11 Apr The Path Forward Along The Mount Everest Highway
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain
The walk from Phadking to Namche is a six-mile climb up a narrow trail of steep stone steps along a dusty path. Much of my training at 920 feet of above sea level in Wisconsin over the past year had done little to prepare me for this experience other than remind me that this was exactly what I should have expected. We gained more than 3,000 feet of an elevation over 3 solid hours of walking along a fabled trail I’ll call the Mount Everest Highway. With a 20-pound pack I was grateful to put one foot in front of the other without pain, just the fatigue you might expect. I was tired, sweaty, out of breath and couldn’t be happier.
Anyone who knows me well might imagine that my being here at some point was inevitable. Sadly, this most recent Joy Trip caused me to miss my oldest nephew Matthew’s wedding last week in Los Angeles. My conspicuous absence from this major family event was met with this mildly sardonic question from my niece Lindsay, “Where’s Uncle Jimmy, climbing Everest?” Apparently the collective silence of those gathered with their cocktails and canapes was met with a simple answer, “Well,…yeah.”
This latest hike along the Everest Highway is another stretch of the path I have walked through most of my life. It is my privilege to report on The Full Circle Everest Expedition, the first attempt to put an all-Black team of climbers on the summit of the highest peak in the world. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is my destiny, but really, where else would I be? Just to be clear, I’m only going as far as Everest Base Camp at just over 17,000 feet. As the team’s journalist that’s as far I as need to go to get at least a bit of the spirit and flavor of this remarkable experience. I’ll return home in about two weeks to continue my reporting remotely via periodic dispatches from the mountain as the expedition continues through the month of May. I’ll do what I can to keep our followers up to date. But regardless of the outcome, this climb marks an important moment in history that celebrates the progress that Black folks have achieved through all walks of life from city sidewalks and nature trails to the highest peaks on the planet.
I’ve spent many years of the last two decades writing about the lack of racial diversity in outdoor recreation. I have watched eagerly as more and more people of color have appeared on the scene as athletes, artists, photographers, writers, film producers and environmental advocates to unapologetically take up space and actively engage in the world outside. The idea of putting together the first all-Black climbing team to make a summit attempt on the highest mountain in the world has been floating around in theory for a while now. I am only grateful to the many friends, colleagues and supporters who have brought this vague notion into reality, and I am deeply honored to have the privilege of witnessing it firsthand.
The Full Circle Everest Expedition is the ambitious enterprise of my friend, adventure travel guide and wilderness skills educator, Philip Henderson. As one of the very few Black instructors at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) through much of his career of 30 years he realized that substantive change in the outdoor industry would only happen through the concerted and deliberate efforts of those whose lives will most directly benefit from it. That is not to suggest that the support and contributions of dedicated white allies are not critically important, they certainly are. But like the Civil Rights Movement of my parents’ generation if diversity, equity and inclusion are to be achieved in outdoor recreation, Black people must lead the way.
The path forward requires people of color and any who find themselves on the margins of our society to go deliberately into the wilds of our world. We must be completely ourselves in the expression our heritage and culture, never shrinking from the harsh gaze of scorn, criticism or ridicule. Instead, we must venture out to demonstrate for others of our respective communities the same fine example of grace, verve, resilience and style that have long been a hallmark of Black people that has shaped the course of human culture for time immemorial.
On this expedition and all that follow no matter how seemingly small or esoteric we are defining our place in world even as we are discovering it. Through our travels we open our minds to the possibilities beyond mere imaginings to the realities of adventure on a global scale. Through the suffering and sacrifices of past generations we are now fulfilling the dream of freedom and ascending to the mountain top. And though I will not be there to see the view from that summit I know that through the eyes of those who do and their stories I aim share we will inspire countless more to follow. This may indeed be the first all-Black expedition to Mount Everest, but it certainly will not be the last.