At 7 AM on May 19 Sophia Danenberg reached the summit of Mount Everest, making her the first African-American–and the first black woman from anywhere–to stand at the top of the world. Bad weather during the night had delayed other climbers, so Danenberg and the Sherpas she’d hired, Pa Nuru Sherpa and his brother Mingma Tshiring, were the only people there. She wasn’t as elated as you might expect: she had bronchitis, a stuffed nose, and frostbite on her cheeks, and her oxygen mask was clogged with snow and ice. “So I was like, cool, I made it,” she says. “I have to get this oxygen mask fixed and get off this mountain.”
Three weeks later Danenberg, who’s 34, was at Disney World with her sister, niece, and nephew, headed for Expedition Everest, the park’s newest ride, though the threat of a hurricane had kept plenty of people away. “On the real Mount Everest and on the Expedition Everest ride everybody always talks about the lines and the crowds,” she says, laughing. “I was on both without the lines and the crowds.” Afterward she flew to Chicago to visit her father in Homewood, where she grew up, then home to Connecticut and her job troubleshooting and tracking environmental regulations for a jet-engine manufacturer.
Since 1953 some 2,500 people have stood atop 29,035-foot Everest, though the first black man, South Africa’s Sibusiso Vilane, didn’t get there until 2003. Vilane made news around the world, but no one noticed Danenberg’s ascent–not even her local paper, though it listed people from Connecticut who’d made the summit while she was still in Nepal. But then she kept a low profile before, during, and after her climb. She wasn’t sponsored and didn’t send satellite photos or dispatches to news organizations, as many climbers do. The only people she kept in touch with, by e-mail, were her sister, her husband, and a colleague at work.
Danenberg, whose father is black and mother Japanese, says most people are surprised to hear she was the first African-American to scale Everest, but not other climbers. “There aren’t a lot of African-Americans–or black people from anywhere, American or otherwise–in high-altitude mountaineering,” she says. She’s never met another black person on any big mountain in the world, and when the subject comes up with other climbers, most of them white males, they usually haven’t either. She says climbers are pretty much oblivious to race, though not gender: “They won’t really notice that I’m a black woman, but with a bunch of guys isolated somewhere, and there’s only 15 women, yeah, they’ll notice you.”
Danenberg got into mountaineering in 1999 after a childhood friend encouraged her to try rock climbing. For two years she did technical climbs, meeting her husband, David, on one of them. “He was near the top of a cliff,” she says. “He noticed me walking in below.” When the friend took her up Mount Rainier in 2002, she decided she liked the challenges of a wide variety of terrains even better, and over the next couple years she and David scaled every mountain they could together, including Mount Baker, Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro, Mount Rainier, Grand Teton, and Mount McKinley, or Denali. In 2005 she scaled five peaks, two of them without David: Mount Tasman in New Zealand and Ama Dablam in Nepal.
Danenberg wasn’t looking to be the first anything when she began planning a spring climb this past January. She wasn’t even considering Everest, though she did want to go higher than she’d gone before. She’d signed up for a three-month leave from work and was contemplating the sixth-highest mountain in the world, Cho Oyu, which straddles the border of Nepal and Tibet. She was comparing prices of tours with mountaineering companies when a guide recommended she try Everest. “He said, ‘Given your experience, I don’t think you’d have a hard time, and you’d probably end up getting at least as high on Everest as you would on Cho Oyu,'” she says.
Some people spend years planning their Everest expedition. Danenberg thought about it for a week and was on her way five weeks later, flying out of Hartford alone on March 19. David couldn’t get off work, but she says he wasn’t that interested anyway. “And he’s technically a better climber than me,” she says, adding that he looks for mountains that are “more challenging, not in terms of endurance, but in terms of skill–more challenging, less dangerous.”
