“Even the fittest people can succumb to altitude,” says Phil Henderson, the 18-year National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) vet who is the leader of our Southeast Ridge Everest team. His crew includes some of the world’s top rock climbers—Sam Elias, Emily Harrington—who have never tried alpine climbing. And then there’s ski mountaineers Hilaree O’Neill and Kris Erickson who might, if possible, ski a bit of the world’s tallest peak. Henderson will bring this talented, but disparate group together on the world’s tallest peak. “We are not really successful unless everyone comes home and comes home healthy. That’s part of the game,” says Henderson. And if he is successful, he will become the first African American man to climb Everest (Sophia Danenberg became the first African American woman to summit Everest in 2006).
Here Henderson reveals some of his hard-won tips—how to get along, when ripping a book is a good thing, and the state of diversity in the outdoors.
Alex: What’s your role on the expedition?
Phil Henderson: I’m the team leader on the Southeast Ridge team, besides being a team member as well.
A: Have you ever been up Everest?
PH: I have not. Which is one of the unique things about this expedition … none of our team has been on Everest before. Actually, one of our members was on the North Ridge of Everest—writer Mark Jenkins.
A: Have you climbed anything that compares to Everest?
PH: Heck, almost nothing compares, but people tell me that Denali is a harder mountain to climb. I climbed it in 2005.
A: But you are quite familiar with the region, as you’ve been teaching at the Khumbu Climbing Center (KCC) for years.
PH: Yeah, I have been in the Everest region in 2006, 2007, and again in 2009. So this will be my fourth trip. I was working for the KCC. I was one of the western instructors helping to train the Nepalis in rock and ice and technical skills and leadership.
A: How is the school helping change things for Nepali climbers and guides?
PH: I think it’s a really good program. We have quite a few folks who come from all over, in addition to the Khumbu region—up to 60 to 80 students some years. It really helps hone their technical skills. It’s not like in the U.S. where someone could have a lot of training in his or her college outdoor program or mountaineering schools. Getting this technical training once a year for the 10 to 12 days really helps. I know I’ve seen some students really excel in the three years I’ve been there.
A: And now some of the students are instructors?
PH: Exactly. After my first year there in 2006, I realized we were really focusing on leadership and decision-making—and that’s what we teach at NOLS. I was able to start a program where we give scholarships to two students from the KCC to come over and take NOLS courses and give them a better understanding of risk management, leadership, and decision-making. We have had six students come over from the KCC to NOLS.
A: Conrad Anker talks about how in Nepal, climbing isn’t seen as fun. It’s work. You are helping students see that it’s more than just a job?
PH: That’s true. I’ve noticed that same thing. I actually spent a year-and-a-half in East Africa as well. And most people come into the outdoor industry there for work. It’s not something they do for leisure. So to bring in that element—that this is something that’s fun and it’s work, and that’s their primary income. It really bridges that gap. It gives them a better understanding of what Westerners are looking for, too.
A: Where were you in Africa?
PH: Kenya. I was working for NOLS there as well. We had a program based in Kenya at the time. I think I led nine expeditions on Mount Kenya. I also guided a trip on Kilimanjaro in 2001, which was part of a training program for East African porters and guides.
A: How did you get into mountaineering and climbing?
PH: The shorter version … I had always enjoyed outdoor things. I grew up in San Diego and would go out with my grandfather. I played traditional sports—baseball, football—for the most part. In college, I had an injury where I fractured a vertebra in my neck. The injury really took away the ability to pursue that avenue of sports. So from that point, on I decided that if there was anything I was interested in doing, I want to do it. And I ended up taking a NOLS course. I took a semester in the Rockies. And I have worked in the outdoor industry ever since then.
A: You’re taking a really skilled group of climbers up the mountain. What challenges do you think will you face?
PH: Just being on the mountain itself is a big challenge. Anytime you take a group into an environment for 2.5 months of camping together, the biggest hurtle we have is being civil to each other. We have to be careful to communicate and make sure that if there are things that are bothering folks, that we can talk about them in away that’s solution-oriented. That’s really the biggest challenge. And then just logistics for our expedition with so many other people being on the mountain.
A: Is the altitude going to be an issue?
PH: Yeah, and that’s what I mean about just being on the mountain itself. It definitely is an issue. And then in terms of decision-making. We have a lot of experienced people, so I see my role is taking everyone’s input and making decisions based on what everyone wants.
A: Is there one key thing to remember when acclimating at altitude?
PH: The key thing is to go slow and steady. Don’t try and move too fast. People see it as I’m fit, I can move fast, but it’s really not about that. Even the fittest people can succumb to altitude. I’ve had people who live at 5,000 feet and they get to 14,000 feet and they succumb to altitude sickness. It’s disappointing, but being able to recognize it and as a team, we are not really successful unless everyone comes home and comes home healthy. It’s just part of the game.
A: What’s your favorite camping meal?
PH: That’s a hard one …. Mac and cheese. Pasta with any cheese. Any pasta is just the best. It’s simple and nutritious, good, and keeps you going.
A: When you see people coming on NOLS trips with their gear, what’s the biggest mistake they make in their packing?
PH: Carrying too much. Like toothpaste—they bring a full tube. Just a little travel one is good. You have to downsize. And a book. People want to carry a big novel, because they are readers. We maybe tear the book in half. A lot of NOLS courses get re-rationed supplies of food, so you can put the other half in the re-rations.
A: What’s your perspective on increasing diversity in the outdoors?
PH: It’s just a matter of exposing people, and when I say exposing, I mean people who have not historically been exposed to what we think of as the “outdoor industry.” I just happened to be one of those folks who, 20 years ago—when there were very, very few people of color were in the outdoors—I was exposed to it. And then you take those folks who are kind of interested who don’t see anyone else like them, then they are less likely to get involved.
I truly believe that the outdoor industry and outdoor education and expeditions are the true equalizers. They break down stereotypes. If you and I have to camp together. You cook for me. I’m eating your food. We have to spend time sleeping next to one another and waiting out a storm and telling stories, you are helping me and I’m helping you. Then we realize that people are just people. And really your background, your race, has nothing to do with it.
A: What is one piece of gear that you always bring with you—something that makes things better, more comfortable?
PH: Socks. That is the one thing. If I can keep my feet healthy at the end of the day, regardless of what else happened, then I am happy. So I have system where I have a pair of socks that I sleep in, and that’s all I do in them. I don’t walk around camp in them. It’s the last thing I do before I crash—I change by socks. It makes me focus on the most important part of my body.