Black at 8000m

On 12 May 2022, the Full Circle climbing team made headlines as the first all Black team to summit the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. Prior to their ascent, only 4000 people had summited Mount Everest and, of these 4,000, only eight were Black. Their successful all-Black expedition effectively doubled the number of Black ascents on Everest from 8 to 15.

In a recent interview, Rosemary Saal, one of the members of the Full Circle team, recounted her experiences of growing up in the United States as a biracial child with an interest in the outdoors:

"When I was young, I took my first rock climbing courses, mountaineering courses, whatever. I would tell family members or friends or just different people in my life about what I was doing. And immediately it's like, 'Oh, Black people don't do that. That's the White side of you. Black people don't go skiing. Black people don't go climbing”

Many Black climbers have experiences like this, experiences where they’ve been made to feel like their interest in climbing is misguided or peculiar. These experiences stem from a long history of climbing lore that has erased and obscured the presence and contributions of people of colour in mountain sports. In these stories, mountains are often a vehicle for narratives about conquest and domination. 

In recent years, Nepal’s Sherpa community has shed light on the erasure of Sherpas from the stories of Everest. Many of the most renowned ascents of Everest (including the Full Circle team ascent) would not have been possible without labour, dedication, skill, and expertise of sherpas, yet very few sherpas have been recognized for their contributions.

This erasure, which happens on the highest peaks in the world, also occurs on a much smaller scale at local mountains and cliffs. In the documentary Titan Project, elite Ontario climber Sabrina Chapman recounts an experience of practicing a difficult climb in the United States while locals asked her husband (a white man) who was belaying her whether he was her coach. In their minds, it is difficult to imagine that Chapman, a Black woman, climbs as hard as she does without the stewardship of a white man. Her skill and ability must somehow be related to whiteness; they require a white validator.

Once while climbing in Kentucky with friends, I was approached by a local climber who overheard our group and decided to ask me where we were all from. When I told him that we were from Hamilton, which is near Toronto, he immediately followed up with a story about a Black climber that he’d met from Toronto, though he “couldn’t remember the name.” Eventually, I guessed the name of the person and his eyes lit up “That’s the guy! That’s the guy!” I smiled uncomfortably and wondered whether the disappointment I felt stemmed from being put in this situation or from being able to quickly identify a fellow Black climber with only a vague description because there were so few of us. 

I’ve had many similar experiences to this one: moments when I felt there was not enough space to be both Black and a climber. I endured racist jokes, probing questions, and many other discomforts simply because people view climbing as an inherently white pursuit.

While many people have challenged the idea that mountaineering equals conquest, far fewer people have examined the assumption that mountaineering is white. The result is that many of the emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits that we now associate with climbing are positioned as largely outside of Black experience. 

At a time when an ever-growing number of people are fighting for racial justice and acknowledging the impacts of anti-Black racism and other traumas, few people have prioritized outdoor recreation as an important part of care, as a vital affirmation of our humanity in the face of intense dehumanization. Ascents such as the most recent one by the Full Circle team help not only help disrupt the idea that mountaineering is the sole preserve of white folks but, also, the related assumption that the joy, relaxation, sense of community, and personal growth associated with climbing are only for white people.

While climbing has been growing in popularity for the past thirty years, its popularity has reached new heights during the last decade. Climbing debuted as a new event at the last Olympics and, around the world, climbing gyms are welcoming greater and greater numbers of people to the sport year after year. As the popularity of the sport has increased, so too has the presence and visibility of racialized climbers. This is important not only because of representation but also because climbing is long overdue for new narratives. Rather than a culture of domination, conquest, and exclusion, we as Black people can be at the centre of a climbing culture that is decolonial and rooted in respect, inclusion, humility, and so much more. As Full Circle member and climbing gym owner Abby Dione recently said, “Our goal here is to help folks aspire to have a profound and respectful relationship with the outdoors and feel not entitled to it, but welcome to it.”

To learn more about Black climbers, check out Melanin Base Camp’s list of 16 Black Women and Non-Binary Rock Climbers to Follow on Instagram.