How Kenyan climber conquered Mt Everest

James Kagambi

James Kagambi takes a breather on his way to the top of Mt Everest.

Photo credit: Pool |

What you need to know:

  • Kagambi says he will push for mountaineering to be recognised officially as a sport in Kenya
  • It took 40 days for James Kagambi  and a team of other climbers to reach the summit of the tallest mountain in the world. Here is a blow by blow account of how they did it

When James Kagambi meets President Uhuru Kenyatta upon his return from Nepal, he will be pushing for mountaineering to be recognised officially as a sport in Kenya.

The 62-year-old retired teacher etched his place in the history books by climbing to the summit of Mt Everest, becoming the first native Kenyan to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain.

Kagambi, popularly known as “KG” and a resident of Naro Moru, reached the world’s highest point at 29,032 feet above sea level at 6am, local time, on Thursday.

James Kagambi

James Kagambi at  Base Camp on his way to the top of Mt Everest.

Photo credit: Pool |

He is the only non-American member of the “Full Circle” team that was aiming to become the first all-black group to reach the top of Mt Everest.

After spending almost 40 days on the mountain, the group successfully peaked on Thursday and are now slowly making their way back to ground.

His 70-day challenge is backed by sports betting company, Betika, which on Saturday expressed joy at the mission accomplished.

Betika, through their “Betika na Community” programme, facilitated Kagambi’s travel and other expenses required for the gargantuan task.

“KG had faced an uphill task trying to secure a sponsor for his climb with mountaineering yet to be considered a sport in Kenya, until Betika took a leap of faith and decided to place their bet on the 62-year-old,” Betika’s chief executive officer Nicholas Mruttu said in a statement.

Mount Everest sits on the crest of the Great Himalayas in Asia, lying on the border between Nepal and Tibet.

The summit of Everest reaches two-thirds of the way through the air of the earth’s atmosphere at about the cruising altitude of jet airliners and oxygen levels there are very low, temperatures are extremely cold, and weather is unpredictable and dangerous.

“For KG, what has been a highly rewarding but purely personal pursuit for the last 34 years turned into another avenue for him to influence and inspire alongside a diverse, but unified team of expedition members,” Mruttu said.

“We are so proud of him for putting Kenya on the map once again. Thank you for taking Betika on the journey with you. We have seen every inch of the mountain and we were fascinated by the team’s spirit. KG, you have achieved your wildest dreams, you can do anything you set your mind to achieve," he added.

“For us as a brand, you have challenged us to go the extra mile and to believe that we are extraordinary. We hope that this expedition will change the future of mountaineering in Kenya, bringing representation to the highest point on earth and to the global outdoor community.”

'Wild dreams'

Speaking to Betika officials through a satellite phone from the summit on Thursday, Kagambi was elated.

“I made it! I was on top of the world just a few hours ago. I did it, we did it and I cannot thank Betika enough for believing in my wild dreams!”

“Every mountain is different. I respect mountains and Everest has favoured us and we summitted. We have made history as the first all-black team.”

James Kagambi

James Kagambi and the Full Circle team on their way to the top of Mt Everest.

Photo credit: Pool |

He added: “It’s not about the point reached but how I got there. This was fun and I hope this expedition is a spectacle for that seed of aspiration. Because for me, I didn’t know that I would make it this far with my old age and my weak knees, but I pushed myself to the next level. Africans should know that this space exists for them too. Thank you to everyone who has supported and prayed for me."

“I am humbled for Betika supporting me, from the very beginning and gave me zero pressure. I am now motivated to do better, to keep the fight and to pass on my skills through my training school, KG expeditions.”

When the team stood on the world’s highest peak, it nearly doubled the overall number of black Everest summiteers.

This expedition was to showcase the tenacity and strength of the climbers and highlight the barriers that continue to exist for black communities in accessing the outdoors.

This historic attempt will inspire the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts, educators, leaders, and mountaineers of colour to continue chasing their personal summits.

Led by Phil Henderson, an experienced mountaineer and 30-year veteran of the outdoor industry, the Full Circle team has built its expedition around far more than attaining a summit. It’s an effort to steer away from the narrative of mountaineering, climbing and simply enjoying the outdoors to one that is more inclusive for future generations.

“For KG, what has been a highly rewarding but purely personal pursuit for the last 34 years has turned into another avenue for him to influence and inspire alongside a diverse, but unified team of expedition members,” Mruttu noted in an earlier statement.

Kagambi began his guiding career in Kenya at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) as a field instructor in 1987.

He worked in Africa, Chile, India and the United States as a back-packing, climbing and mountaineering instructor, spending over 700 weeks (13 cumulative years) as an outdoor educator.

As a senior mountaineering instructor, Kagambi has regularly worked in NOLS’ mountaineering programmes in Patagonia, Alaska, East Africa and India.

He is the founder and owner of guiding company KG Mountain Expeditions and on December 12, 2013, he was among five people who made it to Mt Kenya’s point Batian, the second highest point in Africa, to hoist the Kenyan flag to mark 50 years of independence.

The others were Evans Mwiti, Simon Thumuni, Kenneth Kimanthi and Laban Wanjohi.

