Episode 24: How Black climbers are closing the adventure gap
Ten Black adventurers. More than 29,000 feet of altitude. One historic summit of Mount Everest.
Ever since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest, there has been a long list of firsts: the first ascent without supplemental oxygen, the first in winter, and the first full ski descent, to name a few. The first Black climber reached the roof of the world in 2003. But until this year, no team of Black climbers had done it. Meet one of the climbers in the Full Circle Everest expedition, and learn why he hopes this historic accomplishment shows that Black people belong in outdoor recreation too.
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PETER GWIN (HOST): Earlier this year, James Edward Mills did something I’ve always wanted to do. He flew to Nepal and trekked to the base of Mount Everest.
JAMES EDWARD MILLS (JOURNALIST): I did travel with the team from Kathmandu to—from Lukla. Then we basically walked from Lukla to Everest Base Camp.
GWIN: Wow, man. Was that your first time to Base Camp?
MILLS: It was my first time to Asia.
GWIN: Oh wow!
MILLS: Yeah, definitely the first time I’ve been to Everest Base Camp.
GWIN: James is a journalist who’s covered the outdoors for decades. And he’s been following a climbing expedition called Full Circle Everest. OK, Mount Everest—obviously a big deal. Tallest mountain on Earth. More than 29,000 feet above sea level. James wasn’t going for the summit, just Base Camp. But even that’s no small task. Everest Base Camp is at 17,500 feet. And at that altitude you’re right on the edge of what the human body can handle for any length of time.
MILLS: I think we got, like, a light rain on the way up. It wasn’t anywhere near as cold as I thought it was going to be. It was every bit as steep as I knew it would be, and lack of oxygen is a very real thing.
GWIN: Hundreds of people attempt to climb Everest every year. Most of them—including Full Circle Everest—rely on Sherpa and other local people as guides.
I’ve always heard Base Camp is like a mini UN. People come from all over the world to chase a common goal, and there’s usually a little competitive tension in the air but also a sense of a shared journey. James says the Full Circle team really felt like everyone was in it together.
MILLS: We had the puja ceremony, which basically is the blessing for the climb, basically asking for spiritual permission to make the climb to the summit. The environment was festive. It was jubilant. I mean, we had people come up and share in all the food and beer and alcohol and just having a great time chanting and singing and dancing and, you know, really having a celebration.
GWIN: By now, there’s a long list of Everest firsts. The first ever ascent in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. The first ascent by Americans, 10 years later, which was sponsored by National Geographic, by the way.
The first ascent without supplemental oxygen: Italian Reinhold Messner and Austrian Peter Habeler. The first in winter: two Polish climbers, Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy. The first person to ski down from the summit: Davo Karničar from Slovenia.
Yeah, I know, all this seems nuts. But it seems like if you name it, someone’s done it. And yet there was one first that still hadn’t been claimed, which the Full Circle team had their eyes on. The first Black climber summited in 2003—Sibusiso Vilane from South Africa—but a full team of Black climbers had never reached the roof of the world.
MILLS: And not unlike every representation when it comes to mountaineering, we’re always going to count the first American, the first Italian, the first Chilean. I mean, we’re always going to count this. But we never took the time to count the number of Black people, and I think that was very important that we did in such a way that it was representative of how we go about defining ourselves, not only nationally but culturally.
GWIN: James knows of six Black climbers who’ve reached the summit. By other estimates, it could be as many as 10 or 12. Either way, that’s a tiny fraction of the thousands of people who’ve made it to the top.
MILLS: So I personally felt that it was really important that we established a bigger, better conversation around representation of Black people when it comes to high-level wilderness adventure, specifically the biggest prize, which is the summit of Everest.
GWIN: I’m Peter Gwin, and this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week we go inside Full Circle Everest, a group of Black climbers trying to make history on the world’s highest mountain. We’ll learn about the adventure gap that keeps many people of color away from the great outdoors. And we’ll follow one climber who wants to set an example for budding Black explorers to follow.
