Conversation with Sophia Danenberg: First African American to Climb Everest

Sophia on Ama Dablam (22,349 ft) in eastern Nepal, 2005

Sophia on Ama Dablam (22,349 ft) in eastern Nepal, 2005

Trekking is what I do to get to the mountain. Add a little bit of technicality and people drop right off, each increase of technicality allows you to have a little more solitude, more wilderness, you can go further and further.

I had the privilege of speaking with high altitude mountaineer, business woman and world traveler, Sophia Danenberg, who became the first African American to summit Mount Everest on May 19, 2006. Here are some of the summarized highlights of our conversation.  

What got you started with mountaineering?   

I got started with climbing by making the decision to start rock climbing with my high school friend, Allison.  This led it’s way to being convinced to climb Mount Rainier in Washington State.  Back in the nineties you wouldn’t see Black people out climbing or skiing at least not on the east coast. I remember seeing a Black woman out on a ski resort in New Hampshire, she was so happy to see another African American out there she actually came up and said hello.  

It’s funny in fact back in the day when meeting people at the climbing gym, I used to be able to just say I’ll be the Black girl, you can’t miss me.

Wow some things haven’t changed much, I still do this when meeting friends at the climbing gym.

What type of preparation did you do before you felt ready to climb Mount Everest?

I didn’t train to climb Everest.  I was already training constantly.

I was going to climb Cho Oyu, the conditions that year were poor in that region so I contacted my guide friend in the Himalayas and she suggested that because it was just post monsoon season Cho Oyu wasn’t a good option.  So she suggested I do Everest instead.  So I decided on Everest in January and began my expedition in March.  I had already requested the time off from work and I didn’t want to waste two months away from work and not go climbing.  On this trip I had to do all of the logistics because I wasn’t going with a guide.  So I had to prepare and purchase gear, plan around the weather, and continue training.  All while having to work a normal job.  I remember climbing mountains in the US with my pack stuffed with bags of rice also lots of spin classes.

Because I was climbing Everest on such short notice, I had a hard time finding a properly fitting down suit. North Face discontinued the one I wanted in my size so I ended up getting a down suit that was way too big.  After the climb I actually gave the down away to a Sherpa friend who could get more use out of it than me.

Sophia traversing an ice-fall on Mount Everest.

Sophia traversing an ice-fall on Mount Everest.

In your opinion what is the difference between mountaineering and trekking?

To me mountaineering is technical, it requires tools like crampons, an ice axe and ropes.  Whereas trekking is something like Kilimanjaro which can be high altitude but can be done without technical gear.  Trekking is what I do to get to the mountain.  Add a little bit of technicality and people drop right off, each increase of  technicality allows you to have a little more solitude, more wilderness, you can go further and further.  With that said, I’m a huge fan of trekking, the best memory I have of Everest was of trekking and staying in a small village at 15,000 feet.  Trekking in Nepal is awesome, 90% of the mountaineering experience is from trekking, 10% is from the climb.  

How has being a Black woman helped you in mountaineering?  
I’ve noticed that when I’ve met people on my expeditions they treat me with a level respect, because I treat them with respect, people in countries in South America, Africa and Asia are so happy to see another brown person trekking, and climbing.  They don’t make the normal assumptions of being a rich white man, people have offered me additional information and have showed me immense hospitality. Climbing in Kenya and Tanzania was like a celebration they were so happy to see people that looked like them, brown people.

There are a lot of climbers who just don’t give an effort to connect with locals.  I have found that my best memories are from meeting and learning from locals.  When I go to new countries I don't have an attitude of white privilege I try and connect with people and cultures.

Rock climbing during a Mount Kenya attempt, 2003.

Rock climbing during a Mount Kenya attempt, 2003.

Now with all of that said being a woman, a Black woman has meant some difficulties.  I never joined a Seattle area mountaineering club or organization simply because I couldn’t find one that would let me join without first doing some introductory climbing course, taught by someone who had probably only been climbing a year or two.  Even though I already know how to climb!  At first I just thought this was how it was for everyone, until I asked some male friends who said they never had to “prove their abilities” they were able to show their skills on expeditions without the initial screening.  

