Meet the Only Non-American Member of the First All-Black Everest Expedition
Full Circle, the first all-Black expedition to Mount Everest, is slated for Spring 2022. Its members consist of 10 Americans and one… Kenyan. How did he get there?
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James “KG” Kagambi, 62, is a well-respected guide and mountaineer. He’s a senior instructor at NOLS and the owner of Kagambi Mountain Exploration, a Kenya-based guiding company. He was the first Black African to summit Denali (20,310 feet) in 1989. He’s done the Eiger (13,015) three times. He actively trains Kenya’s mountain rescue teams. And this spring, he’s headed to Everest as one of the senior members of Team Full Circle, the first all-Black expedition to the mountain.
But Kagambi’s path to Everest was an unlikely one.
Born in 1960, three years before Kenya’s independence, and growing up in the sleepy town of Naromoru in the western foothills of Mount Kenya (17,057 feet), Kagambi spent his childhood trekking six miles each way to school. He was comfortable moving around in the region’s majestic afro-alpine environment. But climbing—whether mountains or rocks—wasn’t on his radar. For most Black Kenyans in the 1960s, life was challenging enough: why pursue danger when quotidian life already posed plenty of it?
But in 1973, as Kenya celebrated its first decade of independence, Kagambi watched fireworks set off from the craggy peaks of Mount Kenya and was enamored by the sight. He now remembers it as the moment he first felt truly captivated by the mountains.
Kagambi was born into a family of teachers and taught primary school––grades four to seven––from 1983 to 1987. 1983 was also when he had his first serious mountain experience: He and a friend attempted Point Lenana, which at 16,354 feet is the third highest peak on Mt Kenya. It’s an easy ascent on scree, rock, and snow, but Kagambi’s companion—finding the altitude and exposure not for him—forced him to turn around shy of the summit. But that moment proved life-changing for Kagambi.
“As soon as I touched snow, I fell in love,” he said.
Kagambi began organizing day hikes, bringing his colleagues and students on various routes around Mt Kenya National Park. Then, in 1984, he was recruited by Naro Moru River Lodge, where his brother worked as a manager, to accompany Kenneth Matiba, an adventurous Kenyan politician, up Africa’s highest peak: Mount Kilimanjaro. The expedition solidified Kagambi’s love for mountaineering, and he quickly learned the technical aspects of the sport from the caretakers on Mount Kenya. He went on to get a job at NOLS, which has taken him all across Europe, South America, and North America. But the Mount Kenya region remains home for him.
I spoke with Kagambi on January 28, 2022, at the Java Coffeehouse in Parklands, a stone’s throw from Nairobi’s Bluesky Climbing Gym. The night before, he had flown back from a Team Full Circle meetup in Nepal, and he was heading upcountry—back to his home in Naromoru, near Mount Kenya—after our interview. Kagambi is an intentional man. He speaks slowly while recounting the tales from his youth, misadventures and victories, all leading to this historic attempt on Everest.
More than 6,000 people have reached the summit of Everest, but fewer than 10 of them were Black. Kagambi is keenly aware that for some climbers, Everest is a chance to test oneself—a pitting of internal fortitude against the mountain’s harsh realities. But for Black climbers, the mountain’s primary meaning cannot help but be symbolic, and the act of climbing charged by the fact that others are watching.
Interviewer: How were you recruited onto the Full Circle team?
Kagambi: Over my career, I saw how being Kenyan didn’t work to my advantage. Around 1999, I was unable to apply for opportunities with companies like Patagonia or National Geographic because I wasn’t a US citizen.
In 2013, Phil Henderson [Leader of the Full Circle Expedition] noticed how I was positively involved and motivating people on our Denali expedition. This was during a trip alongside Conrad Anker and John Krakauer. Somehow, Henderson and I were thinking about the same thing that time––a Black team on Everest—and [he] spoke to Conrad about the idea. Conrad has been one of the huge motivators behind Nepal. His efforts stand out to me, and I’m so grateful.
Henderson knew most of the people on Full Circle; he’s the connector. Others were recommended to him. He researched for alpine backgrounds, looked for those who are on track for the Seven Summits. I’m sure he also looked for personality fits.
When Henderson called me in 2020 and asked about taking on Everest, I had to decline. “Phil, I can’t go,” I said. “My age, my knees. The last few years have been very difficult.” COVID meant that I didn’t have much work, and being on Everest would mean that I couldn’t work from December to June. “If you just want a Kenyan, I’ll get you one,” I told him. But Phil said that he came to me for a reason. “I know how you motivate and communicate with people. You bring them together.”
