They say that the world will only remember the first man to set foot on the Moon or the first person to climb Everest. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t change the fact that just hearing that someone has climbed Everest leaves us in awe because of the fact that it is a formidable achievement. And if we’re willing to listen and tick the curious mind, then we learn how even if said achievement is the same, people’s individual journeys, struggles and stories are unique, each with the capability of giving us goosebumps. Today, we’ll look at the first black woman and the first ever African American of any gender to have climbed Mount Everest!
Meet Sophia Danenberg. Today a high-altitude climber, the woman actually grew up within an indoor-sy family and didn’t get a taste for outdoor adventures until much later. Along with her friends she got an interest in rock climbing and other outdoor sports. And if you’re thinking that race should not be the basis of making her achievement stand out, let’s talk about how back in the 90s black people were not seen partaking in a lot of these sports. In fact, Sophia narrates how one time at a ski resort another black woman saw her, making them the only two there. The other woman was so pleasantly surprised that she actually went up to Danenberg to say hello.
Incidentally, Sophia had actually initially intended to climb the Tibetan peak called Cho Oyu but had to cancel that plan on account of unfavourable weather. Little did she know the adventure this would end up setting her on. She had already applied for her leaves from work and didn’t want to see them getting wasted without getting any climbing done. So, with very little time in hand she opted to go for the tallest mountain peak in the world. And she went onto take on this feat, planning every little detail on her own. She did without a traditional guide so while she had a Sherpa named Pa Nuru accompanying her, she still chose her own route, carried a lot of her gear herself, decided her pace and when to summit.
Click here to read about the Junk Tabei, first woman to climb Mount Everest!
The harsh reality is that we haven’t effectively shaken off as many stigmas as we’d like to believe. The record holding mountaineer mentions how she couldn’t even join a number of mountaineering clubs. They stipulated that she had to take up a course taught by someone else with just 1 -2 years of climbing experience, although Sophia herself already had that much experience! And if you’re thinking about how that sounds pretty regular, well, initially so did the protagonist of this article. But she later learnt about how these demands weren’t sought from her counterparts. Beyond her race, the false notions that she saw as a female climber left her more shocked, such as someone seeking her help throughout a climb and later suggesting she take up his class as his student! Ah, when the student has already mastered you sir, why make such suggestions?
Interestingly, the champ didn’t even know that she was setting a record! It had never occurred to her to check if a black woman or an African American had ever climbed Everest. It wasn’t a thought that had struck her, she was climbing simply for the passion and love of climbing. It was only when she arrived in Nepal that the organizers realized that she would be the first black woman to take on the world’s tallest climb!
Today, the first of many she did cite socio-economical reasons as a major factor in the lesser presence of coloured people in such an expensive sport. She has openly stated her parents’ comfort as a privilege which allowed her to be able to pursue such a dream. That said, she has even mentioned in interviews how she had to let go of certain aspects in her career in order to pursue her mountaineering as it required a considerable amount of time and effort from her. Thus, while it sounds incredibly cool there is always an immense number of things that go into reaching a position like this.
Beyond the Sophia the high-altitude climber is also Sophia the businesswoman and world traveller. A Harvard graduate (Yes, that’s right!), she took off a year and travelled in Southeast Asia, igniting her interest towards environment and public policy. In fact, she has even authored a travel guide for Thailand and called it her favourite country! She became the one to lead the international environmental policy at Boeing and even worked in close association with the UN on concerning matters. She further volunteers and helps with outdoor organizations and even lent great support to the Special Olympics. All of this in my opinion only makes her an even more impressive person. So, like I said earlier, beyond the first person to climb Mount Everest, there are many others to be remembered for their own unique stories. And this was the story of Sophia Danenberg.
Click here to read about Green Boots, Mount Everest’s famous body!