They later met President Kenyatta to celebrate the feat.

President Kenyatta has already reached out to Kagambi’s team, seeking to meet him when the record-breaker returns from Nepal.

Kagambi was the first black African to summit the Denali, North America’s highest mountain peak (elevation of 6,190 metres above sea level) in 1989 and was also the first black African to summit the Aconcagua, the highest summit in the Americas (6,961 metres above sea level) in 1994.

He is actively involved in training Kenya’s mountain rescue teams and has also completed three of the world’s seven highest summits.

In 1992, he represented Africa in the United Nations Peace Climb for the world on the Eiger (3,976m), one of the world’s most famous peaks in the Swiss Alps.

His patience and teaching ability grew from his experience as a grade school teacher, coaching sports, and teaching traditional African music.

Since the first person climbed onto the Mt Everest summit in 1953, over 10,000 have scaled the mountain, but less than 10 of them are black.

“I never thought anyone would notice me or my efforts to do the most daring thing I have looked forward to all my life,” Kagambi told the Sunday Nation.

“Mountaineering is not cheap… Just getting a climbing permit - that typically includes transportation from Kathmandu or Lhasa - food, base camp tents, Sherpa (local guides) support and supplemental oxygen costs more than Sh2 million,” he explained.

“A successful expedition is not just the summit — it’s going up and coming back down alive. It’s also about engaging with the world, encouraging one another, and maintaining friendships beyond the scope of the expedition,” he said.

Kagambi wants to see more recognition for climbing as a sport.

“In Kenya, we tend to recognise sports such as football, rugby, and motoring, but not mountaineering. It’s time for the government to step up and recognise it.”

Sunday Nation was in contact with Kagambi throughout his climb, the retired teacher taking his time to explain the team’s progress when he could afford time to drop a message on WhatsApp.

“We are starting the rotations soon,” he messaged from Base Camp, at an altitude of 5,364 feet above sea level, April 24.

“Meaning moving to camp one, then two and three and coming back to EBC. See how we do then observe weather. Earliest suit would be around May 15 but we also have openings after 20.

“How is the food and conditions there?” I asked him the same day.

“Yes, there are good tents with good food,” he responded.

Conversation was short and measured as Kagambi didn’t wish to have any distractions on his trek to the top.

His next communication was on May 4.

“Just completed the first rotation to camp 1 (one night), camp 2 three nights and then up towards camp 3, I got to 7,000m. Then back down to base camp to rest waiting for the final approach,” he wrote.

His message was much longer the following day (May 5), perhaps an indication of real focus ahead of the final push.

“Good morning! Change of plans,” he told me, again via WhatsApp.

“I am expected to leave on May 6 at 2am. Group one left today we leave tomorrow and another the day after but we will all plan to summit same day.

“So far, the journey has been great. Getting to EBC (base camp) was the easy part though at that point that is not how you feel. It is still a challenge. The acclimatisation days have been good. It is cold, but we have good gear. Food is great too at base camp but when we leave to upper camps it is frozen, dried food.

“The challenge has been weather in that sometimes the temperature is great, then too hot and very cold within a short time. Extremes have been –500C.”

“Hiking early in the morning before dawn is the norm, especially navigating through the ice fall. It’s cold but when you start moving then it’s warmer.”

“When the sun rises it gets changing hot because of the clothes you are wearing.”

He then shared the final push schedule: “(May) 6 navigate the Khumbu Icefall to camp 1 appx. 9 hours. We are walking with crampons ascending ropes on Kumar. This is the most technical part. 19,900ft, 6,065m.

“May 7: not a long hike to Camp Two distance wise but challenging due to breathing issues and the heat. Appx 4 hours. 21,000ft, 6,400m.

“May 8; rest day at Camp 2. May 9; to camp 3. Near but very steep. Depart at 5am. Start using oxygen at night in camp. 24,000ft, 7,300m.

“May 10 to Camp 4. I have done most of the rest but this part will be new to me. Ascend on ropes with oxygen. 26,000ft, 7,925m.

“May 11: Summit attempt starting around 10pm on the evening of May 10. 29,029ft, 8,848m. Return to Camp 2 and sleep. May 12 to EBC.”

And indeed on Thursday, came his message from the top of the world!

“Summited at 6am Nepalese time on May 12. Kate has some photos,” he told me, referring to Betika’s public relations manager Kate Arudo.

Kagambi and team are expected to take about a week to climb down the mountain and get back to Nepalese capital Kathmandu.

Reporting with additional resources from Betika.

Many records atop the Everest

Everest saw a clutch of records on Thursday including the most summits for a woman and the first all-Black team -- and a Ukrainian climber reached the top of the world for her war-torn country.

Nepali climber Lhakpa Sherpa, 48, reached the snow-capped summit for the 10th time, breaking her own record set in 2018.

“Lhakpa stood atop Everest at 6:15am today,” Mingma Gelu Sherpa of Seven Summit Adventure, the agency that handled her expedition, told AFP from the Everest base camp. Recordholder Sherpa, who works at Whole Foods in Connecticut for the rest of the year, first scaled the highest mountain in the world in 2001.

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