The Crux Series is a collection of interviews with climbers that have a wealth of knowledge about the peaks in our glasses and a unique story to tell. In this entry we are talking to Sophia Danenberg about her international climbing experience that started in the PNW and took her to the tallest peaks on earth as one of the first black mountaineers.
Sophia is inspiring for a variety of reasons. She is an International Environmental Policy Lead at The Boeing Company, a Harvard Graduate, a Washington State Parks Commissioner, an extremely accomplished climber and the first African American to climb Mt. Everest. Her Mt. Everest climb and her experience as a black climber has been well documented by Melanin Base Camp, The Chicago Reader, Adventure Mountain, Geek Wire and many others over the years, we encourage you to dig deeper into those stories.
Our conversation with Sophia focuses on how she got into climbing and, despite the outstanding accomplishments, how accessible her climbs are to anyone with drive and a passion for the mountains. Her: “Yeah, let’s try it!” personality has brought her to stand atop some of the most inspiring peaks on earth and her message is that you can do it too!
Her work in politics connects policy with access to public lands and she encourages us all to vote to ensure the future of the places we love remain protected.
WHEN DID YOU START CLIMBING?
I had never thought about the mountains at all before college. As a kid growing up I had never really hiked, backpacked or camped or anything and I did all of them together for the first time doing the Presidential Traverse of the White Mountains in New Hampshire at 18 years old on a college orientation trip. I really had no idea what I was getting into. I took the packing list to Goodwill and got an old external frame backpack and some wool men’s pants and was ready for an adventure. After that trip, I didn't really hike again for a while but I was awakened to the mountains.
Then, after college I was living in Japan and I took a climbing lesson, which opened my eyes to rock climbing. When I moved back to the states I began rock climbing more and that’s when my climbing progressed really quick into ice climbing in New England. I then climbed Kilimanjaro, Rainier, and Baker all in a really short amount of time. After I climbed Mt. Rainier, every vacation I took was committed to mountaineering starting in 2003.
Mt. Fuji - Japan
Mt. Tasman - New Zealand
HOW DID YOUR ROCK CLIMBING ROOTS INFLUENCE YOUR MOUNTAINEERING?
Within 5 years of learning to rock climb I was climbing what would be considered a technical mountaineering route, because I started with rock climbing. If I started with hiking and mountaineering then getting to technical mountaineering would be more challenging. When you begin your experience with rock and ice climbing in New England, technical alpine climbing feels like easy ice climbing. The North Ridge of Baker, for example, is a moderate technical alpine climb, but from a trad rock and ice climbing perspective it’s pretty accessible. That led me to always look for the more technical routes up the mountains I was researching. Typically the more technical routes, even the moderate ones, are less crowded and give you a more remote experience on a mountain, deeper in the wilderness which I love.
At the same time I can’t stress enough how much a mediocre climber I am. All of these things that I’ve done and are doing are very accessible and doable. I tell people all the time that with a bit of climbing understanding you can totally do this.
Illiniza Sur - Ecuador
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE TECHNICAL CLIMBS?
I got married to a rock climber and after climbing the North Ridge of Mt. Baker together, where he had to learn to ice climb, we began planning every vacation to a new region to explore and climb. My now ex-husband and I climbed all over the world together: Africa, Europe, South America, New Zealand and Mexico. We made an attempt up The Polish Direct route on Aconcagua (the 22,841ft peak in Argentina) and had to turn around due to avalanche risk, but this technical ice climb up the glacier was the way we wanted to do it. I can’t remember the number of chicken christmas dinners we ate in a tent with strung up christmas decorations that I’d bring with me. Every holiday I had we’d go climbing. Another example of searching for the more technical routes was when we went to Ecuador. Most people that go there to climb head for Chimborazo (the tallest peak of the country at 20,548 ft) but we focused on Illiniza Sur because of the technical climbing it required. I’ve been to Mt. Kenya three times and have never been able to summit due to weather, but the technical climbing there is what draws me in, again it’s a rock climb. I did the same thing when I climbed The Matterhorn in the Alps. That climb is usually a zoo and I climbed it at the very beginning of what they consider to be the winter season. The huts are all closed this time of year and there is no guiding at that time. When we climbed it there were only four people on the mountain. It was cold, you had to be quick but it was amazing to be on that route with so few people.
Mt. Kenya - Kenya
DID YOU TAKE THAT SAME APPROACH WHEN YOU HEADED TO NEPAL?
