Kenyan mountaineer James Kagambi is one of a group of 10 climbers who want to make history in a sport little known for its diversity. The group hopes to be the first all-black team to climb Mount Everest. The other nine members of the team are Americans.
About 6,000 climbers are known to have conquered Everest to date, but less than 10 people of African descent are part of this exclusive group. The Full Circle Everest team hopes to more than double that number.
They have just left base camp and hope to reach the summit in about two months.
At 62, Mr. Kagambi is the dean of the team of experienced mountaineers. He has summitted all of Africa’s highest peaks, as well as the highest point of four continents, and hopes to become the first African to reach all seven.
He was the first black African to conquer Denali – the highest peak in North America.
“The main purpose of our expedition is to encourage people of color to get out, to venture into the mountains, so that it’s not just white people there. It’s also to show people that they can do it, because there are people who they feel like it’s not for us [black people]it’s for them,” he told the BBC before leaving for Nepal.
Although many Nepalese and Indians have climbed Everest – often as guides, mountaineering is often seen as a whites-only sport, especially in the West – something Mr Kagambi faces in the United States as a as an instructor and mountaineering guide.
He comes in the form of clients who don’t trust his skills because of his ethnicity.
“Before people realize what I’ve done, especially when I meet white people in the United States, you see some people hesitate. Until you prove to them that you know what you’re doing – that’s that’s when they open up. I kinda see that,” he said.
“I loved the snow”
The former primary school teacher fell in love with the mountains in 1973 when, as a teenager, he watched in awe from his village as the midnight fireworks atop Mount Kenya as the country celebrated its first decade of independence from the British colonial rule.
“It was really unique and I remember saying, ‘I wish I could do that. But I never thought I would.”
Years later, after graduating from a teacher training college, he made an attempt on Mount Kenya and reached the summit.
“The first time I walked on snow I knew it was something I really loved doing. And I kept coming back and loving it more,” he said. .
But his path to climbing Everest was the steepest. In two previous attempts, being Kenyan was his downfall after US sponsors insisted that recipients be US residents.
“The last was very close – four months before the expedition – that’s when I was written off. It was frustrating but you have to follow the rules,” he said – an overview stoicism learned from the mountains and which permeates his speech. .
Climbing Everest doesn’t come cheap – up to $85,000 (£65,000) – and he had given up trying because age was catching up with him. Then an email in January 2021 from his friend and fellow American mountaineer Philip Henderson changed everything.
“My immediate reaction was that I wouldn’t. I told him I’m too old and my knees aren’t good in the mountains already.”
But Mr Henderson insisted, pointing to criticism from other mountaineers who hailed Mr Kagambi as an “encouraging and encouraging guide, especially for women”.
Admission to the team was the easiest hurdle. Finding sponsors proved to be the most difficult hurdle, as the traditional way of knocking on corporate doors proved futile.
“The hardest part for me was that I expected to work to go to Everest in terms of training, but I didn’t have the facilities and the finances to do so.”
Frustrated, short of funds and without sponsorship, a breakthrough came through a WhatsApp group of his friends who were raising money for the expedition. Contributions were coming in slowly and there was little hope in sight.
Then the news reached a Kenyan betting company, which immediately offered a sponsorship deal, which covers Mr Kagambi’s training, travel allowance, insurance and operational logistics.
Part of his rigorous training schedule has included climbing Mount Kenya six times from January to April. This was followed by a two-week expedition to the Rwenzori Mountains in neighboring Uganda.
The Full Circle Everest team also met in January for a reconnaissance and team building session in Nepal.
Earlier, from July to December last year, he was in the United States carrying 50kg bags for months hiking and training students.
“I’ve been on the mountain the whole time. Because of my knees, the best thing for me is to be out there hiking as high as possible to practice,” he said.
His family are concerned for his well-being, especially because climbing Everest is such a dangerous undertaking.
“I really hope it goes well because at this point we know there are only two outcomes – either he leaves and comes back or he leaves and doesn’t come back. There’s this anxiety, there’s this fear, but we don’t want to show her,” her daughter Cynthia said.
But Mr Kagambi appears unfazed and defiantly said he has done riskier things in his life. He also highlighted his long experience navigating through snow, glaciers, ice and rocks.
“I’m confident I can climb Mount Everest, but the other thing I’m saying is that I won’t risk my life to do it. I’ve done enough mountaineering to know my body. I can assess and tell me it’s time to go back,” he said.