We’ll have more after the break. But before we get on with this episode, thanks for listening. And if you like what you hear, consider a National Geographic subscription and get exclusive access to stories published daily, curated newsletters, and 130 years of archives. Subscribe today at natgeo.com/exploremore.
For more than 30 years, James Edward Mills has been a wilderness guide, an outfitter, and then a journalist covering the outdoors. And like a lot of outdoorsy people, it all started when he was a kid.
MILLS: I grew up in Los Angeles, California, and despite the fact that it’s a very urban area, we actually have quite a bit of nature. You know, as a kid, it was a monthly activity to go camping or skiing or climbing with my brothers and the other boys in our Scout troop. And so as a kid growing up, despite having had very many positive experiences myself as a Black kid growing up in Southern California, there weren’t very many of us.
GWIN: James says there also weren’t many Black outdoor role models to look up to. So through his organization, the Joy Trip Project, which covers the outdoor recreation industry, he focuses on stories that show those role models. He covered the first all-Black team to attempt to summit Alaska’s Denali, the highest mountain in North America.
MILLS: At the time of this expedition, in 2013, the National Park Service estimated that less than two percent of park visitors were Black. And relative to our percentage of the population, that’s egregiously low. And one of the things that I realized is that there seemed to be a technical divide between who spends time in nature and who doesn’t.
GWIN: James coined a term for this: the adventure gap. Put simply, Black Americans are less likely to spend time in nature. There’s many reasons for this, but for starters, there’s a long history of white people preventing people of color from enjoying the outdoors.
In 1934, nearly two decades after the creation of the National Park System, Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech in Glacier National Park, where he said that “there is nothing so American as our national parks.” He added that “the fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people,” and he went on to say that the parks “help enrich the lives of all of us.”
But when he said this, Jim Crow segregation extended to the outdoors. Black travelers could be turned away with signs that said For Whites Only. On paper, all national park facilities were desegregated in 1945. But in reality, it took years for some parks to welcome everyone.
MILLS: But I just think it’s ironic because—so in 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary summited Everest, Black people in America couldn’t visit national parks. And so you have this beginning of the modern mountaineering era, and you have very limited representation of Black people in outdoor recreation because of Jim Crow segregation, because of very clear cultural, social prohibitions that prevented this access to nature.
GWIN: But even after it ended, segregation cast a long shadow. And many Black adventurers are still trying to stake out a place in the outdoors. One person who’s made a mark is a climber named Phil Henderson.
MILLS: Phil grew up in Southern California, a lot like I did. You know, he grew up and had really great experiences in the outdoors. But also he felt that he was not given his due as a Black person in the outdoors.
GWIN: Ten years ago, Phil was actually part of a National Geographic expedition to Everest. He’s also led climbs of Denali and Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
MILLS: I remember he told me a story once about working in a gear shop. Gentleman’s in the store looking for some backcountry skis. Philip walks up to him and asks if he can help. The guy says no, and then he goes to ask someone else for help, and that salesperson comes to Philip for advice because he knows more about backcountry skiing than he did. Now this person assumed that as a Black person, Phil couldn’t possibly know anything about backcountry skis or mountaineering, but he’s had decades of experience in this.
GWIN: A few years ago, Phil told James about his new big idea. He wanted to send Black climbers to Everest. And not just one or two of them but a whole team. If all went well, his team would almost double the number of Black people who’d reached the roof of the world.
MILLS: And he basically invited me to help to document the story of the expedition, and truthfully, I became an embedded journalist on this project. And that included being involved from the very beginning. So despite the fact that I wasn’t actually a climber on this expedition, I was trying to play a role to help guide its course while still reporting on it.
GWIN: One thing I’ve learned about Mount Everest is that
unless your name is Reinhold Messner or Göran Kropp—epic Swedish adventurer, look him up—you don’t climb the world’s highest mountain alone. There are Sherpa hauling gear and oxygen bottles and setting ropes. You’ve got staff at Base Camp cooking hot meals and making sure the gear all works. You’ve got experts sending weather forecasts and medical advice. And sometimes, you just need support—someone who has your back on this all-consuming endeavor.
