SEATTLE — It was time to call in a helicopter.
After years of planning and months of training to climb Mount Everest on the first all-Black expedition to the world’s tallest peak, Lynnwood 35-year-old Fred Campbell came down with a respiratory infection soon after arriving in Nepal in April.
Campbell fought the infection for weeks on acclimatization hikes with his mountaineering team, Full Circle Everest, but by the time he reached Camp 3 at 24,000 feet above sea level in the Himalayas, his fever spiked to 104 degrees.
The medical evacuation took Campbell back to Everest Base Camp, where he joined Wenatchee Valley resident Adina Scott, 42, who provided technical support to the expedition. Together they tuned into the camp radio as historic news filtered down from the 29,032-foot summit May 12: Seven Full Circle Everest expedition members summited with support from eight Sherpas. All members of the expedition made it back down the mountain safely.
“I was supremely disappointed,” Campbell said of missing the summit attempt. “But I got to listen in on the radio when everyone else summited. All the effort I put in wasn’t wasted.”
The Full Circle expedition roughly doubled the number of Black climbers who have ever reached Everest’s summit. (For perspective, several hundred climbers summit Everest annually.) In the process, the Full Circle Everest team furthered a longstanding mission to raise awareness that climbing mountains can and should be a sport for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“We believe that the outdoor recreation space is for everybody and we want to increase access and awareness for those of us that aren’t very represented in the sport,” Campbell said.
Campbell’s journey to the Himalayas began more than a decade ago, when he reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro with his father on a climb around New Year’s Eve 2009. That was his first time hiking and it sparked a lifelong pursuit.
“I fell in love and I’ve been trying to climb mountains ever since,” he said.
An accomplished data scientist at Microsoft with a doctorate in statistics from Rice University, Campbell quickly progressed in his climbing career, tackling routes and peaks in the Alaska Range, the Bugaboos of British Columbia, the Sierra Madres in Mexico and the Cascades at home in Washington.
In 2018, he became a sponsored athlete for The North Face, which connected him with famed alpinist Conrad Anker, who became a mentor. Anker, in turn, recommended him to Full Circle expedition leader Phil Henderson, a veteran National Outdoor Leadership School instructor. The next year, Campbell met Henderson in person by chance while ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado, with North Face professional climber and former Spokane resident Manoah Ainuu, another Full Circle expedition member.
“There aren’t that many Black people that ice climb, so I guessed that it was him and introduced myself,” Campbell said.
That chance encounter helped set in motion a recruiting process like something out of “Ocean’s Eleven,” as Henderson canvassed the community of Black climbers to put together an expedition team.
Scott emerged on Henderson’s radar because of her role in Expedition Denali, a 2013 attempt by the first exclusively African American group to tackle North America’s highest peak; the team was turned around by bad weather just 700 feet from the summit. (The expedition was chronicled in the film “An American Ascent.”) Henderson was climbing Denali that season with a different team and became acquainted with Scott and Rosemary Saal — another Full Circle climber, she lived in Seattle until 2019 — some 14,000 feet up the mountain, when bad weather confined climbing teams to Advanced Base Camp for upwards of 10 days.
When Henderson called with the invitation to climb Everest, Scott’s first answer was no.
“I have a history of not doing particularly well at altitude and I didn’t want to be a burden on the team,” Scott said. The two eventually found a suitable role: Scott, a marine electronics technician who regularly crews scientific expeditions to Antarctica, would provide technical support at base camp.
“Sometimes other people’s Everest is not your Everest,” she said. “Sometimes other people’s big goals don’t match your big goals, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be complementary.”
All told, the summiting climbers were Ainuu, Saal, Evan Green, James “KG” Kagambi, Thomas Moore, Demond Mullins and Eddie Taylor.
Big mountain, big impact
The Full Circle Everest expedition fluctuated as members joined and others dropped out, but the team that eventually went to Nepal gelled over two years of climbing trips to U.S. destinations like Ouray, Bozeman, Montana, and Mount Rainier. Campbell leaned on the vertical relief of the Cascade Range for training — from countless hikes up and down Mailbox Peak to ski mountaineering on our region’s volcanoes, which allowed for long vertical climbs with descents less punishing on the joints than hiking down.
With sponsors including The North Face and Microsoft secured, and a successful fundraising effort that raised over $100,000, the final team traveled to Nepal in January to train at the Khumbu Climbing Center, where Henderson is an instructor.
The Himalayas left Campbell in a perpetual state of awe. “The scale is so incredibly large,” he said. “I kept thinking you can fit the Enchantments in several times over.” While he isn’t hankering for another Everest bid, he does hope to return to tackle Losar, one of the world’s longest ice climbing routes.
Full Circle Everest’s impact, in turn, was felt both in Nepal and beyond.
“On the trail we’d run into a Black person here and there. They were really excited to see as many of us as there were — it’s typical to be the only person of color in these outdoor spaces,” Campbell said. “That reassured them they weren’t crazy for going up the mountain.”
Closer to sea level, Kagambi, 62, was greeted with a hero’s welcome when he became the first Kenyan to summit Everest. REI Co-op Studios is working on a documentary film about the expedition. Ainuu’s profile has risen as magazines like Men’s Health cover his fitness routine.
The attention was vindication that Full Circle selected the right objective, even as climbing Everest has sparked a backlash in recent years.
“There isn’t a more iconic stage to spread a message around climbing and outdoor adventure,” Campbell said. “If our goal is to inspire people who aren’t tuned into the sport, starting with the mountain they’ve heard of and had a picture of is a good place to start.”
After several months of wearing their identities on the sleeves of their mountaineering suits, Campbell said the team is ready to return the focus to doing what they love.
“We are super psyched to go climbing, period,” he said. “If people recognize us for the climbing that we do independent of being Black, that’s wonderful. We’d also be OK with people not paying attention as long as we get do the climbing we want to do.”