Cortez mountaineer Philip Henderson stood alone in 2012 as the only Black person out of 700 climbers attempting Mount Everest. The troubling moment grew into a catalyst for change.
Ten years later, he has traveled from the desert Southwest back to an Everest base camp in Nepal, and this time he is leading a historic expedition of Black climbers to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain.
The goal of the Full Circle Everest Expedition is to encourage more people to learn and experience the joy of outdoor adventure sports including mountaineering, which lacks diversity.
“There is a huge disparity in terms of Black people being represented in high-altitude mountaineering,” said Henderson, 58, during a presentation at the Dolores Public Library in December. “We started talking about it, and that is how this expedition picked up steam.”
Of the about 6,000 people who have summited Mount Everest, fewer than 10 were Black people. A Black team had never summited Everest.
In 2013, Henderson was the second African American to summit the 20,310-foot Denali peak in Alaska. The first was in 1964.
During their expedition in April and May, the nine Full Circle climbers plan to change history one crampon step and rope-length at a time on their journey to the top of the world at 29,032 feet.
Team members include Henderson, Abby Dione of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; James “KG” Kagambi of Kenya; Manoah Ainuu of Bozeman, Montana; Fred Campbell of Seattle; Demond “Dom” Mullins of New York City; Rosemary Saal of Seattle; Eddie Taylor of Boulder; Thomas Moore of Denver and Adina Scott of Seattle.
The expedition is being documented online on Flipgrid, and anyone can sign up for free to follow along.
On April 21, the team, dressed in thick parkas with a cloud-shrouded Everest looming in the background, gave an update on Flipgrid from base camp at 17,700 feet. It is available on YouTube.
Taylor, a science teacher at Centaurus High School in Boulder, said the team reached base camp April 18 after a 10-day trek up the Khumbu Valley.
“It’s a cool place and a cool opportunity just to be here,” he said.
Henderson said the expedition had connected with their 25-person Sherpa team – Nepalese workers who help guide and set up fixed lines and camps for Everest expeditions.
“They make sure we are safe on the mountain,” Henderson said.
The team hopes for a weather window in mid-May to make an attempt at the summit. They must reach four high-altitude camps before their push to the top.
The team climbs up and down neighboring peaks to acclimate for the attempt on Everest, Henderson said.
Using nearby peaks to acclimate reduces time spent in the unstable Khumbu Ice Fall, one of the most dangerous areas of the Everest climb.
Sherpas are especially exposed to the ice fall because they must cross it many more times to carry gear to camps. Inexperienced climbers also contribute to the high fatality rate of Sherpas on Everest.
All expeditions participate in a puja, a Buddhist ritual that blesses all the climbing gear.
Henderson said the idea of the expedition came from his mountaineering background and friendship with the Sherpa people over many visits to the region.
“I want Black and Brown people to share the Everest experience and be connected to the culture in Nepal,” he said during the Flipgrid broadcast.
Dione said Everest requires persistence, and you have to be “prepared to be in the outer limits of your comfort zone. We have excellent teammates and an incredibly supportive Sherpa team.”
Getting everyone connected to nature is a passion for Henderson, a professional alpinist and outdoor educator. He worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School for 20 years and at the Khumbu Climbing School in Nepal with famous climber Conrad Anker.
Henderson and his family moved to Cortez in 2016. He works at Osprey Packs.
During his December talk in Dolores, Henderson said that in his 30 years of climbing and outdoor education, he has seen far fewer people of color participate compared with the number of white people.
The disparity reflects a lack of opportunity for many people to learn outdoor skills, such as rock and ice climbing, river running, skiing and mountaineering.
“Humans have been driven away from the natural environment, some of us more than others,” Henderson said. “The outdoors belongs to everyone, and we should all have that opportunity. I want to open up that door for people to have the experience.”
He has seen prejudice himself.
While in camp on a 2012 Everest expedition as a team leader, a stranger looked at him and said, “What are you doing here!” he said.
Henderson teaches ice climbing clinics at the Ouray Ice Park, and members of the team train there as well.
He also trains for his alpine expeditions in the San Juan Mountains, including backcountry skiing on Lizard Head Pass with his dog and friends.
The Full Circle Everest Expedition name is inspired from the first American expedition to reach the summit of Everest in 1963, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his historic “I Have A Dream” speech, which helped to define the Civil Rights movement.
Full Circle Everest has corporate sponsors, and a GoFundMe account raised $182,627 for the expedition.
During his presentation in Dolores, Henderson shared his story of getting hooked on outdoor sports and how it turned into a career.
After his dreams of a playing football were dashed by an injury, he enrolled at age 27 in the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming and became an outdoor guide.
“If you wanted to work year-round, you had to diversify your skills, so I learned whitewater rafting, kayaking, climbing and backcountry skiing,” he said.
In 2000, he guided a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, then guided climbers on Denali in Alaska in 2005.
He met Anker, who invited him to teach at his Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal, which was developed to improve Sherpas’ climbing skills.
In 2012, he was a team leader of the North Face/National Geographic Everest Education Expedition. He shared some of the details.
Most of the climbers’ time is spent at base camp and climbing to the higher camps to acclimate, he said. Hilaree Nelson, a professional mountaineer from Telluride, was on the climb, and summited Everest and 27,940-foot Lhotse peak on the same day.
The Everest environment is extreme, Henderson said, with high winds, frigid temperatures, thin oxygen and intense climbing in dangerous conditions. Deadly avalanches and ice falls are always possible.
“It really is the luck of the draw at times. Things happen,” he said.
Sherpas carry much of the gear, and some camps have cooks. Denali is harder than Everest in some ways because you have to carry all your gear, Henderson said.
He said climbers spend weeks on the mountain acclimating and moving up and down to different camps before going for the summit. Base camp is comfortable with many amenities, including a medical tent.
Henderson did not summit in 2012 because he became ill with bronchitis at Camp 2 at 21,000 feet.
Crowds intensify when there is just a three- to four-day window to reach the summit, when up to 700 climbers try all at once and create a gridlock made famous by media coverage. Other years, the window can be 10 days, and crowds are dispersed.
“It is not always that crowded,” Henderson said.
When acclimating, climbers go up to the first camp, then back to base camp for five or six days. Then they move on to the higher camp, sleep and retreat to a lower camp and so on until they are positioned for a summit bid at Camp 4 at 26,000 feet.
Glaciers on Everest are receding because of climate change, and it is exposing more debris from past expeditions, even bodies of climbers who perished on the mountain.
International climbing is as much about the people as it is the mountain, Henderson said.
Immersing yourself in the culture is more rewarding than participating only in the climb, he said.
In his 10 visits to Nepal, he has connected with the Sherpa community. Having a daughter did not interfere with his climbing life; he took her along.
“I’ve watched their family grow, and they remember me and my daughter,” he said. “I wanted to have more of a relationship with folks.”
As part of the Khumbu Climbing Center, Henderson arranged an internship in which Nepalese Sherpas came to the U.S. to learn about American climbing culture and learn English. When they return to Nepal, they are better guides.
As an outdoor educator, Henderson’s mission is to encourage, inspire and mentor people about the power of nature and the importance of getting outside.
“What I’m saying is we can all teach each other, and the time we spend together outdoors is the time we can make a difference,” he said.