As Phil Henderson started putting together his team of Black climbers, he heard from Conrad Anker, an old friend and a world-class mountaineer. Conrad has summited Everest three times,
including leading the Nat Geo expedition Phil was a part of. And Conrad has made it a point to give back to the climbing community. He established the Khumbu Climbing Center, in Nepal, a vocational school that helps train local guides in professional mountaineering techniques and wilderness first aid.
GWIN: All roads seem to lead through Conrad Anker. So how did Conrad sort of get involved in this whole expedition?
MILLS: It’s funny that you put it that way, because, I mean, I’ve known Conrad for over 30 years. One of the things that Conrad has been really supportive of is making the outdoors more accessible to more people. I think that he has recognized his personal privilege but also perhaps the responsibility of making sure that the outdoors is more accessible to more people. One of the things that I really respect him for is, he kept his role exclusively advisory. He offered support and encouragement. When someone needed to be persuaded to support the expedition, he put in a good word for us, but he allowed this expedition to happen organically. Philip Henderson did all the heavy lifting, and this, ultimately made this an expedition that was 100 percent person of color led.
GWIN: How did they go about putting together a team? I mean, you can know a lot of people, but climbing Mount Everest is sort of a whole ’nother project. So what—how did they go about doing that?
MILLS: Well, it’s really interesting because, there are a lot of climbing festivals, and after a while, you kind of have this camaraderie circle, because inevitably, when you see a Black climber at an event like this and you’re a Black climber, you’re going to connect. You’re going to gravitate towards one another. But then again, of course, who has the skill and expertise to do vertical ice climbing? It’s a very rarefied skill set, so there’s not very many people who can do that. So you start asking around, So who’s good at ice climbing?
Coming up, Phil Henderson finds an ice climber. We’ll meet one of the members of the Full Circle expedition and learn how he went from growing up in Brooklyn to scaling frozen waterfalls. More after the break.
GWIN: Putting together a high-altitude climbing team is a tricky business. First, you have to have people with specialized skills who are extremely physically fit and who can work together under really intense pressure—and you have to be ready to trust them with your life. And in Dom Mullins, Phil found one of his guys.
MILLS: Dom is an amazing character. And he’s one of the few climbers that I didn’t know before we put the expedition together.
DEMOND “DOM” MULLINS (MOUNTAINEER): Excuse me here, because I just got my food served, so I’ll be sipping a little soup while we’re talking.
GWIN: This is Dom. When James reached him, Dom was in the Himalayas, training for the climbing season. Dom took a winding road to becoming a mountaineer. He grew up in Brooklyn—not many mountains around Brooklyn—and he enlisted in the Army after high school.
MILLS: At the age of 19, he was a recruit in the U.S. Army on September 11, 2001. And he literally, in basic training, was plunged into the Iraq war and was deployed originally to New York City to patrol the site of the fall of the Twin Towers. But he was actually among the very first ground troops that were sent to Baghdad and Fallujah.
GWIN: After his discharge, Dom became an antiwar activist. He worked as a staffer in the U.S. Senate, and then he earned a Ph.D. at the City University of New York, studying sociology. His military network led him to a group called Veterans Expeditions, a nonprofit that organizes outdoor trips for vets. Dom started climbing mountains with the group in Colorado, and he realized there was a whole world he knew nothing about.
MULLINS: I didn’t have an understanding of the ceiling, basically, of this sort of activity. Something that I’ve fallen in love with thereafter, which is ice climbing—I didn’t even know that that existed at the time. I grew up in Brooklyn. I never even seen a frozen waterfall, much less thought about—considered the fact that waterfalls freeze, you know what I’m saying? And I attended various clinics that Veterans Expeditions had on rock-climbing, on ice climbing, on mountaineering, glacier travel. I just continued to attend their clinics until eventually in like 2015, an opportunity to join a Denali expedition that they were hosting came about.