But I had to ask Phil, “What are we trying to achieve with Full Circle?” For instance, NOLs on Denali was all about diversity and inclusion, highlighting people of color. Show the world that [people of color] can achieve something on their own. I asked for a day’s worth of team building, so we could talk not just about summiting, but our [wider] goals. To me, it’s not just about representing people of color, but also addressing other diversity issues such as the age gap and ageism.
I’m interested in having more people get out, in general. Not necessarily a specific group, just everyone. It’s the joy of being outside, but also the part about how refreshing it all is. Getting people who are at the end of the road motivated when they are at their most tired. It took a pandemic to get Kenyans out into their own backyards. I want to keep it that way.
It can be hard to mix people up for an expedition since it causes sponsorships to go down. You need a unique peg–something that has never been done. And I guess we’ve got it with this one.
Interviewer: Tell me about your experience breaking onto the international scene as a Black African guide.
Kagambi: You have to understand that the sport has come a long way since my time. When I joined MCK [Mountain Club of Kenya] in 1988, I was the only Black Kenyan in the club. You very rarely see another Black person in that context. However, MCK was very supportive and I’m forever grateful for that. The late Ian Howell in particular, we were good friends. I could sense that he appreciated what I was doing and was very encouraging. He’d tell me to keep going, get outside and climb and hike. We were friends, he was someone you could sit down and crack jokes with. Just listen to you, give good advice, provide opportunities. Ian supported me with not just words, but gear. It was so hard back then to source gear. Now, you can find shoes and a harness at Decathlon. Back then, we depended on what people brought into the country. And I’m so grateful they made me an honorary MCK member.
Interviewer: Let’s backtrack a bit: NOLS was a critical catalyst in your career. How did you come to work there?
Kagambi: I loved being a teacher but was very much enamored by the mountains. I remember first seeing a bus with NOLS painted on its side, and when I learned that NOLS is a global wilderness school, I wanted to see what that actually meant.
In 1986, I spent two weeks rock climbing on Mount Kenya, trying to show guides the range of things that locals can do, and I was scouted out by a NOLS instructor who noticed my comfort in the mountains. They offered me a scholarship for a 90-day course, which allowed me to become trained as an instructor. It changed everything for me.
Interviewer: Was it difficult to switch careers from being a teacher to embracing life as a mountaineering guide?
Kagambi: It wasn’t hard for me, as my heart was in it. But in terms of family obligations, it took a while to convince my father that this was what was right for me. As a family of teachers who took pride in learning, it was tough for my father to accept my resignation from teaching in 1987. For a year, he sent delegates to me to try to talk me out of it––my brother, my cousin, friends. But he eventually came around when he saw the benefits. Things were working out for me financially, but my father could also see me becoming a better version of myself––mentally more focused and intentional. He was also very proud of how I could drive a NOLS vehicle, which was a big deal for Naromoru. Whenever I made the news in the paper, he would be the first to cut it out and share it with the community.
Interviewer: What are some of your favorite or proudest achievements to date?
Kagambi: In 1989, I was the first Black African to summit Denali––the expedition took 36 days. In 1994, I was in Chile for 80 days with NOLS to facilitate training. With NOLS, once you do well in a foreign country, they like to send you back as often as possible. I’ve continued returning to Chile many times hiking, rock climbing, and mountaineering, up through 2018. I’ve also summited Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America in 1994, once again as the first Black African, which took 9 days. We had just come from a 3-month mountaineering course and were very fit. In 1992, I represented Africa in the UN Peace Climb for the World on the Eiger––unfortunately, a climber from South Africa couldn’t make it. This was with Edwin Drumond, one of the early summiters of El Cap. It was a cool mission; we helped a blind person up the summit.
2013 was my year. So much happened. I was in the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda for 21 days to help film Snows of the Nile, acting as safety, cameraman, and guide. Later in June, I was invited to lead the first all-Black team on Denali (NOLs.edu/denali-expedition-film)
That August, NOLS needed someone in Chile for an emergency training. I had written a proposal to the Mount Kenya warden about going up Batian [Mount Kenya’s highest peak] with the Kenyan flag to mark the 50th anniversary of independence on December 12th, 2013, which wasn’t approved. But when the time came, they still asked me to be part of the flag-raising ceremony. But the government should have refunded me for the $1400 flight to Chile, which I didn’t take, and that’s something I still think about.
