© GREG MIONSKE
Phil Henderson is a groundbreaking adventurer. And this spring, he’ll be leading the first all-Black team on Everest. He’s not seeking glory or redemption—he’s looking to share a dream.
Phil Henderson and I were alone together at Camp 1—up around 20,000 feet—on Mount Everest. It was May 2012. We were scooched deep inside our fat sleeping bags inside a two-person tent staked to the ice. Crevasses, cracks in the glacier large enough to swallow a freight train, surrounded us. To get up here we had climbed through the Khumbu Icefall, the deadliest jumble of apartment-size ice blocks in the world. Two years later, 16 Sherpas would die when a portion of the Khumbu Icefall collapsed.
We were high enough to be in the clouds, and wind was rushing snow over our diminutive nylon dome.
“Sounds lovely, like a waterfall, doesn’t it?” asked Henderson, making me imagine a warm waterfall in Hawaii, the diametric opposite of our ice-encrusted home on the edge of oblivion. For the next 12 hours, throughout the night, we would periodically bang the tent walls to keep the snow from burying us alive.
Henderson saw the bright side of every situation. It’s part of his character and what drew me to him on Everest. He and I were tentmates, climbing partners and confidantes.
Camp 1 did not have Sherpas, so we took turns cooking for each other in the flapping vestibule. Graupel blew into our tent as we melted chunks of snow into water. Rice and a few fresh eggs carried up from base camp, hot Gatorade, a Swiss chocolate bar split in half for dessert. We were comfortable and content, both of us having spent big chunks of our lives in small tents in cold, inclement conditions.
At that point, Henderson had been an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), for almost 20 years, spent months training Sherpas how to climb at the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal and led expeditions from Africa to Alaska. He had played football in college before an injury put him out of the game and he shifted to outdoor sports. He was the only Black climber on our team, the 50th-anniversary expedition of the first American ascent of Everest.
We lay back in our bags and talked. There’s one thing that most people don’t realize: More time is spent talking than climbing on a typical two-month, high-altitude expedition. You can only acclimatize so fast; the weather frequently causes you to be tent-bound, and nights are long. So you talk. Share stories.
Often we talked about our families. Henderson’s wife, Brenda, is from Kenya, and their daughter, Bahati (“luck” in Swahili), was 4 years old. I had two daughters in college. It is not easy to leave those you love for a grandiose act of self-indulgence. We mountain climbers always feel guilty, but then we always leave anyway. We are called. Drawn. Mountains are that magnetic.
That night, however, we were on a different subject: the Black experience in America. Although I had spent years reporting from Africa, I was a white male from the white-bread state of Wyoming. Henderson was from California but at that time lived in Vernal, Utah, a state nearly as white as Wyoming. This was years before the murder of George Floyd and the BLM movement finally woke up many white Americans to the systemic racism in our country—but all we really had to do was listen. It wasn’t like cops weren’t beating or killing Blacks over a century ago—we just didn’t have smartphones to bear witness. Almost 100 years ago, the 1928 Illinois Crime Survey found that although Blacks made up only 5 percent of the population, they constituted 30 percent of police killings. The late great representative John Lewis was severely beaten by police while leading the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“I grew up in San Diego, practically the only Black kid in a white neighborhood,” said Henderson. “John-John and I were always getting hassled by the police.” John Williams Jr. was Henderson’s boyhood best friend. They did everything together, including getting into trouble.
“It was either jail, or getting out,” said Henderson. “I got out.”
But when I asked what he meant, he pulled his red and black Rastafarian bandanna down over his eyes, withdrew a yo-yo-size speaker from inside his sleeping bag—he’d been keeping it warm—and placed it between us on the icy tent floor.
We listened to the big-band jazz of Ghanaian Ebo Taylor on his Love and Death album. We listened to the cool jazz of Nigerian Fela Kuti’s Water No Get Enemy, then the dark Sorrow, Tears and Blood. Before the speaker died from the cold, we fell asleep to the loping reggae of Jamaican Bunny Wailer’s Liberation and its lead track “Rise and Shine”:
We’ve been down in the valley much too long.
We’ve been down in captivity oh so long.
We’ve been down in humility much too long.
We’ve been down in slavery oh so long.
But we’re gonna rise and shine! And win our liberation,
For now is the time
When all nations must be free. So rise and shine!
Restore your strength and power, Waste no more time,
Remember your history.
“Philip is a natural leader,” says Larry Berger, a colleague and close friend of Henderson’s. They both worked at NOLS for years. Now they live near each other in Cortez, Colorado. Whereas they used to climb together, now they go fishing.
“Philip didn’t have it easy at NOLS,” says Berger. “Back then, the school was run by white entitled people, for white entitled kids. Philip tried to change that, but he was largely ignored. He was ahead of his time.”
As I had witnessed on Everest, Henderson has fine-tuned leadership skills. He’s thoughtful but decisive, driven but not egotistical. He’s a good listener but always speaks his mind, often in a quiet yet profound way.
“Philip inspires people because he believes in making a positive difference in the world,” Berger says. “That’s just who he is. I can’t imagine anyone else leading this expedition.”
The Full Circle Everest Expedition is comprised of an eclectic team of Black climbers, men and women from across the U.S. Their goal, as it says on their website, is to “showcase the tenacity and strength of these climbers, and highlight the barriers that continue to exist for Black communities in accessing the outdoors.”