GWIN: On that 2015 expedition, Dom reached the summit of Denali, the highest point in North America, more than 20,000 feet above sea level. Now he had a taste of extreme mountaineering, and one little taste wasn’t enough. In climber jargon, Denali is one of the Seven Summits—the list of highest peaks on each continent. After Dom conquered one of the seven, he started to wonder what his next challenge would be. And it didn’t take him long to find the answer.
MULLINS: In just even conversation with people, especially people who had their eyes set on the Seven Summits or whatever, they’re like, Oh, wow, you did Denali. That’s like one of the hardest of the Seven Summits. You know, next would be Everest. And I was like, Wow, that’s very interesting prospect. And then because of my relationship with Veterans Expeditions and heading out to Highlight Canyon every so often every year to ice-climb, I had the opportunity to make friends with Conrad Anker. And then Conrad dropped a little bug in my ear about the possibility of this, and I was like, Wow, that would be amazing. You know, this is feasible.
GWIN: In the end, Phil recruited nine members to join him on the Full Circle team, including Dom. In all, there were nine Black Americans and one Kenyan, ranging in age from 26 to 62.
But remember how I said nobody climbs Everest alone? The backbone of practically all Everest expeditions is the local people, particularly the Sherpa. They haul the gear and supplies, set up Base Camp, cook the meals, set ropes, and guide the climbers all the way to the summit. Basically, they are the lifelines in one of Earth’s most hostile environments.
For many years, most Sherpa working on Mount Everest didn’t get their due, other than maybe Tenzing Norgay. Stories about the world’s highest mountain basically treated them as invisible. But now, Nepali mountaineers are showing the world how skilled they are. Many have opened outfitting businesses and take climbers and trekkers on expeditions throughout the Himalaya. And last year, an all-Nepali team was the first to reach the summit of K2, the world’s second highest peak and widely considered the most dangerous. And they did it during winter, a feat many thought was impossible.
MULLINS: Nepalese people are amazing. Sherpa are amazing. I’ve met some really strong Nepalese climbers that really inspire me. When you look at Sherpa here in the Himalaya, you’re like, These people are hard. They’ve survived a lot, man, and they’re really resourceful. Well, what does that sound like? That reminds you of Black people in the United States. Hardy people, they’ve been through a lot, and they’re crazy resourceful. So, that’s the same type of representation that I’m cultivating for myself and hopefully contributing for Black people in the United States for how Nepalese people view them.
So the Full Circle team made sure that the Sherpa were included in the story.
MILLS: Like, for example, Pemba Sherpa, who was one of the photographers on the expedition, had been on Everest to summit four times prior to this expedition, so he had long experience. But what’s interesting is that he has an interest in becoming a photographer and a filmmaker, and so this is actually an opportunity for him to work on this project with us to raise his profile. And so now his pictures with this expedition are being seen literally all over the world.
GWIN: In April, the Full Circle team was in Base Camp and preparing for their big push to the summit. Climbing Everest actually takes several weeks. You go through a series of climbs and descents to get used to the altitude. By this time, James was already back in Wisconsin
and was getting text messages from the team on their progress. And when the 10 climbers finally set off on their summit attempt, he hung on every update.
MILLS: I was really pleased to hear that they actually had a target weather window so that they could summit on May 12th. And the fact that the weather was so well predicted that, five days before the actual summit date, they knew that this was going to be their window of opportunity. Everyone was climbing strong. Everybody was in good physical condition.
GWIN: So did they encounter any obstacles? I mean, other than it’s Mount Everest and the altitude is—will kill you alone, et cetera, et cetera. But were there any sort of setbacks or dramatic moments that you remember hearing about?
MILLS: That’s just it. None! I mean, there are no moments of trauma or anxiety or—at least not that they’ve shared with me so far.
GWIN: So tell me, James, where were you when you heard they finally summited?
MILLS: You know, I’m sure I was either at my desk at home or maybe at the gym or something like that. I mean it was—it’s one of those things where it’s like birthing twins: Did they all come out OK? Some people will climb faster than others. Some people will summit. Some people will stay at the high camp and then summit later. So I’m literally waiting for dispatches one at a time as people are coming through. And, I mean, as anyone will tell you, getting to the summit is only halfway to finish the expedition. You’ve got to get back safely.
