More than a summit to scale
The story of how Full Circle, the first all-Black expedition to ascend Mount Everest, climbed with a greater purpose
At around 8:30 p.m. on May 11, the eight members of the Full Circle Everest Expedition reached their summit window, where they would begin the climb to the world’s highest peak. On the southeast ridge on the Nepal side of Mount Everest, these six men and two women would be rewarded for all those hours of training and fundraising they had committed to getting to this moment.
They had already made history as the first all-Black expedition to Mount Everest and were preparing to climb to the summit at more than 29,000 feet. Thousands of climbers from around the world convened on the highest of the Himalayas in Spring during a seven- to 10-day window when the winds died down.
The Full Circle team had been in Southeast Asia for more than a month. On April 2, the group arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and spent a few days there before taking another flight to Lukla. From there, it started the 25-mile trek to Base Camp at Mount Everest.
Phil Henderson, 59, the Full Circle Everest Expedition leader and founder, made his first expedition to Mount Everest in 2012. For the Full Circle Everest Expedition, Henderson assembled a team of experienced climbers who were well prepared for the push to the summit.
Now, he looked into the future of Black climbers and outdoor adventurers through the eyes of the eight committed to this adventure.
“There have been many Black climbers before us,” Henderson told Andscape. “But their stories haven’t been told. Now we have an opportunity to really change the industry.”
The history of Black climbers isn’t restricted to “firsts” such as Matthew Henson, a Black explorer who was the first person to stand on the North Pole, or Sophia Danenberg, who in 2006 became the first African American and first Black woman to summit Mount Everest.
Out of the nearly 6,000 people who have successfully summited Everest, seven of the 18 Black people to complete the feat came from the Full Circle Expedition. A majority of those who occupy outdoors and climbing spaces are white males. As much as the expedition has received international attention for being the first all-Black group of climbers to the mountain, Full Circle’s ultimate objective is not to glorify its own achievements as pioneers as much as it is to accelerate opportunities and recognition for Black people in the sport.
As a child growing up in tiny Detroit Lakes, Minn., Eddie Taylor, 32, formed an appreciation for nature and the outdoors on trips to national parks with his family. The high school chemistry teacher and track coach who lives in Boulder, Colo., learned to ski early and took up climbing after running track at the University of Colorado.
“There is climbing everywhere in Colorado,” he told Andscape. “And so when I quit track, I found that a natural fit for me to keep improving and progressing was to go outside and start climbing.”
In early 2021, Taylor met Henderson in Ouray, a popular outdoor destination in southwestern Colorado that bills itself as the “Switzerland of America.” Taylor was there for ice climbing when he ran into Henderson, a San Diego native who now lives in Cortez, Colo.
Separated by a generation, Taylor and Henderson bonded over their experiences as African American climbers.
“When you don’t see yourself represented in something, it’s harder to see yourself venturing into that activity. Hopefully, having this imagery of a diverse group of Black climbers on Everest can help that seem more possible for people.”Rosemary Saal, Full Circle Everest Expedition Member
Initially Taylor wasn’t interested in joining the group.
“I’ve done a few big mountains,” he said. “But Everest wasn’t my goal in climbing. I am primarily a rock climber, which I can do in an afternoon. Everest is a marathon. You’re hiking for the better part of five days straight.
“But seeing Phil’s vision of changing the complexion of the climbing industry is something that I really wanted to get behind. I could count on one hand how many Black climbers I knew. When you see people climbing, they don’t look like us.”
For the Full Circle members, the journey to Mount Everest was as fulfilling and daunting as their effort to reach the summit.
“Most of the people on our team climb with people who don’t look like them,” Taylor said. “So it was really interesting that there was already an understanding of some of these issues that folks on the team face. We talked about it, but there was already this deep understanding that we started with.”
For more than a year, they met twice a week on Zoom calls, strategizing about sponsorship decks to raise the $50,000 each team member needed for the trip. Even with the financial support that came chiefly from The North Face, they still needed to come together as a group for a common purpose.
Henderson has spent the last 30 years pursuing adventure sports opportunities for Black climbers.
“The people and the climbing industry are just now catching up to me,” he said. “We are here and I’ve been doing this work for many years.”
Henderson worked as an outdoor educator in Wyoming and as a guide on big mountains in Kenya, Tanzania and Nepal. In the mid-2000s, Henderson met Conrad Anker, a well-known U.S. climber. Over the years, they began to discuss the concept of an all-Black expedition to Everest.
