Breaking the Mold: The First All-Black Team Will Attempt Mt. Everest in 2022

Posted October 9, 2021 | By Rob Kyte | climbinginitiative.org

See original article here: https://climbinginitiative.org/full-circle-everest


An Interview with Dom Mullins of Full Circle Everest


Members of the FCE team on Mt. Rainier. Back, left to right: Dom Mullins, Fred Campbell, Phil Henderson. Middle: Eddie Taylor, Manoah Ainuu, Abby Dione. Front: Rosemary Saal. Photo: Amrit Ale


In 2022, an all-Black team will make history as the first of its kind to attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Composed of ten rock climbers, ice climbers, skiers, outdoor instructors, teachers, coaches, and all-around athletes, they are calling the expedition Full Circle Everest.


Phil Henderson, a former National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructor with more than 30 years of experience in the outdoor industry, will lead the team. Full Circle will attempt to summit the world’s tallest mountain from the Nepal side via the South Col route.


I recently spoke with Demond “Dom” Mullins, PhD, on his career, outdoor experience, and perspectives on what it means to have an all-Black team going for the summit of Mt. Everest, the grandest stage of climbing and mountaineering in the world.


Demond “Dom” Mullins, PhD (left), is an Iraq War veteran, sociologist, climber, and team member of Full Circle Everest. The author, Rob Kyte (right), is a climber, writer, and Communications Manager for The Climbing Initiative.


Rob: At whatever starting point you’d like, tell me about yourself and how you ended up as a member of the FCE team.


Dom: I’m a sociologist and combat veteran of the Iraq War, where I was an armor crewman. I started climbing in 2009. [At that time], my only point of reference for outdoor stuff was in the military and moving across terrain. I thought it was cool to move over the land in another context and started hiking 14ers. I found hiking conducive to freedom.


R: Which 14er did you climb first?


D: Gray’s Peak in Colorado. I had a friend, Stacy Bare, in a nonprofit called Veterans Green Jobs. He trains veterans in green jobs and gets veterans out on expeditions to teach mountain skills, so I’d go out and climb with Stacy. I’m pretty sure I learned how to ice climb before learning to rock climb.


Gray’s Peak (14,278 ft.) on the left, as seen from the Gray’s and Torrey’s approach trail in mid-June 2020. Photo: Author


R: Can you describe the creation moment for Full Circle? Who was there, what discussions were had?


D: Conrad Anker is at the center of [our] networking, and Phil has had a three-decade career outdoors and had thought of ways of engaging Black people in the US to get outside. Those two putting their heads together made Full Circle possible. Phil has the experience, the abilities, and the track record necessary.


I met Conrad learning to climb in Hyalite Canyon in Montana. Conrad introduced Phil to Manoah and Fred, who are both North Face athletes, and myself. The truth is, I had never climbed with another Black person since I started climbing in 2009 until I climbed with Manoah in 2015. All the other Black people [I have climbed with] are on the team.


R: To be clear, in six years of climbing, you had never encountered another Black person climbing until you met Manoah?


D: No.


R: Everest is a huge undertaking. How do you personally balance risk and ambition, and how do you feel this carries or differs across the team?


D: We’ve all got our different perspectives. For me, it’s about balancing experience level and the skills that you have with your goal and objective. With Full Circle, we have well beyond the experience necessary to complete a successful Everest expedition. Phil Henderson has been on multiple Himalayan expeditions, and with Conrad a few of those times.


R: Getting up a difficult mountain, for me, is a profound experience. On my first big mountain, I distinctly remember thinking ‘I am in so much pain. Why am I here?’ But afterwards, I had this journey, this incredible experience to latch onto. The pain expires, the memory doesn't.


D: Exactly. It might be arduous while you’re in it. If you apply yourself well and keep yourself focused and get to the other side of it—you know, some people focus on the views, or the vistas, sure. But the feeling of accomplishment, there’s something in me that really likes to know that the mission is complete. When you have a project like this with a very definitive end … I like to know that it’s something I can complete.


R: Climbers often get asked why we do it. Why are we willing to take on what some call unnecessary or meaningless risk that affects not just us, but the people around us, the people that love us? With service in the military, the risk and suffering has a clear purpose. With climbing, some say the opposite. Through your experiences both as a veteran and a climber, what have you learned about impermanence, about taking a short life and making it meaningful?


D: The military experience took place at a tender time in my life, as it does in the lives of most people as they’re becoming adults. Unlike most jobs, it’s the one professional experience where you cannot elect to leave willfully. The ways you learn to sharpen the knife, tune yourself, cultivate your talents...are under an imposition.