Pretty much! The first time I went to Nepal I went to climb Ama Dablam (also known as The Matterhorn of the Himalayas at 22,349 ft) for the same reasons. It’s a more technical rock and ice climb which matched my style. When I was considering the taller peaks in Nepal I had been making plans to climb Cho Oyu (the sixth highest mountain in the world at 26,906 ft). Looking back on it, I’m not sure why I was choosing that peak because it wasn’t really my style. I called IMG (International Mountain Guides) in Bellingham and talked to them about their Cho Oyu climb and after hearing about my experience they suggested I try Everest. Their thought was that getting to Camp IV (also known as the death zone) was similar to some of the other climbs I’ve done and that if I made it there, I’d have the bonus opportunity to make a summit push which of course I wouldn’t have if I climbed Cho Oyu. I know it sounds crazy to frame it that way, but that was the thought process and conversation. I ended up signing up for the supported, unguided climb, which is still supported with basecamps etc, but without a guide, which I felt comfortable with.
YOUR CLIMB ON EVEREST AND BEING THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TO SUMMIT IS WELL DOCUMENTED BUT WE WANTED TO KNOW HOW WAS THE CLIMBING EXPERIENCE FOR YOU?
It was amazing and very humbling. One of the things that puts the whole “westerners summiting Everest” thing into perspective is thinking about the sherpa. The sherpa people are often working as support staff, shuttling up the gear and food to the basecamps every day. When I went to Nepal, I had the opportunity to hire a “personal sherpa” for my unguided climb which is basically a sherpa that doesn’t carry your gear but has been up the mountain many times and are semi-retired from being porters, carrying heavy loads etc. Pa Nuru Sherpa was supporting me, basically as his semi-retirement job where he would climb alongside westerners to the summit, or as far as they could make it. It was still a very independent experience as it comes to decision making in the climbing itself. The broad experience I had climbing other mountains created the opportunity for me to succeed. Having Pa Nuru’s partnership up the climb was amazing.
Sophia and Pa Nuru on the summit of Mt. Everest
Sophia and Pa Nuru on the summit of Mt. Everest
WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE CRUX THAT YOU’VE COME ACROSS ON YOUR CLIMBS?
It’s hard to say, it’s probably one of the climbs we had to turn around on. There are so many. Mt. Kenya really stands out because of the weather. The climbing isn’t that hard, about 5.8, but the weather turns on a dime. We had to retreat off that in a rapidly impending snow storm that was pretty scary. Also, climbing Longs Peak in Colorado stands out. We had to spend the night on that one without planning for it, which apparently happens to lots of people on that climb. I think some of the hardest cruxes that I’ve made it through are on some of the remote, one night climbs in the Pacific Northwest, like the Paisano Burgundy link up, a run out 5.8 hand crack where I’m running out of gear. Really some of the toughest spots tend to be on something not even that notable. I’m often climbing routes with very little beta which makes it a bit more of an adventure.
Longs Peak - Colorado
HOW HAS BEING A STRONG BLACK FEMALE CLIMBER IN THESE TIMES OF CHANGE BEEN FOR YOU?
I think it’s something I didn’t really appreciate until this newer generation of activists. When I look back on what I was doing, I felt like I was just climbing. It’s interesting. Part of my ability to climb and focus on these adventures is my own personal drive but a lot of it was the opportunity that my father gave me. My father was born the same year as Emmit Till (whose murder in 1955 served for a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement) and he grew up in a very racist era in this country. Because of his hard work, becoming a doctor, and the work of the civil rights movement I was able to grow up in a reality that was very different from his. Because of these social and economic factors I feel that my generation was able to do a lot of firsts because of what had been given. That on top of my “yeah sure, let’s try that” attitude took me to some amazing places. That outlook on life, that was partly created from moving around a lot as a kid, led me to be open to the college orientation trip in the White Mountains, then to rock climbing and eventually to the summit of Mt. Everest. I didn’t do it all myself, society gave me so much and the work of the generation before mine made it possible in so many ways.
HOW CAN THE OUTDOOR COMMUNITY SUPPORT YOUR WORK IN POLITICS?
I have my job (International Policy Lead at The Boeing Company) and a hobby in politics. I was appointed last September as a State Parks commissioner and I can now really see the intersection of politics and our everyday life. I know a lot of people don’t want anything to do with politics, but I’ve realized that it’s affecting so much of our life and access to public lands that I had to get involved. Now I am closer to understanding who is managing these lands, the decisions being made about the environment and how it’s being protected. All of that is caught up in politics. You’ve got to vote, you’ve got to understand what a difference it makes. Not just for the presidential election but for your state too. Your state legislators are making decisions about protecting public lands and so much more. There is so much of our environment that is caught up in politics that you have to care about politics to make change. It’s a long path from your vote to the actual impact on your life, but there is an actual impact on your life. By the time you see the impact it’s too late to take action.
THANKS FOR THE TIME AND INSPIRATION SOPHIA, WE HOPE TO SEE YOU IN THE MOUNTAINS SOON!