The walls of the dining tent were covered with letters from elementary school students cheering on the mountaineers from afar.
The Full Circle Everest Expedition climbers saw those letters every time they gathered for meals at Everest Base Camp.
“That was our inspiration. It was real,” said Thomas Moore, the Denver mountaineer who last month was part of the first all-Black climbing team to reach the summit of Mount Everest, almost doubling the number of Black athletes who have stood atop the world’s highest peak.
Those letters did more than motivate the climbers to reach the summit. The notes from school kids from across the country revealed a mission bigger than a mountain.
“As a group with many different backgrounds, we can speak to a pretty wide audience, not just Black people,” Moore said.
“This can play into conservation. It sounds funny to say out loud but to conserve the outdoors you need more than just white people. To better protect the outdoors, you need the whole collective to come together and move as a group,” he said. “That, to me, is what we can do: show the benefits of getting outside. Introduce more people to the outdoors. We all recognize it. We all see it. Now it’s time to spread that message.”
The historic May 12 summit push saw several members of the nine-mountaineer Full Circle Everest team reach the 29,032-foot peak. The Full Circle goal – beyond reaching the top of the world – was to encourage more people of color to spend more time in nature and push for lofty goals. After more than a year of training and fundraising plus six weeks in Nepal preparing for the ascent, the expedition now shifts into a new mode, sharing the success of the mission as a tool to diversify and grow the outdoor recreation world.
The expedition was led by climber Philip Henderson of Cortez.
“We definitely hope this will have a lasting impact on our community,” Eddie Taylor, a Full Circle mountaineer and teacher and track coach at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, told The Colorado Sun last September.
Taylor, who has spent his adult life shepherding kids and friends into the outdoors, laments a lack of people of color at his local rock crags and remote mountain trails. “Maybe this expedition can help change that,” he said in September.
Now that Taylor has been home for a couple weeks – and was able to catch athletes he’s coached for four years compete in state finals – he’s starting to recognize “there are many levels to the impact this expedition could have.”
“Our goal was to inspire others to get outside and already this is happening,” he said.
The team spoke over the internet with classrooms across the country as they acclimated in Everest Base Camp. Taylor sees the expedition resonating not just with kids of color but urban kids who maybe always thought of Mount Everest as something for the most elite athletes.
“Now we have this whole group of kids who see Everest as something more approachable,” Taylor said. “Maybe we’ve helped people think about Everest in a new way and maybe what the face of mountaineering should look like.”
The group has plans for a documentary detailing its preparation and ascent. There are early plans to assemble a Full Circle nonprofit that could shepherd even more people into the world of mountaineering, with guided trips and programs. The timing is right.
After years of struggling to move the needle on participation, the outdoor industry cheered an uptick in the number of people going outside during the pandemic. The Outdoor Industry Association’s 2021 participation report showed more Americans embracing outdoor activity, with newcomers tending to be young, more ethnically diverse and from urban areas. The challenge now is to maintain that momentum as the pandemic fades.
Full Circle can help with that.
“It would be so amazing to see this as a way to introduce more kids to the outdoors,” said Moore, who in 2017 read the book “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors” which detailed the first all-African American summit attempt on Denali and counts the story as a turning point that introduced him to mountaineering. “I know this can work because it worked for me. I hope we can help change the face of the outdoors, and maybe add a bit more color.”
Leaders in the outdoor recreation community who have spent years working to welcome more people of color heralded the historic summit. But their appreciation reaches beyond a story of perseverance and triumph, even by an all-Black team.
The Full Circle success will most certainly inspire generations of young people for many years, said Misha Charles, Vail Resorts’ senior manager of change, capability and culture. Charles is a mountain climber who has studied the sport under Full Circle expedition leader Henderson.
“Phil has advanced a model for leadership that prioritizes vision, grace and humility and a framework for mountaineering that centers the expertise of guides, respect for host communities and stewardship of the natural environment,” Charles said, adding that she was “beaming with pride” at the success of the team. “This is the future of climbing, these are today’s rock stars.”
Patricia Cameron, the Colorado Springs journalist who created Blackpackers to help introduce more diverse youths and families to the outdoors, also swells with pride as she reads the “We made it!” social-media posts from the Full Circle team. And like Charles, she sees a team that executed under incredible pressure now able to open even more doors for people of color.
Cameron said her overarching goal with Blackpackers is not just to expose young Black girls to trails and mountains, but to show them a career path.
The first all-Black Americans to scale Everest can do that same thing.
“There is more here than just going outside and getting more people to get outside,” she said in an interview with The Sun. “This is the outdoor industry getting an opportunity to show that there are ways to succeed in this industry and field and be a leader. That is huge.”
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