(Photo/MacGillivray Freeman Films)

First All-Black Everest Expedition, ‘Full Circle,’ Prepares for Summit Bid

Of the over 4,000 people who have stood on the summit of Mt. Everest, only 10 have been Black. The Full Circle Expedition could double that number this spring.

Phil Henderson is a veteran high-altitude mountaineer who’s climbed peaks and trained summit support workers from the Himalayas to Denali. But his self-proclaimed “biggest career highlight” came after a presentation to grade-schoolers in Atlanta, Ga.

Henderson started his outdoor career as a NOLS instructor in the mid-’90s. It’s fair to say he worked on a certain bleeding edge; Black outdoor professionals were decidedly uncommon in Wyoming at the time. His path eventually led him to Kenya, Tanzania, and Nepal, where he worked with guides and porters on big mountains.

In 2019, he had just finished speaking to a group of kids at the Legacy Camp Out, an annual youth outdoor outreach program held in Atlanta’s Martin Luther King National Historical Park. After his talk, a young girl approached him with a question.

Henderson recalled, “She 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?’”

He and the other nine members of Full Circle Everest might have a few recommendations for her.

The expedition, sponsored by The North Face, seeks to become the first all-Black American team to summit Mt. Everest. By now, the 10 climbers have trained for months during a highly publicized run-up to their summit bid.

Henderson announced the expedition in August 2021, and the team started to secure funding and build up momentum. Last week, they flew from Kathmandu to Lukla for a training trek in the Khumbu.

The mission is all about training, acclimatization, and syncing as a team. Winter is not the primary Everest climbing season. The majority of Everest teams summit in May, and Full Circle will not be on the mountain above base camp for many weeks still. Most recently, the group put in a training day at the Khumbu Climbing Center in Phortse.

The Full Circle team amassed over a multiyear, multilayered process. Henderson first met Fred Campbell by chance at the Ouray Ice Festival in the mid-2010s. Right away, the two climbers hatched the Everest plan.

Soon, Henderson connected with Manoah Ainuu and Demond (“Dom”) Mullins through Conrad Anker. He had already climbed on three continents with Rosemary Saal when she came on board in 2019. Eddie Taylor and Henderson ran into each other while walking their dogs at a Ouray hotel dog park.

The finalized 10-member Full Circle roster seeks to summit Everest and set positive examples.

Saal told CNN the expedition focuses on climbing but that it’s also “about building community, global community. And it’s about changing the narrative for the Black community, particularly in the United States and how we interact with outdoor spaces.”

The objective speaks for itself in defying racial stereotypes about Black outdoor athletes. In addition to doubling Black representation at the Everest summit in one fell swoop, Full Circle also focuses on the Sherpas involved with the project.

Reports indicate the team intends to pay its Sherpas more than they usually make. The move aims to symbolically recognize and materially compensate the hardworking mountain professionals who stake their livelihoods on the trade.

Summit Coffee, Smartwool, and MSR join The North Face in sponsoring the Full Circle Expedition. You can follow the team’s progress on Instagram and learn more about its mission on its website.

Sam Anderson

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.