When you look at the résumés of the climbers on the Full Circle Everest Expedition, they are not loaded with first ascents or cutting-edge alpinism. Instead, team members reveal a deep commitment to their respective communities. Abby Dione founded the Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and has taught climbing clinics at Color the Crag and at Flash Foxy’s Women’s Climbing Festival. James “KG” Kagambi of Kenya— the first Black African to summit both Denali and Aconcagua—has been a teacher his whole life and trains Kenyan mountain rescue teams. Eddie Taylor, who has climbed El Capitan in a day, is a high school chemistry teacher. Fred Campbell, a data scientist with a PhD in statistics, teaches free climbing classes for beginners. Demond “Dom” Mullins, a sociology PhD and an Iraq War veteran, researches the benefits of outdoor recreation to combat vets. What distinguishes this Everest team from most others is its desire to give back to the Black and Brown community, rather than just tag the summit and start bragging.
“This expedition is not just about the mountain,” says team member Rosemary Saal. “It’s about building community, about building relationships, most importantly about changing the narrative about Black people and the outdoors.” Saal is a NOLS instructor, primarily focused on backpacking, and a mentee of Henderson, who took her under his wing while climbing Kilimanjaro. “Phil doesn’t just make suggestions—he actively looks for opportunities for young people of color,” she says. “Our expedition is about showing that Black people do climb, Black people do camp, Black people do ski!” When I speak to Saal, she is driving across Utah to teach a NOLS course. We keep getting cut off, but she keeps calling back. When I ask her what she hopes to communicate to the Black community about climbing Mount Everest, she doesn’t mention the conventional tropes of challenging yourself and conquering fear.
“Joy!” she exclaims. “The joy that comes from being in the outdoors. Many people of color have never been given the opportunity to experience the joy of mountain climbing. It’s a feeling of liberation. I want to share this with the Black community, a community that has historically been excluded from the outdoor experience. I see practicing joy as an act of political resistance.”
I don’t ask him why he’s going back to Everest. Only non- climbers ask such stupid questions.
When I call Henderson to congratulate him on putting together the Full Circle Expedition, we don’t talk about climbing. Not a word about crampons skittering on blue ice or blizzards or altitude sickness; we talk about giving Black people a different perspective of what they can be, what they can achieve.
“Do I want to see someone on our team summit, damn right I do!” Henderson says. “But this expedition is not just about the summit. It’s about sharing a dream with a community that has been held back, and sometimes held themselves back.”
Henderson reminds me that the first American team to summit Everest did so in 1963, the same year Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. “Were any Black Americans dreaming of climbing Everest back then?” he asks. “That was during the civil rights movement. That’s when things were finally starting to change. That movement never ended. Black people are still fighting.”
It occurs to me that Black people in America have been climbing their own Everest, battling dangerous conditions for uncertain results, for centuries. I remember the conversations about race and equality Henderson and I had on Everest back in 2012.
We reminisce for a few minutes about that bittersweet expedition. Henderson had gotten deathly ill at Camp 2, his lungs filling with fluid. His oxygen levels had dropped to 60 percent by the time we got him on an oxygen tank. That night in the tent together I listened to him struggling to breathe through his oxygen mask. He was gurgling, choking. The next morning the expedition was over for him. He had to go down, and I lost my wingman.
“That was hard, man,” says Henderson.
“But you were so calm about it,” I reply.
I can see Henderson shrug and smile right through the phone.
I don’t ask him why he’s going back to Everest. Only non-climbers ask such stupid questions.
“Bahati must be 13 now,” I say.
“She is,” says Henderson. “And she’s growing up in a different world than I grew up in.”
As I did years earlier, I ask him about his own childhood, but he again demurs.
“You’d have to talk to John-John,” Henderson says.
So that’s what I do.
"Philip was the best athlete I’d ever seen,” says John Williams, now an electrician and pastor in California. “As a running back he would just run right over the defense. He could have gone pro if he hadn’t been injured.”
Williams acknowledges that they drank and smoked pot in high school. “Phil knew his limits, but I ended up taking it way too far.” Williams has been clean and sober now for 14 years, but back then, it was a different story.
One night somebody started a fight with Henderson.
“Philip was not aggressive,” Williams says. “But he was a damn good fighter. He knocked this guy out.”
Later that night, after Henderson had gone home, Williams encountered the same guy again, got into another fight, and stabbed him. Both Henderson and Williams went to jail.
“I know that really got to him,” says Williams. “He couldn’t be cooped up like that.”
Henderson’s football coach got him out of jail, but Williams went to juvie for a year.
“[This expedition] is about sharing a dream with a community that has been held back.”
A similar incident happened again a few years later. “Phil was always protecting me,” says Williams. “But he saw where this was all going and got out.”
Williams ended up in and out of prison for the next two decades. “I spent a total of 12 years behind bars,” says Williams. “I think I was Philip’s cautionary tale.
"He wrote me many letters while I was in prison. I think he felt like he’d abandoned me, but my life was my fault.”
Williams believes this is why Henderson has focused on mentoring Black youth for his entire life.
“He saw what happens,” says Williams, pausing for a moment. “I used to put the pictures he sent me up on my cell walls. Pictures of him climbing mountains. He was outside, I was inside, and he knew I needed hope.”
This spring Phil Henderson and his Full Circle team will be attempting Everest, giving hope to a new generation of climbers along the way.
Follow Phil on Instagram: @phil_henderson