There’s been lots of talk in the media recently about Melissa Arnot’s attempt to become the first North American woman to summit Everest without bottled oxygen. But, it’s already been done.

In 1996, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer led commercial expedition teams attempting Mount Everest. Each team had a leader, several guides and eight paying clients. Many of the members reached the summit on May 10, but five individuals, including the two leaders, died as they tried to climb down the mountain during a storm. Hall and Fischer died during the descent, but were credited with ascents of Mount Everest.

In 1998, Francys Distefano-Arsentiev and her husband, Sergei Arsentiev, died descending Everest. Francys was an American climber, an American female climber, and in May of that year she became the first North American woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen.

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Francys and her husband Sergei. Photo Montagna.tv

It was on May 22, their third attempt, when they reached the summit. They’d spent three days in the death zone. Exhausted, they summited, but were separated on descent. After Sergei reached camp, he realized Francys was gone and went back up. Not long after, an Uzbek team found Arsentiev frozen and struggling to survive. They made an attempt to help her, but were too tired to do anything more. They passed Sergei on his way up. No one would ever see Sergie again.

The next day, a team including Ian Woodall and Cathy O’Dowd found Francys still alive, but barely. Sergei was gone, but his ice axe and rope were next to his wife Francys. Woodall, O’Dowd and their team could do nothing, but Woodall and O’Dowd gave up their chance of summiting to stay with Francys and give her as much care as they could.

In 2007, Woodall wanted to give Francys some sort of dignified burial. After a short ritual, Woodall lowered Francys’ body to where she was no longer visible to climbers passing.

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Cathy O’Dowd later became the first woman to climb Everest from the north and the south.

In a an article written in 2000 for The Guardian, O’Dowd said:

“Don’t leave me,” she said. Her skin was milky white, and totally smooth. It was a sign of severe frostbite and it made her look like a porcelain doll. Her eyes stared up at me, unfocusing, pupils huge dark voids. “Don’t leave me,” she murmured again… “I am an American. I am an American,” the climber suddenly said… The decision to leave Fran came upon us without much discussion. The Uzbek climbers and Lhakpa had long been of that opinion. What hope I had faded in the face of her incoherence, her physical incapacity. Now Ian and Jangbu straightened up and turned away. She had stopped talking and seemed to have sunk into unconsciousness. The thought of going on was intolerable. I had lost the will to reach the summit. Besides the physical drain of the cold, I was emotionally shattered. I had never encountered anything like this. I had passed bodies, I had had friends not come back, but I had never watched anyone die. Nor had I had to decide to leave them.

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Edmund Hillary once said, “I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down, and the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

Some might not consider Francys’ summit a true ascent because she died on the descent. But, if Hall and Fischer’s ascents counted, and they did, then why wouldn’t Francys’?

Melissa Arnot is attempting to become the second American woman to summit Mount Everest without bottled oxygen.

And, there should be more credit given to Francys Distefano-Arsentiev in the American climbing circles. She bravely spent three days in the death zone to become the first North American woman to climb Everest without bottled O2.

Francys Distefano-Arsentiev, on Mount Everest, in this undated handout photo, was the first American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest without bottled oxygen.  Distefano-Arsentiev, along with her husband Serguei Arsentiev, of Norwood, Colo., died on the mountain, after the successful ascent May 23, 1998. No one knows exactly why the couples' descent turned deadly, but officials think the two were weakened after spending three nights at such a high elevation.   (AP Photo/Lexington Herald-Leader, HO)
Francys Distefano-Arsentiev, on Mount Everest, in this undated handout photo, was the first American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest without bottled oxygen. Distefano-Arsentiev, along with her husband Serguei Arsentiev, of Norwood, Colo., died on the mountain, after the successful ascent May 23, 1998. No one knows exactly why the couples’ descent turned deadly, but officials think the two were weakened after spending three nights at such a high elevation. (AP Photo/Lexington Herald-Leader, HO)

Written by Gripped editor Brandon Pullan who, before this week, never knew of Francys Distefano-Arsentiev’s legendary efforts on Mount Everest, but will now never forget them.

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3 Comments

  • Alex says:

    Anything but a complete round trip is just not a successful summit. I can’t see the logic in counting any climb where the climbers don’t come home. Yeah, it’s tragic that these people died, but that doesn’t mean that their expedition wasn’t a failure. I’d further say that any summit that requires a large amount of help/rescue to get down, shouldn’t count either. In Into Thin Air, there is a French woman who summits K2 and winds up being hauled down the mountain, and has the audacity to tell people she did it, especially amongst the surrounding tragedy. She definitely stood on top, but that was a failure. If it weren’t for others sacrificing their summit, or their chances of rescuing others, she probably wouldn’t have made it down.

    If Melissa stands on top top and walks back to base camp, I’d credit her with that title.

    • Christian Baker says:

      You’re entitled to your opinion, but a summit is a summit and that means you reached the top. Of course the goal is a full round trip, but dying on the way down doesn’t mean you didn’t reach the top. If you travel to Europe from the US and then die on the plane ride home, that doesn’t mean you didn’t go to Europe. It’s all about wording, if the record is first american woman to “climb” Everest without Ox, then I could be convinced the roundtrip is necessary for success, but if the record is first summit or first ascent, there’s no debate what-so-ever, as there is no debate on the meanings of the words ascent which is to go up, or summit which is the top. Being the first to do either of those things by definition would not require a descent. So it boils down to semantics or word choice.

      A lot of mountaineers/alpinists are also technical rock climbers, which is what I am. In that realm an ascent is an ascent if you reach the finish holds, chains, top, anchors, whatever of a 14.b and then die walking off the backside, or while lowering, the send still counts 100% and no respected climber would even argue the contrary. I’m not saying this makes you wrong or me right, just one other possible reason for the debate.

      • Lagerbaer says:

        I don’t think our comparison is fair. Nobody denies that they made it to the top. They just acknowledge that getting down is a part of the process.

        With hard single-pitch sport routes, it’s different because there, the entire nature of the descent is completely different: You either walk off something super-easy or you get lower on the chains, and everyone agrees that doing the moves to the top is what counts.

        For a mountaineering objective, the descent is a *huge* part of the overall process, requiring a set of technical skills just as involved as those for the ascent.

        I have no foregone opinion on this matter, but we should acknowledge that those who only consider a successful round-trip a successful completion of a mountaineering objective have good reasons for doing so.