In the latest episode of African Voices Changemakers, CNN’s Larry Madowo meets James Kagambi, the first Kenyan to climb Mount Everest. The 62-year-old was part of the first all-black team to climb the highest peak in the world, despite experiencing bad knee pain.
“My first goal obviously was to entice people of colour who I don’t see in the outdoors and communities that are not exposed to this. It’s for them to see that this can be done through my successes. My hope is that we see it happening in Africa because we need people to realise the benefits of being in the outdoors.”
Kagambi grew up working outdoors on the foothills of Mount Kenya. Despite wanting to pursue his love of nature in his career, there were few job opportunities. He later became a primary school teacher coaching athletics. He estimates that he has spent more than 900 weeks of his life sleeping in a tent and has lost count of how many times he has summited Mount Kenya. He tells Madowo how he was the first African to conquer Congo in 1994 and Denali in 2013, before he conquered Everest as the first Kenyan citizen.
He finds that extreme environments put him at ease, saying, “When I’m out there, I have less to deal with. I’m more thinking about nature and myself. This is a place I actually learn about myself and feel safer.”
Kagambi admits that he ignored doctors’ advice and summited Everest with two bad knees, “I know my knees so well that I know how to use them. The biggest problem is coming down and the medicine for that is just going slowly. And that’s why on my way down from Everest, I took my time. I didn’t get to camp until 10 at night and I was okay. I was fine. I was having fun looking around and taking care of my knees.”
Step by step, his rule is never to rush. “If I’m walking toward a peak, obviously I want to summit but I usually stop myself and say, ‘getting there is not the success, the success is coming back alive.’”
Kagambi and Madowo visit Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa. Kagambi teaches Madowo a walking trick known as the ‘rest step’, which prevents injury. He says that this movement, which pauses and locks one leg between steps, is very important, “If you use this method, getting blisters is very hard, spraining your ankles is very hard and tripping is also very hard.”
The programme also visits Naromoru Disabled Children’s Home, where children with physical disabilities are treated with surgeries and stay to undergo physiotherapy and rehabilitation. Kagambi began an annual fundraising hike on Mount Kenya to raise money for surgeries for children in need. “Now that I know that there is something I can do about it and I can tell people that there is something that can be done. I feel like I have the duty to go out and preach this and bring more donors. I feel happy that I can see some of the results of our work, kids walking out here who couldn’t walk in.”
He wants Kenya to recognise mountaineering as a sport and believes that it would support and bring new opportunities to the next generation of adventurers. “I think it can offer people better standing when they are asking for sponsorship from different companies. I got a lot of regrets from different companies,” he says, “I’ve seen what outdoor education can bring to people. It can make people grow, change their mentality, and learn the skills of living together.”
Kagambi tells Madowo that he does not plan to stop climbing just yet, “Before Everest I thought – I just want to retire. And I look back and see what I’ve done and where I am going, and I realised I cannot to do it. I want to climb mountains until I am 100.”