GWIN: In the end, seven of the 10 Full Circle team members—assisted by eight Sherpa—made it to the summit and into the history books. And most importantly, every member of the team came home safely. Now that a whole team of Black climbers has reached the top of Mount Everest, James hopes the expedition sends a simple message: The outdoors is for you too. Here’s how Dom Mullins put it.
MULLINS: I think it does matter, particularly because in the sport of mountaineering, people of African descent are underrepresented. And “underrepresented” is a euphemistic word to describe how scarce Black people really are in the sport. So I think that by representing Black people dedicated to achieving something like this exhibits a positive representation for Black people who may be interested in the outdoors or who may be just developing their skills in the outdoors, and makes them feel like that’s a space for them as well. It’s a recreative space. It’s a professional space for Black people to aspire to as well.
GWIN: When I talked to James, he was in Denver at one of the biggest outdoor retail trade shows. He wants to help gear companies reach Black consumers. It’s not that everyone has to climb Mount Everest. He just wants people to explore a neighborhood trail or park. At the trade show, he was with Phil Henderson and two other Full Circle climbers.
MILLS: People are stopping them in the aisles, congratulating them. You know, they’re posing for pictures. And one gentleman in particular said to Philip, “Thank you what you’re doing for the culture.” And that level and degree of representation is critical, because it’s demonstrated to an entire generation of Black men and women and their children that there are no limits to the things that they can do in the outdoors.
GWIN: In the 1920s, a reporter asked British explorer George Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, and Mallory gave a famous answer. He said, “Because it is there.”
The Full Circle team climbed Everest not only because the mountain is there but because they are here too, and the next generation of Black explorers is watching.
If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.
You can also keep exploring with more stories in our show notes. We’ve got pictures of the Full Circle team as they climbed Everest. And check out James’s podcast, The Joy Trip Project. He also has an extended interview with Dom Mullins, so you can go deep inside the mind of a mountain climber with a really interesting backstory. You can also learn about how people are closing the adventure gap and read an article by James about how the National Park Service could make parks more welcoming for people of color.
Also if you want to experience what it’s like to actually stand on the summit of Mount Everest, we’ve got you covered. A couple of years ago, we used panoramic drone photographs to create a 360-degree view from the top of the mountain. It’s the next best thing to actually being there,
and you don’t even have to strap on an oxygen bottle. That’s all in the show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.
This week’s episode of Overheard is produced by senior producer Jacob Pinter. Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss. Our senior producers include Brian Gutierrez. Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Our manager of audio is Carla Wills. Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan. Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer. Our photo editor is Julie Hau. Ted Woods sound-designed this episode. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and has funded the work of James Edward Mills.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. See y’all next time in the great outdoors.
Read more about Full Circle Everest, the revolutionary team that made history on the world’s highest peak. And go deeper with James’s podcast episode featuring an interview with Demond “Dom” Mullins, as well as James’s website The Joy Trip Project and his book The Adventure Gap.
Black Americans make up just two percent of National Park visitors, according to a 2018 report. Read about how the National Park Service is trying to live up to its credo to provide “Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”—all people.
Income disparities and an inability to take time off work can restrict people of color from outdoor recreation. Follow a group of people strapping on crampons and climbing frozen waterfalls for the first time.
Check out other groups—like Outdoor Afro and Melanin Base Camp—dedicated to diversifying the outdoors.
See Everest from above. Panoramic drone photography shows what it’s like to stand on the roof of the world.
In 2021, researchers announced a new height for Mount Everest: 29,031.69 feet above sea level. Learn how they arrived at such a precise measurement, as well as the biting-cold, middle-of-the-night ascent that made it possible.
Everest may be the world’s tallest mountain, but K2 is often called the most dangerous. In another Overheard episode, we chronicle the all-Nepali team that climbed K2 in winter, something that had never been done before.