Almost 60 years after the first successful American ascent of Mount Everest, a team of U.S. climbers aims to make history once again on the world’s highest peak. Led by Phil Henderson, a former instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School and a veteran Himalayan mountaineer, this group, made up of athletes from across the country, aspires to be the first all-Black American expedition to reach the summit.
This new project, called the Full Circle Everest Expedition, was announced at the Outdoor Retailer Summer show this August in Denver. Set to begin in 2022, the team aims to create a supportive cultural environment that will encourage other people of color to dream of climbing big mountains.
At a moment when much of the world is coming to grips with the glaring disparities of representation among people of color—in most human endeavors, not just outdoor sports—this remains one feat that Black Americans have yet to achieve. Though climber Sophia Danenberg, a Black woman based in Seattle, ascended the mountain in 2006, her great accomplishment has yet to be duplicated. And to date, no Black American man has ever made it to the top. Black men and women from Africa and Jamaica have reached the famed Himalayan peak. But never before has a team composed exclusively of Black Americans attained this goal.
“I believe this project is important to the development of our team members in their growth in the mountaineering space,” Henderson said. “It is bringing forward a greater conversation about Black and brown people in the outdoors and what that means: past, present, and future. Being that our entire team is made up of Black people, it is an important display of leadership, commitment, and teamwork to our community as well as the greater climbing world.”
The nine-member team is composed of seven men and two women: North Face-sponsored athletes Manoah Ainuu and Frederick Campbell; Eddie Taylor, a high school teacher; Demond “Dom” Mullins, a combat veteran of the Iraq War; Abby Dione, owner of Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym; James “KG” Kagambi, a NOLS instructor with many successful climbs of mountains in Africa and Europe; Thomas Moore, an entrepreneur based in Denver; and Rosemary Saal, a NOLS instructor who led the first all-Black American team to the summit of Africa’s Kilimanjaro in 2018.
A milestone in mountaineering
Despite the major social strides that people of color have made in the United States since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, for Black Americans there are many “firsts” that remain in high altitude mountaineering. There are still gaps between aspiration and achievement when it comes to climbing the great peaks of the world. As men and women of African descent assert their desires to spend time in the outdoors just for the sake of adventure, many in recent years have become accomplished alpine athletes who are more than capable of leading ambitious expeditions of their own. With the deliberate intention of creating a cadre of high-profile role models, members of the Full Circle Expedition Team aim to close the loop and inspire a new generation of Black and brown climbers to seek out and achieve equally audacious goals.
“I want to complete the seven summits,” said team member Thomas Moore. “ I would also love to be a part of the team that introduces younger people of color to the outdoors and mountaineering, as well as the many possibilities and benefits of climbing.”
Of the more than 10,000 summits of Everest that have been completed, only six climbers have been Black, and among them only one has been an American. Relative to the overall population of non-white people in the modern world, that number should be much higher. Supporters of the Full Circle Expedition, including well-known Everest climber Conrad Anker, believe that efforts like this one can bring a much broader cross section of the American public into the sport of mountaineering.
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“Imagine if Black boys and girls had role models that shared the values of dedication, hard work, and trust from the airy heights of Everest,” Anker said. “It’s not that Everest isn’t there for Black climbers, it’s that the opportunity hasn’t been equal with talent that’s out there.”
With the formal announcement of the Full Circle Expedition at the Outdoor Retailer Summer this month in Denver, the team has begun to reach out to outdoor industry organizations for support. In addition to assistance in funding the project, Henderson wants to encourage companies and institutions to engage in efforts to bring more people of color into the business of outdoor recreation to help continue the movement toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“We need greater representation in the outdoor industry,” Henderson said. “A big part of that has to be on the upper scale. This is an iconic mountain. We want to include Black and brown people in the history of American mountaineering in the Himalayas. Right now, there just aren’t too many of us. We want to change that.”