History was made on the world’s highest peak when seven members of the Full Circle Everest expedition—along with eight Nepali guides—reached the summit of Mount Everest. On the morning of May 12, 2022, the team made it to Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, which means “Goddess Mother of the World.”
Since the first documented ascent of the peak in 1953, only 10 Black climbers had reached the summit. The Full Circle team, comprised entirely of Black climbers, hopes that its success will inspire a new generation of explorers from all backgrounds.
“I am deeply honored to report that seven members of the Full Circle Everest team reached the summit on May 12,” tweeted 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. “While a few members, including myself, did not summit, all members of the climb and Sherpa teams have safely returned to Base Camp where we will celebrate this historic moment!”
Some members of the team had 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.
The expedition’s Nepali porters, guides, and support crew included: Fura Chheten Sherpa, Pasang Nima Sherpa, Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, Phurtemba Sherpa, Dawa Chhiri Sherpa, Sonam Gyalje Sherpa, Nima Nuru Sherpa, Chhopal Sherpa, Chhowang Lhendup Sherpa, Tashi Gyalje Sherpa, Amrit Ale (photographer), Pemba Sherpa (camera operator), and Ngawang Tenjin Sherpa (camera operator).
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 waited for optimal weather to begin their successful 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 leading to success, this team of climbers hopes its achievement 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.
Only one percent of the climbing community identifies as Black, according to a 2019 American Alpine Club report. 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 color more visible, as well as the outdoor adventure industry’s push to diversify. “I do think the industry is trying. They’re realizing,] ‘We are not telling the stories of these people of color and not really inviting them in.’”
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.”
But the Full Circle team didn’t climb alone. They were helped by Nepali climbing guides, many of whom are ethnic Sherpa. On Everest, guides form the backbone of all expeditions. Yet despite being an essential part of the team and taking on far more risks than their clients, they are often forgotten when it comes to handing out accolades or posing for pictures on the summit.
The guides set up base camp, prepared the route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, made numerous trips to the upper parts of the mountain while hauling gear and cylinders of bottled oxygen to upper camps, and fixed ropes along the entire route. Near the summit, Nepali guides helped Full Circle to the peak and will now lead them back down the mountain safely.
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 faced.
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 endeavor 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 colorful tent city atop the Khumbu Glacier. Every day of their two-month journey was mapped out for gradual acclimatization to altitude and to maximize team health and cohesion.
In the weeks leading up their summit, the team settled into a mundane routine of eating, resting, acclimatizing, making quick jaunts partially up the mountain, and pondering the logistical challenges ahead.
Waiting was the hardest part, says Henderson, who did not attempt the summit, instead directing the team from Base Camp. “Everest is a dangerous place and there’s a high risk,” he says. “You gotta move slow.”