This became evident this one time in Squamish, British Columbia I was rock climbing a multi-pitch route with a friend. We were leading this pitch when a another climber in a different group beneath us kept asking us for beta because he couldn’t figure out where the route was going.  (it’s a sport climb, just follow the bolts...)  After they finished climbing the guy who was continually asking me for beta suggested that I should join a local rock climbing club and that I should take his climbing course.  I replied “oh cool are you a student in the class” and he replied “no I’m the instructor”  slightly embarrassed by the social faux pas, I realised the irony in the situation.  The guy was a climbing instructor who needed excess beta to get up the bolted sport route had the nerve to suggest that I take his class.  I don’t think he meant to be rude by asking me to take his class, I just think it highlights how some men have unconscious bias.

What do you see are the barriers keeping African Americans from summiting the world’s tallest peaks?  How were you able to avoid these barriers?

There are a lack of role models for people of color in the climbing community.  I also think that climbing is an indicator of lagging social economic issues, in our country.  People who climb big mountains are all the same: well educated, work at an engineering company, from upper middle class families.  

Climbing is time consuming and costly, no matter what anyone says about the metaphysical part of climbing it’s a selfish, non productive activity. It’s hobby that takes a lot of time, it’s a selfish hobby, it’s a hobby that I love.  Some people don’t have the privilege of not being productive.

Choosing to be a dirtbag climber is just not an option for many people of color.

I’m not a dirt bagger but I gave up alot in my career to be a climber,  I was able to do these things because I had the necessary support from my parents and I didn’t need to chase money, everything fell together for me the social economic factors, I had parents who had the economic means.  I would feel bad if my father had to scrub floors to pay for me to get through college only for me to live in a van.  My father worked very hard as a physician but you get the idea alot of black people don’t have that privilege. 

You even mentioned that you had parents who encouraged you and who were okay with you doing something (mountaineering, or climbing) that was a selfish non-productive thing because you enjoyed it.  I think that's where change is happening, that's what will help unlock climbing for everyone.  My parents saw that it’s worth it for me and they were okay with me not directly bettering myself in a more traditional way.  My parents were ok with that.

I was very surprised to learn that the first African American to summit Everest did so in 2006  
I was just as surprised as you were.  Someone actually had to tell me that I was the first, I wasn’t doing it for that reason. I was just a normal climber, I wasn't pushing to be a first. I  see more Black climbers now, I was just at the front end of a trend growing in US society.  

That really stood out that you have a real passion for climbing and mountaineering and that you were never chasing titles or fame, just out enjoying climbing, I think that is so cool! 

How important was moving to Seattle for your mountaineering career? 

My move to Seattle has actually been a chance to pull back.  I’ve been working more on politics and have been able to focus more on work.  There is so much quality alpine climbing near by.  So if I want to climb Rainier it is a two day effort instead of a week plus trip.  For over 10 years I spent every single vacation day climbing.  It’s nice to not have to vacation to go climbing.  I have also been working more with politics in Washington State, something I started with the Obama campaign in 2008.

How many countries have you visited?  Do you have a favorite?
It’s not something that I count, it’s just a lifestyle, I never traveled to mark off boxes.  There are probably people who have backpacked Europe and traveled to more countries than me.  I like to travel off the beaten path. My favorite place I’ve traveled is Thailand, I was an author for a Thailand travel guide back in the nineties. I really love Southeast Asia.

Do you have any organizations or missions you would like to shout out?
Juniper Fund, which supports the families and widows of sherpas, and Nature Bridge a nonprofit organization that provides environmental education programs in six US national parks. 

Thank you so much for speaking with me and allowing me to share your story on our site.

Sophia on the summit of Mount Everest, mask removed.

Sophia on the summit of Mount Everest, mask removed.

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Melanin Base Camp blogger Adam Mitchell is an explorer of new places and ideas based in Tempe, Arizona. He enjoys hiking, climbing and home-brewing kombucha. Check out his other articles here.