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A mountaineering group is aiming to be the 1st all-Black team to climb Mount Everest

Members of the Full Circle Everest team pose for a photo on Mount Rainier earlier this year. Next year, group members hope to become the first all-Black team to reach the top of Mount Everest.
Members of the Full Circle Everest team pose for a photo on Mount Rainier earlier this year. Next year, group members hope to become the first all-Black team to reach the top of Mount Everest.

Only 10 Black people have made it to the top of Mount Everest.

Now, a team called Full Circle Everest hopes to become the first all-Black group to summit the world's highest mountain — and, in doing so, to inspire more Black people to spend more time in the outdoors.

Full Circle Everest is a crew of nine climbers. Philip Henderson, 58, an outdoorsman and mountaineer with more than 30 years of experience, is one of them.

After an injury prevented him from playing traditional sports, Henderson says, "I realized that, you know, life is short. You should do whatever it is that you want to do in life."

The idea to attempt such a momentous feat came about organically during a conversation between Henderson and other Black mountaineers, he explained in an interview with NPR. The team eventually grew to seven men and two women, ranging from 25 to 60 years old.

Next year, the team will attempt what just a few thousand people have achieved: reaching the top of Everest.

It's 29,032 feet tall 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 highly experienced. In their individual climbing careers, they've all reached heights of more than 20,000 feet and are well-versed at climbing at high altitudes. Some have scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua and Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

For this group, Everest was "a good next step," Henderson said. If an intimidating one.

"I'm nervous, but it's not really nerves. It's just a daunting task," Henderson told NPR. "I tell people all the time, 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, the team building."

The Full Circle Everest team is spread out across the country, from New York to Florida to Colorado, where Henderson lives. They meet weekly on Zoom, to connect as a team, and they train on their own in the meantime.

But how do you prepare to climb the world's highest mountain?

I'm nervous, but it's not really nerves. It's just a daunting task.

The best thing you can do is get accustomed to carrying weight and doing so at altitude, Henderson explained. But that's hard to recreate; Everest base camps — sites at the base of the mountain where climbers can stop for supplies and rest — themselves sit at around 17,000 feet.

"[You do] as much as you can. It's about putting in long days on your feet, in the cold, with weight on your back and at altitude if you can, in any way that you can kind of simulate that," Henderson said. "But then there's also mental training. There's also strength training, core training."

"I'm a true believer in cross-training and doing a lot of different things, but there's just no replacement for just getting in the mountains and hiking," he said.

Philip Henderson (right) and Ryan Hudson during a Denali climb in 2013.
Phil Henderson / Philip Henderson
Philip Henderson (right) and Ryan Hudson during a Denali climb in 2013.

Full Circle Everest aims to inspire

The Full Circle Everest team is hoping to make history next year, but it's not just about the climb itself. After the group came up with the goal of reaching the top of Mount Everest, another secondary aspiration began to take shape, one that each of them could relate to: inspiring other Black people to explore the outdoors.

"We're all Black people ... there is a lack of representation of Black people in mountaineering and in high-altitude mountaineering," Henderson said.

"There's so few of us at this level that it's our duty, in a sense, to bring this to our communities, to our young people and talk about the benefits of being outdoors and connecting with nature and having a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives," he said.

Statistically, there's a huge racial gap in who most commonly benefits from outdoor spaces and participates in outdoor activities. Nearly 70% of visitors to national parks, forests and wildlife preserves are white and Black people visit these sites the least out of any group, according to a National Health Foundation report.

But the reasons why are far from simple. Racism is a factor: Due to segregation, Black people, historically, have had to face feeling unwelcome and even unsafe in many public spaces, as one Resources report pointed out.

Black people are also less likely to have access to quality parks. Parks serving "nonwhite" populations are statistically smaller and more crowded than those serving white communities, according to a 2020 report issued by the Trust for Public Land.

But access to parks and nature is especially important for children. Some experts have theorized that if an individual doesn't have much experience engaging with nature as a child, then that 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, or going for a simple walk in the park, or hiking, Henderson explained. He advises trying out 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 outdoorsmen and women connect and host meetups all over the country. Black Outside aims to "diversify [the] outdoors." And Black Girls Trekkin' inspires thousands of Black girls and women to get outside and connect with nature, and each other, every year.

The climbing group's goal of inspiring their community is illustrated in the name Full Circle Everest. As its website explains, the first American group reached the top of Everest in 1963, the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. Reaching the top would be a full circle moment for them, and it's one that they hope will inspire other Black folks to reach their goals, whatever they may be.

"It just really represents people taking what they've learned and their experiences and their skills and giving that forward to people who have a passion to do some of those same things," Henderson said. "So you can really take that full circle concept into almost anything."

The group will be heading to Everest next year, during the main climbing season in April and May, for a grueling 60-day endeavor. In the meantime, they're raising funds to support their efforts and documenting their journey via Instagram and Facebook.

Once they're finished, the outdoors will be a more inclusive place, according to their GoFundMe page.

As their statement reads, "Everest is not the end goal, but just the beginning."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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