Meet the southwest Colorado man leading the first all-Black expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest
Next year, a group of mountain climbers hopes to make history as the first all-Black team to summit Mt. Everest.
Phil Henderson of Cortez is leading the expedition, known as Full Circle Everest. He’s worked in the outdoor recreation industry for almost 30 years and has been on expeditions to Everest, Denali, and Kiliminjaro.
He joined us by Zoom to talk about the historic planned ascent of the world’s highest mountain.
Editor's note: The following is a rush transcript and may not completely and accurately depict what was said.
Several months ago, I learned about a pretty remarkable project that you're highly involved in, you're actually the expedition leader for the Full Circle Everest Expedition. Phil, can you tell us a little bit about the origin story of this project?
Yeah, well, I've actually been to Nepal several times and have built relationships. But you know, 30 years ago, when I started working in the outdoor industry, it wasn't something that I really looked at. But what I saw, at that time, when I came to the industry was there wasn't a lot of people of color who were doing the things that I was, that I had decided I wanted to do and work. You know, through the years, I've just kind of become a mentor and kind of role model for a lot of people, but more specifically, people of color who want to get outside and climb, ski, and boat, those kinds of things.
And so, over the years, I just kind of embraced that role, and have always been willing to give my time and experience and guidance to those folks who want to get outside. And over a number, again, number of years, I've just kind of run into other folks who look like me, who also enjoy sports of mountaineering and climbing and skiing. We just decided that since we were all going down that path, and I've had relationships and experience climbing and in the Himalayas and so on that it was a good next step project, for folks on the team.
Speak a little bit about the title Full Circle Everest, and the year 1963, and how that plays into this project.
Well, you know, Full Circle itself is more so about, again, my recognition of people who want to get outside and having role models, you know, in the industry, and so just given, you know, kind of reaching my hand back and, and helping them and sharing my experiences and knowledge and places to go - all those things with future, you know, future generations.
You know, the first American expedition to Everest was in 1963, which was the year that I was born. You know, a lot of younger, generational folks don't understand and know what was happening in our country, back then in the 60s. And I thought about that when I was there in 2012, where I was a part of the north face in National Geographic tradition, which was a commemorative expedition to the first American expedition. So to be a part of that, again, it's kind of coming full circle.
I don't think there were a lot of people of color who may have even been thinking about climbing Everest back then. But then, in reality, we know that there were, we just don't know the stories, we don't know those folk's stories or other people, you know, of color back then who were maybe engaging in their climbing or other outdoor activities. Now we're, you know, 50-60 years out of that, and to be a part of the first all black expedition and to be in a position to be the leader of that expedition. For me, when I look back to the year I was born, it again, comes full circle.
Yeah, a lot of interconnecting circles happening here in the story.
So many, so many, I mean, every time I talk, there's another story that I can connect with that.
And 1963 was also the year that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. And that ties in it seems also with coming full circle, like and doing some reading and background on on your work, and your vision for this project, there's also that significant event in how far we've come and yet how far we still have to go in terms of, you know, racial inequalities, etc. in this country.
Right. Yeah, yeah. And to me, you know, those are, we can't, honestly, I don't believe that we can talk about climbing Everest and the outdoors, and the push for diversity and representation, and not talk about the past. We have to look at the past in order to be able to move forward in a positive way to the future. Again, I think a lot of times people may think that when we look to the past, it's a negative thing. It's like, no we have to, but this is really being a positive and saying, this person had a vision. You know, we all know that Martin Luther King had a vision and that vision is still alive. And for us, that's a positive thing. I think for our country, that's a positive thing.
And I know a big part of the mission also, that obviously you spoke to it a little bit, is seems to be a lifelong passion, really emerging even more so here is getting youth of color into the outdoors and how important that is.
Yeah, again, you know, I think just getting people, especially youth of color, because the opportunities have just been, you know, when you look at how our society has progressed I guess you can say, yeah, we have more - the opportunities are there but, you know, for most kids of color who are living in urban areas, and so on, you know, they've been somewhat disconnected. And to me, it's more of a, it's a systemic thing, when you look at, you know, the type of educational programs or after school programs or any of those kinds of things that we actually provide for young people, especially young people of color these days.
You know, we need to expand that, we need to expand their horizons and their experience and just their drive of wanting, what things are out there in the world that are accessible to them. And the outdoors is accessible to them, if we really feel like they're a part of it. And we need to help them make sure that they understand that they're a part of the natural environment.
Anything else you'd like to share about this project, Phil, or you know what it means for you personally, or just anything. It's coming right up. You'll probably be leaving for Nepal in four months or less at this point?
Yeah, a couple months. First, week of April or so. I'm really just excited to have the opportunity to be a part of the expedition, and to really just talk to people about the nature of the expedition, and really trying to bring something positive to you know, not just the black community, but even the community I live in right here in southwest Colorado. And to other communities around the globe. And that's me, in a nutshell, is that my vision is very global.
And I know that this expedition has resonated throughout communities, you know, in places that I've visited, and communities that I know. That's the goal, you know, is to have a positive impact in a time where we need something positive in our life.
I've been speaking with Phil Henderson, he is the expedition leader for Full Circle Everest Expedition, which is a group of all African American, black and brown climbers from around the United States, and the world, or are most of the climbers from the United States Phil?
Most are from the United States, but we do have K.G. who's from Kenya, Abby Dione who's from Canada, but you know, her parents are Ethiopian if I'm not mistaken Nigerian descent. Manoah we have, whose parents are from from Ethiopia, and Samoa. So his, you know, lineage is different as well from around the world. But we're all dark-skinned people. And we've all kind of been through the industry and seeing the things that you know, and experience and things that when you're a minority that come along with that, and have been able to kind of strive and reach the levels of which we are now.
That's a special bond between all of us, and you know, just knowing that people from around the country and we all have seen, these last two years, a lot of different things and even currently just looking at, you know, tornadoes and people whose life and it's hard to, to kind of go forward and keep moving forward when there's so much negative things going on, but we really still feel like bringing this expedition to light and letting people follow it. It brings you know something positive to their life.