Only 10 blacks have reached the summit of Mount Everest.
Now a team called Full Circle Everest hopes to become the first all-black group to climb the world’s tallest mountain — and in the process, inspire more black people to spend more time outdoors.
Full Circle Everest is a crew of nine climbers. Philip Henderson, 58, an outdoor enthusiast and mountaineer with over 30 years of experience, is one of them.
After an injury kept him out of traditional sports, Henderson says, “I realized that, you know, life is short. You should do whatever you want to do in life.
The idea of attempting such a significant feat came about organically during a conversation between Henderson and other black climbers, he explained in an interview with NPR. The team eventually grew to seven men and two women, ranging in age from 25 to 60.
Next year, the team will attempt what only a few thousand people have done: reach the summit of Everest.
It is 29,032 feet high and climbing it is not a task to be undertaken lightly; hundreds of people have died on the mountain and sometimes not even their bodies make it home.
But the Full Circle Everest team is very experienced. In their individual climbing careers, they have all reached heights of over 20,000 feet and are familiar with high altitude climbing. Some have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Mount Denali, the highest mountain in North America.
For this group, Everest was “a good next step,” Henderson said. If an intimidating.
“I’m nervous, but it’s not really nervous. It’s just a daunting task,” Henderson told NPR. “I tell people all the time that climbing Everest is a slow process, but the process doesn’t start when you get to the mountain. We’re in the process now…the preparation you have, the training, team building.”
The Full Circle Everest team is spread across the country, from New York to Florida to Colorado, where Henderson lives. They meet every week on Zoom, to connect as a team, and they train alone in the meantime.
But how do you prepare to climb the highest mountain in the world?
The best thing you can do is get used to carrying weight and doing it at altitude, Henderson explained. But it’s hard to recreate; Everest’s base camps—sites at the foot of the mountain where climbers can stop for supplies and rest—are themselves located at around 17,000 feet.
“[You do] as much as you can. It’s about spending long days on your feet, in the cold, with weight on your back and at altitude if you can, in any way you can fake it,” Henderson said. “But there’s also the mental training. There’s also strength training, core training.”
“I’m a big believer in cross-training and I do a lot of different things, but there’s just no replacement for just going to the mountains and hiking,” he said.
Full Circle Everest aims to inspire
The Full Circle Everest team hopes to make history next year, but it’s not just about the climb itself. After the group set a goal of reaching the summit of Mount Everest, another secondary aspiration began to take shape that each of them could relate to: inspiring other black people to explore the outdoors.
“We’re all black…there’s a lack of black representation in mountaineering and in high altitude mountaineering,” Henderson said.
“There are so few of us at this level that it is our duty, in a sense, to bring this to our communities, to our young people and to talk about the benefits of being outside and connecting with the nature and to have a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives,” he said.
Statistically, there is a huge racial gap between people who most often benefit from outdoor spaces and who participate in outdoor activities. Nearly 70% of visitors to national parks, forests and wildlife sanctuaries are white, and black people visit these sites the least of any group, according to a report by the National Health Foundation.
But the reasons are far from simple. Racism is a factor: Due to segregation, black people, historically, have had to deal with feeling unwelcome and even unsafe in many public spaces, as a report by Resources pointed out.
Blacks are also less likely to have access to quality parks. Parks serving “non-white” populations are statistically smaller and busier than those serving white communities, according to a 2020 report by the Trust for Public Land.
But access to parks and nature is especially important for children. Some experts have speculated that if an individual doesn’t have much experience in nature as a child, this trend is likely to continue into adulthood, according to the Resources report.
But communing with nature doesn’t have to start with mountaineering. Getting outdoors can mean birdwatching, taking a simple walk in the park, or hiking, Henderson explained. He advises trying different things to see what you like.
For those looking for community, there are a number of groups for black people interested in exploring the outdoors. Outdoor Afro helps black outdoor enthusiasts connect and meet nationwide. Black Outside aims to “diversify [the] outdoors.” And Black Girls Trekkin’ inspires thousands of Black girls and women to get out and connect with nature and each other, every year.
The climbing group’s goal of inspiring their community is exemplified by the name Full Circle Everest. As its website explains, the first American group reached the summit of Everest in 1963, the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Reaching the top would be a loophole moment for them, and they hope it will inspire other black people to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.
“It really represents people taking what they’ve learned, their experiences and their skills and passing it on to people who have a passion to do some of those same things,” Henderson said. “So you can really incorporate this full-circle concept into almost anything.”
The group will head to Everest next year, during the main climbing season in April and May, for a grueling 60-day venture. In the meantime, they are raising funds to support their efforts and documenting their journey via Instagram and Facebook.
Once they’re done, the outdoors will be a more inclusive place, according to their GoFundMe page.
As their statement says, “Everest is not the end goal, but just the beginning.”
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