Of the 10,271 people who’ve triumphantly set crampons atop the highest point on Earth, fewer than 10 are Black. Next spring, 10 climbers plan to change that: A group of of alpinists from across the U.S. and Kenya have teamed up to become the first Black mountaineering expedition to reach the summit of Mt. Everest since the 29,032-foot Himalayan giant was first scaled in 1953.
“Because it’s Everest, it’s an iconic mountain to climb for anyone who’s into mountaineering,” says Philip Henderson, leader of the seminal Full Circle 2022 Expedition. “The other part of it—we could climb other mountains in the Himalaya—it’s a test. It’s a piece of experience in someone’s mountaineering career. It’s about the Sherpa people and working with them. It’s sharing that connection with other American climbers who haven’t been to the Himalaya.”
For the Everest climb, Henderson (58) from California, now living in Colorado, will be accompanied by Abby Dione (FL), Manoah Ainu (MT), Eddie Tayler (CO), Thomas Moore (CO), Fred Campbell (WA) Demon (Dom) Mullens (NY), Rosemary Saal (WA), and James Kagambi (Kenya). Their 70-day trip starting in March 2022 will follow the mountain’s standard route (the southwest ridge), where they’ll advance from basecamp at 17,598 feet and ascend 11,434 vertical feet to reach the summit, using bottled oxygen from Camp 3 and above.
In 2012, Henderson attempted Everest and reached Camp 3 only to get turned back due to bronchitis. If successful, this upcoming trip will see him reach the summit and, for the first time, be accompanied by other Black and Brown climbers.
“I enjoy every step I take in the mountains,” says Henderson. “Wherever it takes me, it takes me. I’ve been to East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), Nepal, and Chile. It’ll be 30 years next summer that I’ve worked in the outdoors.”
Henderson may never have chosen his adventure path if it hadn’t been for a football accident that left him temporarily paralyzed during his early 20s. For three long minutes he couldn’t feel anything below his neck, long enough he feared he’d never walk again. At first, merely making it out his front door was all he could muster. Then he branched out farther—first up nearby hillsides, then peaks.
Henderson hatched the idea of returning to Everest during the annual Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado, where he was teaching a clinic. “I ran into Fred Campbell and someone started talking about Everest, then Manoah Ainu came around the corner. There were three of us. I’d never climbed with three Black people before, especially in the backcountry.”
The trip grew from there, morphing into the Full Circle 2022 Expedition with the aim of “permanently changing the future of mountaineering on a global scale,” according to their GoFundMe. It will “showcase the tenacity and strength of these climbers and highlight the barriers that continue to exist for underrepresented communities in accessing the outdoors.”
According to the American Alpine Club, only one percent of climbers are Black. That’s the same annual percentage of visitors to Yosemite National Park who are Black, says Shelton Johnson, one of three Black rangers (ever) in the Park.
“It feels segregated because there’s a legacy of segregation in our country,” says Johnson. “When someone asks me why people of color don’t visit national parks, you have to remember something. We come out of a history of exclusion, rather than inclusion, segregation rather than integration.”
In May 2022, Henderson and the Full Circle Expedition’s Everest bid will mark a significant step in the other direction and a new chapter in the fabled mountain’s history.