Mt Everest is the holy grail of mountain climbers; the one quest mountaineers wish to accomplish. On May 12, 2022, James Kagambi became the first Kenyan to reach the highest place on earth when he summited the Everest. He was 62 years old when he stood on the peak at 8,849 metres (29,032 feet).
Mount Everest is in Nepal and Tibet, located in the Himalayan mountains. Kagambi was part of the seven-person Full Circle Everest team, an all-black team from the US to reach the peak.
In 2003, Sibusiso Vilane of South Africa became the first black person to summit the mountain. Since 1953 when Edmund Hillary became the first foreigner to summit Everest, more than 6,000 people have done the same but only eight have been black climbers.
Around 6am Kagambi and his colleagues reached the top of Everest, over 8km above sea level. “I was so surprised when I got there because I expected it to be further.”
At the summit he said a prayer for Kenya, took some photographs and started heading down shortly afterward for safety reasons.
“I have been on many high mountains and the weather can change within minutes,” he said.
In the following days, Kagambi, popularly known as KG, seemed surprised by the enormous attention in the media and congratulatory messages from people. “To me, it seemed like a normal thing to do,” he said. “I started seeing the Everest summit through other people and their excitement.”
The Everest expedition by Full Circle Team was three years in the making. When first invited to join the trip Kagambi initially wanted to decline citing his age and knee challenges. However, group leader Phil Henderson convinced him to participate in a ground-breaking journey that aimed to inspire people of colour to participate more in the outdoor community. Kagambi was the oldest team member.
The Full Circle group arrived in Nepal two months earlier, prepared to be on the mountain for weeks until conditions were suitable for trekking to the top. Conditions such as weather, the terrain, physical preparation, individual health, supplemental oxygen and other factors determine the timing of a climb. Everest is infamously expensive to climb and costs on average about $50,000.
The group began the trip with a 15-day scenic trek to the Everest base camp at 5,364m (17,598 feet) followed by five days of acclimatising. Then came a number of rotations where climbers hike up to various camps before returning to base camp, preparing the body for the altitude, low oxygen levels and final summit.
When the weather was suitable, the team made a push for the peak over a number of days. It was a gruelling climb, “especially because of the high altitude and heat and reflection from the snow,” said Kagambi. Exertion, the elevation and sudden warm weather can cause people to feel hot on Everest. “Climbing Everest was hard but I was prepared,” he said.
Kagambi is a pioneer on many fronts. He represented Africa at the 1992 UN Peace Climb for the world on Mt Eiger in Switzerland. He is the first African to summit Mt Denali, the tallest mountain in North America in 1989. He is also the first African to summit Aconcagua in Argentina in 1994, the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere.
Kagambi was born in Karatina town in 1960 and grew up in Naro Moru, located in the central county of Nyeri on the foothills of Mt Kenya. As child, he was a boy scout and relished going on outdoor adventures, but he did not climb the mountain until 1983, aged 23. It was a rough trip because he was ill-prepared and poorly dressed, but when he touched snow for the first time, it sparked a lifelong passion for high terrains. He reckons he has climbed Mt Kenya more than 200 times and Mt Kilimanjaro over 100 times. He hoisted the commemorative flag on Mt Kenya in 2013 during country’s 50th independence anniversary.
After leaving high school, Kagambi become a primary school teacher. In his spare time he would take every chance to get out into nature, hike and climb. Unsurprisingly, he quit the teaching profession after seven years to embark on a full-time career outdoors.
In 1987 Kagambi became a certified instructor with National Outdoor Leadership School, an outdoor education institution based in the United States. He formed a company, KG Expeditions, which leads guided expeditions around East Africa to Mt Kenya, Mt Kilimanjaro and Ruwenzori Mountain.
He said Batian and Nelion, the top peaks of Mt Kenya, are technically tricky climbs.
Kagambi learned rock climbing and was one of the first Africans to lead expeditions to these peaks.
Kagambi’s advice to people interested in mountain climbing is not to be afraid. “You don’t have to start with a mountain but go for a hill and eventually build up,” he said and encourages people to get out.
“Enjoy being outdoors, whether it is for outdoor skills, mountaineering or just going to the forest because your body is improving physically and mentally.”
When preparing to climb a mountain, he recommends training for several months but cautions against overexertion. “Start slowly, then build up because exercise is not always the best thing if it is done wrong,” he said.
He rarely works out at a gym but has built up strength and stamina from years of working in the field. “I live in the mountains and carry 50kgs of gear when hiking.”
He recommends drinking lots of water, listening to the guide, listening to your body and communicating how you feel.