James Kagambi 62, the first Kenyan to summit Mt Everest with the first all black team
James Kagambi

James Kagambi, or KG as he is popularly known among his friends is an experienced mountain climber of over 30 years, and holds the title of the most seasoned Nols instructor, having spent over 880 weeks in the field, equivalent to 17 years under canvas. In a monumental achievement, he reached the summit of Mount Everest in May 2022, becoming the first Kenyan citizen to accomplish this feat. Notably, Kagambi was also the first black African to summit Denali in 1989. Despite his age of 62, he took his Everest expedition very seriously, drawing on his decades of mountain climbing experience to navigate the risks inherent in such treacherous terrain. As the departure date approached, his family’s concerns heightened, resulting in an emotional gathering where he left a letter with them in case he did not return from his journey. Acknowledging the real danger of being buried beneath avalanches of snow, Kagambi braved the challenge, driven by a deep-seated need to conquer the world’s highest peak.

The 64-year-old is a resident of Naro Moru in Central Kenya and is a retired teacher who underwent a challenging 40-day journey to reach the summit of the mountain, which stands at an impressive altitude of 8,849 meters (29,032 feet) above sea level. Despite facing harsh weather conditions, he carried a heavy 15kg load that included essential items such as an oxygen cylinder, layers of clothing, and sturdy climbing footwear. Upon reaching the peak, he expressed his surprise at how close it seemed compared to his expectations. Following a brief moment of prayer and documenting his achievement through photographs, he promptly began his descent as a safety precaution. Born in 1960 in Karatina town and raised in Naro Moru, James developed a passion for outdoor exploration at a young age and became actively involved in scouting. His initial attempt at climbing in 1983, at the age of 23, was challenging due to inadequate preparation and inadequate gear. However, his encounter with snow during this endeavour ignited a strong desire to pursue further adventures. Over the years, he has climbed Mount Kenya more than 200 times and Mount Kilimanjaro over 100 times. In 2013, he proudly raised a special flag on Mount Kenya to commemorate the country’s 50th independence anniversary. Seven years later, he left his teaching career behind to fully embrace his passion for adventure, leading to his unexpected but overwhelming media attention and messages of praise upon his successful expedition to Everest.

He later became the first Kenyan citizen to summit Everest. Kagambi thrives in extreme environments, finding peace and self-discovery in nature. He faces challenges head-on, even summiting Everest with injured knees. His slow and steady approach kept him safe on the treacherous descent. He prioritizes safety over reaching the peak, valuing returning home alive as true success. The documentary also features Naromoru Disabled Children’s Home, where children with physical disabilities receive surgeries, physiotherapy, and rehabilitation. Kagambi organizes an annual fundraising hike on Mount Kenya to support these children. He is committed to spreading awareness and gathering more donations to help those in need. Kagambi advocates for mountaineering to be recognized as a sport in Kenya, believing it would open up new opportunities for future adventurers. He emphasizes the value of outdoor education, stating that it can shape individuals and teach important life skills. He hopes to inspire others to embrace the mountains and the lessons they bring.

First African to summit Denali and Aconcagua

First Kenyan on EverestIn addition to reaching the summit of Mount Everest, Kagambi made history as the first black African to conquer Denali, the tallest mountain peak in North America at 6,190 meters above sea level. In 1994, he achieved another remarkable feat by becoming the first black African to summit Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas towering at 6,961 meters above sea level. Kagambi proudly represented Africa in the 1992 UN Peace Climb on Mt. Eiger in Switzerland. He credited his accomplishments to the unwavering support and encouragement from his family. Kagambi was a key member of an all-black team that successfully reached the summit of Everest, bringing widespread recognition to his country on the global stage. In January 2023, the Nyeri County government honoured the dedicated mountaineer with a certificate of achievement. Governor Mutahi Kahiga presented Kagambi with traditional Kikuyu attire, including a spear, shield, and a distinctive three-legged stool. Along with this recognition, Kagambi was appointed as the tourism ambassador for Nyeri County.

Training for Mount Everest and confronting my mortality

A dedicated group of friends and I had been exploring mountains together for quite some time. Then came the day when they proposed that we attempt to conquer Mount Everest. Initially, I hesitated and declined, concerned that my knees may not be able to handle such a challenging journey. However, as time went by, my friends managed to persuade me. Eventually, I agreed intending to become the first citizen of Kenya to summit Mount Everest, as the title of being the first African had already been claimed. Together, we formed a team of enthusiastic black adventurers with the shared objective of reaching the peak. For me, ascending Everest represented a profound encounter with mortality. While I had conquered numerous difficult mountains in the past, Everest’s renowned difficulty was undeniable. I anticipated that this experience would be a humbling one, pushing me to confront personal challenges. Surprisingly, planning the trek up Everest proved to be enjoyable rather than stressful. Unlike other mountain expeditions, Everest allowed for access to modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and entertainment at base camps, creating a less isolated environment that aided in our preparation with clear minds. The climb was divided into several stages, progressing from camp one, two, three, and four before reaching the summit. Once we committed to this goal, I dedicated myself to a rigorous two-month winter training program, shedding around nine pounds to prepare for the journey ahead. While apprehensions about the strain on my knees persisted, I focused on building up my mental and physical strength, stepping out of my comfort zone with determination. Although the excitement was palpable, so too were the apprehensions that came with climbing such a formidable peak.