An ascent of Everest is still one of the more hazardous undertakings in the world, even though the experience has been cheapened by all the companies offering guided tours for rich people who aren’t terribly skilled climbers. In 1986 four people made it to the summit during the three-week climbing season, which usually runs from mid-May to early June; this year around 300 did. By 2005, 192 people had died on the mountain, and this season there were 11 more. David Sharp, an experienced 34-year-old British climber, died while Danenberg was on the mountain; he was on the north side and was passed by several people who might well have been able to save him but kept climbing. On the southern or Nepal side, which Danenberg had chosen, three Sherpas were killed when a tower of ice five stories high fell on them.
In some ways Everest wasn’t as difficult technically as some of the other peaks Danenberg had scaled, which she knew was a good thing. “In my opinion, you should be technically a lot more competent than the level of the mountain,” she says. “A lot of people go there and they can just barely climb that. I would be terrified if that’s all I could climb.” The great difficulty of Everest is the altitude, which magnifies every problem. Most people wind up sick, and getting stuck away from camp overnight can mean death. As she explains, “You just can’t survive at that altitude for very long.”
Danenberg, along with eight people she didn’t know, signed up for an “unguided” climb with an outfitter. For the $36,000 fee she would get a tent site at the base camp and each of the four camps along the southern route up the mountain, the help of two Sherpas, weather reports, food, and oxygen. But she would carry her own gear and pitch her own tent, and there would be no guide making decisions for her–she would have to decide what route to take, when to try for the summit, when to turn back.
Getting acclimated on Everest requires climbing up to the first of the four camps, staying there briefly, going back down to the base camp, then back to Camp I and on to Camp II. Then down again, back up, and on to Camp III. During the climbs other Sherpas would stop Pa Nuru and marvel at his companion, who was setting an average pace for a man but a good one for a woman. Danenberg remembers one saying, “Hey, this woman is really strong.” They also said she looked a little like them, because at five-foot-two she’s short and she has dark skin. One Sherpa told her, “You look Nepalese, only with better hair.”
When she got to Camp II the third time she decided she wanted to try for the top. “I actually waited one day,” she says. “For me that was the biggest struggle, because you really only get one chance at the summit. When you leave Camp III you’ve committed to summit on a certain day. You can’t really delay at those high altitudes and come back down.” Many who die on Everest do so on the descent, exhausted from the effort of going up. She asked Pa Nuru whether he thought the weather would hold, whether she should go for it. She says he just looked at her and said, “It’s your decision.”
She wanted to leave Camp IV at night, but it was cloudy, snowing, and windy. But by 10 PM the weather above the camp seemed to be clearing, and a few people from her outfitter started up. Shortly before 11 PM she and a man from her group decided to go up, and they knew people from other outfitters were considering that as well.
The weather was still bad lower on the mountain. At one point Danenberg heard thunder below her and looked down. “I could see this floor of clouds, you know, because the mountains are up above it, and I could see forever because I’m really high up,” she says. “I could see the lightning coming out of the clouds below me–going down. It was the most amazing sight.”
She passed the climbers who’d left just before her, and eventually the man who’d left at the same time she did decided to go back down. As she kept climbing in the dark she couldn’t see any other headlamps. “I thought everyone except us had turned around,” she says. “I thought we were the only people on the mountain.” But she and the Sherpas felt strong, so they kept going. “It never crossed my mind that we could be going so much faster that they could be that far behind us.” When she made the summit at 7 AM she saw that no one had come up the north side, though she could now see people coming up behind her. “I was two hours ahead of everybody on the south side,” she says. “So I was completely by myself.” She cleared the snow and ice from her mask, took photos, and watched the Sherpas take pictures of each other. She says they joked about hopping from Nepal to Tibet–the border runs across the summit–but they were all too tired. A quarter hour later they headed back down.
Danenberg has enough time off this year to make one more climb, but she hasn’t decided where she wants to go. “Most of the mountains I want to climb are very pretty,” she says. “The whole time I was checking up and looking at Everest I was thinking, ‘Why am I climbing this mountain?’ Because I don’t look at it as a very pretty mountain.” She pauses. “It’s really very pretty at the top part of the mountain. But you can’t see that from way down.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pa Nuru Sherpa.