Meet the adventurer: mountaineer Philip Henderson on inspiring Black climbers

In May 2022, the successful ascent of Mount Everest by the Full Circle expedition team nearly doubled the number of Black climbers who have summited it. Expedition leader Philip Henderson tells us what this means for under-represented groups.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 3 Nov 2022, 06:00 GMT
American climber Phil Henderson will lead the Full Circle Everest Expedition in 2022.

American climber Phil Henderson will lead the Full Circle Everest Expedition in 2022.

Photograph by Full Circle Everest/The North Face/Evan Green

When did you become inspired by the outdoors?

Growing up, my family didn’t go camping and neither did my friends. It wasn’t something that happened in my community. I loved playing baseball and basketball, and I met people that way who introduced me to climbing and skiing. I jumped straight in — nobody explained anything to me, I had no mentors or role models, so I had to seek out people within the community who were willing to let me in. It wasn’t until I was 27 that I got a summer job guiding whitewater [rafting]. From there, I jumped at the chance to be a ski instructor over the winter. I just said I wanted to help, and here I am.

What was the process of getting the Full Circle Everest team together?

The team grew naturally, from just myself to a team of 11. For example, I met one guy through an ice-climbing trip and a woman through word of mouth. All of them are experienced individuals in the outdoors and mountaineering space; we just needed to meet each other to join forces. We didn’t train together regularly because we were spread all over the world, but we had two trips together: one to Mount Rainier [Washington state] in July 2021, and then to Nepal in January 2022. We had twice-weekly Zoom calls for over a year.

The timing of the expedition was important and responsible for its success. We started this process back in 2019, before the pandemic and before George Floyd was murdered. There was a lot going on socially around the world, coming out of a pandemic. People were paying attention to social justice. And Everest is an icon, so people always pay attention to it. The message was amplified by many people who, 10 years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to connect with. We have social media to thank for that.

There must be a lot of pressure on you as the team’s leader. What qualities are required?

Some people just have a natural ability, but leadership can be learned. We tell people that natural leaders are those who are the best at something, or the loudest. But that’s not always the case.

A leader has to be unselfish. A leader has to be willing to take a step back, but to know when to step forward. You have to be unafraid of conflict and able to resolve it, be capable of reading people and willing to put in more time than everyone else. You’ve also got to increase your skill set — you need to be two or three levels ahead of your team. There are so many hats that you wear when it comes to outdoor leadership, whether that means guiding people or evaluating risk.

We spent 50 days together on the mountain. That’s intense. So you need to practice self-care and taking care of others’ wellbeing, too.

What do you hope this achievement communicates to the Black community?

That you should have no barriers in life. Sure, there are financial barriers, but don’t let society tell you that you can’t do something because of who you are. You can find a way.

The benefit of getting closer to nature is not just physical — it offers emotional healing. A lot of people in the Black and Brown community have been pulled away from nature, into the cities and so on, and they don’t realise how important that connection is until they get there. We want to encourage them to feel the power of that healing.

How important is representation in the outdoors industry?

Hugely. If you don’t see people who look like you doing something, the majority of us won’t do it. We’re now seeing the outcome of increased representation. There are so many groups doing great things in the US — Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Brown Girls Climb and more. There’s this great climbing gym called Memphis Rox, which has one of the strongest climbing communities in the US because it’s right there in the city and invites kids in whether they can pay or not.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I can honestly say that I’ve been solo throughout my life and I’ve had to figure things out on my own. That’s part of the appeal of Full Circle Everest for me — I can be in a position where I can give advice to people who want to climb mountains.

Philip Henderson has assisted in the training of guides, rangers and porters on many outdoor expeditions. In 2013, he became one of the few African-Americans to summit Denali in Alaska, led an all African-American ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2018 and was the recipient of the Outdoor Afro Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. Follow Philip on Instagram @phil_henderson

Published in the November 2022 issue of  National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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