This is one of the reasons why Full Circle, a group of black climbers and climbers, was formed.
“It’s an expedition that’s definitely about climbing. It’s about spending time in the mountains, but it’s also about building community, a global community. And it’s about changing the narrative of the black community, especially in the United States and how we interact with outdoor spaces,” says Full Circle member Rosemary Saal.
Saal is used to scaling literal and metaphorical heights. She was a member of an all-black team that hiked Denali in Alaska and another that summited Mount Kilimanjaro.
But being part of Full Circle, she says, is different. The mountaineering community is relatively small and Everest is the name almost anyone can recognize.
“This mountain is getting attention,” says fellow Full Circle member Abby Dione.
Dione lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where she 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 giving women of color ways to see themselves outdoors.
“The goal (of Full Circle) is to demystify this process,” says Dione. “Whatever the mountain in question, the real goal for us is to reverse-engineer it for people.”
The Full Circle team, including Saal (front) and Dione (middle row, right).
Everest full circle
On May 12, seven members of the Full Circle group successfully summited Mount Everest, including Dione and Saal.
Besides Dione and Saal, the climbers who have reached the summit are Manoah Ainuu, Frederick Campbell, Eddie Taylor, James Kagambi, Desmond Mullins, Thomas Moore and eight Sherpa guides. Henderson led the team from base camp but did not attempt the summit himself.
The mountain is the metaphor
An essential part of Full Circle’s work is respect for the local Nepalese and the Sherpas who accompany the climbing groups on their climbs.
Take the most famous climb of Everest, for example – it was Sir Edmund Hillary who caught the eye of the lion in 1953, with his Sherpa guide and the name of his colleague Tenzing Norgay not added to the sets records for decades.
Additionally, Hillary was considered the first person to summit Everest, although there were many tales of Sherpas reaching the highest peak before foreigners had ever set foot in the country.
Dione notes that Full Circle aims to “decolonize” Everest climbs. It’s not just about increasing the visibility of climbers of color, 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 that, but welcome to that. If you see it can be done, you can do it right.”
Saal, who is biracial, says some of the first people to push back against her childhood interest in sports and the outdoors were in her own community.
“When I was young, I took my first courses in rock climbing, mountaineering, whatever. I was talking to family members or friends or just different people in my life about what I was doing. And immediately it’s like, ‘Oh, black people don’t do that. It’s your white side. Black people don’t go skiing. Blacks are not going to climb.”
Fortunately, there were community groups in her native Seattle that helped young Saal pursue her interests. In these groups, she saw educators from a wide variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, and they helped silence the voices that told her it couldn’t be done.
For Dione, there were additional questions about outdoor women that she couldn’t find good answers to.
“What is it like to have your period at 6,000 meters or more? she asks out loud.
The hero’s journey
Both women cite Phil Henderson, founder of Full Circle, as a major inspiration.
Henderson’s nickname is Uncle Phil, after the character who mentored Will in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
And his avuncular nickname is well deserved. Henderson, originally from California, was a pioneer for black men and women in the outdoors. He led an all-black climbing team to the summit of Mount 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 center row, far right.
Everest full circle
Like many young black men, Henderson was encouraged to participate in team sports. He excelled at football, but an injury ended his NFL dreams. From there, he turned to a love of outdoor sports.
In 2000, Henderson led an all-black climbing group to the summit 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 black representation in mountaineering, rock climbing and the outdoor industry in general,” he wrote on Instagram, “but our stories are not being told.”
He is the only member of the team with previous Everest experience: in 2012, Henderson was the only black member of an American climbing expedition to the world’s highest peak, which he refers to by name traditional Tibetan Chomolungma.
start the trip
The group of nine climbers arrived in Nepal in January 2022 to begin the altitude acclimatization process.
If all Full Circle members complete their ascent, the number of black people who have summited Mount Everest will immediately double.
The costs of climbing the highest peak in the world 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 trail is priceless.