infrastructure for travelers entering the region?

MA: This was my first time there, but I wanted to explore exactly that. Their people are kind and welcoming to tourists, trekkers, or climbers. My hope is to bring clients there in the future.

A: Will you be back on Everest this upcoming season?

MA: I am still undecided on that. The Nepal Ministry is being a little deceptive about how they will honor permits from last year, and I need more clarity before I can make a decision.

A: How has the Juniper Fund, a organization you co-founded with David Morton to cover cost of living expenses for affected families for years after the loss of a mountain worker, been able to address the latest tragedies in Nepal?

MA: This fall David and I paid all of the families from last spring’s Everest accident. We gave each family $3,000, the first of a series of payments to support them. It was a very challenging day, but I believe we are doing the right thing to help these people.

A: What’s one piece of fitness advice for people who want to climb mountains?

MA: Train to mimic the activity you are going to do. So put on a pack and walk uphill, or go to the climbing gym. Doing the activity on a smaller scale is a great way to get fit.