In Ouray, where he had met Taylor, Henderson would also meet Manoah Ainuu, Fred Campbell and Demond “Dom” Mullins, three climbers who became Full Circle members. Looking for female climbers to join the team, Henderson invited Rosemary Saal, Abby Dione and Adina Scott.
Team photographer Evan Green often experienced the climb from a different perspective.
“Balancing photography and climbing on the trip was difficult,” said the 34-year-old Dallas native and freelance photographer. “Sometimes I prioritized myself and focused on what I had to do, and I would take a photograph when it was safe. Photographing on the mountain was extremely difficult. The lighting was very bright because of the amount of snow bouncing and the intensity of the sun at that altitude.”
At 62 years old, James “KG” Kagambi of Kenya is one of its most experienced climbers. He has known Henderson since they worked together at the National Outdoor Leadership School, where he has been a field instructor since 1987.
Kagambi first told Henderson no when invited to join the team in 2020. He was concerned about his bad knees and his age.
“No one deserved to be on this team more than Kagambi,” Henderson said. “He brought a wealth of climbing experience and knowledge working in the outdoors.”
Thomas Moore, a 38-year-old small business owner from Cartersville, Ga., was on the path to climbing the Seven Summits when he heard about the team and decided he had to be a part of it. Moore was the last climber added to the Full Circle team.
“It made sense because I know what it’s like to go to Everest, where you will likely be the only Black person on an expedition,” said Henderson. “Thomas wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than himself.”
Moore had stumbled into climbing after a business associate asked him to join an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to get a Delta Airlines discount. He didn’t know much about mountaineering but was hooked instantly after that first experience in Tanzania.
On the way home, he Google searched “Black Mountaineer” and nothing came up. He also googled the Seven Summits, the seven highest mountains on each of the seven continents.
When Moore learned that no Black person had ever accomplished this feat, he became determined to do it.
“Growing up, the benefits of the outdoors were not preached to me,” he said. “Being a part of this team with other climbers of color to be on the forefront of changing that for others is pretty cool. This team will be a catalyst for younger people in communities to get into mountaineering.”
For most of her childhood, Rosemary Saal knew she wanted to be an outdoor educator and climber. For several years, she has taught backpacking and mountaineering courses. As a student and now educator, she has seen a racial disparity in those taking outdoor education courses.
“When you don’t see yourself represented in something, it’s harder to see yourself venturing into that activity,” Saal said. “Hopefully, having this imagery of a diverse group of Black climbers on Everest can help that seem more possible for people.”
Campbell is a climber for The North Face in the Seattle area, where he grew up and now works as a data scientist for Microsoft. He’s an ambassador of the sport and organizes events to bring more diversity to climbing in his hometown. He does climbs with organizations for The North Face. He has ice climbed with a group from Memphis Rocks, a nonprofit climbing gym and community center in the Soulsville neighborhood of Memphis, Tenn. This summer, he plans to lead a group from Memphis Rocks on a climb at Mount Rainier in Washington state.
“You can look at other sports and see Black athletes,” said Campbell, 35, who played football at Stanford. “In traditionally white sports like golf and tennis, Tiger Woods and Serena [Williams] have had a huge impact in getting people to try those sports, but I don’t think we’ve had that with a Black climber.”
At Everest, Campbell got sick on the first day and didn’t make the summit push with the rest of the team.
“It was very disappointing,” he said. “This was something that we had put a lot of effort into on the logistics side, getting funding and organizing. It was tough, but I was so sick that there was nothing I could do.”
On summit day, Henderson tried to control his nerves as he gave last-minute instructions to the climbers during perhaps the most tense period of the expedition. They had only a 24-hour window to summit before the start of potential storms.
In November 2020, Henderson released a plan to the team that included more rest days and fewer days on the mountain. In January, several climbers met for a team-building hike at Everest Base Camp. Henderson would run logistics from Base Camp, staying in touch with the climbers by radio and coordinating equipment and supplies.
To adjust to the increasing altitude, the group took 10 days to reach Base Camp as it hiked through trails from town to town, passing through Sherpa communities. When they arrived at base camp on April 16, the climbers took three days to set up their stations for the next few weeks. Since leaving Lukla, they had climbed more than 8,000 feet to Base Camp (17,300 feet), where they still had another 12,000 feet to reach the summit.
But Henderson’s greatest concern was what would happen when the climbers reached the death zone, where climbers reach 26,000 feet and oxygen deprivation causes the body to start dying.
