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The Highest Mountain

Coloradan Philip Henderson led the first all-Black expedition to a successful summit of Mount Everest. It’s an important step for better representation in the outdoors, but there’s still a long climb ahead.

Himalayan highway:  Supplies head up the Khumbu Valley to Everest BaseCamp.

On May 12, 2022, the world celebrated the successful ascent of the Full Circle Everest Expedition. For the first time, an all-Black team of climbers made it to the top of the highest peak in the world. Organized and led by veteran outdoor educator and Coloradan Philip Henderson, this group of eight men and two women, each of African descent, including a native of Kenya, achieved a goal that has been in the making for more than 60 years. Of the 10 climbers on the team, seven stood on the summit and in doing so walked into the pages of history.

“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!” Henderson announced to the world in a press release.

The members of the Full Circle team who successfully summited Mount Everest include Manoah Ainuu, Eddie Taylor, Rosemary Saal, Demond “Dom” Mullins, Thomas Moore, James “KG” Kagami, and Evan Green. The remaining members of the group who made it to Camp 3 with Henderson are Fred Campbell and Abby Dione. Logistical support at Base Camp was provided by Adina Scott. And local guides whose assistance made this expedition possible included Pasang Nima Sherpa, Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, Phurtemba Sherpa, Dawa Chhiri Sherpa, Sonam Gaylje Sherpa, Nima Nuru Sherpa, Chopal Sherpa, Chawang Lhendup Sherpa, Tasha Gyalje Sherpa and Amrit Ale. Still images and video were captured by Pemba Sherpa and Nawang Tenji Sherpa. 

“Really the summit could happen for anyone, but to be in a position to be the first African American man on the summit, that’s honorable. But it’s also a lot of weight to carry,” Henderson says. “When it comes to diversity, we have people on one side of the fence and those on the other side and there will be haters. But you know—it’s time.”

It’s important that we acknowledge the names and various roles of the many people involved in this monumental endeavor. Too often when it comes to exploration and adventure, we allow history to neglect the contributions of those who played a critical part in the successful outcome of groundbreaking events such as this. 

“For far too long, people of color have been denied or overlooked in the opportunity to climb on the highest peaks of our planet,” says renowned Everest climber Conrad Anker. “Phillip Henderson and the team at Full Circle Everest have taken this historical context and moved it forward to where we are today. The first all-Black expedition summiting Everest will have repercussions that reverberate throughout the communities of outdoors people and those that look to see better representation in the mountains.”

A Bold Statement

Though an all-Black climbing expedition might sound like the exact opposite of diversity and inclusion, the Full Circle Everest team aimed to make a bold statement to demonstrate the agency of people of color to achieve this lofty goal through their best efforts as a community. 

“I believe that this group will actually be the catalyst to changing the literal face of the outdoors,” says team member Thomas Moore who lives in Denver. “I think it will be what brings more and more Black and brown folks into the outdoors. Just being able to see it, that’s a big deal.” 

Prior to this expedition, of the 10,654 known climbers who have summited Everest, only six were Black. Sibusiso Vilane was the first on May 26, 2003. Sophia Danenberg of Seattle, Washington, reached the summit of Everest on May 19, 2006, as the first Black woman and the only Black American. Then came Nadir Dendoune of France in 2008, Rohan Freeman of Jamaica in 2009, Saray N’kusi Khumalo of South Africa in 2019, and Aretha Duarte of Brazil 2021. With the addition of the Full Circle Everest Expedition, the number of Black climbers to ascend to the summit has now more than doubled.

“If you look at the socioeconomics and where we were in terms of the Civil Rights movement, we were not in a place where we could effectively spend time in the outdoors or in the wilderness,” says team member Eddie Taylor, who teaches chemistry and coaches track at Lafayette, Colorado’s Centaurus High School. “There wasn’t that heritage from folks like us doing that before. That wasn’t something that people even thought was feasible. But we’re changing that.” 

