Roughly 60 years after the first American expedition to the top of Everest, another group sets out to make history. This time, a group of Black athletes from across the country, led by mountaineer Phil Henderson, a former teacher at National Outdoor Leadership School. The group, called Full Circle Everest, is expected to make their attempt on the mountain in 2022. The folks at Mountaineers Books spoke with Henderson about what it means to be part of the first Black team to attempt the mountain.
How did you decide the Full Circle Expedition needed to happen?
I was the first Black American instructor at NOLS – probably the first Black American employee – when I started back in 1994. When I look back at almost 30 years in the industry as an outdoor professional I’ve been to Denali twice, I’ve been to Kilimanjaro twice, and I ran the first Black American expedition there. I’ve been on Mount Kenya probably 16 times. I’ve done a lot of work with guides and porters in Kenya and Tanzania as well as volunteer work training high altitude workers with the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal, but people don’t know who I am. Personally, I don’t need that, but we don’t have room not to talk about ourselves anymore, by doing so we let history repeat itself. If we can change the storytellers then we can change the stories. We can make sure people don’t get left out.
Black people have accomplished big things in the outdoor community. We are part of the climbing community already. We’re engrained there, but we’re still a very small population. For the most part, if you go to a climbing crag, if you go on an expedition, if you go to Denali, or on a NOLS or Outward Bound Course, it’s likely you’re going to be the only person of color in that environment. We’re trying to give people an opportunity to not be the only person of color on an expedition. That’s one of the things that I have always looked to change. I think that the industry is wanting to change that as well. This expedition not only inspires people of color but it’s also galvanizing for all people in our community.
Our fiscal sponsor is the Greening Youth Foundation. Back in the summer of 2019, they held their annual Legacy Camp Out. It’s in Atlanta, Georgia, and it’s held at the Martin Luther King National Historical Park. The biggest highlight I’ve had in my whole outdoor career was going there and doing a presentation to elementary school kids and their parents. After my talk, a young girl, maybe 10 or 11, came up with her mother and said, “Excuse me, sir. I have a question. What would you say to a young Black girl who wants to climb Mount Everest?”
At this point, only nine or ten Black Americans have been on the mountain that we know of. We don’t actually even know the total number. We seek to almost double that in just this one expedition.
What’s the meaning behind the name Full Circle Everest?
Full Circle is about giving forward; it’s about seeking people who have a passion for being outside and taking the experiences and the skills that we have and bringing that full circle and giving back to those people who are interested. That’s what happened with me. When I came into the industry, I knew nothing. I knew no one who worked in the industry. But people reached forward and took me and said, Hey, let’s go do this and let’s go do that. Those experiences have given me that same attitude, and I want to pay that forward to younger people who haven’t had those same opportunities.
It’s also about creating this circle of people of color who can raise that level of representation and inspire more people of color to get outdoors. And it doesn’t stop at just people of color. At the heart of it, people are people, and in the bigger picture, we hope to inspire a lot of people to get outside and do things that maybe they didn’t know they wanted to do, or know that they have a passion for, because they don’t know folks who look like them doing these things. It’s all about taking the experience and knowledge and skills that one person has and then transferring those to help someone else gain.
How is the training coming together?
A lot of it is about teamwork. When you’re living together for two and a half months on Everest, you really need to be a team. We got together several times. The first time in Bozeman we went ice climbing and skiing. We stayed in a hut, and the initial trip was just to get the group together. Then we came to Rainier as a team-building trip and to gauge fitness level. We started hiking at night, 5,000 feet up to Camp Muir – we had a full moon. We were also the only ones out there, which was great.
We would like to do a shake-down trip to Nepal with as many team members as possible this fall. We want to connect with our support team so that they become members of our team. It also exposes other team members to the culture and the food so that when we go to Everest it’s not the first time they’ve been exposed to those things. We’d like to climb a 6,000 meter peak as well. I hope we can make that happen.
If our fall trip doesn’t happen, we’re looking at putting together a four or five-day trip for the team in the midwinter where we get together and just be cold. One of the most important things that you need to climb Everest is to be comfortable in the cold. Training should peak somewhere in February or early March, and then a rest period before going to Nepal in late March/early April.
What do you hope the takeaway for this expedition is?
The expedition is not just about climbing. I want people to know more about us than the fact that we’re climbers. I’m a father, I’m a husband, and I have a 13-year-old daughter who I’ve taught to love life in the outdoors. I took my daughter to Nepal when she was four. She went back again when she was 11. And so to me, it’s not just about climbing, but also about the global connection with the climbing community.
I am almost 60, and not that people stop climbing or mountaineering at 60, but for me it really is time to start looking at my family and other things in life. Most of my career, this Black outdoor community didn’t exist, and now it does. I have an opportunity to pass the torch as a mentor. That’s what this expedition for me is about: supporting these other people on this trip that have goals for themselves, and have a super bright future in terms of climbing and mountaineering and outdoor education.
I’ve been working in the outdoor industry close to 30 years and because of the lack of representation, all of the opportunities that have come up for me have been by white people. I can’t say I don’t have mentors; I just don’t have mentors who look like me. I want everyone in this community regardless of what you look like. We all want to work together.
How can people support the expedition?
To secure our permits and support team, we need to raise $200,000. It’s a big goal, but I believe it’s absolutely possible. We’re asking the community to amplify our expedition and provide financial support if you can. We’re also seeking opportunities to include science or environmental projects in our expedition. Though we are working our way towards fulfillment, we still have some gear needs… I’m grateful to Scarpa, who has already provided generous support.
You can learn more and spread the word from our website, fullcircleeverest.org, and through our GoFundMe page. You can also follow and amplify our story through Instagram. Every measure of support makes a big difference in creating opportunities for Black climbers and changing the narrative of who belongs in the outdoors.
Thanks to The Mountaineers for allowing us to republish this interview here.