Racial gaps stay in outside recreation, Wisconsin climber says after landmark Everest journey


Madison’s James Edward Mills recently helped document the historic journey of the first all-black American team to the summit of Mount Everest.

Mills, an author and documentary filmmaker, hiked with the team in May to the mountain’s base camp — which itself has an elevation of about 17,600 feet. He said the steep climb to reach that level took almost two weeks.

“The number of people we met along the way is actually quite remarkable,” he said. “People from all over the world, from every continent (and) every nation, come to Everest Base Camp to celebrate mountaineering as part of an expedition tradition.”

But now reflecting on the team’s groundbreaking journey, Mills remains concerned about the racial divides that persist in climbing. He said the sport still has a long way to go before it is fully inclusive. Inequalities in disposable income and leisure time remain common barriers.

In 2014, Mills authored a book called The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, which addressed efforts to expand access to wilderness recreation for people of color. Almost a decade later, he said more work was needed.

“There are still too few examples of (Black, Indigenous and Black people) achieving bold goals like climbing Mount Everest,” he said in an email. “Despite the success of this expedition, it is the exception rather than the rule. It’s impossible to know when something like this might happen again. I just hope it happens sooner rather than later.”

The Full Circle Everest Expedition roughly doubled the number of black climbers to scale Everest, Mills recently told WPR’s Central Time. He said it was the first time a black American had reached the summit. Previously, only one black American, Sophia Danenberg, had completed the expedition.

Reaching the summit of Mount Everest helps expand representation, Mills said. People of color are able to see people who look like them and who are from their neighborhood in a way they haven’t seen before.

“Expeditions like this now basically allow us to draw a line that goes from the depths of the ocean to the tops of the highest mountains,” he said.

He said it is important to acknowledge and thank the often overlooked Nepalese Sherpas for their cooperation, support and physical labor on the journey.

Mills doesn’t think everyone has to climb Mount Everest. Someone can see these stories and use them as inspiration to be active in the nature near them – be it Devil’s Lake, the UW Arboretum, the Ice Age Trail or any other outdoor place.

He said his 2014 book sought to motivate and inspire the next generation of people of color to venture into activities like high-altitude mountaineering. Since then, “quite a few new climbers” have entered the field, he said.

In the wake of the high-profile deaths of Black Americans in 2020, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Mills said it’s important to share positive stories of Black excellence.

“This is to encourage more people who are underrepresented in certain areas of our society to reach the highest heights,” he said. “And what is higher than the top of Mount Everest?”

Mills said he is working on a new book on black history in the National Park Service. Black people have always played a role in outdoor recreation and conservation, he said, but they have not always been adequately represented in the parks as visitors, rangers, guides, naturalists and scientists.