EMILY KWONG, HOST:
You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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AARON SCOTT, HOST:
Hey there, SHORT WAVErs. Aaron Scott here with science desk reporter Ari Daniel, who is taking us to new heights, literally. Ari, am I going to need an oxygen mask for this one?
ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: No, no, don't worry. I think you're all set, Aaron. This will be a gentle journey.
SCOTT: Thank you. Thank you so much. So I understand you got to interview someone pretty remarkable.
DANIEL: Yes, Aaron. His name is James Kagambi. KG for short. That's what everybody calls him. And when he landed at the Nairobi airport in Kenya on May 23, he was greeted as a national hero.
DANIEL: KG just returned from a successful climb to the top of Mount Everest. He's the first Kenyan to do so at - get this - age 62.
DANIEL: It's unbelievable.
JAMES KAGAMBI: Thank you very much. I'm feeling good, a bit tired.
DANIEL: KG understandably was tired. He was part of the Full Circle Everest expedition, the first all-Black team to summit the highest peak in the world. And it nearly doubled the number of Black climbers ever to scale Everest.
SCOTT: Yes, Ari, team SHORT WAVE has been cheering them on ever since they landed in Nepal.
DANIEL: And initially, KG wasn't even going to join the expedition.
KAGAMBI: At first, when I was asked to come on this expedition, I actually said no.
DANIEL: Why did you say no?
KAGAMBI: Well, the first thing obviously was the age. Second one was, oh, my knees are just giving up. I - last year, I saw a doctor, and they said, do not even step. You should go straight and see an orthopedic, and you need to do knee replacement. What am I going there to prove, you know?
SCOTT: So, Ari, what made KG change his mind?
DANIEL: Phil Henderson, the expedition leader, was very persuasive.
KAGAMBI: Phil knows me very well. And he said, I know you. I know when you are determined, you can do it. Even if you go there and you don't summit, you'll still be so resourceful to the group. Being the oldest and having spent so much time in the mountains than anybody else, people will respect what I say. And it was as simple as saying, oh, yeah, I've been waiting for this. I'll just go do it.
SCOTT: Yeah, yeah. That is that indomitable willpower that makes a world-class mountaineer.
DANIEL: That's true. And Kagambi's successful ascent has furthered a personal goal of his, which is that of inspiring more diversity in mountaineering and the outdoors.
SCOTT: So today on the show, we travel to the top of the world with KG and Ari Daniel.
DANIEL: No, no, that's - you're being too kind. I had nothing to do with it.
DANIEL: It was all KG. I interviewed him on the phone, comfortably, at sea level.
SCOTT: Right, right. Then coming to you, whatever your altitude, this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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SCOTT: OK, Ari, so how did this whole thing start for KG? When did he first start climbing?
DANIEL: He was 23, Aaron, when he made his first serious climb, Mount Kenya. It's the second-highest peak in Africa. And he hated it.
KAGAMBI: I had headaches, and I went down saying, I'll never go back.
DANIEL: But then something happened. He encountered this magical substance that he'd never seen before - snow.
KAGAMBI: I just touched it and knew that I like this. I was looking back and saying, you know what? I want to go back there right now. After that, I couldn't stop.
SCOTT: So you could say it snowballed from there?
DANIEL: Ice one, Aaron. Ice one.
DANIEL: Yes. At the time, he was actually working as a grade-school teacher in Kenya. But he soon left the classroom and became an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School based in Wyoming.
KAGAMBI: Currently, every summer, I go out in the Rockies and teach kids mountaineering. At the end of one month of them being in the outdoors, I can see the growth. You can see that kid who is 14 years old, 15 years old, 16 years old or whatever, within a month you can almost say, wow, this kid has developed from here to here.
DANIEL: And his students have a lot to admire in KG. He's summited Denali twice. He's gone up Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. He's scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, in his words, so many zillion times. He's served as a guide, teacher and mentor to climbers the world over.
What do you think makes you a good mountaineer?
KAGAMBI: This is not an easy job. But I like the physical challenge of it. I like the fact that every day comes with its own challenges, and you learn so much by trying to solve all those problems. I like being with new people and meeting new people. I think that's what keeps me there.
SCOTT: And, Ari, that includes the Full Circle team where the climbers range from a high school chemistry teacher to an Iraqi war veteran turned sociologist to the first Black woman in the U.S. to own an indoor rock climbing gym.