Throughout the social media landscape, followers of the Full Circle Everest Expedition have lauded the team with praise and adulation for its accomplishment. Black and brown folks especially have shared their excitement for having this high-profile event organized by Henderson to represent the positive lived experiences of people from their community in the outdoors. But we cannot presume that this single expedition, though successful, means that the goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion in outdoor recreation has at last been achieved. Like mountaineering itself, reaching the summit is only half of the journey. Just as the members of the Full Circle team had to negotiate a challenging, more dangerous descent back to base camp, the work of DEI continues as we create space for a newly inspired and motivated generation of outdoor enthusiasts to follow their example.

“When Jackie Robinson started playing baseball, do you think people were saying the same thing: Why does it matter? Sure, they were, because back then this was an area that people like us had not broken into yet,” Henderson says. “He become that person that people look up to and look where they are today. That’s why this matters now.”

Raising the Profile

The outdoor industry is rapidly beginning to recognize many things that must be done to create a recreational environment that better represents a population of U.S. citizens that is growing more ethnically diverse year after year. The Black Lives Matter Movement and the racial justice protests through the summer of 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd, Amaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and others have prompted many organizations to make changes in the way they do business. Lauren Guthrie leads inclusion, diversity, equity, and action for the VF Corporation. As a novice hiker she walked with the Full Circle team to Everest Base Camp to experience this expedition firsthand.

Pemba Sherpa and James Edward Mills

“I think for us at VF, we want to play a really key role in making the outdoors more accessible for everyone. And part of that is looking at the baggage of this industry and supporting those whose voices haven’t historically been elevated. And I think this is an incredible platform to do that,” Guthrie says. “This time has been rich with conversations with each one of the members of this team around what the future holds and how we can leverage this moment of inspiration and aspiration, but also continue to look for ways to make this more accessible.”

But even an organization as big as VF can’t do this work alone. Guthrie says that in order to support diversity initiatives on an industry-wide scale, coalitions of support must be created to find those opportunities where otherwise-competing groups can work together to amplify the work of one another in service of something greater than just selling products. The Full Circle Everest expedition is one such initiative that aims to not only improve representation among people of color in the outdoor industry but also create the means through which they might elevate their careers in the future.

“We have several professional athletes on the team, and I think that this is going to raise their profile in a big way,” says Everest summiteer Demon “Dom” Mullins. “We have other professionals on the team who are also connected to the outdoor industry in some way, whether they are mountain guides, instructors of some type, working for the National Outdoor Leadership School, or even a gym owner. This is going to raise their profile and allow people to see Black people represented in the sport.” 

After almost eight weeks on the Full Circle Everest Expedition, all the team members are eager to get back to their lives with a renewed sense of purpose. Eddie Taylor, a high school science teacher and track coach, looks forward to seeing his students graduate. Rosemary Saal, a mountain guide and outdoor educator, says she plans to spend some time on a warm beach somewhere, maybe Mexico. And Thomas Moore, a Denver-based entrepreneur, plans to continue training toward his next big climbing goal. He aims to be the first Black American climber to reach the Seven Summits.  

Pemba Sherpa and James Edward Mills

“I am still on track. If Carstensz (Indonesia’s Punack Jaya) opens up, I’ll go for it in October,” Moore says. “I’m not sure what the Russian war does for visas over the next year for Elbrus, but I have five of the seven and I want the last two.”

As for Philip Henderson, he’ll go back to work at Osprey Packs in Cortez, Colorado, where he hopes to settle in for some well-deserved down time.

“It’s hard not to be excited when you make history,” Henderson says. “But for now I’m just going back home to rest, relax, and be with my family.”

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving, and practices of sustainable living. He has worked in the outdoor industry since 1989 as a guide, outfitter, independent sales representative, writer, and photographer. He is the author of the book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors and the co-writer/co-producer of the documentary film An American Ascent.

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