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Encore: Meet the cool 62-year-old Kenyan on first all-Black team to summit Everest

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This morning in Kenya, 62-year-old James Kagambi returned home a hero.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CHANG: He is the first Kenyan to climb to the top of Mount Everest, and he did so as a member of the first all-Black team to summit the highest peak in the world. As NPR's Ari Daniel reports, this furthers Kagambi's personal goal of inspiring more diversity in mountaineering.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: James Kagambi goes by the nickname KG. He was 23 when he made his first serious climb - Mount Kenya, the second-highest peak in Africa - and he hated it.

JAMES KAGAMBI: I had headaches. And I went down saying, I'll never go back.

DANIEL: But then, something happened. He encountered a magical substance he'd never seen before - snow.

KAGAMBI: I just love snow. 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.

DANIEL: Over the next 39 years, KG went on to summit Denali twice; Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas; Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He became a guide, teacher and mentor to climbers all over the world. And then, in 2020, he was invited to join the all-Black climbing team Full Circle Everest Expedition.

KAGAMBI: At first, when I was asked to come on this expedition, I actually said no. What am I going there to prove, you know?

DANIEL: There was his age - 60 at the time - and his body. A doctor had told him he should be thinking about knee replacement surgery, not climbing mountains. But the expedition leader, himself a decorated African American climber, was persuasive. He told KG that his mentorship would mean a lot to the others.

KAGAMBI: The leader said, if somebody deserves being here, being with us, it's KG.

DANIEL: And that's how, in April, KG found himself at the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal - his first encounter with snow on the trip. You can hear his excitement in this video from his Instagram.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTAGRAM VIDEO)

KAGAMBI: I'm going up. I'm headed up. I'm going to summit for Kenya. Yay (laughter).

Snow just brings some childish behavior - you know, playful mood. I like dancing. I like jumping, just doing stuff.

DANIEL: The days passed, filled with supplemental oxygen, negotiating unstable ice and terrain. And then, some three weeks after departing base camp, KG began his final stretch of climbing.

KAGAMBI: 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's perfected over nearly four decades, he did it. On May 12 at 6 in the morning, he stood atop the highest place on Earth, nearly 5 1/2 miles above sea level, making him and the others the first all-Black team to reach the summit and nearly doubling the number of Black people who've ever climbed Mount Everest.

KAGAMBI: It's part of history. But it's not only the Black people. We're talking about diversity. We have seen that in the outdoors, there's less people who come from different disadvantaged areas. Part of it is economic. Part of it is 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. Nobody has come back and said, oh, I've been on the mountain. And I think when we do something like this, there are people who will look at us and follow suit.

DANIEL: For now, KG says he plans to go home, share stories of his adventure and consider his next climbs, which he admits will be a touch less challenging. Ari Daniel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.