SCOTT: And a number of them were members of the first all-Black teams to climb Denali in 2013 and Mount Kilimanjaro in 2018. But Everest, of course, stands apart. So tell us about the expedition.
DANIEL: Right. So KG and the Full Circle team started their expedition through Nepal, taking the south route.
KAGAMBI: The hike to base camp was obviously the easier part, whereby it's quite scenic. There are motels along the way. You don't even need a sleeping bag. So you get to a small village.
DANIEL: They spent a few days at Everest Base Camp, also called EBC, at more than 17,000 feet, which was his first encounter with snow on the trip. So, Aaron, check out his excitement in this Instagram video I found.
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KAGAMBI: I'm going up. I'm headed up. I'm going to summit for Kenya. Yay (laughter).
SCOTT: (Laughter) That laugh, that joy - it is just so infectious.
DANIEL: I know. It really is infectious. And while at base camp, KG and the team practiced using ladders, which was a good thing because after several days of climbing, between camps, the climbers reached a field of snow and ice gouged by deep crevasses. So they used ladders secured in place with rocks as makeshift bridges. On Instagram, KG posted a video where he's walking across one of those ladders, and there's a gaping chasm beneath him.
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KAGAMBI: Right down there.
DANIEL: This was followed by rounds of acclimatizing, called rotations, where you take your body higher, where there's less oxygen, and then come back down again.
KAGAMBI: And then it was time again to sit and wait for the weather. Fortunately for us, there was a good opening for good weather. From Camp 3, we went to Camp 4. Then we staggered ourselves to go up to the summit. You don't want to go too slow because if you do, you get so cold and exposed. You don't want to run because then you get out of breath, and that affects your heart and your body. So the best thing is to use your own pace.
DANIEL: And at a pace that KG has perfected over nearly four decades, he did it. On the morning of May 12, he stood atop the highest place on Earth, nearly 5 1/2 miles above sea level.
SCOTT: Wow. Ari, what did he say it was like up there at the top?
DANIEL: I asked him just that, Aaron. But 29,032 feet ain't what it used to be.
KAGAMBI: One of the most disappointing times was the summit, getting there and fighting, the whole place, like, occupied by people. You could not even get time by yourself on the summit to take a photo.
DANIEL: It was crowded up there?
KAGAMBI: It was definitely crowded.
DANIEL: Still, it was an incredible achievement. When KG stood atop that mountain, it made him and six other Full Circle climbers the first all-Black team to reach the summit, nearly doubling the number of Black people who've ever climbed Mount Everest.
KAGAMBI: We wanted to show the world that people of color also can do something like this. We have seen that in the outdoors, there's less people who come from different, disadvantaged areas. It is important for me to bring all those people together.
DANIEL: How do you achieve that?
KAGAMBI: Part of it is economic. It's unfortunate that all over the world, there's a lot of people who don't do things, not because they can't but just because they are not exposed to it. Some people lack somebody who can role model for them, and I think when we do something like this, there are people who will look at us like that and follow suit.
SCOTT: It's just wonderful, Ari. What has KG got teed up now that he's made it to the top of the world?
DANIEL: Well, he's on the speaking circuit now. He's already started giving talks in Kenya. And later this summer, he's one of the keynotes at the International Climbers' Festival. The president of Kenya wants a little face time.
SCOTT: Oh, hey.
DANIEL: And now that KG has climbed the four tallest summits of the world, he's already eyeing his next ascents back into the heavens.
KAGAMBI: So maybe I could have a goal of doing the Seven Summits. That's just a thought. Fortunately, the mountains that are left, the three that are left, are not that challenging.
DANIEL: I love that - not that challenging.
DANIEL: I don't claim to know your climbing prowess, Aaron, but for me, I'm going to assume that I would find those three mountains pretty challenging.
SCOTT: Yeah, especially with bad knees. It just makes you realize our human bodies are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, when you put your mind to it and you just put one foot in front of the other. Thank you so much for bringing us the story of KG and the rest of the Full Circle Expedition, Ari.
DANIEL: It was my pleasure, Aaron. Thanks.
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SCOTT: This piece was originally edited for Weekend Edition Saturday by Rebecca Davis and Marc Silver. The episode was produced for SHORT WAVE by Thomas Lu, edited by Stephanie O'Neill and fact-checked by Margaret Cirino. The audio engineer for this episode with Margaret Luthar. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Beth Donovan is our senior director. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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