Phil Henderson sees the outdoor industry like a cruise ship. It’s taken a long time for the largely white industry to embrace people of color.
But the ship has turned. Almost every corner of the industry is focused on building a diverse population of outdoor enthusiasts.
“We just need more propulsion. We need more power,” says the Cortez mountaineer who helps train guides and organizers for expeditions to the top of the world’s highest peaks. “This is our boost. We are priming that engine.”
Henderson’s plan to lead the first-ever all-Black American expedition to the top of Mount Everest will add fuel to the outdoor industry’s growing diversity movement.
The first American expedition reached the top of the world in 1963, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his culture-shifting “I Have a Dream” speech. The nine-person Full Circle Everest Expedition aims to be the first all-Black American team to summit the tallest mountain on the planet next year.
Henderson has been on several climbing expeditions in Nepal and South America. He taught at the National Outdoor Leadership School. He’s led an all African American team to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. For decades, he’s been a quiet force in expanding the outdoor industry’s reach to overlooked communities.
As he launches this expedition — beginning with the grueling, seemingly endless search for financial sponsors — he’s become a much more vocal force for change.
“It’s kind of emotional for me as well,” he says. “I’m realizing and living these things I’ve always said were so important and how it’s so vital for all of us to be connected to the natural environment.”
A Black American man has never reached the summit of Everest. Eddie Taylor, an accomplished climber and mountaineer, says only eight Black people have ever stood atop Mount Everest. The Full Circle team hopes its expedition, as well as a high-profile training plan and publicity push, will encourage people of color to not just dream big, but simply get outside.
“From gardening to bird watching to climbing Everest, the sky is really the limit when it comes to people just getting outside and really understanding the benefits of spending time in nature,” Henderson says.
Taylor is part of the expedition. The chemistry teacher and head track coach at Lafayette’s Centaurus High School began venturing into the outdoors as a young boy, going camping and skiing with his family. He was lucky, he says.
“Those are not traditionally things that families of color do,” he said.
A friend invited him to go rock climbing when he was a track star student at the University of Colorado. He’s been climbing ever since. And for many years now, he’s been shepherding friends and kids into the outdoors. Those invitations are “really important,” he says, “but there are only so many people of color who can invite other people of color to get outside.”
With a proposed book and movie profiling the actual expedition to Everest and all the training and work before the team leaves for Nepal next year, Taylor hopes the mission can be an invitation to hundreds, if not thousands of kids who maybe have never been invited to participate in outdoor activities.
“That’s the hope, that we give visibility and normalize this experience for Black folks,” Taylor says.
If everything goes well for the expedition and all nine mountaineers summit Everest, the number of Black athletes to ever reach the highest point on Earth will more than double. But the success of the expedition could resonate beyond the summit.
“We definitely hope this will have a lasting impact on our community,” says Taylor, who, like many Black mountaineers, notices the scarcity of people of color at his local rock crags and remote mountain trails. “Maybe this expedition can help change that.”
'Normalizing our place in the outdoors'
Misha Charles, an avid mountaineer who has helped attract new faces to outdoor spaces through her work at Outdoor Afro, the American Alpine Club and, soon, Vail Resorts, sees the Full Circle Everest Expedition as helping to broaden the acceptance of Black people in outdoor places.
She’s been climbing Colorado fourteeners for years but still fields comments from people on the mountain asking her if this is her first. A friendly couple in Rocky Mountain National Park asked her and her pals if they were a basketball team. On a hike outside Boulder, a person asked her what African language she was speaking with her friends.
“By and large, people are welcoming and happy to see us there but, at the same time, folks are always sort of astonished to see us out there,” Charles says. “I see this expedition as normalizing our place in the outdoors.”
Charles counts Henderson as her “mountain mentor.” He helped her organize her own expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro, even inviting her to his home in Cortez for training hikes and preparation for big mountain ascents.
“He has accepted the responsibility of being a mentor, a guide and a role model for a whole generation of people of color and certainly Black people in the outdoors,” Charles says. “He is very conscious of the fact that he is carrying all of us to the top of Everest and that means an awful lot to this community and to quite a few of us personally and individually.”
Everest expeditions come with mountains of pressure. There’s not just the physical training required to spend months at altitude preparing for a grueling final push to the 29,032-foot Everest summit, but there’s the mental aspect of spending that time away from family, friends and jobs. There’s also the fight to secure support from brands and sponsors.
Henderson and his team have the added strain of fighting for a community that has traditionally been absent from high-profile alpinism and mountaineering.
“We are used to that weight,” Henderson says. “It’s like we always have something to prove.”