Full Circle Everest: The all-Black group prepating to climb the world’s highest peak

(CNN) – About 4,000 people have climbed Everest, the highest peak in the world. And only eight of them were black.

This is one of the reasons why Full Circle, a group of black climbers and mountaineers, was formed.

“It’s an expedition that is certainly about climbing. It’s about spending time in the mountains, but it’s also about building a community, a global community. And it’s about changing the narrative for the black community, particularly in the United States. , and how to interact with outdoor spaces, ”says Full Circle member Rosemary Saal.

Saal is used to scale literal and metaphorical heights. He was a member of an all-black team that climbed Denali in Alaska and another that reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

But being a part of Full Circle, he says, is different. The climbing community is relatively small and Everest is the name that almost everyone in the world can recognize.

“This mountain attracts attention,” says another Full Circle member, Abby Dione.

Dione lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he owns and operates Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym. As one of only two black women in the United States to own a climbing gym, she is passionate about offering black women ways of seeing themselves in the great outdoors.

“The goal (of Full Circle) is to demystify this process,” says Dione. “Regardless of the mountain in question, the real goal for us is to reverse engineer things for the people.”

The Full Circle team, including Saal (front) and Dione (middle row, right).

The Full Circle team, including Saal (front) and Dione (middle row, right).

The full circle of Everest

The mountain is the metaphor

A critical element of Full Circle’s work is respect for local Nepalese and Sherpas who accompany groups of mountaineers on their ascents.

Full Circle has promised to pay Sherpas more money than usual, knowing that these men often support entire families or communities based solely on their climbing income, yet are often relegated to the role of extras when it comes to handing out awards.

Take the most famous Everest climb, for example: it was Sir Edmund Hillary who got the lion’s share of attention in 1953, with his Sherpa guide and colleague Tenzing Norgay’s name not added to the record books for decades.

Additionally, Hillary has been called the first person to climb the summit of Everest, although there were many reports of Sherpas reaching the highest peak before foreigners ever set foot in the country.

Dione notes that Full Circle aims to “decolonize” the climbs of Everest. It is not just about increasing the visibility of black mountaineers, but about using inclusive language.

“Our goal here is to help people aspire to have a deep and respectful relationship with the outdoors and not feel entitled to it, but Welcome now. If you see that it can be done, you can do it well “.

Saal, who is biracial, says some of the first people to dismiss his childhood interest in sports and the outdoors were in his own community.

“When I was young, I took my first rock climbing courses, mountaineering courses, whatever. I used to tell family or friends or just different people in my life what I was doing. And immediately it’s like, ‘Oh, i blacks don’t “don’t do it. This is your white side. Blacks don’t go skiing. Blacks don’t go climbing. ‘”

Fortunately, there were community groups in her native Seattle that helped young Saal pursue her interests. In those groups, she saw educators from a wide variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and helped quiet rumors telling her it couldn’t be done.

For Dione, there were other questions about women in the outdoors that she couldn’t find good answers to.

“What’s it like to have your period at 6,000 meters and beyond?” he asks aloud.

The Hero’s Journey

Both women cite Phil Henderson, founder of Full Circle, as a major source of inspiration.

Henderson’s nickname is Uncle Phil, after the character who mentored Will in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.

And its nickname Avuncolare is well deserved. Henderson, a native of California, was a pioneer for black men and women in the outdoors. He led an all-black climbing team to the summit of Kilimanjaro and is a longtime instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Wyoming.

Full Circle members hike in less icy conditions.  Henderson is in the middle row, on the far right.

Full Circle members hike in less icy conditions. Henderson is in the middle row, on the far right.

The full circle of Everest

Like many young blacks, Henderson was encouraged to participate in team sports. He excelled in football, but a knee injury ended his NFL dreams. From there, he moved on to a love of outdoor sports.

In 2000, Henderson led an all-black climbing group to the top of Mount Kenya. The experience was transformative: he was leading not just a literal adventure, but a new generation of black outdoor experts.

“There is a representation of blacks in mountaineering, climbing and the outdoor industry in general,” he wrote on Instagram, “but our stories are not told.”

He is the only member of the team to have previous experience on Everest: in 2012, Henderson was the only black member of an American climbing expedition to the highest peak in the world, referred to by his traditional Tibetan name of Chomolungma.

Begin the journey

The group of nine mountaineers arrived in Nepal in January 2022 to begin the acclimatization process at altitude.

If all Full Circle members complete their climb, the number of blacks who have reached the top of Everest will immediately double.

The costs of climbing the world’s highest peak can be prohibitive.

Full Circle Everest now has a group of corporate sponsors including North Face, Summit Coffee, Smartwool, and Mountain Safety Research (MSR).

But the cost of opening a runway is inestimable.

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