From camp to camp, people were lost along the way

Reaching camp one on the initial day proved to be the most demanding part of the journey. The terrain was challenging, especially when we encountered icy patches that were unpredictable. I was well aware that one wrong step could jeopardize the safety of the entire team. However, we pressed on and reached camp two early the following morning. Instead of resting, as usual, we decided to push forward. The trek to camp two was completed before moving on again the next day. As we set our sights on the third camp, we woke up early to make the most of the daylight. There were unsettling rumours about a team that had lost four members, which made us more cautious and fearful. In the face of danger, our survival instincts kicked in, prompting us to stick close together. I focused solely on navigating through the snow and extreme cold, my adrenaline masking the chill. However, when we reached camp three, harsh weather conditions forced us to retreat back to camp two. We had a safety protocol in place which involved timing the duration between each camp. This allowed us to monitor the progress and be prepared in case someone did not meet the time limit. They would then have to redo the climb until they were more familiar with the route. It took me nine hours to travel between camps on my first attempt, but I was able to cut that down to four hours on the second try. Travelling in a group slowed us down as we adjusted to the changing weather conditions. Upon finally reaching the summit of Mount Everest, the surreal sight before me left me speechless. Despite feeling frozen and utterly exhausted, the breathtaking view from the top was mesmerizing. The physical discomfort faded away in that moment as I stood in awe of the magnificent scenery. The team celebrated our achievements, feeling immensely proud of each other. We took our time to absorb the moment and appreciate the monumental accomplishment.

A helicopter came in for a rescue and I pushed on

Returning from the summit of Mount Everest, I decided to stay a while longer at camp four along with two fellow climbers, while the rest of our team continued the descent. The entire journey up and down the mountain took around one and a half months to complete. Teams typically budget for a two-month expedition, as that is the average time needed for the climb. However, each individual may progress at a different pace. The descent back down proved to be a more challenging task for me than the ascent. The initial excitement of reaching the summit was now replaced by the weariness of the return journey. Struggling with my knees, I had to take frequent breaks between camps. One of the climbers who remained with me began to show signs of weakness, and we feared for his safety if he continued. Eventually, a helicopter was called in to airlift him to safety. This was a particularly trying day for me, as I had to balance caring for others with my own declining health in the harsh environment. As we descended further, I started to feel the effects of dehydration, causing me to vomit multiple times. Despite feeling physically drained, I pushed through the challenges that tested me both mentally and physically. Upon reaching the base of Mount Everest, I received an outpouring of congratulations from people all over the world. At 62 years old, I am proud to have become the first Kenyan to summit Everest and one of the few black individuals to achieve this remarkable feat. Looking back on this experience, I am grateful for the sense of peace and accomplishment it has brought me.

A pioneer

In suitable weather conditions, the team embarked on a challenging ascent to the peak over several days. Kagambi described the climb as arduous, particularly due to the high altitude, intense heat, and sun reflecting off the snow. The exertion, elevation, and sudden warmth can cause climbers to feel hot while tackling Everest. Despite the difficulty, Kagambi felt prepared for the challenge. Kagambi has been a trailblazer in multiple endeavors. He represented Africa in the 1992 UN Peace Climb on Mt Eiger in Switzerland. In 1989, he became the first African to summit Mt Denali, the highest mountain in North America. He repeated this achievement in 1994 by being the first African to reach the summit of Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the southern hemisphere. Born in Karatina town in 1960, Kagambi grew up in Naro Moru, nestled in the central county of Nyeri near the base of Mt Kenya. He developed a love for outdoor exploration as a boy scout but didn’t climb the mountain until he was 23 in 1983. Despite being ill-prepared and underdressed, touching snow for the first time ignited a passion for high-altitude adventures that has lasted a lifetime. Kagambi estimates he has climbed Mt Kenya over 200 times and Mt Kilimanjaro more than 100 times. In 2013, he proudly raised the national flag on Mt Kenya to commemorate the country’s 50th independence anniversary. After completing high school, Kagambi pursued a career as a primary school teacher. However, his love for nature, hiking, and climbing ultimately led him to leave teaching after seven years and focus on outdoor adventures full-time. In 1987, he became a certified instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School in the United States. This experience motivated him to establish KG Expeditions, a company that organizes guided expeditions to Mt Kenya, Mt Kilimanjaro, and Ruwenzori Mountain in East Africa. Kagambi highlighted the technical challenges of climbing the top peaks of Mt Kenya, Batian and Nelion. He honed his rock climbing skills and was among the first Africans to lead expeditions to these formidable summits.

‘I loved the snow’

In 1973, a former primary school teacher discovered his passion for mountains as he gazed in wonder at the midnight fireworks on the peak of Mount Kenya from his village during the country’s celebration of independence from British rule. This unforgettable experience sparked a dream in him, a wish he thought would never come true. Years later, after completing his training, he attempted to climb Mount Kenya and successfully reached the summit. Stepping onto the snow for the first time, he realized his deep love for mountaineering and kept returning to the mountains, growing to love them more each time. His journey to Mount Everest, however, was full of challenges. Despite facing setbacks related to nationality during previous attempts due to stringent rules, he persevered. A significant breakthrough came when an American friend offered assistance and praise for his guidance skills. Gathering sponsors, though challenging, eventually became possible through a surprising source – a Kenyan betting firm. With the financial support secured, he embarked on an intense training regimen that included multiple climbs and expeditions. Even with concerns from his family about the dangers of climbing such a treacherous peak, his determination remained unshaken. His unwavering confidence and vast experience navigating various terrains provided him with the resolve needed for the impending Everest climb. With his journey documented in a book titled “The Journey to Everest,” he aims to inspire and educate others about the importance of outdoor education and mountaineering as a sport. Through his accomplishments, he hopes to advocate for the inclusion of outdoor education in the Kenyan curriculum and encourage aspiring mountaineers to pursue their dreams relentlessly.


About Author



Leave a Reply