“It’s the moment of no turning back,” Henderson said. “We know that there are people that go there and don’t come back. That’s a morbid way of thinking, but that’s Everest. It happens. You have to make sure you’re talking to the team about these dangers so that they make good decisions.”
At Mount Everest, there are two primary routes to the summit. From Nepal, there is the southeast ridge, the line drawn by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who on May 29, 1953, were the first climbers confirmed to reach the summit. On the Tibet side of the mountain, there is the north ridge. On the southeast ridge, there is the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, a river of melting ice located between Everest Base Camp and Summit Camp 1. At least 13 Sherpas were killed during an avalanche in this section of the mountain in 2014.
Before ascending through the dangerous icefall, a couple of Full Circle members used neighboring peaks to acclimate to the altitude. The team, however, did have one scary moment.
“The icefall is this pinched section of the mountain where everything funnels through this one area, but it’s the only way up,” Campbell said. “It was snowing really heavily for a long time as we were climbing. The concern was that it was snowing high enough that it was loading these faces that were vulnerable to an avalanche, and if it did, it would funnel right into our path.
“We were a bit worried, but we called and got in touch with the rest of our team, and learned that it wasn’t snowing high enough to put us in danger.”
At base camp, Henderson was supported by Scott, 42, an electrical engineer, who provided tech support for the climbers and led science experiments with team members to measure weather conditions.
On Summit Day, she monitored the radio.
“It was electric sitting there listening to the radio transmissions as one teammate after another successfully summited,” Scott said. “But there was also a lot of anxiety because the journey isn’t over until people make it home safely. So it was an emotional roller coaster.”
Manoah Ainuu, 27, is a Full Circle member and a paid climber for The North Face with Campbell. He grew up between both Los Angeles and Spokane, Wash., where he first learned about climbing.
“I was really hesitant about it because of the whole thing about Black people not climbing,” he said. “But I got over that with skiing because my dad took me.”
When Ainuu moved to Bozeman, Mont., after high school, he started climbing in indoor climbing gyms before transitioning to mountains. He is the only Black person who climbs in his area. Like many of his Full Circle teammates, he came to the team through a chance meeting with Henderson at an ice climbing festival in Ouray that he attended with Campbell. At 1:34 a.m. on May 12, Ainuu was the first to summit from the Full Circle team. Each climber sets a pace, and Ainuu moved to the top fastest of the more than 200 climbers who summited that day.
“Growing up, the benefits of the outdoors were not preached to me. Being a part of this team with other climbers of color to be on the forefront of changing that for others is pretty cool. This team will be a catalyst for younger people in communities to get into mountaineering.”Thomas Moore, Full Circle Everest Expedition Member
Campbell was back at base camp for summit day because he was up all night coughing. He could hear on the radio when people summited.
Taylor found his groove and made his way to the top behind Ainuu.
“Everybody thinks of mountain climbing as this daunting and hard thing, but we were mostly all upbeat and listening to music 95% of the time,” Taylor said. “Climbing is about finding your rhythm. You have to keep that rhythm and pace to climb big mountains.”
Moore was the last to summit from the group. He was in intense pain with frostbitten feet.
“What was I going to do?” said Moore, who was eventually airlifted with Campbell out of the mountain to Kathmandu via helicopter. “I had to walk. I couldn’t become a liability to my Sherpa. I was in the death zone, where I needed oxygen to breathe.”
Later, after everyone had made it back to base camp, most of the team partied with the Sherpa, who make every Mount Everest expedition possible. The new Kendrick Lamar album had just dropped and the sounds of hip-hop mixed with the music of the Sherpa villages.
Before the Full Circle members broke with Mount Everest, they gave many of their clothes and supplies to the Sherpas.
For Henderson, it was an emotional and fitting ending to a journey that he envisioned for many years. They stayed the course and built a great team for two years through the coronavirus pandemic and the struggles to raise money.
“There are people that think that we just got together as Black people to go climb a mountain without any experience,” Henderson said. “We’re climbers. This is what most of us have been doing for years. We did this first as climbers, but we also had this other weight on our shoulders as Black climbers on Everest.
“You represent so that other people can see themselves doing things, but you also represent your whole community by doing it. If we don’t perform well at Everest, it’s a double whammy. So, I’m very proud of these climbers and myself as the first Black person to lead an Everest expedition.”
Still life photography by Idris Solomon. Portraits by Kareem Black. Other images courtesy of The North Face, Getty Images.