There is something to experiencing the world like that, you know? I grew up in Brooklyn, so like, it was all just concrete for me. Through my service, I spent lots of time in woodlands. I spent lots of time in the desert. It was, at times, grueling … but also, beautiful. There’s a certain balance in risk and reward ... there are rewards you can gain from discomfort that are incalculable.


The risk when it comes to mountaineering is one that you conduct willfully at its outset, and throughout its entire duration, that allows you to cultivate a different relationship with the sport, with nature itself, and with your own nature. The military influenced me … to accept risk at a young age and in combat. If at some point I got cold feet coming into mountaineering, that early experience with risk and reward expanded my capacity for risk management and being able to operate in the hot seat. There is something in there that is gratifying as a result of that sensibility.


R: What motivated you to become a Senate staffer after your service?


D: When it comes to my service in the Senate, that was never a focus of my life growing up. It was a result of my education in global politics and the crash course I received when I served in the military. When I joined the military, I had no understanding of geopolitics, but seeing how everything has played out since 9/11 ... I was in basic when that happened, and then my whole life changed as a result of the war. Seeing what the tip of the spear was like—I was in the battles for Fallujah, and I conducted security for the first Iraqi elections—it forced me to look at the world and have things to say and have feelings about how the U.S. was representing itself abroad.


I became a national spokesman for Iraq Veterans Against the War. I was working with veterans to give them confidence to speak about the war, which led to lobbying the Senate and Congress more broadly, and eventually gaining an audience with senators who wanted to work with me and influence policy in their offices.


R: How did your time serving in the Senate affect your perspective on the actions, the power, and the abilities of the United States government?


D: I became more disenchanted after serving in the Senate … all these little side conversations in the hallways, these lobbyists and their pitches … All of that influenced what happened to me, what happened to my brothers, in Iraq.


Now, I feel more validated by those perspectives than ever before. Look at how things precipitated in Afghanistan. Look at the last 20 years and dropping over a trillion dollars into that effort: it squandered the wealth of a generation. Having a deep understanding of that at such a young age, as a result of the things that I see, I feel very validated. That is the story of combat veterans throughout modernity. Veterans come back from campaigns as young men having a depth and understanding of the world and finding it distasteful.


R: Can you tell me about your study with combat veterans on their summit bid for Denali?


D: It was a qualitative study, or an exploratory ethnographic study. There was a small, seven-veteran self-guided team going for a summit bid on Denali (at 20,310 feet, the tallest mountain in North America and a known training ground for Everest climbs). I learned mountaineering skills over two years and participated in training events around Colorado on 14ers, and Mt. Hood as well. Conducting participant observation, I interviewed athletes on the mountain about their experiences, and their relationship with reintegration to society and mountaineering. I found that mountaineering, at various intensity levels, is a vehicle for social engagement and community building amongst combat veterans.


R: Why is it important for underrepresented, often underprivileged youth to see themselves represented in something larger, such as the climbing community, and that representation in the climbing community is diverse and inclusive?


D: As humans, we come from the natural environment. It wasn’t until pretty recently that the separation between humans and nature became so apparent. Spending time in nature is conducive to our health. The seed of aspiration to be outdoors, to learn how to be outside, to see that that’s a space for you, provides richer experiences for people and communities. You can’t begin to calculate the value that representation and experience contributes to someone’s life.


My research now helps us gauge the importance of introducing the outdoors to communities of color, particularly in terms of trauma in those communities. We look at post-9/11 veterans and the way mountaineering helps them deal with their trauma, and creating community around the activities that they like in a way that feels constructive and enhances their identities. All these things are there for people of color, for all people, to enhance your confidence, your physical health. The outdoors has the ability to contribute to all of that.


R: Dom, thank you for your time. To close, what do you want for this expedition going forward?


D: I want us to have a safe and fun expedition. To be in Nepal, to experience that beauty and the beauty of the climb. I hope this expedition is a spectacle for that seed of aspiration. Because for me, I didn’t know that people even climbed ice or frozen waterfalls till I was probably 28 years old. People of color should know that this space exists for them.


R: How can people support Full Circle Everest?


D: We’re still working out our budgeting and our sponsors, but there’s also a GoFundMe on the website. We’ve gotten to the point where we can basically guarantee, as far as permits and such go, that this expedition is going to happen. But there are still other expenses to cover.


Visit fullcircleeverest.com to support and learn more about this historic expedition to the roof of the world.