An all-Black expedition aims to summit Everest

Only 10 Black climbers have ever summited Everest. This historic expedition hopes to double that number.

By Melba Newsome
Published 4 May 2022, 10:57 BST
Expedition Training
The Full Circle Everest Expedition team, composed entirely of Black climbers, hopes to summit in the footsteps of previous alpine attempts with the hope to inspire a new generation of explorers.
Photograph by Pemba Sharwa, Full Circle Everest

At least 4,000 people have summited Mount Everest—at 29,032 feet, the world’s tallest mountain—since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the peak in 1953. But only 10 of these summiteers were Black.

The Full Circle Everest Expedition team, composed entirely of Black climbers, plans to double that number during the 2022 climbing season. So far, an all-Black expedition team has yet to make it to Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, which means “Goddess Mother of the World.” This group will ascend in the footsteps of previous alpine attempts with the hope to inspire a new generation of explorers.

“Everest is an icon,” says Philip Henderson, leader of the team and one of the only Black instructors at Nepal’s Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC), which trains some of the world’s premier mountaineers. “I can’t put my finger on exactly when I said this was going to happen—the idea came together in bits and pieces.” 

Most Everest expeditions typically aim to make summit between the first and third weeks of May, when snowstorms are less likely and wind speeds are normally below 50 miles per hour.

Some members of the team have already set adventuring firsts: Abby Dionne was the first Black woman in the United States to own a climbing gym; James “KG” Kagam­bi was the first Black African to summit Alaska’s Denali and Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua. The team of three women and eight men, ranging in age from 29 to 60, includes a data scientist, a psychology professor, a high school chemistry teacher, and a marine electronics technician. 

In late March, the group met up in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and flew to the town of Lukla. From there, they began climbing about a thousand feet each day through the Khumbu Valley to reach the South Everest Base Camp (elevation 17,598 feet), where they now wait for optimal weather to begin the final ascent. Most expeditions make summit between the first and third weeks of May, when snowstorms are less likely and wind speeds are typically below 50 miles per hour (safe speeds are generally less than 30 miles per hour). 

Now, after years of preparation, this team of climbers hopes its success will change the perception of mountaineering as a non- inclusive sport and persuade more Black people to embrace wilderness adventures.

Changing the face of climbing

Hundreds of climbers aim for the top of the world each year, but the ascent is notoriously risky and success is never certain. The mountain’s “death zone”—the elevation point above 26,000 feet where oxygen deprivation, compromised decision-making ability, and unpredictable weather conditions peak—have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of people, including western climbers and Sherpas. 

In early April 2022, members of the Full Circle Everest team climbed to Everest Base Camp in Nepal to acclimatize their bodies to the high altitude.
Photograph by Philip Henderson, Full Circle Everest

(How climbers faced down the ‘death zone’ on one of Earth’s tallest mountains.)

According to a 2019 American Alpine Club report, only one percent of the American climbing community identifies as Black. It wasn’t until 2003 that South African Sibusiso Vilane became the first Black man to summit Mount Everest. Three years later, Sophia Danenberg became the first and only Black American and Black woman to summit Mount Everest, an event that went widely unnoticed until a few years ago. 

But things are slowly evolving. Henderson says he’s seen more Black people at climbing and mountaineering events in the last four years than in the previous 20 years combined. 

He credits social media for making people of colour more visible, as well as the outdoor adventure industry’s push to diversify. “I do think the industry is trying. They’re realising,] ‘We are not telling the stories of these people of colour and not really inviting them in.’” 

(Nepali mountaineers achieve historic winter first on K2.)

The Full Circle Everest team strikes a balance between movement and rest while waiting for the right weather conditions to begin the trek to the mountain’s summit.
Photograph by Amrit Ale, Full Circle Everest

Fred Campbell, a Microsoft data scientist and a member of Full Circle Everest, acknowledges that with increased visibility comes with increased responsibility. “It would be nice to just climb [Everest], but we are representing Black people,” he says. “As much as it’s an extra burden, I think it’ll have a positive impact.”

Conrad Anker, a professional mountaineer and founder of KCC, adds “When children around the world see themselves reflected in this all-Black expedition, they too will experience and become part of the value set that is climbing.” 

The importance of teamwork

Mountain climbing is increasingly seen as a team sport that requires strong leadership and trust among the members. Unlike groups that come together at Everest Base Camp, the Full Circle Everest team trained together on Washington State’s Mount Rainier and in the mountains near Bozeman, Montana, to prepare themselves for the challenges they may face.

Henderson adds there is an extra level of comfort that comes from being part of a team where people look like you and laugh at the same jokes. “To have that type of support in an endeavour like trying to summit a mountain is important,” he says. “It’s more about that journey than it is about just climbing a mountain.”

The Full Circle team arrived at the South Everest Base Camp on April 17 and joined hundreds of other summit hopefuls in the colourful tent city atop the Khumbu Glacier. Every day of their two-month journey is mapped out for gradual acclimatisation to altitude and to maximise team health and cohesion. 

(Explore historic Mount Everest expeditions through National Geographic maps.)

Over the past few weeks, they settled into a mundane routine of eating, resting, acclimatizing, making quick jaunts partially up the mountain, and pondering the logistical challenges ahead. Waiting is the hardest part, says Henderson.

His first attempt at the mountain a decade ago ended at Camp II (elevation 20,997 feet) when his oxygen levels dropped dangerously low, but the ordeal taught him the patience he tries to pass on to his teammates. “Everest is a dangerous place and there’s a high risk,” he says. “You gotta move slow.”

Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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