Interviewer: Can you speak to the mindset that has been conducive to your success as a mountaineer?
Kagambi: I think [it’s related to] how I perceive my surroundings, particularly when I’m in the mountains: Wherever I am, who I’m with, that’s my family. Viewing the world in this way allows me to concentrate on what I’m doing and give my all to my students. Sometimes on a trip, you can see those who are really missing people they are away from, and that affects their experience. They aren’t totally present. It can be hard for them. [I don’t have that problem.] On the other hand, when I’m able to, I’m always reaching out to my family. When I’m in town, I try to see everyone I can.
Interviewer: Was Everest always a goal or dream for you?
Kagambi: Prior to Full Circle, I had two goals that surfaced over time. The first was to summit Everest. The second was to climb the Matador in Switzerland. When the first Black African, Sibusiso Vilane summited Everest in 2003, I came to terms that being the first is not something I have to do. But Everest still ran in the back of my mind.
Interviewer: How are you training?
Kagambi: I can’t run because of my knees. It’s better with soft ground or snow. In 2021, I began a multi-month training regime in the U.S. I spent a month hiking in Wind River Mountain Range, Canyonlands National Park, and then a winter course in the Absarokee trudging through snow, pulling 100lbs. I’ve borrowed a treadmill and bought an elliptical but will spend most of my time out in Mt Kenya before the final push. I’m trying to gain back some of the weight I lost at the end of last year and will try to recover through choma [grilled meat].
Interviewer: What does success mean to you on an expedition like this?
Kagambi: A successful expedition is not just the summit––it’s going up and coming back down alive. It’s also about engaging with the world, encouraging one another, and maintaining friendships beyond the scope of the expedition. Since ours is a guided trip, we don’t have individual tasks because everything is kitted out. We’re all using bottled oxygen and have Sherpas. But we still have to work together and do nice things and spend time together in the evening. The challenge will be continuing with the mission after the climb––furthering goals of participation, diversity, and even just friendship. I want to continue sensitizing people.
Interviewer: What are the Full Circle’s team dynamics like? And what’s it like being the only African?
Kagambi: I just came back from Nepal two days ago, where the whole team met in person for the first time. I appreciate being able to meet on Zoom, but it’s not the same. This time, we got to go halfway up to Base Camp, meet our 18 Sherpas, and appreciate Nepalese culture as a group. As the sole Kenyan on the team, and being on the older side, it can be hard to understand what they [the Americans] are talking about sometimes, especially with things like music. But I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t have to be involved in or agree with everything. You just waste a lot of energy trying to figure that out. I can choose not to be part of the conversation and am fine with that.
We have three North Face athletes on the team and a couple who are specifically ice climbers. They’ve been good at pulling in sponsorships; we have maybe $550,000 worth of equipment. I would say our goals are largely the same, despite differences in being the majority versus minority. In the US, they have been very successful in publicizing this expedition; in Kenya, it’s harder to gain traction. There’s potential in getting Safaricom and KTV to support us, but we’re still working on it.
Interviewer: What’s mountaineering culture like in Kenya, and do you see your participation in the expedition influencing that at all?
Kagambi: More Kenyans have been coming on board in recent decades, which is encouraging. We have much better gear and belaying techniques now. But at the same time, we see a lot of competition on Mount Kenya: Guides will try to undercut one another by lowering prices. It’s a system we still need to figure out.
For me, a big part of taking part in this expedition is doing it for other people––to show that it can be done. It’s another way to put Kenya on the map in a global way. Achieving a summit will give more exposure to the rest of the world. I do see this as the apex of my career in a way. I hope this can be a way to make myself an ambassador of climbing so I can visit schools and communities to spread the message.
Interviewer: What are you hoping to get out of the expedition, personally?
Kagambi: In Kenya, we tend to recognize athletics such as football, rugby, and motoring, but not mountaineering. It’s time for the government to step up and recognize it as a sport.
I committed to Everest back in January 2021, but it didn’t feel real for a long time. But in October 2021, I ran into Rosemary Saal, a fellow expedition member, in Canyonlands, Utah. Can you imagine! We hugged each other, and from that point, the expedition started to feel real.
Interviewer: What are you looking forward to the most?
Kagambi: I’m looking forward to just being on the mountain.